It hardly needs stating how appalling Pat Robertson is. Many of you will have heard that he blames what’s happened in Haiti on their having made a pact with the Devil to help them free themselves from French tyranny. The obvious first reaction is astonishment that anyone could say something like that. But, to be honest, if you accept his world-view, what he’s said is pretty reasonable.
In Pat Robertson’s mind things like the Devil and an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God are very real; unless he’s been lying convincingly for a long time, he believes that these beings truly exist. And so do millions of people all over the world. And it is rational to wonder, if there exists an omnipotent benevolent being with the power to stop earthquakes from happening, why this being doesn’t stop earthquakes from happening. This is a classic problem, articulated famously by Epicurus: if God knows of the suffering and can stop it, but does not, then he is not omnibenevolent. If he is omnibenevolent, then he either does not know about the suffering (so is not omniscient) or does know and cannot do anything about it (so is not omnipotent). Many atheists, reasonably, see this as quite a good reason not to believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god. Believers have responses, however, and these responses tend to concentrate on allowing constraints on God’s omnipotence. God does indeed know about the suffering, and is indeed against it, and could indeed do something about it, they argue; however, doing something about it would violate something important.
Usually this something is free will: God, we are told, does not stop human beings from doing evil, as our freedom is very important. For this to make sense in the context of a natural disaster like an earthquake, then the earthquake must be somehow caused by the actions of human beings. This is why people like Pat Robertson always try to come up with sin as an explanation for natural disaster: if natural disaster can’t be blamed on the victims, then it must be blamed on God, and that’s unthinkable. The thing to keep in mind is that none of this is peculiar to some obscure crazy sect of Christianity: it’s pretty close to what a huge number of Christians believe. After all, given the kind of deity Christians profess to believe in, there are only so many ways of explaining suffering.
So what was the Haitians’ sin? This is where Devil worship comes in: in 1791, a man called Dutty Boukman performed the role of priest in a voodoo ceremony in Haiti, which included prophesies about a slave uprising. This helped steel the resolve of the Haitian slaves, leading to the Haitian Revolution, which led to the end of slavery on Haiti and the establishment of a black-ruled republic. For Pat Robertson, like many other Christians, religious practice must be explained in terms of the Christian God or the Devil. And Voodoo is clearly contrary to the teachings of Christianity; so it must be Devil worship. In this world-view, it all suddenly falls into place. What could the people of Haiti have done that was so terrible that God would let them suffer like this? Well, he thinks, it’s a matter of historical record that they invoked the Devil to help them beat the French. Now they have reaped their reward.
People are understandably horrified at what Pat Robertson has said, but, if they share his basic beliefs, they shouldn’t be. When New Orleans flooded, how bad was it to immediately lay blame at the feet of the responsible authorities for not maintaining the levees? If you accept the basics of Pat Robertson’s world-view, then his blaming the people of Haiti for the earthquake is hardly worse. It’s not as if he’s encouraging people not to help. I’m not arguing moral relativism. I’m not saying that Pat Robertson is right in any sense. What I’m saying is that Pat Robertson believes the same basic things as millions of Christians; all he’s done is take these beliefs to their logical conclusion.