The Sacramento Bee recently ran an article that reports typical post-disaster reactions. The headline read, "South state turns to prayer in wake of fires" (11/1/93). The fires at that point had left 67 people injured and 167,000 acres charred. A total of 787 buildings, including 650 homes, were destroyed.
As is usually the case, people were killed. It isn't uncommon for falling airplanes, collapsing bridges, tidal waves, earthquakes, floods, fires, train derailments and the like to leave scores dead. Whenever the press can find them, it loves quoting religious survivors. These survivors invariably express their thanks to God. The irony of this appears to be lost to most believers. It seems remarkably insensitive, too. It's like saying, "Well, the guy next to me may have been crushed to death, but God deserves my thanks for not flattening me."
Instead of the typical outpouring of thanks, it would seem more appropriate for believers to have an outpouring of rage. It might be more reasonable for religionists to show their own righteous anger at the Almighty. But, in the modern world, supernatural beings don't get the blame for such disasters. In the old days, theologians gleefully gave God credit for nearly every swarm of locusts and every swollen hemorrhoid. The reason for this modern shift has less to do with science than with the well-heeled PR specialists that work out of every church. The demographics just don't support the vengeful god persona anymore.
After the fire, a Roman Catholic priest was quoted as saying, "I believe for all this hurt in Laguna Beach, God will bring forth great things." Of course, that's self-serving nonsense. Shrewd clergymen defend themselves, and the beliefs that sustain their institutions, from blame. Like slick political spin-masters, in post-disaster media sideshows, clergy do damage control for their big guy upstairs. They must appear to "accentuate the positive," even when it doesn't exist.
I doubt that there are any victims of the fires who would have traded their home, property, or pets for the promise of a next life. The only thing that ever really gets brought forth from these disasters come from the secular realm: Government bailout and insurance checks. The worrisome thing is that one of these days, perhaps after the Big One shakes California, the insurance companies are going to play the trump card they've been holding since they began writing contracts. It's that little fine print provision which states that they don't have to pay if the disaster is an "act of God." (Californians can purchase earth-quake insurance for a separate fee.) Can you imagine what an "act of God" looks like? For me, it conjures up a Monty Pythonesque, cardboard cutout, fickle finger of fate popping out from behind a cloud to flick a 747 out of the sky.
People need to make sense of things that happen to them. But, some things are senseless. Saying something is "the will of God" paints genuine tragedy as dishonest nonsense. The real danger of religionist apology for disaster is the helpless feelings it endorses. It can discourage people from examining the true causes of problems and engender a sense of impotence. (A councilman of a major American city recently announced that "only God" was able to restrain a bloody crime wave.) When people attribute destruction of lives and property to "Fate" or "the Will of God," action is futile. The doctrines of futility and resignation are among the strongest weapons used in the fight against reason.