The tsunami and God

Editorial by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 17 - Apr 2005

Why did God allow the tsunami to happen? Events like this do make people wonder. Atheists seize on it as evidence for their case, believers wonder how it fits what they have been taught, church leaders struggle defensively, and those who have lost families and possessions are tempted to suspect that God - if there is such a being - is angry or uncaring.

Modern westerners, influenced by secularism, tend to treat religion as a self-contained cultural phenomenon, in which case perhaps it should not be expected to explain the tsunami. More often, though, religious traditions represent the overall worldviews of societies: they explain why we and the world are the way we are, by describing who made us and for what purpose. If our faith is to perform this task, we should have something to say to the sceptics.

I can see three basic types of answer. Each has many variations, because each of them struggles with elements which we don't want to accept.

Firstly, the monotheistic answer says the universe was created by a single being of supreme power, goodness and wisdom. Monotheism is good at explaining the good things about the universe - harmony, peace, happiness. Conflict, suffering and tragedy are harder to explain, but the characteristic answer is that God has given humans free will, and evil results from our misuse of it. Whatever is wrong, humans are responsible and humans can put it right. The birth of Judaism was centred on this belief, and Christianity and Islam have inherited it. It is the dominant approach of the Bible.

We borrow from this view when we think things should work well and expect humans to be able to solve our problems. Doctors presuppose that in the absence of specific illnesses we should live healthy and pain-free lives. International organizations assume that if wrongs can be righted peace will prevail. But we usually don't like all the implications: some evils don't seem to be caused by humans, or are so dreadful that we want to attribute them to beings more evil than humans can be.

The second answer is the polytheistic one. We are created by divine beings, but they have limited goodness, power or wisdom. As a result our lives, and the world we're in, contain inescapable evil, and there's nothing we can do about it. The ancient Greek tragedies express this well. Life is fundamentally tragic. Those who are happy and enjoy life are misguided. There is a Christianized version of this view, based on late antique concepts of the Fall, in which God's plans really went wrong, and a biblical text often cited to support it, Romans 8:18-23.

We borrow from this view when, faced with evil, we conclude that nothing can be done about it. Life is a vale of tears so we just have to grin and bear it. There is no point trying to right wrongs. But, again, we usually don't follow the argument all the way. Few of us can cope with that much despair all the time; at the very least, we cling to hope for a better future. If we can't do anything about the evil around us, we like to think somebody else can, and should.

The third answer is the atheist one. Only humans evaluate, so good and evil only exist because, and as long as, humans choose to evaluate certain things that way. What happens - rain or sun, wavy or calm seas - are just impersonal, unintended events. If we choose to evaluate them as good or bad, that's a purely human decision, not sanctioned by any objective truth. We create our own values.

We borrow from this view when we demand the right to live the way we choose. But only a very few have followed Nietzsche in taking the idea to its logical conclusion: since all notions of right and wrong, good and bad, are mere human constructs, if you're clever you'll just use them to manipulate other people in your own interests. The rest of us prefer to believe some things really are good or evil, over and above what we decide to think.

The polytheistic and atheist views share a fondness for images of humanity-as-a-whole pitted against the world around us - recalcitrant nature - and the tsunami seems to fit the bill. However, whereas polytheism characteristically denies that there is anything we can do about it, since the problem is caused in the supernatural realm, atheism characteristically says it's up to us to change nature in accordance with our wishes. In fact the popular response to the tsunami, by western governments and the mass media, was an inconsistent mixture of all three. It was caused by non-human natural forces (atheism) and was a tragic and unavoidable evil (polytheism), so the international community should do all we can to put things right (monotheism).

The tsunami is a classic example of the kind of event which militates against monotheism, because it suggests that the non-human processes of nature cannot be subject to control by a benign deity. The deity must be evil, or uncaring, or non-existent. But monotheists should not despair. It seems like this largely because we are all busily turning a blind eye to what we are doing. Although human intervention did not cause the tsunami, what matters is the harmful consequences. Environmental scientists have been pointing out for decades that events like this are going to become more frequent and destructive because of human actions. Sea levels are higher because of global warming. Western-led commercial development has meant large numbers of people were in coastal areas where traditionally people did not live because of tsunamis. Mangrove swamps and coral reefs, which would have been effective barriers, have been destroyed for shrimp farming to cater for the western market. Environmentalists have been pressing for restrictions on these damaging activities; but most of the time we ignore their appeals, and when disaster strikes most of us do not even make the connection. Monotheism is the best defender of the environmentalist case: on the one hand we have real power to make things better or worse, but on the other our environment is more complex, and more intricately designed for our own good, than we can ever understand, so our emphasis should be on conservation rather than innovation.

Superficially, monotheism loses popularity at times like this; but when we clarify just what the alternatives mean, we should not hurry to reject it. If we have not been made by a God of power, wisdom and goodness who provided us with what we need for good and happy lives, then there are two possibilities. One is that we have been made by less desirable gods, in a less desirable world, and this explains tragedy. This exonerates us from responsibility; since we cannot solve our problems there is no point in trying. The other is that all good and evil, right and wrong, are human inventions in a universe governed by impersonal laws and impersonal chance; the tsunami is only a disaster to the extent that some people think of it as one. If some of us don't like it, it's up to us to decide whether to change our evaluations or change the world. Each of us can decide for ourselves but not for anyone else. Objectively, outside the individual human choosing mind, there are no right answers.

Only monotheism affirms that values are for real, that we have been designed to live fulfilled and happy lives, and that when things go wrong we have the power to put them right. Only monotheism gives us good reason to rise above fatalism and apathy, and work for a better world. But it also tells us that blaming the forces of nature is not good enough: the burden of responsibility is on our shoulders.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.