Beliefs about the cause of natural disasters according to religious liberals and progressives

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Why did the South Asian Tsunami happen?

Part 2: Reasons given by some religious
moderates, liberals, progressives, neopagans, etc.

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This topic is contiued from the previous essay

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tsunami Responses, mainly by religious moderates, liberals, progressives, neopagans and secularists:


People are ultimately responsible for their own deaths (Cont'd):


Nadadur Vardhan, president of the Hindu Temple Society of Southern California, said:

"We all believe too many people were doing too many bad things. People have not lived up to what they are supposed to do " not helping people, not treating their parents well, not caring for the poor, going to war for unethical reasons."

Many, but not all, Hindus believe that the universe goes through a cycle of four stages, and that we are in the most degenerate age, called Kali Yuga.  Extensive violence and immorality permeate the culture.  He said that the universe's response to evil human actions is immediate. 1

bullet Ariel Glucklich, a professor of theology at Georgetown University and a specialist in Hinduism said that the Gods of Hinduism were not responsible for the tragedy. They are "always unfailingly on the side of good." In both Hinduism and Buddhism, karma links a person's fate to actions in their present and previous lives. Glucklich described Karma is a "non-divine mechanism." That is, there is no deity keeping track of good and bad deeds in order to dole out rewards and punishment. In general, people are responsible for what happens to them. He described karma as also interactional, meaning that children who died in the tsunami might have died because of actions of their parents. 2


There are no easy answers; the purpose of the tsunami is not obvious:


Reporter Michael McAteer of The Toronto Star wrote:

"How could a benevolent, all-caring God allow it to happen? Traditional answers will get us only so far, says Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the world's 70 million [Christians in the] Anglican [Community]. The question of 'how you can you believe in a God who permits suffering on such a scale' is very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren't, indeed it would be wrong if it weren't,' Williams wrote in an article published in a British Sunday paper. The Welsh-born Williams recalled that as a teenager contemplating studying theology at university he watched a television discussion on God and suffering shortly after the Aberfan disaster in South Wales where coal waste slid down a mountain, killing 144 people, including 116 children. He watched the discussion with 'disbelief and astonishment at the vacuous words pouring out about the nature of God's power or control, or about the consolations of belief in an afterlife or whatever.'

Making sense of a great disaster is a challenge simply because those who are closest to the cost are the ones least likely to accept some sort of intellectual explanation, however polished, Williams wrote. And, he asked, why should they? The extraordinary fact is 'that belief has survived such tests again and again not because it comforts or explains but because believers cannot deny what has been shown or given to them.' Every single random, accidental death, Williams wrote, is something that 'should upset a faith bound up with comfort and ready answers. Faced with the paralyzing magnitude of a disaster like this, we naturally feel more deeply outraged and alone, more deeply helpless'." 3


Rev. Wayne Hilliker of Chalmers United Church in Kingston ON Canada sensed that many of his parishioners have been asking themselves how an "all-knowing, all-powerful God of love" could create a tsunami to slam into some of the poorest countries of the world and cause so many deaths. He said during an interview:

"If you're looking for absolutes and certainties, then you'll find it easy to say it's the will of God. But anyone who has, it seems to me, a serious reflective mind about their faith is bound to question some of the traditional characteristics we've put upon God."

He told his congregation that:

"There are whys we just don't have answers for but we can do something. We can respond, we can help, and we can believe that somehow God is present....I saw on the news that Buddhist and Muslim university students were working together in India. They were getting along and they had been fighting each other. I'm not naive enough to think they won't go back to fighting but it is a sign to the whole world that it is possible that those who have been enemies with one another can be one in acts of compassion." 4


Hallett Llewellyn, minister at Trinity St. Paul's United Church in Toronto, ON, Canada congratulated Archbishop Williams for openly discussing his religious struggle over the meaning of the tsunami. Llewellyn said that this is better than:

"the certainty that allows no kind of room for people to question their faith."

He said that the tragedy has challenged God'sL

"traditional attributes of omniscience and omnipotence " the all-powerful God. You can't help but question why they are not in play....I do tend to separate my belief in God from my faith in God trusting no matter what happens there is a supreme good purpose underlying the realities of life. It is something I continue to hold on to." 5


Anglican Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, the Primate of Canada, said that he has never abandoned his faith, even for a moment, in the face of natural disasters. But he has wrestled with the questions now being raised about the tsunami. He said:

"How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on such a scale? How can you, indeed? There is no answer to that. And yet you do."

When asked why God did not prevent the catastrophe, he said:

"I don't know, I just don't know. Is it only so that goodness shines through the more clearly? You can't know light unless you know darkness. Somehow they co-exist." 3


Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and philosophy professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, said:

"If God has made a finite world, then it has to suffer from the kinds of things finitude suffers from....things like: life is not forever, there is illness as well as health, and there are earthquakes and rain....The real issue is not so much how we make sense of [the tsunami], because it's quite possible we can't make sense of it. The real issue is how we respond and try to ameliorate the suffering of the people who have suffered." 1

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Attributing the cause of the tsunami to purely natural forces:

bullet Rev. Dean Drayton is the President of the Uniting Church in Australia. This is a relatively liberal Protestant denomination that has resulted from a merger of three smaller denominations in 1977: the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church and the Congregational Union in Australia. In a pastoral letter on the occasion of the tsunami, he wrote in part:

"As these vast continent-building processes continue, we ask for the wisdom of God to help us live within the risks, and work to lessen the conditions which leave the poor and most vulnerable of the world bearing the brunt of such destruction in the future." 6

He appears to believe that the tsunami was created by purely natural forces acting without conscious intent. He calls on God to provide wisdom to the survivors, to help them develop better systems to avoid loss of life from future tsunamis.

Ruth Barrett, a Wiccan high priestess who leads a Wisconsin temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Diana, said that the earthquake and tsunami were simply a case of:

"Mother Nature stretching " she had a kink in her back and stretched. Though the resulting casualties were horrendous dwelling on why people suffered was narcissistic when nature constantly reshapes itself. We're so self-centered and think we are the be-all and end-all of the universe." 1


We are asking the wrong question:

Vince Isner, director of spent two weeks in Sri Lanka and Indonesia during 2005-JAN. He has written an essay about the Tsunami called "Where is God?." He wrote, in part:

"...trying to find God in such vast 'whys' is like peering into a deep well. What we believe to be the face of God may be simply our own reflection. In any case, it may be an unanswerable question at such at time. Perhaps a better question may be, 'What is next'?"

"I am no theologian, but here’s what I think. If we want to find God in the midst of a disaster, the place to look is not in the act but in the response. Natural events, for the most part, are our friends. We are products of nature. Tsunamis happen because nature is simply what it is."

"But the responders –- the helpers of the world –- act from a willful and caring place. Whether Buddhist monks housing refugees, Muslim volunteers providing food and clothing, Christians offering counseling and medicine, Hindus offering prayers and gentle hands, or persons of no particular faith giving money, time, and skills to ease the suffering of others, God is very much alive and present in them and through them. They don’t need a doctrine, or a theology –- they need only to be attuned to the spirit of compassion and goodness already within them -– like the pads of an elephant’s feet –- and to respond as faithfully as they are able."

"Frederick Buechner wrote, 'If you want to know the kind of person you are as distinct from the kind of person you like to think you are, keep an eye on where your feet carry you.' If our insides lead us to higher ground, then we need look no further to find God. God is as near as our own heartbeat."

The phrase "'elephant's feet" refers to the belief that elephants can sense low-level vibrations through the pads of their feet. This may have helped them avoid the Tsunami by rapidly leaving the beach area.

If you have time, the entire essay is definitely worth reading. 7

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Teresa Watanabe and Larry B. Stammer, "Deadly Tsunami Resurrects the Old Question of Why. Leaders of various faith traditions have different interpretations of how such human suffering can occur under a benevolent God," Los Angeles Times, 2005-JAN-08, at:
  2. Bill Broadway, "Divining a Reason for Devastation. Followers of Various Faiths Differ on Natural, Supernatural Explanations for Tsunami, " Washington Post," at:
  3. Michael McAteer, "Disaster challenges belief," The Toronto Star, 2004-JAN-09, at:
  4. Ann Lukits, "How to make sense of a senseless tragedy? It's a question that clergy and educators have been struggling with. The answers aren't easy, they say," The Kingston Whig-Standard, 2005-JAN-15, Page A1.
  5. Judy Gerstel, "Watching the wreckage, waves that come and go," The Toronto Star, 2004-JAN-07, at:
  6. Rev. Dean Drayton "Tsunami Disaster: A pastoral letter from the President of the Uniting Church in Australia," 2005-JAN-01, at:
  7. Vince Isner, "Where is God?," FaithfulAmerica, 2005-JAN-19, at:

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Copyright © 2005 to 2014by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-JAN-01
Latest update: 2014-MAR-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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