Natural Disasters

December 30, 2003 | 12 comments
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John P. Pratt’s recent column at Meridian sent me reeling. (Thanks to Brent for the pointer.) While Pratt tries not to overstate his thesis, the gist of the column is that God (sometimes?) punishes local populations for their wickedness by inflicting natural disasters. The Old Testament is replete with such occurrences, but as regular patrons of this blog know, my understanding is that many (perhaps most) of these stories are metaphorical. Even if you disagree with me about that, I hope that we can agree that Pratt’s analysis is sadly deficient.

Pratt’s thesis seems rather milquetoasty (yes, that is a word … look it up): he hypothesizes that “sometimes natural disasters do result from either God punishing us for sin, or at least withholding blessings because we have failed to obey his laws,” and he suggests that rigorous study of a possible connection is called for. Of course, such a study would be impossible (for reasons that should become clear below, if they aren’t already clear to you). Consider Pratt’s potential examples of divine intervention:

* “[O]n June 7, 1998, some Florida newspapers reported the beginning of a huge wild fire in that state and also applauded the successful Gay Day celebration at Disney World, both having occurred on the previous day.”

* “[O]n Oct. 17, 1989, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake hit San Francisco during a Pro Abortion Rally.”

* “On June 28, 1992, southern California experienced a very strong earthquake on ‘Gay Pride Day.'”

* “One such example was Hurricane Opal (1995). It had been classified as a mere category 2 hurricane, which the residents of Florida could easily prepare for. On Oct. 2, 1995 there was a pro-abortion ruling from the Supreme Court. Suddenly, and without any advance warning, the storm increased overnight into a devastating category 5 hurricane. Moreover, it made a sharp turn and headed straight for Florida.” (Just curious: why is it that the people of Florida are punished for the supposed misdeeds of the U.S. Supreme Court, which sits in Washington D.C.?)

No, I am not making this up!

Pratt asserts that the Lord “expects us to understand his message and to repent,” so let’s give this a try. The column appears to have been written prior to the recent earthquake in Iran. What is the message that we are to take away from that?

The problem with Pratt’s reasoning should be obvious: correlation is not the same as causation. How many other things were happening on October 2, 1995, besides the issuance of a “pro-abortion ruling from the Supreme Court”? Why didn’t any of those things cause Hurricane Opal? The fact is that drawing causal lessons from natural disasters is exceedingly tricky business. Nigh unto impossible, in my view. (I leave open the slim possibility of prophetic guidance in some circumstances.)

If I am right about all of this, then what are we to make of scriptural prophecies about the “signs of the times”? It seems to me that we can accept the notion that “there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places” (Matthew 24:7) without attempting to pin the blame on one particular group or event. The ship may be listing, but we cannot ask Hollom to jump overboard.

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12 Responses to Natural Disasters

  1. Clark Goble on December 30, 2003 at 4:45 am

    While I don’t think much of John Pratt’s writings, to say that all stories of natural disasters are metaphoric seems a bit hard to accept. I mean do we *really* want to say that the destructions of 3 Nephi are metaphoric? Something can have a metaphoric play while simultaneously holding some degree of historic truth.

    Now we may disagree over how universal the flood is, for example. I tend to favor the local view of Bill Hamblin. When combined with Joseph’s comments about Noah being around the Carolinas, I can accept that the events were a hurricane.

    So we ought to be careful not to say everything is metaphoric. I can have real events in my life which take a larger role into allegory, metaphor, or become archtypal. (i.e. a car crash or something similar) Metaphor is a natural human activity that we engage in as we try to understand the meaning of anything.

    While I think we have to accept that God uses natural means to punish people, I think we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of Job’s accusers. Just because God punishes it doesn’t follow that all who suffer, suffer because of punishment from God.

    Now I certainly am willing to accept that people sometimes read too much into events. We all know people who don’t simply recognize the hand of God in all things, they go about defining exactly what that hand was doing and why. So there is danger. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  2. Kristine on December 30, 2003 at 10:06 am

    Clark, I think you’re entirely too kind. Pratt’s column is logically indefensible (in such a painfully obvious way that it hardly merits comment) and morally repugnant. Bracketing for a moment my alarm at the fact that someone with such apparent longing for pre-scientific explanations of natural phenomena could earn a Ph.D. in the natural sciences (!), let’s just deal with a Mormon Christian’s apparent longing to return to pre-Christian moral reasoning. The Sermon on the Mount it very plain that the rain falls on the just and the unjust and specifically and unequivocally enjoins us from the kinds of judgment Pratt so recklessly indulges in. Moreover, in the case of the blind man in John 9, Christ plainly rejects the notion that human suffering results predictably from sinful conduct.
    Far more reasonable, and I think, more consonant with Mormon doctrine (small d–not McConkie’s :) ) is a belief that God created a universe that functions within the realm of natural laws, some of which are discernible to human beings, some less so. Human suffering results from the violation of moral laws not because God wishes people to suffer, but because that is a natural and immutable consequence of such behavior. Natural disasters result from the operation of natural laws which are in some cases understood and manipulated by human beings and in some cases not well understood or easily manipulated. There was an earthquake in Iran this week because that country has the misfortune of sitting over a fault line, not because there were any pro-choice or pro-gay-rights marches there (!) We ought to be busy figuring out how many tons of clothing, blankets we can send and how to get them there quickly instead of musing on what caused the !@#&*$@! earthquake. Ferhevinssake!

  3. Brent on December 30, 2003 at 10:17 am

    I remember reading the transcript of a talk by President Kimball he gave at a regional conference in the South. The South at the time was suffering from a drought, and President Kimball told the church members the drought was the result of not keeping the sabbath day holy. Now, I am not saying there is a direct correlation, but it is interesting to at least ponder whether scriptural pronouncements about the signs of the times, including natural disasters, are being fulfilled.

  4. Brent on December 30, 2003 at 10:19 am

    Oh, also, I agree, Gordon, it would be impossible to actually conduct the type of study that Dr. Pratt proposes. There are so many good and bad events taking place daily, I do not believe any clear correlation could ever be shown.

  5. Kristine on December 30, 2003 at 10:54 am

    Brent, I think what you point to in your comment about President Kimball’s talk is the most vexing problem for someone like me who is more or less inclined to the “clockmaker” view of how God works in the universe. It is clear from the scriptures and from modern examples that prophets have taught that increased righteousness can bring relief from some kinds of natural disasters. I can think of at least a few possible explanations for this:
    1) The prophets are mistaken. They’re following a tradition of such prophecies, but their promises are just of things that would happen anyway in the natural course of things (it would have rained in St. George eventually anyway). This is an obviously unsatisfactory possibility for one who believes in prophetic calling.
    2) Moral and natural laws are bound up in a way that we don’t understand, such that increased attention to Sabbath observance can really increase storm formation.
    3) God occasionally intervenes and momentarily suspends or alters the function of natural laws to reward faith or punish its absence.

    I think #3 is probably the most widely held. I like #2 better, although it requires more mental gymnastics than I usually like to perform. No doubt other wise readers will have more satisfactory possibilities to offer.

  6. Kaimi on December 30, 2003 at 11:28 am

    I agree that #3 is probably the best solution. Bad things happen without respect to one’s righteousness. On the other hand, wickedness can also trigger bad things.

    The whole idea is alarmingly close to the repugnant refrain (thankfully disavowed now by most people) that 9/11 happened because there were too many gay people in New York City.

  7. Kaimi on December 30, 2003 at 12:08 pm

    I just noticed that Brent has discussed the topic over at WWTL:

    http://wewintheylose.blogspot.com/2003_12_01_wewintheylose_archive.html#107275718773487307

    His money line:

    “One wonders whether there is a link between the increasing debasement of society and the apparent proliferation of natural disasters (e.g. floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.).”

    Uhh, Brent:

    1. We have seen a massive reduction in death from disease. Smallpox is gone. Malaria is controlled. Flu, yellow fever, and other killers are controlled. Should “one wonder[] whether there is a link between the increasing debasement of society and the reduction in disease mortality”?

    2. The past decades have seen an unprecedented expansion in the number of LDS temples worldwide. Should “one wonder[] whether there is a link between the increasing number of temples worldwide and the apparent proliferation of natural disasters”?

    3. The last 10 years have seen an increase in the number of people listening to country music. Perhaps there is “a link between the increasing number of temples worldwide and the apparent proliferation of natural disasters”? (Perhaps country music is itself a natural disaster!).

    The point:

    Correlation != causation.

  8. A Scientist on December 30, 2003 at 12:29 pm

    I find Pratt’s article unbelievable and offensive. Who are we to make such judgmental condemnations? He is also poorly informed–I was in the Loma Prieta ‘quake in 1989, which was centered far from San Francisco. Our little town sustained much more damage and to my knowledge we had no gay pride parades that day.

    Nevertheless I disagree with Kristine’s statement that pre-scientific explanations are precluded by modern explanations. Simply because I could explain the efficient natural causes that lead to some event, does not demand that other types of causes must be ignored. I think that this example is an absurd assignment of religious cause to an event, but I will not rule out such religious causes. While many Christians view God’s action as supernatural and invalidating natural law, Mormons seem to have a tradition of seeing God’s actions as conforming to natural laws we just don’t understand.

    So then the question becomes, how to we assign actions to God correctly, if Pratt is mistaken in his correlations? Do we rely on the authority of our leaders, or some spiritual manifestation?

  9. Renee on December 30, 2003 at 12:57 pm

    I think natural disasters might sometimes punishment (cities of S&G come to mind) and mostly just the course of nature. I don’t think there’s much to debate here – except to say that it’s highly unlikely that all natural disasters are due to our misbehavior. If that was God’s modus operandi (forgive me if I’m using that incorrectly) to use disasters as punishment, I think there’d be a lot more in a lot more places.

  10. clark on December 30, 2003 at 1:53 pm

    I think trying to make Mormonism compatible with a more Deist view of God is difficult. It seems to me that Mormonism requires a very interventionist divine community. Even if the majority of tales you hear in church are people reading into events far too much, there is a lot going on.

    The problem is that John Pratt has been writing rather inane aritcles for a very long time. His stuff has always been pseudo-scientific at best and often adopts a fairly conservative Protestant position quite regularly.

    I think some thing simply are natural consequences. The fact is that sex is one of the best transmitters of disease. Lots of unprotected sex combined with easy world travel means eventually some disease is going to make use of it. But the attacks people made in the 80’s between homosexuality and AIDS were very distasteful. By the same logic SARS would be a punishment on Asians!

    As I said, I think we ought to acknowledge God’s hand. But as several have said, moving from correlation to causation can be dangerous. I *personally* only make the leap when all other explanations have failed. i.e. when some correlations are too improbable to be anything but causation.

  11. Grasshopper on December 30, 2003 at 5:35 pm

    Does it change the discussion if we consider “positive” divine intervention, rather than “negative” intervention? For example, does God really answer prayers for rain or snow? Does he really heal sick people who have faith and have received a blessing? If we can accept a God who intervenes in these way, why is it more difficult to accept that he may intervene in some more “negative” ways?

    Of course, trying to identify the causes/reasons for God’s intervention in the absence of revelation is risky…

  12. clarkgoble on December 30, 2003 at 5:47 pm

    “For example, does God really answer prayers for rain or snow?”

    He answered mine this week! Whoo hooo….

    But you are right in your comments. Someone (Voltair or Ambrose Bierce) said something along the lines of God getting all the credit when anything good happens and none of the blame when anything bad happens. When judging interventions we tend to hold to a rather odd double standard.