Editorial
writers break out into a cold sweat when natural disasters strike. And a
tsunami is a nightmare. What can be said to soothe the anguish? What can dull
the shock at this reminder of our fragile purchase on life? Words fray and
crumble. In fact, most major papers avoided the challenge.

News
report from Japan have been so full of clichés that they seem written with an
iPhone app: “tragedy strikes”, “the wrath of Nature”, “utterly unpredictable”, “pouncing
without warning”, and so on and on. It’s understandable; what else can a
reporter say? The Economist dug
out of its archives
a report on the 1923 earthquake and ensuing
fires which flattened Tokyo with a loss of well over 100,000 lives. It began: “Words
very inadequately express the emotions aroused by such a tragedy as that which
has occurred this week in Japan.” It could have been ABC News this weekend.

Just
as The Economist did in 1923, journalists focus on the numbers: How many have
died? How much will it cost to rebuild? How will it affect the stock market?
The additional complication of a possible nuclear meltdown is bad for Japan but
a lucky break for journalists. This twist has inserted human agency into an uncommentable
panorama of simple bad luck. Unlike a tsunami, a malfunctioning power plant is
someone’s fault. You can point fingers and demand explanations. And avert your
eyes, for a while, from thousands of people who died for no seeming reason.

What is
remarkable is how few people are asking the question posed by the Book of Job
3,000 years ago – why does bad stuff happen to good people?

The
Sendai tsunami seems like the paradigm event – in the blink of an eye, to dust
off a cliché, up to 10,000 people may have perished and the local
infrastructure was pulverised. Death seemed to come so randomly – one elderly
man was found floating on the roof of his house 10 miles offshore while his
wife was swept away.

But journalists,
like the rest of us, are schooled never to ask “Why?”, only “How”? “Why” seems
naïve and country-bumpkin-ish. Only children ask Why.

This
is a legacy from the Enlightenment inaugurated by the English philosopher
Francis Bacon. The only causes which can be discussed in a rational fashion, he
argued, are efficient causes where there is discernible physical causality. In
this scheme of things, inquiring about the final cause, ie, the purpose of an
event, makes no sense whatsoever. Stuff happens. Just deal with it.

There
were a few commentators who mentioned the meaning of the tsunami in the past
few days, but they came from the school of Francis Bacon. Writing in Scientific
American, research psychologist Jesse
Bering jeered
at “reality-challenged” fools who invoked God as the
cause of the disaster. “The unthinkable truth”, he says, is “that there is no
answer because there is no riddle, that life is life and that is that”.

Then there
was the mayor of London and former editor of The Spectator, Boris
Johnson
, who advised us to send aid to the freezing Japanese and
stop viewing the rubble as a sign of Gaia’s wrath or God’s justice. “There is
no rhyme or reason to an earthquake, and we should for once abandon our
infantile delusion that we are the cause and maker of everything.”

But sneering
at a question which has created the greatest works of literature in our culture
– the Iliad, Job, Oedipus Rex, King Lear, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Primo Levi… — exposes
an enormous weakness in our post-Enlightenment culture.

Why
can’t we ask Why? It is the most fundamental of questions. It is downright stupid
to dismiss it as an infantile delusion. In university lecture theatres, the
most ancient taboos and our most heartfelt beliefs are being subjected to
corrosive scrutiny. But “Why them?”, the question foremost in our minds when we
look at those appalling videos of a slurry of cars and boats and containers and
drowning people racing over coastal towns, is said to have no answer.

Agnosticism
about natural disasters is dangerous. Eventually people are going to seek
answers. And they will find them in loopy places. The senior pastor of what is
reputedly the largest single Christian congregation in the world, Yoido
Full Gospel Church
, in South Korea, declared
that the tsunami and earthquake were “warnings from God against the Japanese
people’s atheism and materialism”. And a young Christian (or is she?) with a demented
smirk
is exulting on YouTube that God smote the atheists and heathen
in answer to her prayers.

The
problem is that the dead hand of atheism is suppressing a legitimate spirit of
inquiry. Detecting a purpose suggests that there might be a God, which is a kick-sand-in-my-face
assertion nowadays. But isn’t a philosopher who allows you to ask questions
preferable to one who says, with a shrug of his shoulders, “Get over it”? If
asking why so many people died in Japan last week ultimately leads to God, well,
atheists will just have to deal with it.


Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.