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Disaster and religion 

Looking back to Voltaire and Rousseau

"There is a popular Buddhist saying in Sri Lanka: 'Life is no more than a dew drop balancing on the end of a blade of grass.'" So wrote one of the survivors who filed an eyewitness account of last week's disaster in Southeast Asia with CNN's website.

At this writing, the death toll is more than 115,000, with the Red Cross saying it could "easily" go higher. That figure does not include likely deaths from disease because of contamination of the water supply.

Already, we know the tsunamis have killed more than the estimated 70,000 who died during the year following the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The toll could rapidly approach the 140,000 who died in Hiroshima. It is far more than the estimated 17,000 American soldiers and Iraqi citizens who have died for George Bush's misdirected revenge of Osama bin Laden's killing of 3,000 workers at the World Trade Center.

Nature, in effect, has taken a toll that far exceeds some of the most devastating acts of war in recent history. Amazingly, the Rev. Jerry Falwell has so far remained silent about the disaster, surprisingly not calling it God's revenge on Buddhism and Hinduism, the main religions of the affected countries.

You surely remember that the televangelist blamed the 9/11 massacre on abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians and the ACLU. God, according to him, lifted America's "veil of protection" because our society has become so "secularized." Of course, being the unabashed opportunist he is, Falwell later recanted the statement when it turned out that even George Bush was not interested in blaming a massacre by the fanatical Osama on a tradition of tolerance that offends our own religious fanatics.

Unlike Falwell, most people of faith are content to blame something like 9/11 on human free will, unrelated to the direct intention of a God they describe as unrelentingly loving. But a natural disaster like last week's does pose a special problem to religious people, especially in an era when science is increasingly subjugated to belief. If, as creationists say, it was not the evolutionary forces of natural selection that created man but a loving God's direct action, why did this same intimately intervening God permit an earthquake to kill more than 115,000 people?

The question is not new. During the Enlightenment, the fierce debate between science and religion centered on the earthquake that killed thousands in Lisbon on All Saints Day in 1755. The quake inspired Voltaire to write first a poem, and then Candide, in which he methodically destroys the optimistic religious view that the suffering of the world disguises the greater wisdom and goodness of a God that we, in our humanity, are unable to understand.

Although rejecting the notion of a systematically sensible and loving God, Voltaire celebrated human resilience, even if farcically. Says one character in Candide: "I have wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but somehow I am still in love with life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most melancholy propensities; for is there anything more stupid than to be eager to go on carrying a burden which one would gladly throw away, to loathe one's very being and yet to hold it fast, to fondle the snake that devours us until it has eaten our hearts away?"

Voltaire directly satirized the dogma-based reaction of the church to the earthquake in Lisbon, which was a center of the Inquisition. To prevent further earthquakes, it was decided in Candide, several people needed to be slowly burned to death. That, of course, is application to a natural disaster the principle of revenge that has us in Iraq. You will recall that Falwellian types also at one point blamed Florida hurricanes on Disney World's acceptance of gay people.

Voltaire's writing about the Lisbon quake provoked correspondence from the romantic and comparatively religious Rousseau. Rousseau did not really resolve the question of random suffering in God's world, but by shifting some of the responsibility to the victims themselves, he actually initiated the social-science perspective of disaster. He noted, for example, that the way Lisbon was constructed and the way people initially responded to the first quakes -- trying to gather possessions -- contributed to the high death toll. Now, some people rush to blame last week's widespread death on the lack of a warning system in the Indian Ocean.

Rousseau also made another observation that is as pertinent today as Voltaire's treatment of the quake as an argument against religious dogma. He noticed that Voltaire's concern centered upon an urban area when rural areas had been decimated by other disasters. Thus, he argued, a disaster becomes an important disaster according to its cultural context.

We've seen this played out in the reporting of last week's tsunami. An inordinate amount of it focused on the status of a couple thousand tourists rather than the 100,000 dark-skinned people. And one has to note the irony that America can only cough up $45 million in aid while it pours $120 billion into empire-building in Iraq -- a disaster of our own creation.

We never learn.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. Write him at

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