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Do Earthquakes and Disasters Speak for God?
It is likely to go down as one of the greatest natural disasters in history: a catastrophe that breaks records for global spread of death and destruction. The survivors return and give their airport interviews, still stunned and tearful, having witnessed something that will change their understanding of life and its preciousness forever.
Our paltry human endeavours at evil are dwarfed when the earth itself erupts: what terrorist organisation or would-be world dominator could orchestrate such totally unexpected devastation on an international scale?
There can be no negotiation with this force, and no protection from it. It is a manifestation of what once impelled people to believe in the wrath of God. Now it will presumably become part of the arsenal for the other side.
The army of unbelievers (which is apparently growing apace in Britain) will say, as sceptics have for centuries, that events of this kind make a mockery of the idea of a benevolent deity. How could a loving God permit such pointless and gratuitous ruin? Surely any rational account of the world as it is, with all its futile suffering and unjust affliction, cannot include a creator with good intentions?
Natural disasters make the best case for unbelief because they are not even susceptible to the theological explanation of human evil - that without the capacity to make immoral choices, men are not truly free: the ability to do good would be meaningless if we did not also have the ability to do evil.
The whole point of the human condition is to choose to do what is right rather than what is wrong. But an earthquake has no motive and no free will. It just is what it is. A tsunami does what it does. It sweeps away the blameless and the helpless without reason. So where is the divine purpose in that?
In fact, there is no logic in the sceptic's argument - or, at least, not the logic that he assumes. If terrible events are to constitute evidence that God does not exist, then every wonderful event - every cured cancer patient, every child rescued from a fire - has to be evidence that He does. The unbeliever would, by his own reasoning, have to accept that all the fortunate things that have ever happened were proofs of God. Not that the rising number of unbelievers is linked to rationalism.
Strictly speaking, what The Daily Telegraph poll showed this week was not an increase in unbelief but in non-belief. It is not so much that people have consciously discredited the notion of faith, as that they have ceased to care about it.
Like so many things in modern British life, agnosticism is not a function of deliberation and reasoning, but of apathy and indifference. We don't positively repudiate the idea of God, just as we don't positively reject the idea that politics can be of any use. We just don't give a damn.
This is not scepticism in the proper sense, which involves conscientious questioning of beliefs - an insistence on investigating received opinion which might, in the end, result in acceptance. It is something much more corrosive and incurable: a detachment from any abstract or profound understanding of life and its meaning. It is a cynicism that refuses to dwell on any but the most immediate satisfactions and concrete rewards.
Anyone who has observed what has become the great British Saturday night out, with its binge-drinking and its frenetic, mindless violence, will know that something ugly and hollow is eating away the heart of this country.
Simple irresponsibility or lack of social discipline is not enough of an explanation. There is a degradation and a brutishness that seems to be beyond recall. These are people who appear to value nothing, to think of nothing beyond momentary pleasure - and the form that that pleasure takes is almost always anti-social and hateful.
What can be the point of behaving like this? Or is it just that behaviour, and the idea of being good, has no point?
Of course, the distaste for abstract ideas, and suspicion of religion, is not new in Britain. Religious fervour, for good historical reasons which can still be observed in Northern Ireland, was discredited long before the modern fashion for secularism or yobbery.
Preferring the concrete to the abstract, too, is a point of pride in Anglo-Saxon culture: it is thought to be what saved Britain from the great ideological storms that swept Continental Europe. But realism and practicality are virtues.
They are social values that can be invoked and respected. What I seem to sense in British culture now is the deliberate dismantling of the idea of reverence - the idea, if you like, of anything at all being sacred - whether the feeling is specifically religious, or patriotic, or simply love of one's community.
When the Sikhs attacked the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in protest against the play Behzti, their demand was framed in terms that are scarcely comprehensible in modern Britain. They did not object to the content of the play but to the fact that the violent events that it portrayed took place in a Sikh temple, which they saw as a sacred place.
The resulting debacle was certainly a clash of cultures but it was not a conflict between Sikh and Christian values, or even between a free society and religious fundamentalism. Britain restricts its own freedom of speech when it chooses: public expressions of racial (and now religious) hatred are banned.
What collided in Birmingham were the preferences of an individual artist and a community's sense of what was sacred. And no, I do not think that playwrights or novelists should have to edit their works to comply with the sensitivities of religious communities.
But, as a thought for the New Year, I do think that Britain might be a happier place if its people were more in touch with the aspirations, and the consolations, of a belief that life is about something more than the present moment.