With Australia in general and Victoria in particular hit by their worst natural disaster in recorded history, I find it quite interesting to have a look at people’s reactions to the bushfires. In particular, given my own views, I find it interesting to read what those with a religious worldview make of these events.
Barney Zwartz, The Age’s editor on religious affairs and a person who appears to be a mainstream Christian with much faith in his veins, has summed most of the bushfires’ religion related arguments in an article entitled “Failing to understand the nature of an understanding God”. I would like to use this opportunity to assess the various arguments discussed by Zwartz for their quality, using the same criteria used to assess scientific papers. While those criteria might sound too harsh and too hard to grasp, I can assure you that is not the case; in my opinion, they can be summed up under the banner of “would you buy a used car based on these arguments” set of criteria. For argument's sake, I will accept the assumption of a god with Christian orientations (an assumption most of this world's population would beg to differ with).
Zwartz starts off with criticizing Danny Nalliah, the leader of a fundamentalist Christian group called Catch the Fire. Nalliah claims the fires that hit Victoria, killed two hundred plus, left many more homeless, and in general did several billion dollars worth of damage are the direct result of god’s disappointment with the State of Victoria recent relaxation of its anti abortion legislation. Basically, Nalliah is arguing we have a cause – pro abortion legislation – resulting in an effect – a deadly fire.
I will not say a word about the ethics leading someone to come up with a supposition such as this. What I will say is that the trick with Nalliah’s argument is the rather vague link between the cause and the effect, which Nalliah explains through a dream he’s had. Essentially, Nalliah’s is an argument from revelation, and revelations tend to contradict one another. I’ll explain through an example: I am deeply worried about global warming, its effects, and us not doing anything about it; Let's say that I knocked on your door and told you of my revelation suggesting the deadly fires are god’s punishment for us not doing anything about global warming. Hey, I have just enough evidence on my side as Nalliah does; probably even more, given that under my revelation there is an actual connection between warming and fires. Now, I didn’t really dream this revelation of mine, but I am worried about it night and day!
There is another problem with Nalliah’s argument that is to do with cause and effect. Nalliah seems to have completely ignored the cause for Victoria’s relaxation of its abortion rules: Victorians wouldn’t have relaxed the abortion rules if it wasn’t for god designing them to do so in the first place; god is the reason why Victorians made the choice they have made. Even if you argue that god designed people to have free will, surely you have to admit that god has a strong overall effect on the choices people make. He designs everything around them, what choice do they have?
Given god was in control all along, what reason does god have to punish the people? Nalliah’s failure to distinguish cause from effect nullifies his argument.
Moving down Zwartz’ article, we get to the opinion of Gregor Henderson, the president of the Uniting Church of Australia, a mainstream Christian organization. Henderson says what most people have grown to expect to hear from religious leaders: “God is not punishing the people of Victoria... God is, in fact, there with the people”. I find a couple of problems with Henderson’s words. In fact, they are the exact same problems as before.
First, Henderson’s argument is entirely unverifiable: although what he says is much more comforting and easier to listen to than what Nalliah says, there is absolutely no way for us to verify if what he is saying is true; Henderson is arguing purely from authority.
Second, Henderson’s shares the same cause and effect confusion problem with Nalliah. The same god that is now with the people is the god that caused the fires in the first place, so how can anyone argue that god is not punishing the people of Victoria? As comforting as I find Henderson’s words to be, I actually think Henderson’s god is a worse god than Nalliah’s. With Nalliah you can arrange for a checklist of rules to follow and know that if you do follow them all you should be fine, which is more than a bit of a comfort; the rules might annoy you, but they take all uncertainty away. Henderson’s god, on the other hand, is a god of whims: one minute he bleeds you, the next minute he’s with you (in spirit alone, though); isn’t it just great to know that you can’t even rely on god?
By failing to explain why atrocities happen to those who think themselves good Henderson manages to put religion in the corner. Zwartz jumps in to fill the gap with his own argument: “At a time like this, the role of religion is not explanation; it is consolation.”
What Zwartz is doing is arguing for a special plea in favor of religion. Those who assume there is a compassionate god out there have a problem when bad things happen, so because they cannot explain the problem away they ask us to ignore it altogether on the grounds that while religion may not provide an explanation it does provide comfort.
Indeed, Zwartz concludes his argument by saying “I also know that such thoughts [of religion] have provided comfort through millennia of suffering”. Here, again, we have ourselves an argument that looks at the favorable aspects but ignores the negative ones. It counts the hits but ignores the misses: The very same comfort religion has brought humanity through millennia of suffering was used to justify slavery, the supposed inferiority of women, and to explain to the poor masses why they need to do what their rulers tell them to do regardless of the nasty consequences those orders bring.
In conclusion, it is obvious that none of the arguments brought forth by religion cut the mustard. They all depend on blind faith to support their lack of rationality, but as the various points of view within religion itself prove, there can be many contradictions within faith itself.
I would much rather see a world in which people hit by events such as Victoria’s bushfires start asking questions. If religion doesn’t deliver, if you can’t trust the god that is with you to treat you well, then what good is this god? Forget about him, open your eyes and make sure you do your best to improve this world you’re in.
Another article published in The Age by Kenneth Davidson demonstrates the kind of approach I would like to see. Davidson, with eyes wide open and through a measurable comparison with historical events, argues that Melbourne’s water supplies are now under a severe threat: Even slight rains might wash the fire’s residues as well as the chemicals used to fight it into Melbourne’s water supplies. Unless something is done soon, Melbourne might be forced to take extremely drastic actions to secure drinking water.
So where are our leaders in this time of crisis and what are they doing to address this clear and present danger? Not even a dismissal is coming through; there’s nothing but radio silence coming from their direction.
But hey, yesterday our Prime Minister and the Governor General were in church, attending mass. It’s good to know we’re in safe, reliable hands.