Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


According to stories in the newspapers, many of the people left homeless and utterly bereft by the recent hurricanes have said that the experience strengthened and deepened their faith in God. They give thanks to God for saving them from death and giving them the opportunity to start their lives anew.

While I can certainly understand that people desperately need to find solace and some positive meaning in such a devastating experience, that reaction makes no sense to me. For starters, it implies a very pejorative view of God. Thank you for saving my life, and by the way, thanks for drowning my neighbors, destroying my home and community, taking away my livelihood -- God is great, God is good.

The problem of reconciling faith in an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God with the manifest non-benevolence of the creation is called theodicy, a term coined by the philosopher Leibniz. In fact, it is logically impossible, therefore much of theology is taken up with creating tortuous labyrinths of verbiage designed to isolate this inescapable contradiction from the apprehension of believers. (The ancient Hebrews, of course, had no such problem because their God was not in the least benevolent, but rather a vicious, vengeful sociopath.)

Fortunately for humanity today, we do not need to turn to God for comfort when disaster strikes. We ourselves have the power to combat evil. We know that the flood walls in New Orleans failed because of the way they were constructed. We know that most deaths and injuries in earthquakes occur because of the way buildings are constructed. In Pakistan, and other areas devastated by yesterday's earthquake, for example, there are many unframed masonry buildings. Wood framed houses don't collapse in earthquakes. We can predict which areas are most vulnerable to hurricane damage and choose not to build where protection is least feasible and to take protective measures where they make sense. We can greatly reduce the danger of fires by regulating construction materials and installing sprinkler systems. And so on.

Just as important, we can create social institutions which assure that people are cared for and that random events produce less injustice. As a highly topical and cogent example, we can have universal, comprehensive single payer national health care. In the short term, we need to extend presumptive eligibility for Medicaid to all the people displaced and impoverished by the recent hurricanes -- something the Bush administration refuses to do.

We can never eliminate disasters or individual misfortune, but we can take great comfort in knowing that we are working together, as a conscious, sentient, and caring species, to protect and take care of each other. God is not doing that, but we can. That's my theodicy.

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