God & Disasters

Lisbon in the aftermath of the 1755 earthquake...

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When natural disasters strike it is common for people to pray for assistance and rely on their faith for comfort. The earthquake that devastated Haiti has been no exception. When watching the news coverage of the terrible aftermath I saw many people mention how they had prayed and how they had been relying on their faith.

On one hand, it would seem to be cruel and callous to offer any philosophical discussion of prayer and faith in such a context. After all, in such a disaster people need something to sustain them and give them hope. If this involves faith, then so be it.

On the other hand, there is certainly something here well worth discussing.

When watching the news clips of people speaking about prayer and faith in the face of an earthquake, I was reminded of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. in philosophy, this event is best remembered in the context of Voltaire’s criticism of Leibniz‘ claim that this is the best of all possible worlds. After all, it is rather difficult to reconcile the idea of a benevolent and all powerful God with such natural disasters. David Hume also wrote on this problem and explicitly criticized Leibniz.

Rather than focus on the problem of evil, the point I am addressing is that it seems rather odd to pray to God in such a context. After all, if it is assumed that God exists and has the usual attributes (all good, all powerful and all knowing) then praying would make no sense. This is because the earthquake was allowed (or perhaps caused) by God. He knows about the event and hence prayer is not needed to let God know that a disaster has struck. Since He is all powerful, He could render aid. However, if He did not want the disaster to strike, then it would not have occurred. Praying to God would be like asking for help from the person who is punching you in the face-obviously that person is not going to render aid. Finally, if God is good then He would not need to be asked to help. A good being does not watch from the sidelines waiting for someone to beg for help. Further, if the initial disaster is compatible with God’s goodness (and perhaps part of his plan), then allowing people to continue to suffer would seem to be just as compatible. As such, praying for assistance would seem to make no sense at all (except insofar as a psychological salve).

As far as faith goes, it also seems odd to be sustained by faith in such situations. After all, God has shown that He is willing to allow terrible things to happen (or cause them to occur). Having faith in such contexts would seem to be somewhat like remaining in love with a cruel abuser. At the very least, if you look among the aid groups then you will see no angels. Oddly enough, God never shows up for His disasters.

Fortunately, people do. So, it makes sense to ask other people for help. Unlike God, we respond and take action. Then again, perhaps the reason for this is that there is no one here to help us but us.

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  1. God shows up whenever humanity — his image-bearers — show up. The two are far from being mutually exclusive. Human/divine correspondence is the essence of what it means to be created in the imago Dei.

  2. Adam,
    “God shows up whenever humanity — his image-bearers — show up” seems pretty glib to me. I suppose you have a sack full of such statements that you pull out as an answer to any rational question about the existence of god,or dei. Okay, let’s go along with your above argument, where was the manifestation of god for the Haitians or for any people who are victims of any disaster or any tragedy? What about in a war where millions of people might die, god believing and fearing on both sides?

  3. Nothing glib about it. It’s not intended as a statement of theodicy. I was just correcting what seems to be a theological misunderstanding, namely the assumption that when humanity shows up to help, God doesn’t.

  4. Oddly enough, God never shows up for His disasters.

    I’m not sure how you would know that. Is it because you believe something like: ‘If God was there, we would notice’?

    praying for assistance would seem to make no sense at all

    Prayer is difficult to understand at the best of times. As you observe it does not seem to serve the purpose of informing God, giving him a reason to act that he did not already have, or giving him an ability that he did not already have.

    I think this would be a really big problem if we thought that this list encompassed all of what language and communication are used for. However, language is much more complex than this, so it is not implausible that communication with God serves to achieve something that is not listed above.

  5. Hi

    The link to the Lisbon earthquake goes to a map, not an article about the earthquake, which is probably what you want.

    best wishes

  6. Una Bauer: Talking Philosophy | God & Disasters | Yes why not, - pingback on January 16, 2010 at 5:02 pm
  7. What is religious education for we are asked in another TPM article of boundless vacuity. A suggestion would be to perhaps make clear for philosophers the difference between theodicy which is predicated on a rational proof of the existence of God and faith which does not require such a proof. The orthodox Hindu view is that no proof is possible for example. In any case whatever your religion is at its core will be the firm belief – life is not a one act play. Prayer is a reflection of this belief. There’s a semester’s worth right there.

  8. Synchroicity Report:
    I liked the ring of ‘boundless vacuity’ so I googled it to see whether it had been used before. Earliest usage was in a book by Augustine called Against the Epistle of Manichæus
    Called Fundamental
    . http://www.logoslibrary.org/augustine/fundamental/23.html

    Manichaeism has a nice Wikipedia entry. Google it as I have no wish to have the server throw a wobbly with two urls.

    Manichaean theology was dualistic in regards to good and evil. A key belief in Manichaeism is that there is no omnipotent good power[citation needed]. This addresses a theoretical part of the problem of evil by denying the infinite perfection of God and postulating two opposite powers. The human person is seen as a battleground for these powers: the good part is the soul, which is composed of light, and the bad part is the body, composed of dark earth. The soul defines the person and is incorruptible, but it is under the domination of a foreign power, which addressed the practical part of the problem of evil.

    Throw in ‘Night Watch’ the Russian movie as a modern version of the Gnostic heresy. I promised you a semester.

  9. «the point I am addressing is that it seems rather odd to pray to God in such a context.»

    That would rather be: «Kneel before the wrath of God».

  10. You raise some good points and actually, immediately after a disaster is actually a *good* time to discuss this.

    Let’s assume that prayer IS needed for “God” to show up for his disasters. I often wonder what the magic number is. I mean, we see people say, “Continue to pray for Haiti,” (or fill-in-the-blank); is this because enough prayers haven’t quite managed to convince a skeptical God to help? I always picture “God” on the throne saying, “I’ve heard from 678,364 humans. Where IS everybody? At the very least, I’ll pull off a miracle or two, but I need 1,234,655 ‘prayers’ before I do ANYTHING! Keep ’em coming.” So, what is the magic number that rings the bell, sounds the sirens and flashes the lights?

    Obviously, I ask many of the same questions as you. Along the same lines, is there anything more cruel than to tell a parent who has lost a child that, “God needed another angel,” or some such tripe? Watching coverage of disasters on television makes me sad – and mad.

  11. After all, it is rather difficult to reconcile the idea of a benevolent and all powerful God with such natural disasters.

    Not really, unless by “benevolent” you mean “nice” or “chummy”. If God’s highest interest is in keeping us “happy”, then sure, it’s an obvious problem. On the other hand, if God is more interested in our being, say, virtuous rather than “comfortable”, then it’s not obvious at all. Do you know of any religions that teach God exists in order to pamper our whims? Do you know of any religions that teach God wants us to be holy? Which do you think the people in Haiti might believe?

    if God exists and has the usual attributes (all good, all powerful and all knowing) then praying would make no sense.

    Indeed, so we can conclude that prayer is not about telling God something he doesn’t know, or “making” him do something. This would be a good argument against any religion that claimed God didn’t know things until we told him, or could be manipulated by us… again, assuming you could find anybody who actually believed in such an odd religion.

    somewhat like remaining in love with a cruel abuser.

    Good one. Here’s another comparison: it’s like a child who still loves his parents even though they let him undergo awful, painful treatment for his leukemia. Stupid kid, huh? Or is the point rather that beings with free will might be susceptible to spiritual “illness” that calls for harsh medicine just as physical illnesses sometimes do?

    God never shows up for His disasters. … if you look among the aid groups then you will see no angels.

    Seriously? I really have to wonder if you’re just taking the mickey. What do you expect an immaterial being to look like?? Other comments have already pointed out the notion that God works through us. If God wants us to be generous, and it takes a catastrophe to get most of us who do live in unmerited comfort to get off our backsides and help in some way, then the question should be, what’s wrong with us?

    In conclusion, you have provided good philosophical arguments against a material “God” who has no higher concerns than unconditionally providing non-free humans with physical comforts. Perhaps that’s why actual Haitians believe overwhelmingly in Christianity instead.

  12. DL, The Christianity of the Bible argues against your definition of what Christian Haitians believe. The Bible I have read, indeed, argues for the “odd” God.

    You wrote that God “works through us.” So, we have a God powerful enough to “work through us,” but not powerful enough in the first place to prevent tragedies that require him to work via proxy through human beings.

    DL, did you mean in your last point when you wrote, “…most of us who do live in unmerited comfort to get off our backsides and help in some way,” that the catastrophe in Haiti occurred as some kind of wake-up call to the comfortable? If that’s what you meant, that takes some kind of cruel being to wreck havoc on one to make a point to another. Of course, there again, that argues for the “odd” God, and you’re right, that’s exactly what the Bible teaches.

  13. Humans build brittle structures in tectonically active places. When physical forces make the earth move, the structures crumble. If humans are in the way, they get hurt and some die. No supernatural force made it happen just as none could prevent it. Placing cause in some other domain is delusional.

  14. We have a blind-spot for ‘the life hereafter’ eh? A whole-life theology presumes that there will a balancing of accounts in the next phase–there might be a better word than ‘balancing of accounts’.

    Check out the death scene in Plato’s Phaedo–the last ten pages on which Bostock said nary a word.

    And how about Luke 16? 1 He also said to the disciples… 19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. [6] The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers [7]—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

  15. Earthquakes and religion « A life in the day of royce - pingback on January 17, 2010 at 10:48 pm
  16. The Bible I have read, indeed, argues for the “odd” God.

    From the perspective of mere mortals, wouldn’t God have to seem “odd”? Odd or not, the point is that it is not plausible that God and his plan for the entirety of reality can be summed up, and dismissed, in a couple of lines. I certainly hope you were not misled into thinking that my equally brief replies are in any way a suitable summary of Christianity or any other religion. They vaguely point at certain types of concept you can find more sophisticatedly developed therein, but on their own they merely demonstrate that trivial questions have trivial answers. To spell it out, if one wants to know what are the Christian (or Jewish or Islamic or Buddhist…) answers to these sorts of questions, one needs to seriously study Christianity (or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism…). Strawman caricatures are easier to deal with, but are no use in understanding what real people actually believe.

    …but not powerful enough in the first place…

    Who said anything about “powerful enough”? But at least you’re on the right track: once you start investigating the question of “power”, an examination of Christianity (or perhaps Judaism, etc.) will reveal that it’s not a matter of power; the question of evil is not about God’s power or lack thereof. Similarly with the jab about God’s cruelty: it’s meaningless without a thorough study of how a particular religion explains ‘cruelty’, how it grounds morality, on the nature of the afterlife and the scope of free will, etc., etc., etc. Again, the point is that this is not something that nobody ever managed to think for the past two thousand years or more until now; but one cannot expect to explain a major world religion and its philosophical underpinnings in a couple of lines.

  17. beings with free will might be susceptible to spiritual “illness” that calls for harsh medicine just as physical illnesses sometimes do?

    Harsh medicine indeed. How many dead is it now, 100,000? 200,000? Of course this is just a drop in the ocean of the countless millions who have suffered and died throughout history from natural disasters, natural diseases etc. I think I’d rather stick with the illness than suffer through this cure.

    . If God wants us to be generous, and it takes a catastrophe to get most of us who do live in unmerited comfort to get off our backsides and help in some way, then the question should be, what’s wrong with us?

    Wow I bet those dead and dying and homeless in Haiti are so glad to have helped us realise the error of our decadent ways.

  18. I may have adapted this from somewhere else, so if this is familiar to anyone please let me know where it came from…

    Stretch a strongly supported 20 foot long 2×6 3 inches above the ground and most people will be able to cross it without falling off. Raise that “bridge” 200 feet above the ground (assume cross-winds, etc. have been removed from the scenario in some way) and, obviously, more people will be likely to fall, even though the challenge is essentially the same. Now stretch a safety net below the bridge, and while more people are still more likely to fall than when it was only 3 inches high, some of the fear factor has been removed so you would expect a fall rate between these two extremes. You can imaging various scenarios in which the safety net itself doesn’t actually have to be there, the person just has to believe it is there. Now call the safety net God or Prayer or Flying Spaghetti Monster or whatever you wish.

    Whether gods/God exist/s or not, prayer should have the same effect. The ultimate purpose of prayer is to help the individual who is doing the praying, either the person in the dire situation or those who are feeling concern for those unfortunate individuals, otherwise people wouldn’t do it. but then I’m an amateur Mark-Twain-What-is-Man kind of philosopher, so YMMV.

  19. I think I’d rather stick with the illness than suffer through this cure.

    Good for you. Obviously, people who have a different assessment of the magnitude of the illness, or of the cure, or the post-recovery period, or the meaning of life, etc., etc., etc. will come to different conclusions. The actual philosophy lies in the figuring out of all those pesky little details.

  20. DL,

    God need not be concerned with keeping us happy. However, not striking us with disasters seems to quite different from pampering us.

    An earthquake that kills thousands of people hardly seems comparable to a painful treatment. After all, those folks are dead. Now, if the dead rose (not as zombies, of course) after the earthquake and became better people because of it, then the analogy would hold.

    So, are you claiming that there are divine agents at work among the humans who are there? You have evidence of this?

  21. Now, if the dead rose (not as zombies, of course) after the earthquake and became better people because of it, then the analogy would hold.

    I think I heard once that Christianity does say something about the dead rising again. Something about becoming better people too.

    So, are you claiming that there are divine agents at work among the humans who are there? You have evidence of this?

    I’m claiming that it’s possible. You have evidence against it?

  22. what happened in Haiti really sucks, if anyone has the right to be mad at God it should be the Haitian people. Mike you raise some good points in your article. Its interesting to me to hear from the news that many Haitians are crying out to God and even worshiping amidst the death and destruction. Maybe i can help clear up some of the misunderstanding on prayer. for one, its important to note that no one really understands why this happened. people can give their opinions as to why…was it Gods judgement? was it just a natural effect of the Teutonic plates shifting…its all just speculation. But whatever the cause, prayer is not an irrational action to take. I have reason to believe (from the bible) that our prayers can influence God to move on our behalf. Some would say that God makes everything happen and that He is going to do everything he wants to all by Himself…but then why pray at all, right? However, because God is a relational being He is seeking for humans to partner with Him in seeing His will accomplished. In the lords prayer christ even laid out an outline of what we should include in praying “our father who art in heaven, thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” isn’t it interesting that we have to ask for Gods will to be done? The bible says that humanity was given dominion over the earth, so we in a sense are the government of this planet. Therefore it is our responsibility to cry out to God and bring our petitions before Him, He is looking for us to step up and do this (Ezekiel22:30)…I believe that there are certain things that can only be brought into existence into our lives and world though prayer. “Call to me and i will answer you and show you great and mighty things…”(Jeremiah 33:3)What an amazing promise! A lot of what God can do for us is contingent and conditional upon us asking. So it is understandable why the Haitian people are lifting up their prayers to God…He is able to move on their behalf. Like i said before, we don’t understand why all this destruction happened and i see why you might doubt Gods love or goodness (if He exists). I myself have a hard time seeing how any good can result from this, but all i can do is trust God and lift up a prayer on behalf of the haitians.

  23. Natural disasters strike,when the balance in nature is disturbed.There are forces creative,protective and destructive which control the universe,and any imbalances which sets in is rectified by itself.This is according to Hindu Philosophy.

  24. In your article, you postulate that prayer ‘after’ a disaster is pointless, and I follow your reasoning and logic. But is prayer only for when things go bad?

    Perhaps understanding that prayer is a conversation with a loved one, in this case God, as with family or close friends, then we would better understand prayer. Prayer is not a mechanism for activating and manipulating a dormant God. It is the medium through which we raise our thoughts, concerns and thanksgiving to a God that is constantly listening and watching. Prayer can be as simple as quietly giving thanks for a fine day whlie driving to work, or silent reflection while watching surf break at a South Auckland beach at sunset. Prayer is also listening to God, allowing his Spirit to impress upon the heart His will; That can’t be taught, only experienced.

    Your point, that a loving God ought to intervene in disasters, presumes that He doesn’t. We can’t know the degree of intervention God has exercised to save those who are saved.

    Foundational to our understanding such events though, is the understanding that God’s definition of love is to give us the ‘freedom to choose’, even if that means not choosing Him as our God. Even atheists have the God-given right to deny His existence. But with freedom comes the enjoyment or suffering of the consequences of our choice.

    We as humanity have chosen to reject God and as a whole planet, we suffer the consequences of that choice, namely death. If God were to save us at all times, despite our rejection of Him, we would complain that we have no freedom to choose, and therefore He does not love.

    The Bible says God has promised that if we stay connected to Him, as the branch is connected to the vine, He will save us from evil. It does not say He will save us from disaster or death. That is a consequence of the world we live in.

    In summary, I think a forensic study of the Bible, the text book given to us to aid our understanding of God, would give a fresh perspective both philosophically and spiritually on the topic of the existence of God.

  25. This has been said and has been said thousands of years ago. You’ve just taken the problem of evil and rephrased it. The Romans laughed at the Christian god, and by golly, were they wise. These so-called religions are a plague on humanity.

  26. The common assumption is that 1. is ‘all-powerful’ and nothing happens without God’s direction or permission. 2. God exercises the divine sovereignty in choosing who and what to save or destroy.

    Is more reasonable to recognise God as the creator of the universe which is then given its freedom to develop as it will without an interfering divine hand at any point?
    With the development to humanity God provides all the guidelines needed to make life, full, fair and satisfying for everyone by gifting to us all total, unconditional and eternal love inviting us in response to love ourselves and love our neighbours.
    There is no greater freedom than the empowerment to love. Imagine how the world would be transformed if we all accepted that we are loved and shared the same with everyone else!
    God’s power is reflected in our love and commitment to act always in ways consistent with this primary value. Instead of religious rules we have loving relationships, instead of massive armaments we live in peace. nurture of the planet becomes a major priority, and in disaster we pour our resources into prevention where possible and rescue where necessary. We accept that the changes in the earth are beyond control but may be much better managed. We accept God’s love for us and cease to ask questions without answers.

    John Marcon
    Milford New Zealand

  27. I think we should not ask “Where was God when this and that happened?”. We have free will and are more persevering than we think.


  28. Sallie,

    Free will could be used to reduce God’s accountability for the evil we do (although there are still plenty of problems even with the free will gambit). However, this would not seem to get God off the hook for everything else that He supposedly does.

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