The recent earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria and left colossal human losses has rehashed the question of what truly causes natural disasters in general and earthquakes in particular. Science has a clear answer, yet some clerics try to frame them as a kind of divine punishment from God.
This deduction puzzles many who ask the question: What sin did the victims commit that other humans did not for God to punish them exclusively?
What does science say?
According to science, earthquakes are a natural phenomenon that manifest in the form of quick ground tremors. Possible causes include the fracture and displacement of rocks, the accumulation of energy in plates, volcanic activity, and/or drifts in the earth’s layers.
Geology experts agree that earthquakes are wave-like motions in the Earth’s crust, which is already in constant motion due to the permanent instability of the Earth’s core.
This wave motion causes fractures and friction in the rocks that form the lithosphere, which in turn produces shockwaves of varying velocity and severity depending on the nature of the rock layers.
Science also says that earthquakes happen all the time. There are minor earthquakes that happen hundreds of times every day, and major earthquakes that occur every year or so.
The Richter Scale is used to measure the intensity of earthquakes and to differentiate between them. Earthquakes are so frequent, in fact, that nearly 1,500 earthquakes happen every year in Japan alone.
Science also says that earthquakes happen all the time. There are minor earthquakes that happen hundreds of times every day, and major earthquakes that occur every year or so. Earthquakes are so frequent, in fact, that nearly 1,500 earthquakes happen every year in Japan alone.
Also interesting is the fact that seismologists can predict where earthquakes will happen in the long term with reasonable accuracy, and geologists can monitor, rather precisely, the specific faults where earthquakes are expected to happen.
They know, for instance, that most of the world's earthquakes happen on the Pacific Rim, which is known as the Ring of Fire for its many volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and other geological activities.
Lisbon earthquake of 1755
This is what science says, clear as day. Religion seems to say otherwise.
Of the many major earthquakes that struck the world, the one that comes to my mind most when I watch the news these days is the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.
That year, a massive earthquake similar in magnitude to the one that hit Turkey and Syria struck Portugal at 09:40 am local time on 1 November, which coincides with the Feast of All Saints in Christianity.
The earthquake affected not only Portugal, but all of the Iberian Peninsula, as well as North Africa, with tremors felt all across Europe.
Fires erupted, houses were leveled to the ground, and the economy took a hit. But more importantly, many people died, with estimates suggesting a death toll of up to 50,000.
At the time, many people in Europe saw the Lisbon earthquake as a divine punishment. A painting by the artist João Glama Strobërle depicts this sentiment clearly, showing an angel holding a fiery sword hovering over a city in ruins.
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which almost destroyed the great city, exerted a profound influence on the Western enlightenment.
Some Islamists are adopting that same stance, portraying the earthquake as a divine punishment for the Turks and Syrians and a message to the rest of Muslims in the world if they do not return to the correct path that those Islamists paved for them.
In this flagrant exploitation of the disaster, the Islamists are trying to exploit the disaster to restore the lost influence of their clerics.
Eighteenth-century Europe managed to overcome the sentiment portrayed in that painting with modernity and scientific revolutions, but today's Islamists are still using threats to scare Muslims into blindly following their ideology.
It is outrageous that victims of such disasters are blamed or vilified for their lack of faith and morals. Instead of consoling grieving parents or children or honouring the dignity of people trapped under the rubble — dead or alive — some opt for pointing fingers.
The sentiment depicted in Strobërle's painting did not prevail in Europe in the wake of the tragedy. On the contrary, the earthquake led to a wider atheist trend across all European countries.
French philosopher Voltaire illustrated this trend in his poem "Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne", as well as in his book "Candide", in which he vehemently protests what happened and attacks the theory of German philosopher Leibniz that posits that "all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds."
The earthquake was one of the main reasons why atheism become so widespread in the European Age of Enlightenment and Europeans renounced their religious doctrines.
The Lisbon earthquake was one of the main reasons why atheism become so widespread in the European Age of Enlightenment and Europeans renounced their religious doctrines.
Those who exploit tragedy to spread their propaganda must be aware that their actions could actually produce an opposite reaction.
On his part, Immanuel Kant, considered to be one of the greatest philosophers of all time, also published three separate texts in 1756 on the Lisbon earthquake.
Kant came up with a theory on the causes of earthquakes that involved shifts in massive caves filled with hot gases. Albeit inaccurate, Kant's was one of the first systematic attempts to explain earthquakes in worldly terms.
It represented the beginnings of the fields of geography and seismology. Surprising as it may seem, Kant actually started out as a scientist, as evidenced by his bibliography, which shows that his first writings were scientific in nature, not philosophical.
If we are to draw one conclusion out of all this, it would be that the laws of nature will remain regardless of our interpretations of them, and that nature, this ever-changing world that surrounds us with its ever-changing phenomena, will persist regardless of how we perceive or understand it.
When humans better understand nature, they can utilise its resources more effectively. However, we must understand the limits to this, as there is much more to learn about nature and all its wonders.
Therefore, as mankind we must humble our approach to nature by listening to it and respecting it rather than only exploiting its resources.
This leaves us with million dollar question: should the earthquake bring people closer to faith or atheism?
The answer is neither.
Faith and atheism have little to do with earthquakes and should not influence our beliefs in either direction.
For the truly faithful, no disaster is strong enough to shake their faith. Similarly, a disruption in the layers of earth below their feet predicted by geologists long before it happens, is not going to turn an atheist into a believer.