In April 2007, Vinoth Ramachandra gave an interesting lecture on ‘The Science and Theology of Natural Disasters’. Dr Ramachandra is a theologian from Sri Lanka, and well placed to discuss events such as the great Asian Tsunami of 2004. The lecture can be downloaded from the website of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.
What follows here is based on the first part of his talk.
The great tsunami of 26th December 2004 claimed 1/4 million lives, and led many to question the credibility of faith in a god. This is nothing new: in 1755 following the great Lisbon earthquake the sceptic Voltaire was moved to ask if the vices of that city were so much greater than those of London or Paris in order to merit indiscriminate divine judgement.
The appeal of some religious people to ‘minor miracles’ within a major disaster (e.g. the unexpected survival of certain individuals, or of certain religious buildings) only fuels the sceptic’s accusation of the superstition and ignorance of the faithful.
It is to be noted that actual disaster rouses us in a way that fear of disaster (e.g. as a result of climate change) does not.
It is also to be noted that God is used as a scapegoat when things go wrong, but is rarely thanked for (for example) the progress in science and technology that can prevent some disasters or ameliorate the worst effects of others. (By the way, why should vast disasters lead us to doubt God when small ones do not? Do sheer numbers count?)
The fact is that we have the means to prevent some disasters and ameliorate the worst effects of others, but to often fail to use these means. Africa suffers the equivalent of a tsunami every week, and yet most of us turn a blind eye to this easily remedied man-made disaster.
Why is it that when a natural disaster hits Florida, say, or Japan, the loss of life is minimal, but in the Caribbean or in Southern Asia it is often vast? The answer: poverty, often accompanied by corruption and incompetence. Warnings are ignored, technology not utilised, coral reefs and mangrove swamps (which would dampen the effects of a tidal wave) destroyed, information simply not passed on from rich nations to poorer ones.
In Miami, the annual death toll from hurricanes is around 6 people, whereas in Central America it runs into thousands.
When Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998, there were 18,000 deaths, but only a handful from middle income families. It is the poor who are disproportionately affected, as their fragile homes collapse. It is the poor who lack access to ‘safe’ land, who bear the burden of foreign debt, who suffer the effects of income inequalities, who reap the results of ecological degradation, who are unable to participate in any meangingful democratic process. It is not nature which is the big killer, but poverty.
This inequality is mirrored in the media coverage. Hurricane Katrina (2005) had 40 times more print coverage than the even more devastating earthquake that was experience in Guatemala shortly afterwards. On the day that El Salvadore had its 2nd large earthquake, there was a football match between Real Madrid and Lazio. The combined market value of the players on the pitch was almost half that of what it cost to completely rebuild the infrastructure of El Salvadore.
Many disasters go unrecorded and unreported. This raises the question of whether the life of an Afghan farmer, say, is of equal value in our eyes with that of an Amercian citizen. By Christmas 2001 the number of Afghan civilians killed by Amercian and Northern Alliance troops was double the number of people killed in the Twin Towers attack on 9/11 in the same year. But how many candle-lit vigils have been held for those Afghans?