The Tsunami, theodicies and science

Yesterday, I wrote that trying to understand the mechanics of the disaster is a solace of sorts.  Of course, I said it without reflecting on the fact that I’m a convinced atheist and see no value in trying to integrate these things into some eschatology or divine telos.  I guess a more common phenomenon is a jump back into a theodicy; even without being prompted by an occassionally assertive rationlist, like myself, believers confront the “why would an all benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being . . .” line of questions. 

Martin Kettle raised the issue a few days ago in The Guardian

“From at least the time of Aristotle, intelligent people have struggled to make some sense of earthquakes. Earthquakes do not merely kill and destroy. They challenge human beings to explain the world order in which such apparently indiscriminate acts can occur. Europe in the 18th century had the intellectual curiosity and independence to ask and answer such questions. But can we say the same of 21st-century Europe? Or are we too cowed now to even ask if the God can exist that can do such things?”

(Norman Geras had this post on making meaning in the face of a tragedy shortly afterwards.)

Now there are responses to Martin Kettle’s column, including one from Richard Dawkins who suggests that only science, and not religion, can offer answers. 

“Not only does science know why the tsunami happened, it can give precious hours of warning. If a small fraction of the tax breaks handed out to churches, mosques and synagogues had been diverted into an early warning system, tens of thousands of people, now dead, would have been moved to safety.

Let’s get up off our knees, stop cringing before bogeymen and virtual fathers, face reality, and help science to do something constructive about human suffering.”

It’s a sentiment I share, but then I was struck by the reasons Norman Geras offers for his discomfort with Dawkins’ response.

“In an intellectual discussion about the grounds for belief in God, one may legitimately argue, with all the force one can muster, that there are no compelling grounds. On the other hand – and to put this point with particular sharpness by use of an extreme example – I wouldn’t think it morally admirable to give out aggressive statements against religious belief at the funeral of someone from a devout family; or to advise a grief-stricken person against appealing to (their) God for solace.

Now, to be fair about this, in the letter in question Richard Dawkins may be seen merely as contributing to a reasoned discussion about religious faith in the national press. My own discomfort with the form of his concluding sentiments, however, is that the immediate context of that discussion is the vast tragedy that has just unfolded along the coasts of South-East Asia. It’s hard to abstract what he says from the immediacy of that, from the scenes of loss and grief and suffering that are being relayed to us hourly. Against this background ‘getting up off our knees’ and ‘not cringing before bogeymen and virtual fathers’ have, to me, a rather brutal ring, insensitive to the complexities and vulnerabilities (final item) of the human condition.”

Thinking more about it, Dawkins’ letter seems to me to be far less clincal than Geras’ read of it suggests.  I hear in Dawkins’ letter, especially its beginning, not only a “reasoned discussion about faith” but also some anger and frustration at what he perceives to be the (malevolent) role of religion in the wake of these things.  The point can be debated, but I think that frustration and anger at being told that it’s God’s will in response to sin or that it’s a Job-like test of faith is also a very human reaction, born of the immediacy of the loss.