Human compassion has produced the usual generous outpouring of aid to devastated Haiti. Meanwhile, Obama has shown himself in a statement today to be a standard American politician, having included among the admirable qualities of the Haitians the fact that their faith has been unwavering. Why is holding on to religious faith in the face of contradictory evidence a virtue? In any other field—climatology, say–maintaining a belief despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary would be seen as a lamentable failure of rationality. If a human being had foreknowledge of, and the capacity to prevent, a coming disaster like the Haitian earthquake and yet did nothing, he would be viewed as a monster. Pat Robertson’s interpretation of the Haitian earthquake as divine punishment for voodoo and for an alleged “pact with the devil” has been universally mocked, but it at least represents an effort to explain why God, who had both knowledge of the earthquake and the capacity to prevent it, nevertheless chose not to act in this particular instance, though he acts to save other lives all the time, such as when keeping America safe since 9/11 or answering a family’s prayers for a cancer victim. Interpreting the source of divine displeasure that gave rise to natural disasters was a regular function of preachers before secularism cut religion in the West down to size (on May 26, 1703, for example, during the most destructive storm in British history, the vicar of Cheshunt preached a sermon entitled: “The Necessity of Repentance Asserted: In order to Avert those Judgements which the Present War, and Strange Unseasonableness of the Weather at Present, Seem to Threaten this Nation with.”). Obviously, anyone who interprets God’s will is going to fill it in with his own biases (if seeing retribution for breaking the first two commandments is a bias). But I’d rather have consistency in the inclination to ascribe meaning to events in God’s universe than a retreat into obscurantism–“the human mind cannot fathom God’s reasons”–when the candidates for a meaning are unacceptable. The mind cannot supply any possible reason for God’s inaction here that doesn’t either grotesquely violate one’s sense of fairness or imply fault on the side of the sufferers, yet a reason there must be, according to our demand for a God who rules the world not by caprice but according to good cause. And however politically incorrect Robertson’s interpretation of the consequences of idolatry currently is, that interpretation has an impeccable pedigree in the Bible and has never been officially repudiated. Contrary to the assertions of believers, it is easier to understand how unmerited suffering can arise in an undirected universe than in a directed one and requires less torturing of reason and perverse implication of fault. And though we may live in a universe of random injustice, the human capacity to conquer such injustice grows by the day, thanks to the tireless application of the scientific method to nature.
Many are undoubtedly now praying to God to save the earthquake victims, an act of empathy arising out of human love that thousands of other humans, believers and unbelievers alike, are acting on.