As I write this paragraph, it is early September of 2005. Only a few days ago, the city of New Orleans was destroyed by a massive hurricane that breached the levees holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. More than three-quarters of the historic city is underwater, and the water is rapidly becoming a toxic stew as garbage, gasoline, sewage, dead bodies and other contaminants are swept up. Fires rage out of control in the flooded city, inaccessible to fire trucks. Hundreds, possibly thousands of people along the Gulf Coast are dead, and over a million are homeless refugees. The city of Biloxi, Mississippi, was destroyed almost completely by a thirty-foot storm surge that reached miles inland; the state governor compared the damage to the aftermath of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.
But even worse than the initial disaster was the United States government’s response. An inexplicable and inexcusable delay on the part of the federal agencies supposed to manage emergency situations has turned a disaster into a catastrophe. Over the past several days, the world has watched in horror as thousands of people still trapped in the ruins of New Orleans slide inexorably into chaos and anarchy. Deliveries of food and water have been delayed for days, and looters have stripped every business, some seeking to steal valuable goods, others simply searching for the necessities of life. As the government delays still further, armed mobs have begun to take over some areas, and are firing at ambulances and rescue helicopters. There are reliable reports of rapes and murders. Search-and-rescue operations for those still trapped in the city have had to be called off so that police and the National Guard can deal with the looters and mobs; it is highly likely that people trapped in flooded homes have starved or died of thirst as a result. Dead bodies decay in the streets next to emerging shantytowns of the homeless. Evacuation of the refugees has been spotty and ill-coordinated at best, with shelters overwhelmed by the number of people that need to be taken in and with thousands more people scattered and stranded throughout the city apparently overlooked. So far, relief has been agonizingly slow to arrive, only now beginning to trickle in. When all is said and done, this is very likely to be the worst disaster in the history of the United States. It is an open question whether New Orleans and other cities ravaged by the storm will ever be rebuilt.
Certainly, an atheist has no trouble explaining the events of this tragic week. The hurricane came into existence as the result of natural forces governed by well-understood physical laws: air heated by contact with warm seawater rises into the upper atmosphere, creating a center of low pressure that more warmed air rushes in to fill, creating a runaway positive feedback loop. Moisture condensing from the rising air produces clouds; the twisting effect called Coriolis force caused by the rotation of the Earth produces the characteristic spiral shape. Where the giant storm hits shore, the result is high wind, enormous quantities of rain, and massive storm surges. These are all, as best as we can determine, mechanical phenomena that do not take human desires into account. Meanwhile, a combination of governmental incompetence and bureaucratic inertia, as well as extreme poverty on the part of many residents that left them without the means to evacuate in time, multiplied the tragic consequences. Again, there is no obvious reason to suspect that anything other than human factors were at work.
But a theist has a far more serious problem in explaining these events. In addition to the natural forces and human factors which no one disputes, theists also believe in a supernaturally powerful god who was presumably aware of what was going on. If human forecasters knew in advance that the storm’s course would carry it past the city and potentially result in massive disaster, certainly a god would have foreseen this even more clearly. Why, then, would he not have used his power to intervene on our behalf, by dissipating the hurricane or deflecting it harmlessly out to sea?
Self-evidently, neither of those things happened. If there exists a god who had the power to protect us from the hurricane, he failed utterly to do so. And yet, many religious believers do not seem discouraged or disillusioned in the slightest. Governor Kathleen Blanco, for example, declared August 31 to be a day of prayer in Louisiana, asking citizens to pray for the safety of rescue workers and survivors and for the strength to work through this crisis. The irony of this request does not seem to have occurred to her: if God is omnipotent and in control of everything, then she is asking people to pray for God to grant them the strength to survive the disaster which he sent upon them. Similarly, asking God to protect the people still in New Orleans seems an exercise in futility. If God were truly concerned about people’s safety, he would have prevented the storm beforehand. And yet, these calls to prayer continue to spring up after every tragedy like this one. How many disasters must we endure with no sign of tangible aid from God before believers conclude that he is either not there or not interested in helping?
Presented with these incontrovertible facts, the atheist draws the reasonable conclusion that God did not help because God does not exist. However, some theists draw the opposite conclusion: that God did not help because he approved of what was happening. Indeed, possibly the most obscene aspect of this entire tragedy is that some religious believers are actually gloating over it, praising God for the harm and suffering inflicted on the innocent.
Curiously, the people who have done this seem unable to agree on precisely what God chose to smite America for. Some have laid the blame on New Orleans’ acceptance of homosexuality in the form of an annual gay pride parade (but then why did the hurricane also strike states such as Mississippi and Alabama, heavily Christian regions not noted for their tolerance of homosexuality?). Others have accused America of complicity in the Israeli pullout from Gaza, an offense to God who explicitly decreed that the Jews were to possess the entire Middle East (but then why wasn’t it Israel that was struck?). Others have pointed the finger at abortion (but then what about all the children and newborn infants whose lives were lost due to the storm?). Still others have variously blamed the removal of state-sponsored prayer from schools, the “Girls Gone Wild” video series, or America’s opposition to al-Qaeda and fundamentalist Islam. All of these despicable individuals are alike in two ways: their shared belief that God sent the punishment for the particular reason they promote and not others, and that those who cannot see this are willfully blind, and that none of them have a single shred of evidence to support any of their hateful speculations.
Such vile hypothesizing shows the ugly side of theodicy: when one postulates a god who is in control, the inescapable conclusion is that disasters that do happen must be his will. Such beliefs lead to celebration of evil and make a mockery of human compassion by proclaiming that the victims deserved what they got. But since it is mainly fundamentalist Christians who are proposing such explanations, one must wonder what the implications of this theology are for the thousands of Christians who were either left homeless or killed by the storm. Is God so indiscriminate in his punishments that innocent people who happen to be living near the targets of his wrath must suffer also? Were the faithful Christians living in New Orleans, Biloxi and elsewhere hit by friendly fire?
More to the point, God’s retribution seems to suspiciously resemble the ordinary working of natural law. If we are to accept the fundamentalists’ line of reasoning, we would have to believe that the Gulf Coast has been doing something to repeatedly provoke his wrath each summer. Meanwhile, states in less hurricane-prone regions (including Massachusetts, first in the nation to legalize gay marriage which we are told God hates so deeply) seem to get off scot-free year after year. For similar reasons, when God delivers his vengeance in earthquake form, it always seems that the sinners who live along fault lines bear the brunt of it. Natural disasters can be predicted with at least moderate reliability by scientific study of the geologic forces that give rise to them, but they cannot be predicted with any accuracy at all by fundamentalists’ denunciations of the areas they say contain the greatest sin. That these fundamentalists then try to step in afterward and take credit for them only goes to show the bankruptcy of their reasoning.
Though most theists have the human decency not to praise the storm’s effects, many share with the fundamentalists a belief that God could have stopped it if he had wished, which makes their continued belief in him all the more puzzling. Incantations about how God is with us in times of tragedy do nothing to explain why he did not intervene beforehand, when it might have done some good. The inevitable anecdotes about how God saved a few people who might otherwise have died are a slap in the face of those who lost loved ones by implying that God lacked the mercy, the goodness, or the desire to save them as well. And it should be obvious that if an omnipotent and benevolent god wished to teach us the virtues of compassion, community or some other desirable trait, he could have found a way to do it that would not have resulted in the death or displacement of tens of thousands of people and the creation of untold amounts of human misery and suffering. Those theists who credit God for this disaster, repugnant though their views are, at least have an explanation for why God did not divert the storm. Those who continue to insist on his goodness, however, seem to be holding to a theology that is at best highly confused and at worst incoherent.
As Hurricane Katrina showed with such devastating clarity, the problem of evil requires believers to postulate either a compassionate but impotent god who hovers overhead wringing his hands as his children suffer, or a malevolent lunatic who gleefully unleashes destruction on the good and the evil alike. So long as one is not inclined to give up belief in a personal god, there is no other option. But neither of these gods seem very deserving of our worship. One of these positions is inconsistent, while the other is repugnant. As much as most people would like to believe in a merciful, loving god, the very disasters that give us need for such comfort also show that this belief is misplaced. (One Internet blog article discussing the tragedy was titled “God has nothing to do with it”. If God exists, how could he have nothing to do with it?)
What we need now is not prayer, but action. Beseeching imaginary beings to intervene will do nothing but waste time, every moment of which is now precious if we are to salvage what can be salvaged from this disaster. All the prayer in the world will not make the floodwaters recede: to make that happen we must repair the broken levees, restore power to the blacked-out city, start the pumps running again. No amount of imploring higher powers will feed the hungry: to do that we must stockpile vast amounts of food, ship it to the stricken region, and set up kitchens and shelters to distribute it. No number of believers on their knees imploring God will rescue those still trapped in the city: that will only happen if we send helicopters and boats, crewed and piloted by courageous human beings, to pluck the survivors from danger. The rebuilding of New Orleans, if there is to be one, will be achieved by human hands, human work, human labor; angels will not take part in it. This tragedy has shown in the clearest way imaginable that we are on our own, that relying on God to protect us is an invitation for disaster. We must take our destiny into our own hands if we want to prevent something like this from ever happening again.
This is simultaneously the greatest benefit and the worst downside of atheism. This life is not a game, nor a test, nor a dress rehearsal. It is the real thing, and when we do not act, real people pay the penalty. We are not guaranteed a happy ending. There is no final justice written into the laws of the cosmos ensuring that all turns out well in the end. But where religious apologists err is in seeing that fact as an invitation to despair. What it is, instead, is a clarion call urging us to action. It is all up to us – because there is no one else. We must establish justice. We must provide for the welfare of our fellow human beings. We must comfort those who are suffering. We must make right what is wrong. If we do not, no one else will; and that makes it infinitely important that we do so. And while we cannot restore life to the people who have been unjustly deprived of it, we can honor them by vowing to do better the next time. It is not enough – nothing could ever be – but it is something. Let us only hope, for the future’s sake, that humanity does not miss this lesson.