Oct 2010 - Bad Vibrations

Science Heresy - October 2010

The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

Natural Disasters and the Religious Impulse

Why do people see the Hand of God in Great Calamities?

At 9:40am on All Saints Day, Sunday 1st November, 1755, the Portuguese capital was struck by a devastating earthquake. It was a religious holiday and many were at Mass. Witnesses spoke of “a strange and frightful noise underground, like the distant rumbling of thunder.”

Lisbon’s great cathedrals - Basilica de Santa Maria, Sao Vincent de Fora, Sao Paulo, Santa Catarina and Misericordia – all collapsed on worshippers. Fire destroyed what remained of its magnificent museums and libraries, with their priceless archives, tapestries and books.

An estimated 15,000 were killed instantly, with a similar number of fatal injuries. Lisbon’s total death toll was about 90,000, forty per cent of its population. Another 10,000 were killed in Morocco and Algeria.

Why had God chosen so Catholic a city, so holy a festival and a time when most of the faithful were at church? Why did he spare the houses - and lives - of enemies of the Jesuits? If the earthquake was punishment for vices that reputedly flourished in the city, why were its effects felt in Morocco and as far west as the Azores?

When news of the event reached England two weeks later, the nation was so convinced it was a sign of God’s anger against sinful humankind George II proclaimed 6th February, 1756, a fast day. There were many acts of contrition and repentance throughout Europe.

Belief in the sin-earthquake nexus has persisted, despite the scientific revolution. Fast forward two and a half centuries to another time, place and faith – early twenty-first century Iran. The worst earthquake in the country’s history (magnitude 6.6) destroyed the southern city of Bam in Kerman province, south-eastern Iran, at 5.26am local time on Friday, 26th December, 2003. It killed 26,271 people, a quarter of the population, and injured an additional 30,000.

According to seismologists, this tragic event – and many others - was caused by tectonic stresses generated by the colliding Arabian and Eurasian continental plates. Senior cleric, Ayatollah Kazem Sedighi, however, suggested something else to worshippers in Tehran on 17th April this year.

"Many women dress inappropriately. They cause youths to go astray, taint their chastity and incite extramarital sex in society, which increases earthquakes. Calamities are the result of people's deeds," reported the reformist Aftab-e Yazd newspaper. Only by conforming to Islam could the country “ward off such dangers.”

The Ayatollah was not alone. In a 2001 sermon US Methodist, Reverend Anne Bracket, asked: Where would a Just God be if not in the Earthquake? “The God of the earthquake and the God who calls us to repentance cry out to have meaning. Why read the Wesley sermons and hymns except that we too hear the call to right worship? We hear the call to repentance, the call to live justly, the call to be awake.”

Bracket’s question for the faithful was: “Are we in the earthquake? Yes, as those called by God we must be in the earthquake, or the famine, or the places of injustice in our world. We are in the earthquake not as the cause, but as agents for redemption of God’s creation. We are a people who long for fairness. We want sinners punished, we want the righteous rewarded. We call out to God to execute justice. Why are we not using the earthquake and the flood and the famine as opportunities for redemption? We are in the earthquake with our God, whether we want to be there or not.”

Today, fear of human-induced global warming has displaced fear of earthquakes. Many of the faithful seek opportunities for redemption in this new threat, despite an apparent increase of only 0.6 degrees Centigrade (+/- 0.20 degrees Centigrade) in the Earth’s average temperature during last century. They are now in “dangerous” climate change with their God.

If a religion is a set of beliefs and rituals by which we order our lives, generally under the gaze of a higher power, then environmentalism is a secular religion. It preaches the sanctity of air, water, earth and so on. It promotes concern about changes in the natural world, especially those caused by our presence. It has priests and prophets devoted to ‘protecting the planet’ in the name of Gaia, as well as its rituals and sacred ceremonies.

No wonder, then, there seems little difference psychologically between the rationale for Earth Day and George II’s Fast Day of 6th February, 1756; or that the faithful today continue to believe God is revealing His purpose. For them, He is encouraging humankind to repent and embrace the Gospel of Global Warming before it is too late. Where would a just God be if not in earthquakes and climate change? Where, indeed?

"Bad Vibrations", a more comprehensive article by Michael Kile can be found here

Image Copyright 2010 by Andrew Alden, geology.about.com, reproduced under educational fair use. (http://geology.about.com/library/bl/bllisbon1755eq.htm)

Text Copyright 2010 Michael Kile

October 2010