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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On natural disasters & belief

(cc) U.S. Pacific Fleet,
Like many of us, I have been moved recently by the tragedy which has taken place in Japan, and have continuing concerns for the people there. After viewing some of the incredible footage of the waves which overtook urban areas, one can only imagine such devastation. Some towns and neighborhoods have been completely wiped away and the death toll seems likely over 10,000 from last reports.

It seems to frequently be the case after these kinds of major disasters for people to talk of 'acts of God' and speculate about causes of supernatural agency. Indeed, this has been thought about by people throughout history. Ancient Greeks, for example, would attribute floods to not having paid enough tribute to Poseidon. Today, most of us now understand why earthquakes and resulting tsunamis happen. The overwhelming evidence gathered by those who have carefully studied the situation have shown it has to do with plate tectonics and stresses that build up in the earth's crust. There is apparently no mystery to the process in general, as difficult as it may be to predict it or deal with the tragic human consequences.

In pointing this out, I mean no disrespect to those who have various religious beliefs. But I think its important to communicate about how different are the worldviews of different subgroups of people. Many people with supernatural beliefs may not understand how strange it seems to many of us that there would actually be people in modern times who seriously attribute natural disasters to the actions of invisible entities like gods or other spirits. To draw a causal link between moral behavior and natural disasters seems so bizarre and incomprehensible to some of us that it truly underscores just how incredibly diverse are our two mindsets and our two pictures of the universe we occupy.

Some of the faithful similarly find it so hard to imagine not having these beliefs that they suspect the others may be denying the beliefs in word only and think we secretly believe them or at least wonder about them. Some faithful I have spoken to don't seem to fully comprehend just how completely out of the question the prospect of supernatural agency in natural disasters (or in general) is for a naturalist-minded person. They may not realize that many of us seriously, deep down, do not consider for a microsecond the idea has any legitimacy at all, finding it almost incomprehensible ourselves that someone could give it even momentary credence, much less have a committed belief in it.

This explains why, unfortunately, it is so easy for naturalists like myself to slip into insulting-sounding phrasing when addressing those beliefs. We mean to communicate just how outlandish the concept seems to us, but it often seems the only way to do so is to reference other examples which both sides may agree are equally unlikely (like the Tooth Fairy for example, since both sides are not likely to ever hesitate for a moment over whether or not she exists). While these analogies may serve the purpose of communicating the severity of disregard many naturalists have for the likelihood of particular supernatural claims, they also seem to be comparing believers to children or to stupid people, and are therefore very insulting. Or, the faithful may suspect that the naturalist is exaggerating and that they really don't have an equally deep non-suspicion of the Tooth Fairy as they do for God - which, in reference to many of us, would truly be a mistake.

Some naturalists don't care if they are insulting, or perhaps even intend to be insulting. But for those of us who really do not believe that faithful people are less intelligent and sincerely want to be respectful to all people regardless of their religion, it creates a challenging problem. How do we make sure we are adequately communicating that we really, really don't consider the possibility of "a supernatural being making earthquakes to punish us for our behavior" to be a possibility worthy of serious consideration? How do we ensure that, once we have communicated it, the other side understands just how deep the view is and how completely absent any suspicion of it being true is in our minds? How do we communicate the baffling feeling we get when we see that others sincerely believe these things, without sounding insulting or disrespectful of their beliefs?

Further, how do we communicate the fact that our dismissal of such possibilities as worthy of serious consideration is not taken with hubris or taken flippantly, but that we have arrived at our beliefs sincerely as best as we have been able to honestly assess them? So often, people on all sides tend to vilify those with differing beliefs or assume unwholesome motivations. While some people genuinely are intellectually dishonest or have malicious intent, many people with incredibly different views about the nature of our universe are equally good, sincere, intelligent, honest, and humble people and it is a shame when they fail to recognize one another.

One solution would be for naturalists to remain silent, but I think that it's important for people of different beliefs to have meaningful dialogue about them. That is an important part of us all getting along with one another, rather than building up misconceptions about one another.

The good news is that, regardless of why we all think natural disasters occur, we can nevertheless work together to help those afflicted, and that is the most important thing.


  1. I think you make two important points and that they are at the very end of your article: "that people of different beliefs need to have meaningful dialogue" and that all of us should "work together" around events like natural disasters.

    I would add that we should all strive passionately to support the rights of each other. I think our goal should be more than being tolerant but to actually push for the rights of others as if we are protecting our own beliefs.

    I've read and reread your article and find parts of it offensive. I am somewhere in the middle. Not a humanist and not a devout believer in every word of any specific religion. I think the kind of thing I find offensive is word choices like "supernatural". The logical side of me understands that your word choice is exactly accurate. The part of me that believes in a God of some sort finds the word offensive. In our society supernatural immediately implies something no one believes in, ridiculous or radical. So I think the word choice itself is aggressive and makes me feel that you are attacking my beliefs. I thought it might be helpful for you to know that this word and several other phrases would immediately put off a religious person. This goes against the very point of your article. Bringing together groups with very different views of life.

    Diplomacy (bringing two differing groups together) is very much about word choice. Since we are friends I know your word choice was not intentionally offensive. I thought by offering a slightly religious perspective it might help the greater cause of bringing these two groups together. - Sam

  2. Thanks Sam,

    That's a great point about defending the rights of others. I have often thought that 'tolerance' is a terrible concept because it implies our goal should merely be to 'tolerate' one another, which is a pretty minimal goal to have haha.

    I've never heard of a negative connotation on the word 'supernatural' before, and hadn't suspected that anyone would take offense at it. I've heard preachers in their sermons refer to the supernatural and they're speaking of that which is not merely immanent (existing throughout the universe), but also transcendent (existing beyond it). So, my thought was that people have differing views of the supernatural and those that believe in the supernatural have a positive connotation on the word, while the opposite is the case for those that don't.

    But after seeing your message I'm now aware there could be people that find the word 'supernatural' offensive. I'm not sure what to do about that - how to talk about those things which are claimed to exist outside or beyond the natural universe of atoms and physics. Some might use the word 'spiritual' but I use that word in a very different sense that is fully naturalistic. Hmmm - much to think about - thanks again :)