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Bad Theology Watch — Niall Ferguson’s Naturalism

Niall Ferguson — our greatest living historian of empire, and a generally sound thinker — really misses the mark when he addresses the meaning of Hurricane Katrina.
Writing in The Telegraph [London], Ferguson [a professor of history at Harvard University] looked back to the awful Lisbon earthquake of 1755. That disaster in Portugal rocked the Western world — quite literally — and caused many to wonder about the power and character of God. Ferguson cites the French philosopher Voltaire, who seized the opportunity to offer an atheistic interpretation of the disaster, arguing that the earthquake proved nothing more than the randomness of chance.
“What will the preachers say?,” Voltaire taunted. He insisted that the only proper interpretation of the disaster was rooted in atheism, and he wanted others to follow his lead.
Ferguson writes: 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“.
More: 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.

Well, naturalism just will not do. We are not merely vulnerable “as human beings in the face of a pitiless Nature.” We are sinful human beings in the face of a holy God. Nature is not our judge — God is.

I have warned of those who claim to know just why this disaster fell upon these specific victims. There are those ready to identify New Orleans as a uniquely sinful city, and to suggest that God had simply had enough of that region’s sinful ways.

God is sovereign, and His ways are always right. He is in control of every molecule in the cosmos at all times. But He has not granted us the authority to explain why this city is destroyed while those of equal sinfulness remain dry. Beyond this, Scripture is sufficiently clear about the nature of sin for all of us to be aware that every single one of us — and every single city, village, and town — deserves destruction and wrath. The remarkable truth is that God allows sinners to live, and loves sinners to the extent that He gave His own Son for our redemption. We dare not claim to speak on God’s behalf.

But Niall Ferguson reminds us of the opposite error — the error of assuming that such disasters offer proof that there is no God, or that there is no God who matters.  Ferguson wants to remove God from the question, and then to encourage people to be kind to each other in the face of nature’s fury. 

Naturalism is a dead-end street. It may offer an intellectual escape for those who cannot trust God in the midst of the storm, but it offers no foundation for why people should respond with care, benevolence, and love. If “Nature” is all that matters, we are robbed of all moral meaning. Life is just one short trial from the womb to the grave. The only way to avoid the language Ferguson finds so objectionable — “acts of God” — is to believe in no God at all, or in a God who doesn’t act. That just isn’t the God of the Bible.