The Pope finally made it to L’Aquila today, the epicenter of an earthquake that killed 295 in Italy’s Abruzzo region on April 6. Driving rain, cold, and mud continue to beset the occupants of the tent cities established for the 65,000 homeless victims.
On the day of the quake, the Pope said that he was praying “especially for the children” killed in the tremors. Two days later he assured the survivors that the “Pope prays for all, imploring the Lord’s mercy for the deceased.” Today, in the medieval village of Onna, where the death rate was highest, he “encourage[d] everyone, institutions and businesses, to see that this village and this region are reborn.” Later today, under a blue canopy in L’Aquila’s town square, with the green mountains of Abruzzo rising above, the Pope invoked a local saint and recalled his Easter Mass, performed after the L’Aquila earthquake. The Italian news channel RAI raved about the Pope’s interactions with occupants of one of the tent cities: “We’ve never seen him so close to the people before,” said a reporter. “He had a word for each person.”
The Pope is undoubtedly a caring, generous man who has brought much-needed solace to the stricken survivors of the earthquake. Still, nonbelievers will be eternally puzzled by the logic of praising and praying to a God after a natural disaster that he could have averted. If God is sensitive enough and powerful enough to respond to prayers now, why didn’t he intervene before? And we know that he can intervene: see, e.g., the Bible and the daily priestly practice of asking for God’s protection against a whole host of human ills. The Pope may pray to God to show his mercy to the dead children of Abruzzo. Wouldn’t it have been more useful for God to have shown his mercy before they were killed? Presumably, believers see proof of God’s love in the survival of quake victims rescued from collapsed buildings, leaving unexplained why other quake victims were not so blessed.
But the need to feel protected by a supernatural power is so strong that it overcomes any logical difficulties entailed by the idea of a loving, just God who supervenes over the daily slaughter of the innocents. And the belief in such a God provides people with strength in the face of unbearable loss.
What does a non-religious world-view have to offer in place of irrational faith? A celebration of human compassion as the source of every triumph over natural randomness and injustice. An awareness that human ingenuity is all we have to save us from undeserved tragedy, but a knowledge that that is saying quite a lot. Nonbelievers feel as much sorrow for the victims of the quake as any believer, but they look exclusively to human efforts to help them. Since the earthquake, the Pope and the local archbishop have lauded civic solidarity, and rightly so. The workers who have tried to help the victims have done so out of human empathy. Most every engineer would do anything he could to prevent all loss of life from earthquakes; the same can’t be said of the divine engineer. The rebuilding of L’Aquila, which the Pope called for, is already occurring, thanks to the Italian civil authorities. It sure as heck isn’t God who’s rebuilding it.
A secular perspective on suffering does not promise an afterlife, but it does focus our attention on the true source of the virtues which can lessen and sometimes overcome suffering. For many people, that will not be enough and they will continue turning to the idea of a God. The nonbeliever joins with them in their desire for a more just world.