Sharon Stone’s comment about how the tragic earthquake in Sichuan, China was the result of “bad karma” (because of how the Chinese are treating the Tibetans) is already old news. And 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 bad karma 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 three reasons: It is bad theology, it diverts attention from what science actually can do to help mitigate the tragic effects of earthquakes, and it is, in itself, the essence of bad karma.
I would hardly claim to be an authority on matters of the theological realm, 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? It is hard for me to imagine a worse view of life than to think that innocent children in a school in China were killed to teach the Chinese government the right and moral way to treat the Tibetans. 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 great seismograms we record. But, simplistic answers to such deep questions don’t help anybody.
I guess I should be pleased that Sharon Stone publicly apologized for her outrageous comment, but unfortunately I don’t find her 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.
And, why do I say that calling it bad karma is, in itself, bad karma? While I do not believe in a deity who keeps score of our actions and punishes us when our score is too low, I do think that what some people call “the law of karma” is a reasonable way to think about the effects of our actions. Call it what you want, but actions do have consequences. 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 “good karma” – it is positive action that leads to making people safer from the devastating effects of earthquakes.