Disasters happen. Two hundred and fifty years ago, on November 1, 1755, the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, was flattened by an earthquake that killed thousands of its inhabitants. Like the hurricane that inundated New Orleans last week, the calamity inspired not only awe at the power of nature and sympathy for the helpless victims, but also all kinds of moral commentary. None was more profound than that of the French philosopher Voltaire.
To Voltaire, the destruction of Lisbon was proof that we do not live "in the best of all possible worlds" - a philosophical position associated with Gottfried Leibniz, but most pithily expressed in Alexander Pope's Essay on Man: Whatever is, is right. According to Leibniz, evil and suffering were integral parts of the order God had ordained. Though they might seem inexplicable to us, they were a vital part of the divine plan; the world would, paradoxically, be less perfect without them.
I wonder how many Southern preachers will venture that argument today, at a time when untold numbers of bodies are lying unburied in the streets of what used to be "the Big Easy", or floating in the toxic flood unleashed by Hurricane Katrina? Most, I suspect, will prefer to echo the prayer published by the United Church of Christ not long after the deluge: "Be present, O God, with those who are discovering that loved ones have died, that homes and jobs are gone. Embrace them in your everlasting arms.
"Be present, O God, with those who suffer today in shelters, hot and weary from too little sleep and too much fear. Let them know they are not alone."
No doubt those are appropriate things to be asking of God at a time like this, but they rather beg the question where He was when Katrina burst the levee walls. I must say I prefer clergymen who, like Leibniz, at least address the issue of why God allows such horrors to happen
Voltaire's answer was a classic statement of the atheist position. Disasters happen because there is no God. As he wrote to a friend, the Lisbon earthquake was "a cruel piece of natural philosophy! We shall find it difficult to discover how the laws of movement operate in such fearful disasters in the best of all possible worlds - where a hundred thousand ants, our neighbours, are crushed in a second on our ant-heaps-, half dying, undoubtedly in inexpressible agonies, beneath debris from which it was impossible to extricate them. What a game of chance human life is!
"What will the preachers say?" asked Voltaire and he went on to express the hope that mankind might learn a lesson from the indiscriminate cruelty of the earthquake. It ought, he wrote, "to teach men not to persecute men: for, while a few sanctimonious humbugs are burning a few fanatics, the earth opens and swallows up all alike".
That, unfortunately, was wishful thinking. On the contrary, the most common human response to a natural disaster is to reaffirm rather than to repudiate religious faith. Religion, after all, has its prehistoric origins in man's desire to discern some purposeful agency in the workings of nature. The Old Testament, I need hardly remind you, interprets the flood of Noah's time as a divinely ordained purge of a sinful world. Perhaps predictably, the Methodist John Wesley attributed the Lisbon earthquake to "sin. that curse that was brought upon the earth by the original transgression of Adam and Eve".
In much the same way, religious and secular commentators alike have rushed to attach moral significance to the destruction of New Orleans.
Natural disasters, after all, are not like terrorist attacks. In the wake of 9/11 or the 7/7 bombings in London, we could focus our minds on the human perpetrators, struggling to make sense of their homicidal motives. With a hurricane, we need to be more creative. The banal response was, of course, to blame the city, state or federal authorities for sins of omission - a charge that prompted one of the city's former planning officials to declare defensively: "We are all responsible." For a hurricane?
The old-time hellfire and brimstone reaction would have been to interpret the inundation, John Wesley style, as a judgment on the city that brazenly calls itself "Party Town". But few Christian Churches risk such strong moral medicine these days.
No such inhibitions constrain today's Islamic extremists. The Associated Press reported that they "rejoiced in America's misfortune, giving the storm a military rank and declaring in internet chatter that 'Private' Katrina had joined the global jihad. With God's help, they declared, oil prices would hit $100-a-barrel this year."
It would be hard to get more tasteless. Yet the same underlying impulse - to interpret the disaster as confirmation of one's own ideological position - was at work among many American liberals too. Opponents of the war in Iraq were not slow to point out that National Guardsmen who should have been on hand to rescue hurricane victims were instead failing to prevent lethal stampedes in far-away Baghdad. The usual suspects could not resist pointing out that most of the people trapped in the flooded city were poor African-Americans, who lacked the means to flee the hurricane.
And, inevitably, environmentalists rushed to portray the storm as retribution for the Bush administration's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol. After all, they argued, our consumption of fossil fuels causes global warming, and global warming leads to more frequent "extreme weather events", not to mention rising sea levels. Could the prospect of even higher gasoline prices, as a direct result of storm damage, finally bring Americans to their senses about climate change?
Having recently shown one of my classes a map projecting the effects of rising sea levels on the eastern seaboard of the United States (guess which city disappears first?), I must confess that this was also my initial reaction. Only last week, after all, I was fulminating in this column about the way we pollute the world's oceans. It was only with difficulty that I banished the thought of Katrina as Neptune's vengeance.
The reality is, of course, that natural disasters have no moral significance. They just happen, and we can never exactly predict when or where. In 2003 - to take just a single year - 41,000 people died in Iran when an earthquake struck the city of Bam, more than 2,000 died in a smaller earthquake in Algeria, and just under 1,500 died in India in a freak heatwave. Altogether, at least 100 Americans were killed that year as a result of storms or forest fires.
Natural disasters - please, let's not call them "Acts of God" - killed many more people than international terrorism that year (according to the State Department, total global casualties due to terrorism in 2003 were 4,271, of whom precisely none were in North America). On the other hand, disasters kill many fewer people each year than heart disease (around seven million), HIV/Aids (around three million) and road traffic accidents (around one million). No doubt if all the heart attacks or car crashes happened in a single day in a single city, we would pay them more attention than we do.
As Voltaire understood, hurricanes, like earthquakes, should serve to remind us of our common vulnerability as human beings in the face of a pitiless Nature. Too bad that today, just as in 1755, we prefer to interpret them in spurious ways, that divide rather than unite us.