Christopher Hitchens writes on Slate:
On Nov. 1, 1755 — the feast of All Saint’s Day — a terrifying combination of earthquake and tsunami shattered the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon. Numerous major churches were destroyed and many devout worshippers along with them. This cataclysmic event was a spur to two great enterprises: the European Enlightenment and the development of seismology. Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were only some of those who reasoned that no thinkable deity could have desired or ordained the obliteration of Catholic Lisbon, while other thinkers — Immanuel Kant among them — began to inquire into the possible natural causes of such events.
Today, we can clearly identify the “fault” that runs under the Atlantic Ocean and still puts Portugal and other countries at risk, and it took only a few more generations before there was a workable theory of continental drift. We live on a cooling planet with a volcanic interior that is insecurely coated with a thin crust of grinding tectonic plates. Earthquakes and tsunamis are to be expected and can even to some degree be anticipated. 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. The believers should relax; no educated person is going to ask their numerous gods “why” such disasters occur. A fault is not the same as a sin.
However, the believers can resist anything except temptation. Where would they be if such important and frightening things had natural and rational explanations? They want the gods to be blamed. After the titanic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, the Muslims of Indonesia launched a hugely successful campaign to recruit terrified local people to Islamic repentance. Following the more recent Asian tsunami of 2004, religious figures jostled to provide every possible “explanation” of tectonic events in terms of mere human conduct. (It was widely asserted in earlier times that earthquakes were caused by sodomy, yet San Francisco still stands, and when it was last hit in 1906, it was rather more heterosexual than it is now. Hurricane Katrina inundated much of New Orleans but saw fit to spare the immoral French Quarter.)
Read More of Christopher Hitchens’ article on Slate
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