An Act of God
by Ron Steelman
It’s been so sad to see the massive suffering caused by what seems to be a recent spate of natural disasters like tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, and tsunamis. The truth is they have been happening every day since the beginning of time. Leaving aside the question as to whether some of our climate change may be caused by us humans, much of the increase in our awareness of natural disasters may be for other reasons. These events are simply more visible to us today because of developing technologies, growing global news networks, and reports from wireless smart phones that can instantly play video on the Internet. However, whether the bad weather and earthquakes are more or less visible is secondary to the understanding of a natural world, a key element of the philosophy of Secular Humanism.
Understanding this won’t mitigate the suffering caused by these tragedies, but it will certainly explain why these events shouldn’t be considered punishments from a vengeful supernatural deity.
The Enlightenment encouraged many philosophers to suggest that supernatural forces need not be considered part of the natural world. As discoveries exploded in the natural sciences – astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth science, physics, atmospheric science, oceanography, and materials sciences – theistic explanations of natural phenomena were left behind along with the flat earth concept. But old superstitions die hard. Some cultural sayings and clichés have taken many generations to finally lose their potency, even though science has disproved them many times over.
One of the most pernicious superstitious beliefs is that everything must happen for a reason. People just don’t know what that reason is. They sincerely hope their personal deity will reveal the reason to them soon. But until then, they’re in the dark. Thus, in the interim their conjecture leads them to all manner of silliness. People grasp at straws. They make things up, hoping to discover an answer. They ask, “Why did this terrible thing happen?” Left to our imaginations we humans can devise some outlandish answers.
A Personal Tragedy
I knew a bright young show business attorney in Los Angeles who was the head of business affairs for a film production company. He saved up for several years for his favorite vintage sports car and finally found one up in Santa Barbara, fully restored. He bought it! On the way back to Los Angeles he was blissfully driving his classic convertible when a car on the other side of the highway crashed into the center divider, flipped up in the air and landed on his side of the road. . .right on top of him. He lasted only a couple of days in the hospital before he died.
At the large funeral, countless people voiced the opinion that “there must be a reason.” Of course we all wanted to make sense somehow out of this terrible tragedy. But then, it got worse. Others, driven by their need for an explanation, said, “Well, this was meant to be,” while others said it had everything to do with the karma of the people in the other car. Really?
It was a random act of circumstance not involving supernaturalism. I am always open to claims of supernaturalism, but I can never get anyone to show me credible proof.
Explaining A Large Natural Disaster
One popular response to a large natural disaster is to blame the victims for some failing or slight against one or another god. That would be like blaming a child for being a victim of sexual abuse, or like blaming the hooker instead of the pimp and the John.
There may be an answer for why natural disasters happen, but waiting for a “revealed” truth and filling in the answer yourself while waiting is to live in the dark ages. A natural disaster is simply a natural disaster. There is no need to assume it happened because of some vindictive god or other. It’s extremely far-fetched to say that victims of a disaster are being punished for doing something bad. The Humanist understanding of the universe requires no supernatural cause. The natural world is the whole of reality. But still, we humans want to make up answers.
The answer is: these natural disasters are random acts of nature. This is life on our planet. There’s no controlling mother nature. There’s no purpose that can be ascribed to these events, except that they are a reaction to something else that has naturally happened on the earth. We may not have the exact scientific answer. It’s actually comforting to me to realize that these events are not aimed at us human beings. If superstitious humans would realize this, it might keep us from being so maniacally egocentric.
“An act of God” is the legal phrase used by many to describe unexplained happenings. It’s a standard part of our legal system. Many contracts have an “act of God” clause
allowing someone to get out of their contract if something happens beyond their
control. We should change that to “a random act of nature” or “a random act of
The following two statements from “HUMANISM AND ITS ASPIRATIONS,” created by the American Humanist Association (www.americanhumanist.org), describe the world view of most Secular Humanists:
1. Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and
rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for
determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies.
2. Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be.
This is why most secular humanists prefer not to be sworn in at court with their hand on a Bible. It is not necessary in a court of law or to demonstrate that one promises to keep an oath. We may legally “attest” that we promise to honor a commitment or swear something is true by “attestation.” This is important to a Humanist because to promise that something is true by swearing on a Bible, a book about the supernatural, would mean nothing to us.
One thing we can say about us humans is that natural disasters do bring out the best in people as they try to rescue and help their neighbors. That is a good thing. In conclusion, here’s a thought from Robert Brault: “Name the season’s first hurricane Zelda and fool Mother Nature into calling it a year.”
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