Monday, August 30, 2010

VIEW: Of God, floods, and Lisbon

Sikander Amani

The Lisbon earthquake challenged the general sense of intelligibility of the natural world, as a transparent order that would mirror the moral and social orders. This led to a severance of the links between the physical and the moral paradigms: there are no connections to be found between natural events and moral desert

Human stupidity, sadly, knows no boundary, and natural catastrophes seem, for some reason, to offer a singularly good opportunity for it to emerge in all its glory, with the connivance of the media. The floods, like the 2005 earthquake, have created a spectacular podium for would-be theologians and fake prophets: here they are, sanctimoniously explaining to us all over again that the natural disaster was a consequence of our very deadly sins. 

The floods are a punishment meted out by Allah, they say; although they differ about what grave sin unleashed such harsh treatment. Licentiousness and depravity (whatever that means) rank high among these so-called explanations, but the commonest justification, though, is that we are punished for not having followed their exact version of religion. In other words, we are told that Allah has intervened specially, directly, and dramatically, to punish us for not having listened to His now thunderous representatives. Allah might be great — but not great enough for His motives to be hidden from these men’s omniscient understanding of creation. You humbly thought there were some physical and scientific causes to the disaster, easily explained by meteorology, geology and hydrology; you further thought that human negligence and political corruption played a role in the slow deliquescence of the infrastructure built to prevent such terrible damage. How foolish of you. No, no, it is all because of your ‘sins’.

Such egregious nonsense is scandalous in many respects. Morally, it verges on the inhuman, as the hard-hit, desperate victims become the accused: “You brought it on yourself by behaving in a way which displeases me — oops, I mean Allah,” says the fake prophet from his flood-free pedestal. And so, apart from having to reconstruct not just their livelihoods, but their whole lives, the victims now have to repent, as they are told they are the real culprit. 

In 1755, a devastating earthquake hit Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, creating an intellectual and theological shockwave throughout all of Europe: how could God let this happen? Malagrida, a Jesuit, went around the city after the quake urging victims to drop every other occupation, including saving lives, distributing food or building shelters, and spend six days in prayer and meditation at a Jesuit retreat. He kept ranting on the “true cause” of the earthquake: “It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event, for if that be true, there is no need to repent and to try to avert the wrath of God, and not even the devil himself could invent a false idea more likely to lead us all to irreparable ruin.” Malagrida would be delighted to have acquired such loyal heirs in 21st century Pakistan. 

Theoretically, such type of discourse is very dodgy too: it derives its pseudo-validity from the authority of its author (especially if he threatens and imprecates in a thunderous voice under bushy eyebrows), and certainly not from its truth, which, by definition, can never be ascertained. Indeed, such judgemental statements carefully omit to say that there is obviously no evidence whatsoever, no proof, no element, no fact, scientific or scriptural, nothing, that could establish the causal link that they so readily thump down on us. 

In Karl Popper’s terms, such statements are unfalsifiable, and hence unscientific — you can never prove them wrong, which is also why they are usually preferred, by our self-proclaimed spokesmen of God’s retribution policy, to more rational ways of dialoguing. Essentially, you can establish any cause you want, since no one will ever be able to disprove you. After the Lisbon earthquake, the variety of ‘sins’ attributed as the cause of God’s wrath seemed endless. An English pastor thought it was due to the butchering of “millions of poor Indians” by the Spaniards and the Portuguese in Latin America; others said it was Lisbon’s greed and licentiousness. 

The fact that the disaster struck on November 1, All Saints Day in the Christian tradition, was taken to mean that God was indicating that the saints themselves had begged Him to punish Lisbon for its religious perversions. Others explained the earthquake was God’s reaction to an Inquisition that had grown too lax, while another justified the fact that many churches had collapsed while a street full of brothels had remained standing: it had nothing to do with construction problems, but was due to the fact that God forgives more easily the wretched creatures who frequent such places than those who profane His own house. A natural catastrophe is an ideal occasion for opportunistic preachers to prey on the desperation and shock of victims by inventing a host of imaginary causes (which calls on the very natural human desire to understand why something happens), which only adds to the moral loathsomeness of their position, in addition to its irrationality. Voltaire’s criticism of Leibniz’ theodicy, following the Lisbon earthquake, is famous, as was his rebuke of just such preachers:

“And can you then impute a sinful deed, To babies who on their mothers’ bosoms bleed? Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found, Than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound? Was less debauchery to London known, Where opulence luxurious holds the throne?”, he wrote in his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster.

The Great Lisbon Earthquake, in spite of such opportunistic would-be messengers of God, led to a very important shift in European thinking, because it also quite naturally questioned those who had theorised the immense goodness of God’s creation. Until Lisbon, it was taken for granted that God’s benevolence manifests itself in the system of order and harmony present in the world, just as it was self-evident that Nature as a whole was invested with a general meaning, a Providence. The Lisbon earthquake challenged the general sense of intelligibility of the natural world, as a transparent order that would mirror the moral and social orders. This led to a severance of the links between the physical and the moral paradigms: there are no connections to be found between natural events and moral desert. 

Natural events are just that — natural, meaningless, random. Similarly, it increased the distance between the human and the world, underlining the limits of human understanding — just as it increased the distance between the divine and the human worlds, since God could no longer be theorised to be intervening directly in natural events. In Susan Neiman’s words, “Since Lisbon, natural evils no longer have any seemly relation to moral evils; hence they no longer have any meaning at all” — except perhaps in Pakistan, where natural disasters are still not the objects of attempts at scientific prediction and damage control, but of pseudo-theological interpretations.

There is perhaps a salutary lesson to be learnt from the earthquake that hit Lisbon so many centuries ago. As Pakistan is flooded anew with a stream of fear-mongering, threatening and Quran-thumping preachers whose purpose is to bring the country back to a medieval understanding of religion where science and reason would have no say and where they would rule as kings, Lisbon and the floods should remind us that it is not only futile, but dangerous, to try to find God’s direct imprint in every event. While we may not be able to discern the justice in divine actions and institutions, we can still strive to establish justice in our human ones.

The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at sikander.amani@gmail.com

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