Our television screens
fail to convey the full horror of the recent earthquake in Iran that inflicted
terrible deaths on over twenty thousand souls. America has once again led
the international relief effort. It might seem callous to analyze this disaster
even before all the victims have been buried, were it not for one timely
Only a few days earlier, a small town on the California coast also endured
an earthquake. Even taking the logarithmic nature of the Richter scale into
account, from an objective geological perspective, these two events were
almost identical, yet the California quake killed only two people. Dispassionately
examined, the evidence suggests a spiritual rather than a seismic explanation
for the disparity.
One might leap to a seemingly obvious, although incorrect explanation for
the difference in death toll between the two earthquakes: Bam is a very large
city in Iran, while Paso Robles is but a seaside hamlet. However, calculating
the discrepancy shows that the damage done in Bam was vastly disproportionate
to that suffered in Paso Robles.
This is not the first time that similar meteorological phenomena in different
parts of the world have caused immeasurably different consequences. For instance,
China's Yellow River has repeatedly flooded, on one early twentieth century
occasion, snuffing out the lives of millions of Chinese peasants. In a 1991
monsoon in Bangladesh, one hundred and thirty nine thousand people drowned.
However, hurricane Hugo, which battered our own east coast in 1997, was not
significantly less severe a storm than the one that ended the lives of those
pathetic Bangladeshis. Yet Hugo killed only about a dozen Americans. Sad
to be sure, but nowhere near the scale of the Asian catastrophes.
The dreadful San Francisco earthquake in 1989 did kill about fifty motorists
unfortunate enough to be in their cars beneath the stretch of East Bay highway
that collapsed upon them. However, it is important to remember that San Francisco's
high rise skyscrapers did not fall. In fact, other than the problematic highway,
virtually all other buildings and bridges survived the shaker. Less than
one year earlier, a similar quake had killed fifty five thousand victims
in the eastern reaches of the old Soviet Union. Contrast this with a massive
earthquake in 1994 that rocked, with few fatalities, one of the world's great
cities -- Los Angeles.
I have studied the world's twenty greatest natural disasters (measured by
number of fatalities) of the past one hundred and three years. Of all twenty,
only three have taken place in nations where Christianity has had a profound
influence. Two were volcanic eruptions in Sicily and Italy that killed tens
of thousands of people; the other was the flooding of part of Holland during
a violent North Sea storm in 1953 drowning about two thousand people.
Am I suggesting that God dispatches natural disasters to punish those who
have not embraced Christianity? Most of us would find this answer quite unacceptable.
Yet the question does stand: Why are so many more people killed by comparable
natural disasters in non-Christian countries? Phrasing it in just this way
provides the clue.
Natural disasters occur randomly around the world regardless of the particular
faith that has shaped each nation. What dramatically changes the consequences
of natural events such as earthquakes or storms is how a particular society
is organized. And this is where the religious culture of the people seems
to make a huge difference.
When Holland was flooded by the North Sea breaking through its dikes, it
was the last time it ever happened. By contrast, since 1953, Bangladesh alone
has endured six major floods each drowning many thousands. But by 1958, the
Dutch had embarked on the greatest flood control and land reclamation project
in history. When they were done, the Zuider Zee and the rest of Dutch geography
had changed for all time. Dutchmen invested their guilders together and built
up the necessary war chest to defeat the North Sea. It was the magic of the
capital market. The Dutch government, acting on behalf of all the people,
offered twenty-year bonds. The Dutch eagerly handed in their savings in exchange
for a promise to repay the sum with interest after twenty years.
It was Protestant faith that prompted the Dutch to hand over their precious
savings in order to build the biggest and strongest dike ever. Their faith
muscle was strong and, like any other muscle, once you have strengthened
your faith muscle in one area, it is strong for other purposes too. You may
have developed your biceps in the gym, but when you need them to lift the
kitchen table they won't let you down. Similarly, those of us who have developed
our faith muscle within the religious observance of Christianity or Judaism
find that we can count on that faith muscle being ready and available whenever
we require its services for more mundane purposes like investment. This helps
to explain why the Judeo-Christian-based West is our epoch's epicenter of
Western societies originally shaped by Judeo-Christian values enjoy an enormous
advantage in this area. Unlike most of the world's other religions, many
of which stress fatalism over faith, both Judaism and Christianity, each
with its utterly distinctive theology, impart a framework of faith to its
adherents. Other cultures believe they please their god by submissively accepting
his wishes. But societies sculpted by Biblical ideas have faith that tomorrow
can, and must be improved, and that it is morally worthy to bring about that
improvement. That is why non-Christian countries endure repeated earthquakes
and repeated storms yet do little to reduce the successive impact while countries
rooted in Christianity invest massively in seawalls, dykes, and other protective
infrastructures and preventive measures.
In Bangladesh and Bam it is a forlorn hope to get millions of peasants to
act in unison and entrust their gold to a capital market. Their religion
has produced a culture that encourages greater trust in mattresses than in
banks. Theirs is also a culture of fatalism rather than of faith. Thus when
the monsoon or earthquake strikes, it is each man alone against the forces
of nature. Individuals, not surprisingly, emerge as the losers. In America,
and other countries with Judeo-Christian roots, individuals entrust their
resources to the group. They have faith that that those funds will help build
defenses and, eventually, will be repaid with interest.
Judaism and Christianity teach that with faith and action we can change tomorrow.
Furthermore, if doing so can save even one life, we are indeed obligated
to denounce fatalism and act decisively. Uniquely, Biblical civilization
teaches a distinctive emphasis on the value of even one human life. Ancient
Jewish tradition teaches that all of humanity is descended from only one
man, Adam, in order to stress that saving even one life is equivalent to
saving the entire world's population. Abraham's ill-fated attempt to save
the city of Sodom by arguing with God is another example of this oft-repeated
sentiment exceedingly rare in other religions. Not surprisingly, suicide
murderers are found more frequently in non-Biblical civilizations that profess
less value in human life. Not surprisingly, the countries with embedded Judeo-Christian
foundations cope more successfully with natural disaster.
Another reason we are not surprised to see such different fatality figures
is because both Judaism and Christianity, in spite of vastly different theologies,
tend to unify people into collaborating entities. They are both community-building
religions rather than merely tribe-building religions. However, other religions
tend to stress tribal and family affiliation as we see even today in the
Saudi ruling classes. Judeo-Christian teachings implant in Western countries
not only the importance of family but the productive allegiances that can
be formed by those who share common faith. This is why so many Jewish and
Christian Americans regard their synagogue and church affiliations to be
as enriching as their family relationships.
Common agreement to abide by zoning laws and building standards, rare in
most non-Christian societies, yields yet more evidence of how Judaism and
Christianity specialize in bonding people. The early development of the corporation
as a wealth building device took place only in the West, within Christendom.
Even our insurance companies are directly attributable to Judeo-Christian
religious faith. When non-related people share a common outlook on the transcendent
questions of life, they are more likely to care for one another. The insurance
company is the formalized outcome of that mutual concern.
Through the materialistic lens so prevalent today, we see a distorted image
misleading us into believing that religion is an utterly private and largely
irrelevant matter. Thus we block out reality and misperceive the spiritual
and material as two parallel universes that never intersect. In this way
I can comfortably believe that my neighbor's faith brings me no benefit and
my secularism bring him no harm. An honest examination of these disasters
suggests precisely the opposite. We ought to acknowledge that each day, every
American derives enormous benefit from the faith of our Founders and of their
heirs. We ought to acknowledge that our welfare is jeopardized by secular
fundamentalism. Those many tragic and largely unnecessary disasters around
the world bring out the goodness of Americans in the form of mountains of
humanitarian relief. They should also remind us of the source of that goodness.
Rabbi Daniel Lapin is the Founder and Director of Toward Tradition, working to advance our nation toward the traditional Judeo-Christian values that defined America's creation.