Does God punish us via earthquakes?

Does God punish us via earthquakes?

Turkey is beset these days with the earthquake in Van, an eastern city that borders Iran. The death toll is in the hundreds, while some suspect that it might ultimately reach into the thousands. The tragic stories and scenes of victims are all over the media, which brings anguish to the whole nation.

There have been some disgusting voices on the Internet, however, which expressed not grief but relief in the face of this tragedy. These are the Turkish racists, whose understandable reaction to PKK terrorism has turned them into fanatic haters of all Kurds. Since Van is a predominantly Kurdish city that harbors some sympathy for the PKK, these racist Turks believe that the earthquake must be “divine retribution.” According to one of the popular twitter messages, “God did what the government could not” i.e. devastate the “pro-PKK areas.”

It might be worthwhile to note that these references to God come not from Islamist but nationalist minds, some of whom are die-hard Kemalist. (Kemalists, secularist as they may be, have never shied away from using religion for nationalist ends.) Yet these comments still have led me to question whether it is right for believers to interpret any natural disaster as a “punishment from God.”

This way of thinking, of course, has its origins in the Abrahamic Scriptures: the Bible or the Quran. Both sources speak of particular natural disasters, such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, which God unleashed as a punishment for sin and disbelief. And this has led Jewish, Christian and Muslim believers throughout the ages to see a divine purpose behind all natural disasters.

However, there is a crucial difference between Bible and Quran accounts of destruction and the natural disasters we face in ordinary times. In the scriptural accounts, we know by revelation that a specific religious meaning is attributed to disaster. To the disasters in ordinary times, however, we just attribute a meaning based on our subjective opinions.

The diversity of these subjective opinions is quite staggering and sometimes even amusing. The infamous Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans in 2006, for example, was given totally opposite meaning by totally opposing groups.

For example, according to Ovadia Yosef, a prominent ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbi, Katrina was “God’s punishment for President Bush’s support of the August 2005 withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip.” But for Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the hurricane was a punishment on America for “attacking Islam,” and an answer to “the prayers of the oppressed.”

Some Americans had more domestic reasons to explain Hurricane Katrina. According to Protestant evangelist Pat Robertson, this was “God’s punishment in response to America’s abortion policy.” Meanwhile, Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the African-American “Nation of Islam,” found the divine retribution to be against America’s “warmongering and racism.” (I owe the quotes to Wikipedia.)

The obvious problem is that none of us really can know the mind of God and thus verify any of these extravagant claims on God’s purpose in such actions. The same is true, of course, for all those who make these claims as well. But they seem to believe that they indeed know the mind of God. They, in fact, imagine a God who looks at the world exactly as they do.

But this is not really a very religious thing to do, if religion is about serving God. It is rather about making God serve our own purposes, which really is a form of exploitation of religion.

The right thing to do for any true believer is to be more humble in our capacity to know the intentions of the divine. Accordingly, instead of seeing natural disasters as divine punishments, it is much more righteous to see them as misfortunes that teach all of us about our fragility – and to help all those who suffer from them.