Image credit: NOAA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
My heart goes out to those suffering from Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. Natural disasters like this are often tied to the “wrath of God” model, and outdated though it is, it still captures how it feels. The sheer amount of rain dumped by this one storm is literally inconceivable. Trillions of gallons. Coupled with a completely ineffectual president, the disaster is even greater. Like many others, I’ve been watching since the weekend as the numbers and statistics of woe rise. Lives lost. Property washed away. Once more it reminds us just how small we are in the face of the weather. Some of this same awe was in my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms. Ancient Israel did not experience hurricanes—the bodies of water nearby aren’t large enough to generate them. A single thunderstorm, however, is enough to put the fear of God into a person. In ancient times, with an under-developed meteorology, all of this was the provenance of providence. How else could you begin to explain such tragedy?
One of the books that got me started on my meteorotheological quest was Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, about the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Thousands died in that storm, and it remains the most deadly natural disaster in US history. Although Hurricane Harvey developed quickly, there was warning. The death toll is remarkably small (at least at the moment) compared to the fury of the storm. The natural tendency of human psychology is to look to supernatural explanations for such devastation. What have I done to deserve this? How could God do this? Are we being punished? Questions such as these come to mind, although we know that hurricanes are entirely normal features of this planet. Somewhere in the back of our minds, though, we probably are aware that global warming causes more radical weather.
Even as Trump continues to surround himself with climate change deniers, we see what global warming looks like. The weather is an intricate mechanism. Small things effect it. Large-scale changes throw it into chaos. Those who see climate change as a pain in the pocketbook will do anything they can to deny its reality. More powerful than a freight train or battleship, the weather can’t slam on the brakes and suddenly resume a more milder form. No, we’ve already started the process, no matter how many billionaires disagree. My heart goes out to those who continue to suffer from the hurricane. We need strong leadership and clear thinking at such times as this. We will need more of that in years to come. But we must also keep in mind this isn’t the anger of God. Unfortunately the wrath of human greed can be just as devastating as the wrath of the Almighty.
Simple answers are seldom correct. Unfortunately many people will accept a simple answer rather than try to sort through the complexities that life in the universe provides in such abundance. I was given cause for hope by an interview that I saw on The Upworthiest. Zack Kopplin, a student only nineteen years old, is taking on the creationists in the south. It’s not an easy thing to do. As Bill Moyers points out in this interview, 46% of Americans believe in creationism. In a land where everything is a matter of choice, it seems, science is just one of many options. Also, Fundamentalist clergy are among the most gifted spin-doctors ever to have evolved. By pairing evolution and atheism and values that are dangerous to their beloved lifestyle, the message goes out from thousands of pulpits that evolution is a lie and that the Bible is a science book after all. And people, easily led, will follow. For many decades scientists and religionists alike refused to even address creationism, supposing illogical thought would eventually die out. What they were actually witnessing was a match thrown into a kindle-dry forest after decades of drought.
Even the case of Zack is a demonstration of this. When a law passed in his native Louisiana making it easier to teach creationism in the public schools, those who knew better did nothing. It took a nineteen-year-old to try to change the law. One could argue that full-grown scientists and other professionals have too much to do to waste their time on such foolishness. The problem is, as Zack is keenly aware, the creationists are well funded, strategic, and insidious. Fueled by self-righteousness, and supported by at least 16 years of presidential administrations that approved of creationism as a form of science, this movement is as much a threat as the NRA is to a peaceable kingdom. Maybe more of a threat because nobody takes them seriously. There is a plenty of history documenting the growth and development of the creationist movement, and, as Zack knows, it is not a fad. Most serious scholars just don’t bother to read it.
Creationism thrives by its own sense of victimization. Science offers us no cuddly deity who will make everything right at the end of a life of toil and turmoil. That is fine for science, but we must never forget that people are people. We need something to hold onto. It is this that creationists understand. Instead of calling it delusional, perhaps scientists need to step back and realize that it is a profoundly human need. That doesn’t make creationism right—not by a long stretch—but it might help to understand why it just doesn’t seem to go away. Instead of ignoring, science must address creationism. And so must those with serious training in religion. Creationism doesn’t survive close scrutiny by either scientists or religious specialists, but it sure does offer a feel-good ending. Until we admit that they’ve done their homework, those who oppose creationism are going to find themselves being led by nineteen-year-olds with a sense of what’s really at stake. And that’s complicated.