Underlying all earthquakes is the idea of Fault," says a character in Salman Rushdie's novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which begins with an earthquake that kills the female protagonist, and then jumps back to trace her life from beginning to end. Rushdie is a master story-teller who wonderfully describes the search all people face to answer the difficult question: Why did this happen?
For over a week people in Haiti have been asking that question. Death toll estimates are as high as 200,000, and that number will grow as a more accurate picture of the disaster takes shape. Such atrocities are hard to reconcile with beliefs.
As a matter of fact, we know the reason that the earthquake occurred near Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. Christopher Hitchens, who also happens to be Rushdie's friend, puts it well: "It's idiotic to ask whose fault it is. The Earth's thin shell was quaking and cracking millions of years before human sinners evolved, and it will still be wrenched and convulsed long after we are gone. These geological dislocations have no human-behavioral cause."
We need not worry about the reasons for an earthquake's occurrence; we should be spending our time helping those affected by the disaster, and begin to explore if there are ways that we can understand earthquakes better, increasing the accuracy of our predictions. Although the "why" question may be benign, the answers that some religious dogmatists are giving to it are purely wicked.
Pat Robertson has made news recently for his idiotic diatribe, propounding that a voodoo ceremony in Haiti 200 years ago was the catalyst for the recent earthquake. National Post writer Charles Lewis calls this response "strangely comforting because at least it 'explains' what is going on." What's incredible is that people like Robertson aren't on the fringe of society; the channel that aired the devil pact quip, the Christian Broadcasting Network, is seen in 180 countries. Lewis is entirely too soft about Robertson's opinion, taking it as one of the many possible explanations people might want to hear. Meanwhile religious leaders of all stripes have been lining up to denounce Robertson, stating that his view is inconsiderate and theologically unsound -- whatever that means.
Robertson's fatuity is unique for it's degree, but it isn't a difference in kind. Elsewhere people are preaching the necessity of faith in trying times, trusting that God will make sense of the disaster he allowed, and thereby provide hope. In Lewis' article he cites Father Okoye's view that "the workings of the universe are beyond human comprehension." This is obviously true, but whereas theology is content with that conclusion, science and philosophy have treated it as the beginning of exploring the limits of that comprehension. (Of course, the universe's workings are not so incomprehensible as they once were, and we don't have religion to thank for that advancement.)
Surely, you might say, in spite of the doubt surrounding its truth value, religion still has an important role to play in providing aid to Haitians. Yes, many religious groups have no doubt done good humanitarian work. Hitchens points out, however, that no good deed exists that a person of faith can do that a nonbeliever can't. So regardless of your metaphysical persuasions, there's no reason why you shouldn't contribute to the plight of those in need.
Many people in other parts of the world -- in particular Africa, where the AIDS policy of the Catholic Church has shown the harms that can come from fallacious beliefs -- have needs that are just as great, but have existed far longer. The plight of Haiti is certainly deserving, but we should be contributing just as much aid, only more frequently than we currently do, to other parts of the world.