Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lessons From Haiti: What About God?

Two weeks ago today I posted a short piece about the disaster in Haiti, pointing out that this catastrophic event is not a "natural" disaster but, rather, a man-made one. In the intervening weeks, many blog posts and newspaper articles have been written about this ongoing catastrophe. Maybe it's just me, or perhaps indicative of what I choose to read, but I have been struck by how many of these posts and articles ask: what does this disaster tell us about God?

is it about the tragic events in Haiti that has generated such heated argument and debate over the nature of God? Is all this discussion traceable to one outrageous statement by a thoughtless televangelist, or is there something more about this particular disaster that has generated such agonizing and soul-searching and theologizing? Are we finally waking up to the truth? I ask this with some degree of trepidation, because I truly hope that we are.

Most of the posts and articles I've read have pointed out the obvious: the earth quaked "because" two tectonic plates rubbed up against one another and got momentarily stuck. The implication, or even the direct statement, is that nature is "morally neutral," as if we know this for a scientific fact, and that God had nothing to do with it.

But this isn't a scientific fact. We really don't know whether nature acts outside the influence of a deity, or if nature is a manifestation of the divine. To say that nature is morally neutral is to make a statement of belief.

This point can be nuanced, however, to satisfy folks on both sides of the atheist/theist divide. Richard Dawkins writes about the force of nature that led to Haiti's earthquake as "sin-free and indifferent to sin, unpremeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery." I don't know how he, a fellow scientist,
knows this. There is no scientific evidence that proves the forces of nature are "supremely unconcerned" with me or my misery.

Dawkin's statement is one of belief, not a statement of scientific fact. It is not even supported by any particular theories of science. Dawkins believes in a religion (and atheism
is a religion) and has made an entire career out of trying to get people to believe that science supports his beliefs. I fully defend his right to believe whatever he chooses, but using false characterizations of scientific fact to "prove" those beliefs puts him in good company with all our creationist brethren.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro makes essentially the same point as Dawkins, but notice how different his language choice is: "...the universe exists according to some unbreakable rules. On earth one of these rules has to do with plate tectonics: when plates shift earthquakes and tsunamis happen. There is nothing conscious or deliberate about this. It is not a punishment, a precursor to some greater blessing, or a sign of just how awesome God can be."

The Rabbi goes on to explain his own theology that God is Reality itself, manifesting in many ways: "My God is the God of Job, the whirlwind that needs no protecting, and whose revelation is always in the form of haunting questions rather than comforting answers." Although we may not agree with the Rabbi's theology, we know when he is making a statement about science, and when he is making one about his beliefs.

So, in trying to draw lessons from the ongoing disaster that continues to plague the people of Haiti, I return to the point I made two weeks ago: this earthquake became a disaster not because the earth moved, but because of Haiti's enormous social and economic problems, including a lack of modern building standards. The real lessons from this disaster are not about God, but about us.

The truth is that humankind has not applied the lessons we should have learned from the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed over 200,000 people who were caught unawares due to the lack of a tsunami warning system, the 2008 earthquake in China that killed 80,000, also largely due to poor building construction methods, the disaster associated with Hurricane Katrina that is also mostly attributable to social and economic factors, and many other disasters in so-called "undeveloped" areas of the world that most people in the US and Europe paid little attention to.

This was a man-made disaster, not a natural one. We seem to be spending a lot of time arguing about something not much different from how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while the winds continue to blow and beneath the surface, the plates continue to move, geological forces continue to build, and we move toward another situation where more people will die. Another earthquake or tornado or hurricane
will happen, but how will we respond?

God is waiting for our answer. And, yes, this is a statement of belief.


  1. Interesting. One could say that God is concerned, not so much with His greater creation, but with Man's responses to events He sets in motion - and specifically, with our responses to others' needs. How we help or harm others is a central tenet for all religions, atheism included.

  2. Important distinctions being made here. Thank you for your clear thinking and expression!I wrote about The Book of Job and Haiti at a couple of weeks ago but missed some of the points you make so well.

  3. Elizabeth, I have been thinking a lot about the Book of Job is definitely relevant for this situation!

    And, Paul, I don't know if I would even say that God "sets these events in motion" - I certainly don't know if that's the case, but I do believe that our human urge to reach out and help each other in these situations and to do all we can to prevent future tragedies has deep significance, and we should heed that urge. Regardless of the details of our belief about where God is in all this!

    Thanks to both of you for stopping by my blog - and for your insightful comments.