Natural Disasters and Religion - Looking Through a Scientific Lens


Religion and science find a common ground in historian Dean Bell’s "Jewish and Christian Responses to Natural Disasters" class at Northwestern University. The class uses natural disasters, personal diaries and local laws to take a detailed look at Jewish-Christian relations in European history since the Middle Ages.

Students study floods, fires, plagues, earthquakes and more to analyze how individuals and groups respond to them and to each other during times of crisis. Surprisingly the class has more science and journalism students than history and religion, and Bell has found that the groups interact well and are engaged.

To his knowledge, this is the only class of its kind and about 30 students are enrolled. Bell is a visiting professor from the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago.

Dean Bell, a visiting professor at Northwestern University, uses science as a lens to look at religious interaction (photo by Ashley Cullins/MEDILL)Dean Bell, a visiting professor at Northwestern University, uses science as a lens to look at religious interaction (photo by Ashley Cullins/MEDILL)Do people respond differently to a human-driven disaster versus a weather-related disaster?
Sometimes, but not always, surprisingly. Responses to floods seem a whole lot more pragmatic. People who live along rivers that traditionally flood know how to deal with them. They’re used to the kind of events that happen, and yet sometimes people describe them in biblical terms as the end of the world. And other times, they just say, "Everybody get some sandbags and start piling things up and let’s see what we can do to solve this."

What we’ve been really stressing in the course is that, at least in European history, there’s both a biblical and a classical foundation for understanding the environment and natural disasters. But there’s a third element, which is practical experience and the individual context. In a certain sense, that’s really what dictates how people respond and how they correspond it with the general way that they think about the world.

There are similarities between religions, between how Jews and Christians respond to these things. But when you take into account the individual experiences and the local context, they can be quite different.

How does this class look at religion?
I’ve taken this entire subject and said we’re going to use [it] as a lens into understanding Jewish and Christian relations in European history. It’s only one lens, but it’s an interesting lens because it’s not direct. Usually when we look at Jewish-Christian relations we look at anti-Jewish legislation, or we look at polemics, or we look at theological debates.

We find that in many of the chronicles, diaries or other kinds of archival materials that people aren’t really focused on religious aspects. They’re talking about what was specifically happening, how neighbors were helping each other. How there might have been looting in the Jewish quarter on the one hand and yet, on the other hand, how they might have helped each other get food or other provisions.

It adds an interesting element to Jewish and Christian relations, which until the last 20 years have been looked at as basically negative. In Judaism we have this notion of a lachrymose view of Jewish history, that everything was a sort of trail of tears. It was all about persecution. The last 20 years, we’ve really reevaluated that and said that there are certainly episodes of persecution and violence, but there also were periods of normalcy, and there obviously were periods of positive and constructive interaction.

What's the thought process behind using a science-based lens?
Before the scientific revolution in the 17th century, everybody probably would have explained everything based on religion and superstition. Along comes the scientific revolution to dismiss those ideas, and we base everything on experiment and experience and scientific thinking. The truth of the matter is, both before and after, it’s a whole lot more complex than that.

We looked at a 15th century anonymous Hebrew chronicle of the earthquake in Gerona, and while the thing reads like a biblical commentary, it also makes reference to Aristotle and Plinea and talks about natural explanations. It certainly comes down more on the religious rather than the philosophical side, but both elements are there, clearly.

By contrast, when you look at some of the late 18th century descriptions of the major earthquake in Portugal or in London, there you find people using not only scientific descriptions but also religious explanations. It’s not only about, "Well we actually know the science of what’s underneath these things. There are other things that these are portending and we should take serious note. How come it’s the Portuguese and the English who are persecuted by these earthquakes? It must be that God is angry for some political or religious reason."

Both before and after the scientific revolution, you find that co-mingling of religious and scientific explanations. I would suggest maybe it’s the proportion of those explanations that changes. After the 17th century, there’s more scientific, philosophical discussion and less religion, and probably before that there’s more religious context and less science and philosophy. But there’s always a balance, and it’s that local context and individual experience and perspective that really decides where the balance is and how to present it.

Do you think these discussions help to bridge the gap between Judaism and Christianity and between religion and science?
I think they can. Unfortunately a lot of people have preconceived notions of all of that to begin with, and this is just another area for them to vent their particular position. Yet you see in a lot of documents that a kind of more positive relationship does come out.

Even in some of the sermons from the late 18th century, they’ll go through a whole litany of discussion about how there are clearly scientific explanations for these earthquakes that are happening and we shouldn’t discount them, but we also know that God is involved in the world and there are reasons why these things happen.

As you get further towards the 19th century in some cases, they have more of a universal, collective feel to them, that we’re thinking about humanity at large as opposed to individuals. It’s true we all have to do better, be a little bit more moral and reform the way that we behave. They’re talking about a collectivity that is beyond a specific religious group.

Do you know if you have any atheists in your class?
I don’t know. People don’t really wear their religion on their sleeves. I would suspect there are a couple of students who are more interested in the history or the scientific aspects of it, but it doesn’t come out in the conversation.

Nobody in the discussion is dismissive of religion. They’re respectful of it. They want to engage it. They want to understand the context and the meaning behind it. Even if they’re not religious per se, the idea of religion seems powerful for them, particularly in response to natural disasters.


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