Tag Archives: 1755 Lisbon earthquake

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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