Much as I hate to, I have to disagree with Norm on this one. I think he’s misrepresenting what Dawkins said, with the annotation about the depth and finesse of the adolescent secularist. I don’t think Dawkins is making a shallow point at all, or that he’s expressing a flip certitude, or that he’s being callous about the deaths and griefs of others. On the contrary. (I say that partly because I remember his reaction to September 11 – there was certainly plenty of emotion behind that contribution.) The deaths and griefs are precisely the point. It cuts two ways, this business of clutching at God after a tragedy: yes some people get consolation from the thought of God, but at the price of getting consolation from exactly the guy who caused the tragedy. I think part of Dawkins’ thinking here is that that’s not really a consolation – that there’s a core of bitterness to it. Think of it this way: there you are, minding your own business, harming no one, and suddenly in comes a huge guy who beats you up, knocks your house down, kills all your relatives and friends, poisons your water supply, and trashes all the roads so that you can’t get help. A Job number, in short. Or a Banda Aceh number. You lie there on the ground crying, in pain and fear and agonizing grief. Then the huge guy comes and sits down next to you – and in desperation you crawl into his lap and he cuddles you and says ‘There there.’ And you feel ever so slightly consoled.

Is Dawkins really being so very brutal and callow to suggest that it actually might be more consoling to realize that nothing conscious caused the earthquake to happen? Epicurus wouldn’t have thought so, Lucretius wouldn’t have thought so. That was the very essence of Epicureanism: pointing out that fear of the gods was an unnecessary source of misery. Part of the core of bitterness in having to turn to God for consolation after a disaster is the knowledge that God let the disaster happen. Yes, people do it, and it no doubt works for some (if they can comparmentalize with enough rigour, so that they forget that the God they’re turning to for comfort is the same one who made them so unbearably miserable and bereaved), but why can’t Dawkins genuinely think that a naturalistic explanation of disaster is also comforting because it’s impersonal? And that is what he says, after all.

Of course, if you can derive comfort from such a monster, I would not wish to deprive you. My naive guess was that believers might be feeling more inclined to curse their god than pray to him, and maybe there’s some dark comfort in that. But I was trying, however insensitively, to offer a gentler and more constructive alternative. You don’t have to be a believer. Maybe there’s nobody there to curse…Science cannot (yet) prevent earthquakes, but science could have provided just enough warning of the Boxing Day tsunami to save most of the victims and spare the bereaved…And if the comforts afforded by outstretched human arms, warm human words and heartbroken human generosity seem puny against the agony, they at least have the advantage of existing in the real world.

I don’t find that at all flip, or unattractive, or like an adolescent; in fact I find it rather moving.

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