The earth rumbles, and you can bet that a lot of people will start praying. Among the prayerful will be a number who harbor a belief that the earthquake is a message from God, most likely a call to repentance — a warning to a sinful people to “get right” with God before it’s “too late”. (That’s what the lady I heard interviewed on the radio today said regarding the most recent “East Coast” earthquake).
Somewhere far down on the list of possible explanations for the tremors, humans will find the real one: the rather well-established fact that we live on a cooling planet. Earthquakes are natural phenomenon that happen all the time in all sorts of places. Some places suffer tremendous damage because of their geology, which can amplify the power of shifting chunks of the earth’s crust. Others shake less destructively, again due to their local geology. When an earthquake occurs in an economically prosperous region, the damage is sometimes less because the buildings are built with better materials, inspected by fairly trustworthy inspectors, and not overcrowded. When it hits Haiti or China or Iran, well, the destruction can be terrible.
Nowhere in that equation is there any need for involving external mysterious sources for natural phenomenon. Yet we do. Consistently. Incessantly. Never stopping for a moment to consider that the intelligent being that is supposed to be the source of all existence and knowledge consistently chooses to communicate to sinful individuals with massive natural disasters that, for all of their fury and destructive attention-grabbing force, are mute, unintelligible and dreadfully ambiguous examples of effective God-to-man conversation. (God is love. It’s your sin that made the tornado hit your house. It’s God’s mercy that spared your cat — a miracle of divine selection that ignored a few hundred other people in the tornado’s/hurricane’s path, such as when God’s guiding hand brought that jetliner down safely in the “Miracle on the Hudson”, while a week later another jet went down with all hands).
I hold that our response to natural events reveals a great deal about how we humans make sense of the world, and nothing about the character or reality of God.
This is the heart of what science has long said about the existence of God: He may or may not exist, but his existence is not needed to fill in any missing piece of the natural explanation of natural phenomenon. (I’m one of those takes the view that if God is no longer necessary, then what is the point of keeping him around?)
Religion is a complex thing, as complex as the organisms that practice it. I would like to dismiss it as a primitive habit that we would be better off to have never picked up in the first place. I can point to the colorful tales of Nordic mythology as far better (and more interesting) morality tales then any that came out of the monotheistic Middle East. But to be fair, the conflict between Christianity and Viking heathenism was less the brutal imposition of monotheism (that I long thought it to be) than it was a classic evolutionary battle between an earlier form of belief and a newer, more highly evolved religion. Christianity was the exotic new species that shoved out the old one. (As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, ideas evolve too).
The mistake people make is in assuming that one religion beats out another because it is somehow closer to some sort of ultimate truth. But in many ways, the Viking world (to continue with that example) was probably ready for a change. The world, after all, was changing. Societies were evolving, the idea of nationhood was forming in Western Europe. There were lots of reasons why a new religion could displace a less organized older one. But, again, that explanation ranks right there with actual geology for making sense of an earthquake when the more “spiritual” rationale is much quicker to seize our attention.
Which brings me to a problem with criticizing any particular religion. It’s a tricky thing. Because it’s not a “thing” at all, but a behavior that is shared by many individuals, each in their own particular manner, yet related by a certain category of generally shared tenets and behaviors. But there is no living organism or corporate headquarters for Christianity or Islam. There’s no building to picket, no store to boycott. Religions exist, yes, but as ideas that anyone can participate in. (Sure there are the evangelists who feed and water irrational belief for their own (mostly commercial) ends, but even they are not the source. They are freelance master manipulators of the human brain, trying to make a buck the best they can).
This is hardly satisfying. It would be so much easier to attack irrational belief if there were some central plant that was sending out belief through a grid system like an electric plant. That way we could shut down the source, and that would be the end of it. But belief is a human phenomenon, a by-product of consciousness, a capacity latent in most human brains only awaiting an external trigger to come to life. Belief begins in our own brains. So irrational belief must be confronted one brain at a time. But even if there is no actual God, we are still stuck with dealing with the believer who thinks that there is and, therefore, remains many mental miles away from understanding that the source of his or her belief rests very much between his or her own ears.
And so I come to agree with Christopher Hitchens when he says that we will never eliminate religion. And maybe Christianity did bring some benefits to the heathen Vikings a thousand years ago. Perhaps it was a step up from their earlier beliefs, even if the religious violence that became the new norm was only slightly less violent than that which preceded it.
The earth rumbles and dissipates the pressure built up from the incessant migration of its crust, shaking itself off to make room for the new rock being formed deep in the oceans. And so we humans convulse from time to time, shaking off old beliefs and accepting new ones. Perhaps Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” was such an intellectual earthquake, and we are still feeling the aftershocks of its publication. The unraveling of the human genome, the discovery of the age of the universe and the blossoming field of neuroscience have all been recent shake-ups of old ideas.
Unfortunately, most humans feel the rumble of these earth-shaking discoveries and look skyward for the meaning that rests, in plain sight, right here on earth.