On Nov. 1, 1755—the feast of All Saint’s Day—a terrifying combination of earthquake and tsunami shattered the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon. Numerous major churches were destroyed and many devout worshippers along with them. This cataclysmic event was a spur to two great enterprises: the European Enlightenment and the development of seismology. Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were only some of those who reasoned that no thinkable deity could have desired or ordained the obliteration of Catholic Lisbon, while other thinkers—Immanuel Kant among them—began to inquire into the possible natural causes of such events.
Today, we can clearly identify the “fault” that runs under the Atlantic Ocean and still puts Portugal and other countries at risk, and it took only a few more generations before there was a workable theory of continental drift. We live on a cooling planet with a volcanic interior that is insecurely coated with a thin crust of grinding tectonic plates. Earthquakes and tsunamis are to be expected and can even to some degree be anticipated. It’s idiotic to ask whose fault it is. The Earth’s thin shell was quaking and cracking millions of years before human sinners evolved, and it will still be wrenched and convulsed long after we are gone. These geological dislocations have no human-behavioral cause. The believers should relax; no educated person is going to ask their numerous gods “why” such disasters occur. A fault is not the same as a sin.
However, the believers can resist anything except temptation. Where would they be if such important and frightening things had natural and rational explanations? They want the gods to be blamed. After the titanic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, the Muslims of Indonesia launched a hugely successful campaign to recruit terrified local people to Islamic repentance. Following the more recent Asian tsunami of 2004, religious figures jostled to provide every possible “explanation” of tectonic events in terms of mere human conduct. (It was widely asserted in earlier times that earthquakes were caused by sodomy, yet San Francisco still stands, and when it suffered thousands of deaths in the catastrophic 1906 earthquake, it was rather more heterosexual than it is now. * Hurricane Katrina inundated much of New Orleans but saw fit to spare the immoral French Quarter.)
As so often, the first priest out of the trap on this occasion was that evil moron Pat Robertson, who announced on the Christian Broadcasting Network that Haitians had long ago made an agreement with Satan to enlist diabolic help against French imperialism. The implication was clear … for this offense, God would kill underfed Haitian babies in slums 200 years later. (He would also kill the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, and bring his cathedral down on his head, though since Pat Robertson doesn’t really think that Catholics are proper Christians, there’s perhaps scant irony there.)
Robertson is stupidly trying to channel an event that may have occurred on the night of Aug. 14, 1791, when a large voodoo ceremony is said to have been held by the rebellious slaves of Haiti. After an animal sacrifice (of a black pig) to the maternal spirit of Ezili Danto, all present at Bois Caiman swore to slay their white Christian masters. This is sometimes taken as the signal for the revolt that, under the charismatic leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, drove French troops and slaveholders from Haiti and established the world’s first black republic. (The essential book here is The Black Jacobins, by Trinidadian author C.L.R. James.) Americans have good reason to be thankful for that outcome, because it was the vanquishing of Napoleon that enabled celebrated agnostic Thomas Jefferson to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase and double the size of the United States.
This would have been quite a useful pact with the devil, but voodoo or santería and their related religious fusions are not Satanistic. They are, rather, a localized and Africanized form of Catholic superstition, based on much the same calendar and communion of saints that was being celebrated in Lisbon on that day in 1755. And if any single thing explains the abject misery of Haiti in the years between independence and today, it is the prevalence of religious cultism in its various aspects. Voodoo keeps people afraid and makes them cowed into apathy by the nearness of the spirit world. It was exploited by the horrible Tonton Macoute regime of “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his gruesome son, who for decades kept the country as their own rack-rented fief. But please do not forget that Mother Teresa came to Port-au-Prince in 1981 to receive the HaitianLégion d’honneur from “Baby Doc,” as well as to accept stolen money from him, and that the Vatican protected the foul system for as long as it was able. In September 1992, exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide denounced the Vatican from the podium of the United Nations, correctly pointing out that it maintained the only embassy that still recognized the continuing post-Duvalier dictatorship. Unfortunately, Aristide’s own brand of religious populism was a failure. Still, one cannot believe that the Almighty has recently slaughtered so many Haitians because of the unbelievable squalidness of their competing priesthoods.
Currently, the cry is that Robertson is out of step and that it is Christian charities that are doing the hardest work. By all means let the pious agree to keep God out of it (though I wonder if that doesn’t make them feel slightly insipid). However, the heaviest lifting will, in fact, be done by nonreligious outfits like UNICEF and the International Red Cross (which may sound Christian, but isn’t). The biggest work of all will be performed by carrier groups and airborne brigades of the United States, the taxpayer-financed forces of a secular republic. The vital next stage—beyond mere charity and rescue—will be to try and liberate Haiti’s people from fear of witch doctors of all stripes and to educate them in the family planning that their country so urgently needs. Let’s see how the various parties of God come out on that.
In the meantime, I urge everybody to think first as a human being, and to give as much as they can to any relief organization at all, but most especially by contacting the newest secular aid group at Non-Believers Giving Aid.
Correction, Jan. 21, 2010: This piece originally and incorrectly asserted that San Francisco was last hit by an earthquake in 1906. (Return to the corrected sentence.)