The great tragedy unfolding in Japan has many Internet pundits wondering if this is a sign of the 2012 apocalypse. In reality it is simply a great human tragedy, a reminder that we are creatures who’ve evolved in a dangerous, often inhospitable universe. Natural disasters may have been one of the stimuli for the development of religion in the first place. Now we can look to seismology and tectonic plates to find out “why” hundreds had to die in Japan, but the human psyche demands a metaphysical reason. Some Christian websites are quick to point out that only a very small percentage of Japanese are Christian. Born with the sin of not being American, well, Shinto happens.
Like last year’s Chilean earthquake, this current disaster has once again shifted the earth on its rotation axis, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. GPS markers on the coast of Japan indicate that the large island has shifted over two meters because of the quake. The world was not made for us, however. We evolved on a planet, peopled it with gods, and decided that they created this place for us. In reality, we survive on the basis of our adaptations to this planet. Any planet dynamic enough to support life will be volatile enough to demand life from its inhabitants.
This is not as fatalistic as it sounds. Religions reflect the impotence humans feel in the presence of raw nature. We’ve shed many physical defenses for the advantages of large brains that require us to piece together a sensible view of an event that has no inherent meaning. The fact is that we are not in control. Once we eliminated the smaller-scale threats of exposure and the dangers of predation, we left ourselves open to macro-scale disasters that no human is large enough to impact. And we know, deep in our psyches, that this is simply part of the price we pay for being human. 2012 will come and go with its own share of natural disasters, but right now we should focus on helping those who’ve experienced their own current apocalypse.