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Haiti, Religion And The Problem Of Evil

03/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

As more than 100,000 bodies of Haitian women, children, and men are interred, the effort to explain this catastrophe goes on. Inevitably, the miraculous hand of God is being credited for the few survivors plucked alive from the rubble.

Speaking to a 21-year-old rescued after 10 days entombment, CBS Correspondent Bill Whittaker prompted the man on the stretcher, "You know your survival is being called a miracle?" (Full disclosure: I served alongside Whittaker in the foreign correspondents corps in Tokyo in the early 1990s.)

Right on cue, the fellow replied, "It's a big miracle!" and went on to describe how he put his survival or death in the hands of God during his ordeal.

Let me say plainly that I don't blame the man either for praying or for regarding his rescue as a miracle. I don't even blame Whittaker for his fatuous question -- it's what TV correspondents have to do if they aspire to be in Katie Couric's chair one day. I don't assume that everyone takes "miracle" talk literally.

But it does dishonor the dead. To presume that God reaches down out of the infinite to keep a few lucky people alive in the midst of catastrophe is to imply his indifference to all the rest. You really cannot have it both ways.

If God takes an active role in human affairs, he must be responsible for the fate of all living beings. "Not a sparrow falls unless God wills it," as preachers are fond of paraphrasing Jesus.

Whole volumes and many doctoral dissertations have been written in the attempt to untangle the puzzle of evil in a world presumed to be under the control of a deity who is all-powerful, all-knowing and benevolent.

The key to the puzzle, most apologists feel, is human misconduct. Some attribute it to the Fall in Eden. Whatever your thoughts on Original Sin, however, it is plainly unjust to bury children under rubble so many generations removed from Adam and Eve. Others attribute evil in the world to present-day human error. This is where apology turns nasty.

Pat Robertson has been roundly and rightly condemned for his remarks, but he is an attention-seeking buffoon. What is really troubling is that mainstream, thoughtful, and truly compassionate religious leaders are slipping into the same mode of explanation. Over the weekend Rabbi Marc Gellman published a generally thoughtful essay about the Haiti earthquake. In the midst of a compassionate essay, he writes:

The earthquake was a morally neutral example of the natural breathing of a living earth. The movement of the earth's tectonic plates caused the quake. Such upheaval is simply a natural phenomenon. Of course, such phenomena can lead to tragedy when we choose to live in fault zones, near active volcanoes, or on the banks of flood-prone rivers. However, these are our choices, not God's, and it's shameful to blame God for our disregard of predictable dangers. We must prepare for natural evil, not merely curse God when it breaks into our lives.

In fairness, I must state that I am unsure whether Rabbi Gellman endorses this view or merely reports it. Regardless, it is far from unique among apologists and cries out for rebuttal.

In the first place, natural disasters have only recently become predictable, thanks to science, and even now the ability to predict is limited. We know that a supervolcano is due to erupt in Wyoming and render much of the Midwest uninhabitable. We don't know whether it will blow tomorrow, in a century, or 100,000 years from now. Should we evacuate now?

I don't think so, but in any event at least we have the privilege to choose. If there is any people on Earth that yearns to relocate, it is the Haitians. To blame them for living where they do is scurrilous. Their ancestors were dragged there as slaves, and modern immigration laws make it very hard for them to leave.

It is not for me -- or anyone else -- to instruct the Haitians how to grieve or how to heal. But for those of us lucky enough to be spared the pain of natural disaster, it is time to quit apologizing for God and face facts.

There is no evidence whatsoever of a moral pattern in nature. Disaster strikes without the least regard for fairness or suffering, and takes no account of whether people in a particular spot have been good, bad, or indifferent.

What should we infer? Most people seem to stuck in a binary mode of thought. Either they must abandon belief in God, or they must embrace traditional theism and assume that the Haitian earthquake and other natural disasters somehow fit into God's overall plan.

This time can be different, however. There are plenty of theologies that take the view that God is not a magical puppetmaster in the sky, pulling strings in every scene that unfolds, and there is plenty of science to justify that view.

Why does it matter? Among many other reasons, there is this: deeply embedded in the view that God's hand lies behind disasters like the Haitian earthquake is the belief that we escaped because we are somehow better beloved of God.

However humbly expressed, such a belief truly dishonors the dead.