Waves from 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami in Southern Thailand (AFP/GETTY)

What does religion and theology have to do with hazards and risks in society?  In what ways does religious discourse shape how we perceive events that are often still interpreted as ‘Acts of God’?  After the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, that left many people stranded at airports throughout the world due to the volcanic ash cloud over Europe, some insurance companies would not reimburse travellers claiming they couldn’t compensate for losses due to ‘Acts of God.’  Theology and religion still appear central to ‘secular’ or ‘modern society’ in generating discourse (dialogue, conversation, discussions etc.) for framing hazards in the world today.

Dr. Claudia Merli from the Department of Anthropology at Durham University recently gave a presentation on her research at IHRR about how theodicies shape political, ecological and other forms of discourse about hazards, ‘Context-bound theodicies: When God, nature and politics meet.’  As Merli stated, theodicy can be basically defined as a “…theological and/or existential problem of reconciling the concept of a merciful, just and omnipotent God with the existence of evil and unjust human suffering,” and by introducing the concept ‘context-bound theodicies’ she wants to highlight that these plural discourses are always inextricably related to cultural, political, religious and social contexts.  Some people perceive large-scale hazards based on theodicies, which impacts how they are socially affected by a hurricane, earthquake or other hazard.  Not only do theological discourses shape their understanding of these events, but they also play a role in defining their identity.

Mosque in Southern Thailand (wikipedia/creative commons)

Merli’s research took place in Satun, one of four provinces in southern Thailand that was hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami to study the role of religious discourses and theodicies in peoples’ response to the hazard.  Merli found, regardless of faith, people used the tsunami to define their identity.  For example, Muslims from the region would view hazards in nature as signs from Allah and a Buddhist abbot from the region suggested that the tsunami may be considered by some Buddhists as a sign for the coming of the Maitreya, the next prophet to arrive on earth according to Buddhist texts.  In the developing and developed world alike, theodicies play a much larger role in how people understand, respond and define hazards in nature, especially in the popular media.

There are numerous examples of NGOs and celebrities who interpret large-scale hazards according to their own unique faith and religious discourse.  During the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti earlier this year, John Travolta, and other Scientologists used the opportunity to spread the ideas of Dianetics originally written by scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.  Pat Robertson, popular US televangelist and right-wing politician (and former Republican candidate to the White House), took advantage of the media situation in the US claiming the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was God’s punishment for the supposed ‘pact with the devil’ made by enslaved Haitians in 1791 to gain freedom from their French colonisers and which started the Haitian Revolution.   And faith-based NGOs have been known to only provide aid to ‘true believers’ or attempt to ‘convert’ others who do not share the same faith.  These are a few of many examples that show how hazards like tsunamis and earthquakes are used to create or reinforce social boundaries, ultimately excluding and including groups of people based on their religious beliefs.


Claudia Merli, Context-bound Islamic theodicies: The tsunami as supernatural retribution vs. natural catastrophe in Southern Thailand, Religion, Volume 40, Issue 2, Special Issue: Religions, Natural Hazards, and Disasters, April 2010, Pages 104-111