Plus cc change, plus c'est la meme chose. The Haitian earthquake has been a dreadful start to the New Year - just as the Asian Tsunami was in 2004. Whilst most human beings have a reaction of compassion and want to start giving and helping as soon as possible, others see an opportunity to pontificate their pet theories. So as in the Asian Tsunami Pat Robertson writes his blasphemous and dumb nonsense about God judging Haiti (apparently for rebelling against the French) and Richard Dawkins write his blasphemous and dumb nonsense about how Pat Robertson is the only true Christian and therefore this proves God does not exist (The Times - Friday the 29th). It is tragic to see how people will use human tragedy to further their own ends. Of course there are real questions and issues to be faced - although one suspects that the victims right now are more concerned about food than philosophy - so I attach an article I wrote six years ago about the Asian Tsunami. It got me in a lot of trouble then, and it has often been quoted back at me, but, although there are one or two things I would change, I stand by it. I am thankful that in the midst of death and destruction, the Christian, unlike the atheist, still has hope of a renewed heavens and a renewed earth. So read on for the original article. But first here is a copy of the letter I sent to The Times about Dawkins blasphemous and irrational rant.
It is always more than a little nauseating when people exploit human tragedy topromote their own particular religious viewpoints. Richard Dawkins latest rant against the ‘faith-heads’ (The Times January 29th) is in this category, and sadly all too typical of the mindless atheistic fundamentalism, which seems to have become his raison d’etre. Whilst Professor Dawkins never misses an opportunity to emotionally pronounce his judgements against his pet hates, it is sad that, like most fundamentalists, he refuses to debate with those whom he so angrily denounces, preferring instead to vent his spleen in media propaganda. There are answers to the questions/accusations Dawkins asks. The trouble is that he would rather shout than discuss. And how pathetic that, like some religious groups, he uses the tragedy to set up his own fundraising group ‘Non-Believers giving Aid’. Ignoring the fact that the sum raised will be tiny compared with what comes through the religious charities, one wonders how this aid will be distributed. Ironically The Times also carried an article today stating that the faith of the Haitians was ‘unshaken’. One fears that it would be a cold day in hell before Prof Dawkins would allow his ‘unbelievers’ aid to be distributed through the churches and faith based agencies that are so much part of the Haitian people’s lives. How tragic.
David A. Robertson
There have been millions of words written about the Asian Tsunami. Little wonder. The scale of the disaster is overwhelming - over 150,000 dead, millions homeless and some of the most beautiful and poorest areas of the world lying devastated. Just this week for example I was reading a report from Tear Fund stating that in Sri Lanka there are 25,000 plus dead, over one million displaced and 250,000 homeless. Here in Scotland we have witnessed the awful tragedy of the Uist family who were swept away to sea as they tried to escape the storm that blew over much of Scotland on Tuesday night. The Asian Tsunami was that magnified many times.
I do not wish to lessen or cheapen this catastrophe, nor do I have a particular desire to add to the volumes already being written. However there is one aspect of the whole affair which I would like to comment on. Despite the fact that we are supposed to be a secular society it remains the case that at times of great disaster the press do turn to religious leaders for their comments and perspectives. And generally our religious leaders had nothing to say. Sorry, they had plenty to say but most of it was pretty bland truisms repeating what every one knew anyway. The standard ‘religious’ response was along the lines of – it’s a terrible disaster, we feel for the people involved, we must do all we can to help and it raises lots of questions. (To be fair I should point out that Bishop Holloway who usually manages to put across his almost atheistic views, wrote an excellent and generally fair article in the Scotsman). In this respect I was disappointed to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury stating that it caused him to question his faith and to read the Scotman’s headline ““Queens Prayers as clergy admit faith rocked by death toll” (Scotsman 3rd January). Some of the clergy were all too quick to praise humanity and question God.
It is little wonder that one columnist could write, ““It also helps perspective if there are no religious complications. Any disaster, whether natural, man-made or inflicted by man, taxes religious faith. If you don’t believe there is a god, that removes one source of angst and mental misery immediately, unlike the dozens of clerics and theologians of all religions I’ve heard, and read, in the past few days desperately trying to reconcile 150,000 dead with the infinite wisdom of pick any god.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury and other religious figures have been all too keen to appear sympathetic and understanding by suggesting that events like the Asian Tsunami causes them to question their faith. I have a great deal of sympathy for young Christians or others who are distressed and confused by such events. Although I would also say that it is because of such events that I believe in God. It was only as I considered the question of suffering that I realised that secular materialism not only offered no adequate explanation but also little practical help. However I have a great deal less sympathy for those who are supposed to have thought through and considered these things. I also have to wonder where they have been in terms of this world – disasters and death are constantly going on – even ‘natural ones’. Think of the 20 million made homeless in Bangladesh last year by floods, or the hundreds of thousands killed in Sudan, or tens of thousands dying in Africa from starvation. Or the thousands killed by road accidents each year in Britain. Or the millions killed by cancer. Or the Christian parents in Dundee who this week are mourning the loss of their two year old son. If a religious leader has only thought about these things when confronted on TV with a large scale natural disaster then it does not say much for his powers of observation. It says even less for their theology.
In this they reflect our besieged atheistic friends who are becoming increasingly frustrated because their old fashioned modernistic arguments are more and more being exposed for the intellectual limitations they are. Richard Dawkins was quick off the mark – suggesting that the Asian Tsunami was once again an illustration of the fact that there is no God. In this he was using Darwin’s old argument ““There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the parasitic wasp with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that the cat should play with mice”. Now we before we answer this let us consider its implications. If there is no God and no creator then what we are saying is that this is just the way things are. ‘Mother Nature’ is cruel and vicious. There is no answer – only despair, death and destruction. But what about Darwin’s argument? He makes one big mistake – he assumes that the world as it is now is the world as God created it. But that is not the case. When you read Genesis One notice the repeated refrain, ‘And God saw that it was good’. God did not create the world to have natural disasters, cancer and death. Something came into the world which has upset the natural order of things and polluted the whole environment. That is why, as Paul tells us in Romans 8, the whole creation ‘groans as in the pangs of childbirth’. We are faced with two choices – either the world is as it is because that is the way things are, or things are the way things are because sin came in and corrupted a good and perfect creation.
In this latter respect there were those on the other end of the religious spectrum who were all too happy to jump on the ‘this is God judging’ bandwagon. I think the worst example of this (I am sure there are many others) was the suggestion on a Swedish ‘Christian’ website that ‘perhaps’ this was Gods way of judging Sweden because of the jailing of a Pentecostal minister for preaching against homosexuality. Did the thought not occur to them that this was a very inefficient way of God punishing Sweden – killing 150,000 non-Swedes in Asia in order to get 2500 Swedes? Why not just destroy Stockholm? I am afraid that such simplistic equations continue to do the rounds and continue to bring disgrace on the name of Christ. Of course there is a judgemental aspect in that such natural disasters warn us of what is to come and the folly of living life without Christ. But to make the simplistic equation that natural disasters occur because of specific sins is neither logical nor biblical.
Another truism that is often used is that this event ‘brings us all together’ and shows how wonderful humanity is. Like all truisms there is an element of truth in that. There have been stories of human courage, endurance and kindness. My favourite was the story of Rizal Shapputra, a 23 year old Indonesian who was busy cleaning his local mosque when the waves stuck. He was swept out to sea where he survived by clinging to driftwood, drinking rainwater and eating coconuts. Eventually he was picked up a hundred miles out to sea by a passing cargo ship.
However there have also been the most appalling stories of human sin and greed, even in the midst of such tragedy. Whether it is paedophiles targeting orphans or the Indonesain military seeing it as an opportunity to have another go at the separatist rebels in Banda Aceh, there has been more than enough evidence of the unnatural cruelty of human beings. Of course there has also been the generosity. Gordon Brown took the opportunity to push his excellent third world reduction programme. The European Union held a three minute silence. Some people even managed to stop shopping for three minutes. In terms of giving the Scots even managed to get rid of our tight fisted image – apparently at the time of writing the Swedes were the best givers, giving £3.49 each, Norwegians came second with £2.43, and the Scots third with £2 – more than £10 million from Scotland. The Americans gave an average of £0.21 per person and the Italians £0.18. So lets all have a wee dig at the Americans and rejoice in our ‘extraordinary and unprecedented generosity’. But wait a minute. At the same time as reading this table of giving I noticed a report which told us that the average woman in Edinburgh spends £135.22 per month on clothes, that they wear only half what they own, and that 90% say they have things in their wardrobe which they never wear. So giving less that 0.25% of the money one spends on clothes is hardly ‘extraordinary and unprecedented’ generosity.
What is the explanation and solution for all this? How can we explain and more importantly cope with this bent universe and our perverse human natures? The Bible’s worldview and answer is both far more coherent and far more practical than the ‘that is just the way it is’ view of the Darwinianists, or the ‘nice God, nice world’ theology of much of theological liberalism. The world has been corrupted by sin. There is pollution of every kind. Human beings are polluted. God’s way of dealing with things is to deal with the root cause – the entrance of sin into the world. He sends his son Jesus to atone for that. In dying on the cross Christ bore our sins. In being raised from the dead he is ‘declared with power’ to be the Son of God who takes away the sin of the world. Death and destruction are defeated by Christ. There will be renewal of the heavens and earth where humans can experience life without tears, pain and destruction. There will be an environment where there is ‘no more sea’ (aka Revelation 21). All the striving and groaning of the Creation will not be vain because the children of God will be revealed (cf. Romans 8). Meanwhile, as we also live in the Shadowlands, we too groan, give, long, weep, pray, hope, worship and look to Christ. “The seas have lifted up, O Lord, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea – The Lord on High is mighty”. Psalm chapter 102 verse.25-28.