As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man; they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage up to the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.
— The Gospel of Saint Luke, 17:26-30
The Gospel reading for yesterday’s Mass expresses the view of many Christian believers: calamity is punishment for man’s sins and evil. Pat Robertson said
God punished Americans with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Five years later, the popular evangelist preacher declared that the earthquake that killed 100,000 Haitians was also divine chastisement. And when Yolanda struck the Visayas, Jim Solouki blogged: “God is punishing the Philippines for their tolerance of homosexuality, prostitution, Catholicism, and other sins.”
She may have a different set of transgressions in mind, but Yolanda victim Soledad Majos, 75, offered the same reason for catastrophe to London’s The Independent newspaper just days after Yolanda struck her city of Tacloban: “Because there are so many bad people. This is his punishment.” Still, Soledad remained faithful and thankful: “There is a God; he saved us.”
The year after Yolanda or Haiyan, religion’s impact on disaster prevention, preparedness, response and recovery has been accorded scholarly analysis in the World Disaster Report 2014, published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Available at http://worlddisastersreport.org/en/, this year’s IFRC study focused on how culture affects disaster risk and response. Chapter 2 is titled “How religion and beliefs influence perceptions of and attitudes towards risk”. It cites two crucial and often fatal ways in which spiritual beliefs may exacerbate calamity: “… beliefs form an obstacle to reducing risk (something that makes people think or do things that are counter to risk reduction or that increase their vulnerability) and the way in which beliefs influence people’s understandings of risks.”
While lamenting the adverse impact of religion on disaster risk reduction as “sometimes the main cause of people exposing themselves or others to greater risk of natural hazards,” the 276-page report cautions against simply dismissing and lambasting religous perspectives. “Recognizing and respecting that people see the world in different ways,” points out the study, “is a crucial first step towards being able to address the problems that are generated by the diversity in interpretations.” Moreover, it adds, religion can be useful in mobilizing people: “Spirituality and beliefs are powerful forces for influencing individual and group decisions, livelihoods, lifestyles and attitudes …”
Why did this happen?
That people turn to religion in the face of calamity is an age-old reflex, says the study: “Religion and other beliefs … help explain and sometimes justify why disasters occur. This can help people deal with questions about why something devastating happened to them: they can turn to their beliefs for comfort after an event occurs.”
In embracing such perspectives, the ones that “align with their worldviews” emerging from their experiences and overall culture. This outlook on calamities need not always involve deities. In Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the Shinto faith was cited by Paris researcher Jean-François Sabouret as the nation’s support in times of disaster. For him, “enduring the unedurable” was central to Japanese culture.
But such stoicism can also make people accept ills without question or solution. In its report on the Fukushima nuclear accident, an investigating committee of the Japanese Diet or parliament blamed “collusion between the government, the regulators of Tepco [the power plant operator], and the lack of governance by said parties.”
And how did the erring entities get away with these excesses? Because the Japanese let them, explained Diet committee chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa, due to “the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the programme’; our groupism; and our insularity.”
Awaiting protection from above
If that can happen in advanced Japan, with its modern, technologically sophisticated populace, imagine how faiths can create even more unhelpful views in less developed societies. In communities around Merapi Volcano in central Java island, which erupted in 2006 and 2010, an estimated 1 million Indonesians live.
In the 2006 eruption, most of those who did not evacuate thought certain unseen spirits, makhluk halus, supposedly could control eruptions. A report said, “On the eastern slope, villagers think living on the back of the mountain would keep them away from lava flows, which will come out like vomit only from the mouth of Merapi, seen as a human-like being.”
Evidently, says the report, “people have incorporated the effects of ‘disasters’ into their worldview and do not aim to avoid them.” Still others believe certain rituals can fend off calamity. In Tonga, the second-most disaster-prone country until the Philippines displaced it in this year’s World Risk Index rankings, tribes made noise so the god Maui would not doze off and let the island he carries slip into the sea.
When religion fail to avert disaster, believers can lose faith. In Peru in 1100, the Sican deity was set aside after a series of devastating floods and droughts. And Lisbon’s destruction by temblor and tsunami in 1755 greatly affected Christian belief in Europe.
Still, the IFRC report calls on disaster entities and religious leaders to work together. Religion, it says, “can provide a platform, framework and social grouping that can be useful for educating about risk reduction.”
In Merapi, a new designated volcano guardian was appointed after his father died in 2010. He now liaises with a local volcano official to head off disaster.