Calling the Japan Earthquake “Divine Retribution” is Bad for Science and Bad for Theology

Alan Kafka
Weston Observatory
Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Boston College

After the magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Japan, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara commented that the earthquake was “divine retribution” for Japanese egoism. If this kind of response to a natural disaster was just an isolated incident, there would be no reason for me to be writing about it. Unfortunately, however, I am quite often told some variation of this divine retribution story after a tragic earthquake has occurred. My “favorite” response came after I gave a lecture on the great Sumatra earthquake and tsunami of 2004. According to one woman in the audience, since the mainshock occurred the day after Christmas and the largest aftershock occurred the day after Easter, it’s obvious that the reason for this tragedy is that God is punishing us for our sins!

I find this kind of thinking to be very disturbing for two reasons: It diverts attention from what science actually can do to help mitigate the tragic effects of earthquakes, and it is also bad theology.

I would hardly claim to be an authority on matters of the theological realm (for discussion of those types of matters, see Rabbi Kafka’s blog), but this one seems theologically simple enough that even I can see the logical flaw: What would be the point of any deity (or natural/spiritual force of the universe) killing thousands of innocent people to punish “us” for our sins or to teach people a lesson about egoism? It is hard for me to imagine a worse view of life than to think that innocent people in Japan were killed to teach them (or “us”) the right and moral way to live. I sure hope that is not the way our world works!

There is plenty of thoughtful and fascinating philosophy and theology written on the question of why innocent people suffer from tragedies that have no apparent meaning. As seismologists involved in the study of events that are sometimes very tragic, I think it is valuable for us to ponder such imponderable questions, if only to sensitize us to the tragedy a world away from the fascinating and scientifically interesting seismograms we record. But, simplistic answers to such deep questions don’t help anybody.

I guess I should be pleased that Shintaro Ishihara publicly apologized for his outrageous comment, but unfortunately I don’t find his apology to be very comforting. I find that this disturbing kind of naïve understanding of the relationship between science and spirit is all too alive and well in our culture.

I think it is better for us to respond to natural disasters by devoting some energy to increasing our understanding of the causes of earthquakes, improving seismic hazard mapping, building more seismically resistant buildings, and developing better emergency management plans, than to blame the tragedy on some bizarre theological cause. Using science to investigate the causes of earthquakes and to help mitigate their effects is (regardless of any particular theology) positive action that leads to making people safer from the devastating effects of earthquakes.

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