Richard Dawkins, the grand ayatollah of English atheism, has written a couple of letters to the Guardian which interpret the Indian ocean tsunami disaster around his personal value system. While he is a more presentable salesman of values than the homophobic pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, he is emotionally vested in his own beliefs, illogical about the lessons of the disaster, and ruthlessly determined to build his story on the bodies of the dead.
On December 30, 2004 he said that science is better than religion because plate tectonics explain “why” the disaster happened. In the same letter he complained that the money spent on churches could have paid for scientific research and an Indian ocean early warning system for tsunamis. His conclusion, in the finest tradition of British atheism:
Let’s get up off our knees, stop cringing before bogeymen and virtual fathers, face reality, and help science to do something constructive about human suffering.
On January 1, 2005 he was back for more. This time, he was trying to be compassionate and philosophical. He said:
It is psychologically possible to derive comfort from sincere belief in a nonexistent illusion, but – silly me – I thought believers might be disillusioned with an omnipotent being who had just drowned 125,000 innocent people (or an omniscient one who failed to warn them). Of course, if you can derive comfort from such a monster, I would not wish to deprive you. My naive guess was that believers might be feeling more inclined to curse their god than pray to him, and maybe there’s some dark comfort in that.
Science does not tell us why so many people perished in this way at this time. Science can tell us how earthquakes and tsunamis happen, and it might provide a warning or might not, not that a warning could have done much in the impoverished coastal villages. He complains about the money given to churches, without looking at the fact that the churches – speaking of all religions – have done more than all governments for the relief of poverty, even in this century. He identifies money spent on churches as wasted, without looking at the money spent on entertainment, paranoid military defence, bureaucracy, and bad science. He attacks primitive magical ideas of religion, without addressing the rich spiritual traditions of the world religions. He offers us the hope that new technology will hold chaos at bay – talk about hopeful dreaming.
The disaster has nothing to do with religion. Religion tries to find meaning in life in our individual and collective wonder at being alive and intelligent, even while we know we are at the mercy of a chaotic universe. The disaster challenges some human ideas about God by proving – as if this was news to anyone – that God is not a magical superhero who protects humans from injury and death.
Religion, far more than science, has shaped a compassionate world culture that is responding to the disaster. Science and technology allow us to respond better, but that doesn’t make us better human beings.