Why does God allow earthquakes? … speaking on the BBC’s Moral Maze
“Combative provocative, engaging live debate” is how the BBC describes it.
I was delighted to be on Radio 4’s Moral Maze on: Why did God allow the Turkey earthquake? It went out live on Wednesday night, and is now on BBC Sounds.
If this is new to you, each week, the Moral Maze considers the ethics around a topical news story. There is a panel made up of four people of different faith and no faith, This panel “calls in expert witnesses”, or, in my case, someone who might have something to add anyway!
I was called as a “witness for the defence” (of God as it turned out). Witnesses are grilled for 7 minutes, alone, and then leave. Witnesses answer direct questions from the panel so it’s not easy to crowbar in what you really came to say! As well as myself, the witnesses consisted of a Muslim scholar and two distinguished atheist professors.
Combative? Well it was VERY lively but, to be fair, there were many smiles and it’s all done in a spirit of good discussion!
The program begins around 2m in. If you have time it’s well worth hearing the whole thing. My bit begins around the 21m mark:
Listen to The Moral Maze on BBC Sounds
What do you say to that? …
First, to state the obvious, with 45,000 people killed and rising, there can never be an adequate response for them or their families or the millions now homeless. There is no “answer” for them. We pray for some comfort in this and we should be moved into giving aid. But the problem of suffering is not one for glib comments.
Having stated the obvious, here are a few of my thoughts on the questioning of the other 3 witnesses.
Dr Ramon Harvey, Muslim scholar and lecturer
We anchor into the idea of God’s wisdom, (Dr Harvey)
In response to “why did God allow this” Dr Harvey spoke mainly about the wisdom of God, which seems a strange place to start this discussion, and an unfortunate choice of words, with so many in despair. It was met with a robust response:
What is the wisdom of a 5‑year old being crushed to death by a concrete block? What are they supposed to learn? (Ash Sarkar, Novara Media)
But, his point “ultimately we can’t know”, was honest.
Dr Harvey also spoke of finding virtue in bad situations. Again, I would agree, but again I might choose different wording: God doesn’t cause suffering (it’s a fact of our world being damaged), and yet he may bring good from suffering in the form of courage, persistence, endurance and so forth. And (also again) these thoughts are not appropriate to people in the midst of suffering.
Prof Louise Anthony – professor of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts
Hope in God is massively irrational, (Prof Anthony)
There was a surprising to and fro here between Prof Anthony and the panel member Giles Fraser, Anglican priest.
Prof Anthony criticised the idea of how anyone could believe in an omnipotent God who allows such tragedies. In response, Giles Fraser repeatedly questioned the premise that “God is omnipotent”. (Yeah that is odd for a Christian Minister).
What is it about a man hanging on a cross that you think is omnipotent? (Giles Fraser, Anglican Priest)
His point was that “the central images of the Christian faith are of powerlessness not powerfulness”, referring to the manger and the cross. He could have explained that, or even gone on to say this conflict of vulnerability and omnipotence lies at the heart of Jesus being man and God. So, this is not “omnipotence” in a Zeus or Apollo style – an angry man throwing lightning bolts around. Rather, this is the all-powerful yet all-vulnerable image of Christ.
But he didn’t say any of those things, so Michael Buerk’s comment, “you seem to have re-invented part of Christianity”, was appropriate.
Susan Blackmore Visiting Prof of Psychology, Plymouth University
The most religious countries in the world are the least happy, (Prof Blackmore)
Prod Blackmore’s statement that the most religious countries in the world are less happy than non-religious is very misleading. The reason for this is that those countries are almost all developing nations. To compare developing countries with happiness measures in secular Scandinavia is absurd.
There have indeed been many surveys on happiness and well-being including the annual UN report of World Happiness. But going beneath the surface, these surveys point to religious people being happier, healthier, more resistant to depression and, even, living longer lives. Religion provides a framework for people and enables communities to thrive. So, church communities, for example, are an infrastructure that believers lean on in times of trouble.
it’s in spite of evil and suffering that we believe in God – so what keeps people feeling that faith is important? (Mona Siddiqui, Prof of Islamic Studies, Edinburgh University)
Furthermore, in situations of suffering, religiously minded people actually give more. They give more money and more time to charities, (including secular charities) than secular-minded people.
Why is that? Of course, there are millions of incredibly generous atheists and agnostics. However, faith-based people, overall, give substantially more. Firstly, because every major religion inspires us to love your neighbour (or do unto others as you would have them do unto you). Secondly, faith groups are already tooled-up with the organisation needed to give, from physical premises and community links, to bank accounts and gift aid forms.
I wrote more on this in Can atheism deliver a better world? (spoiler alert- the answer is “no”). And an interesting final comment from Ann Mcelvoy:
To be a believer is to invite more discomfort and tension than to be a non-believer …. It’s much easier not to engage, (Ann Mcelvoy, Politico)
I hope you enjoy the show half as much as I enjoyed taking part!
If you enjoyed this post, try reading Why does God allow bad things to happen?
You did well — very tricky environment and topic. For what it’s worth, my approach is closer to Giles on this (not always!), but I express it not in terms of powerlessness but God’s awesome weakness — because, in our terms, it is not power as normally conceived, but, like Love, is a non-imposing and therefore weak-looking kind of force but still awesome. Like chaos theory.
Graham Adams Thx Graham, !awesome weakness” — what a well purposed phrase! I shall try to remember it!
thanks! More of it in #HolyAnarchy!
Someone asked this on Quora. I said climate change does contribute to earthquakes. Also their are building violations done 131 notices were sent out. When we see the footage of the earthquake we can see that. Also people who are disabled like Joni don’t say why just still trust him
We certainly have a lot to answer for when it comes to messing up the climate Marilyn — not sure how that relates to earthquakes though …
Hi Chris, Heather and I listened with great interest to the above debate and we both thought your comments to a particular difficult subject was superb.
Just heard it Chris. You smashed it! I know it’s not a competition, and I know I’m probably biased, but I thought you were by far the best witness 😊
Well done Chris.
Thought the humanism ‘shrug’ to it all was telling. I praise God for His, from the womb to the tomb journey of His Son and the hope I have in Christ the risen saviour.
I thought your contribution was excellent but I’m less sure about Giles Fraser’s views on the omnipotence of God..
Yes — Giles’ comments are addressed a few times in these comments Martin — thx!
I listened last night Chris. As you say, a challenging and thought-provoking programme. You were very good — quick, sharp and sensible (glad you declined to try and give proofs for God in less than 2 minutes!!).
I thought Giles Fraser raised an interesting point about the powerlessness of the cross and cradle images but was a bit disingenuous to suggest Christianity didn’t have an image of an omnipotent God.
On the face of it Giles’ comment was a bit bonkers, but I think his aim was to challenge the idea of “brute omnipotent” that the Prof put forward. in that case, he certainly achieved that — pulled the rug out if you ask me!
He’s a little off the wall but — Giles does more good than harm 🙂
I do too — i like him a lot. He challenges thinking which I like.
I also share your thoughts about the claim that Scandinavians are happier because they have no religion. The witness said she recognised that a causal claim couldn’t be made then went on to claim it. I get fed up with the tired old tropes of religion causing all the bad in the world, with no reference at all to the atrocities of secular dictators.
Well done for Moral Maze Chris. Great job on an impossible topic. One I really wrestle with along with I suspect most of humanity. Omnipotence and omnibenevolence hand in hand with suffering hard to square. Guess that’s why it’s called faith…
Yeah not a new question as you point out but still an “impossible one”. However despite the impossibility of “providing an answer” (there isn’t one) I think there is a lot we can say that helps.
Maybe we just scratched te surface of it on this programme 🙂
Great debate and hugely interesting
Thanks Chris. Very interesting. I think you are very brave to agree to be in a live on-air programme like that. I thought that the three of you coming from a standpoint of faith made some really good coherent points. I couldn’t say the same about those coming from a humanistic atheistic standpoint. The psychologist had gone against the thinking of dear old Sigmund Freud, who, in his little book The Future of an Illusion said that whilst he didn’t believe in God that religious faith could be very therapeutic and that he would not want to undermine it because… Read more »
I think we didnt get o to the benefits of faith in these situations — in providing a rich treasure of psams of lament or offering prayer or indeed the fact that faith communities have huge resilience
My demotion was long overdue 🙂
You commented that a lot of the contributions were of little help to those suffering injuries & loss. I suppose that as a Baptist minister you come to the issue speaking from a pastoral perspective, as was the Roman Catholic priest whereas the academics were generally coming from a sterile philosophical perspective. I think you answered the question in an indirect way when you asked whose fault would it be if the means of preventing the destruction of property & loss of life was known & nothing was done about it. This was the situation in Turkey. 40 years ago a… Read more »
As a semi-regular listener to the Moral Maze I was pleasantly surprised
when you appeared this week! A difficult topic (as they all are) and I
certainly valued your contribution. I’m a big believer that we need to
engage with ‘real world’ issues head on if we want to demonstrate the
relevance of our faith.
Wow great job!
Thanks for letting us know you were on. Thought you came across really well, and it was great to hear you.
Hopefully just the beginning of more media opportunities…? It’s been a good week for you, as I understand you’ve also landed the cover story on the UK’s leading Christian magazine too.….. 😉
Well done Chris. I admire your willingness to expose yourself like this.
I gave up listening to the moral maze a while ago because I find it too pompous. Their panel members don’t really listen to what’s being said and maintain their own prejudices regardless. Michael Burke seemed to alter the question according to his own prejudice before you started which must have been confusing.
But your attempts to answer their questions were very good. I thought the first witness (Moslem) got completely lost and shows how shallow much of Islam really is. The professor was even worse