Thursday, May 15, 2008

On Natural Disasters

A christian friend of mine recently made the comment to me that the world experiences natural disasters because of sin and our propensity towards it. No doubt many of you remember Pat Robertson's notorious comment about the decadence of New Orleans being the magnet for Hurricane Katrina. And I'm sure many fundamental Christians out there right now are spouting about how the wayward Chinese and Burmese (Myanmarese?) are having their chickens come home to roost, in a manner of speaking. Now, I will concede that no one in the world behaves the way they should 100 percent of the time, and many troublemakers experience bad things because of what they did, but I will in no way concede that the recent earth matters, natural disasters, whatever you'd like to call them, are in any way connected to the chosen behaviors of one young species of life living on her surface. I'd just as soon take up astrology, which is interestingly not all that different from what these "righteous" folks are vomiting up. How is it to say the planets have a direct effect on our lives, depending on how they are arranged in orbit is significantly different from our behaviors having an effect on the internal workings of an entire planet?

Enough of the complaining nature, let's look at the semantic side of the claim of my friend.

Are natural disasters the result of sin? What I mean by sin is "original sin", disobedience to the monotheistic god of the bible and the quran. Firstly, Natural disasters are only "disasters" in the anthropomorphical sense. Ther are only disasters to humans. One cannot say that animals (non-human) or plants view earthquakes as disasters, only that they view such things as being dangerous and to be avoided. It is only we that can recognize and label hurricanes and tornados as being disastrous. What these things really are are natural events or occurences. They are completely within nature's realm and are wholly governed by the laws of physics.

Now, what I'd like to do is take the christian's side of it for a second, just to illustrate the fallacy of such a statement as sin is theroot of natural disasters, so please bear with me.

Assuming,as the christian does, that god created everything in the world, I think it is safe to assume that this creation act included not only the things to be governed by the laws of physics but also the laws themselves. That being the assumptive case, natural disasters had the potential to occur prior to Adam's commission of original sin. There could have been an earthquake before the apple was eaten (or the decision to disobey was made), precisely because, presumable god set up the laws of physics concurrent with his creation of the physical world, before the act of sin was committed.
An intereseting side note from the atheist point of view: The 1st natural disaster to be recorded in the bible was the great flood of Noah, who lived about 1500 years after Adam's birth (give or take). How did it end up that the most devasting and apparent result of sin took so long to occur after the fact? Anyway, back to playing the devil's (god's) advocate. According to the timeline, natural disasters (events) or at least their possibility, existed prior to their supposed cause. Again, the effect preceded the cause!!! Strike one for the Christian's argument.
Well, what if the anthropomorphical definition of natural "disaster" is what is actually in question, rather than the timeline of events? What if "original sin" did not result in the initiation of natural disasters on the earth, but only ushered in our personal capability to recognize the disastrous effects events such as Tsunamis, cyclones, and volcanic eruptions have on the world? In other words, is sin what gave us our humanity? Do we recognize the destruction and it's long-term effects on us because we sinned? If so, then being human is worthless. We should never have become human. I find this potential idea repulsive, and I would hope everyone feels the same, because it calls into question everything we as sentient beings hold as important. Where is the "sanctity of life" if this is the case? Furthermore, if we were made in the image of god, then this must mean that the creator himself is subject to the idea of sin, since we, as his proverbial clones, are subject to it.
Does our recognition of the devastation caused by natural disasters somehow change or increase the amount of damage done? Do we cause more undue catastrophe to the other inhabitants of this earth, by simply knowing what the world will be faced with after the storms subside? Of course not. But we do cause ourselves to be stressed over the situations, because we are capable of worrying. No other animal or plant has this ability. Trees do not ponder what will happen to them if they don't save enough to retire at 65. Lions are unconcerned with whether the roof of the house (they obviously don't live in) is in need of repair soon. We are alone in our recognition of cause and effect to such a degree. The profound effects on survival of all living things, Plants and animals is brought to light by the natural disasters, but only to us. This being the case, the physical damage caused by such events cannot be relegated to having been designed only for our benefit (in the sense that punishment for sin is a benefit :-) ). The effects are for all living things, not just us. Our recognition of this might be the result of our sin, but it is a one-way street. Our sin effects everything, even those which cannot recognize the benefit or detriment to them. Strike two for the Christian's argument.
I will now return to my atheistic point of view and say, which is more plausible: that a supreme creator built a world that would periodically need to be decompressed through planet-wide destruction and renewal, butwould simlutaneously hold-back this built-in necesary cycle for the benefit of one species of life on the planet, one which happens to have the capability of recognizing that these types of events can have seriously bad consequences for them and their survival, at least until the species decided to live their own life and make their own choices, at which point, the supreme being abandoned the creatures he so "loved" just a moment before, cosmologically speaking, to the whims of the very world that he placed these"precious in his sight" beings whom he purposely made to be small versions of himself, OR, are natural disasters the result of tectonic shifts in the earth's crust, the result of unpredictable warm air patterns over oceans, the result of seismic perturbances deep below the surface of the oceans causing huge upwellings of the sea, etc... you get the picture. Occam's razor is sharp folks, use it. Strike three for the Christian's argument. There is no coherent argument for sin being the causative agent of natural disasters, and to voluntarily deny, ignore, passover the scientifically verifiable explanations for these events is just childish, wishful thinking. In the meantime, attitudes such as those expressed by my christian friend are easy methods to use if you want to dismiss in your own mind, the real effects on the human populace these catastrophes have. If you would like to feel bad for those poor folks over there, then by all means, think that our own sinful nature brought this on. If you'd like to see the world spared of these things, then by all means keep praying for the rapture. If you are of the mind that somehow, these events will bring the world closer to god and his purpose for all of us, then by all means keep doing nothing. If however you're like me, and you think the earth is her own, and we have but a little effect on her, then can see that what we do ordon't do will only have an effect on us. Since I'd like to live as long as possible, and I'd like to see my son do the same, I think it is high time we put aside the childish things, as christians love to quote. Stop ascribing false ownership of the world to a god that doesn't exist. Accept that the world is magnitudinally more marvelous than any sentient being could have ever come up with. Nature alone is capable of what we see. It is nature in all her glory, not god in his. And in the meantime, keep up the good work scientists. We are in your debt, not Christ's.

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