Where Science and Faith Converge

Why Do People Die in Earthquakes? Blame Corrupt Governments, Not God

By Fazale Rana - August 1, 2012

The last decade witnessed a number of devastating earthquakes, with death tolls among the highest in recorded history.

Quake Location
and Magnitude

Year Deaths 1
Haiti - 7.0 2010 316,000
Sumatra - 9.1 2004 227,898
China - 7.9 2008 87,587
Pakistan - 7.6 2005 86,000
Iran - 6.6 2003 31,000
Japan - 9.0 2011 20,896
India - 7.6 2001 20,085

Invariably, when temblors (or other natural disasters) wreck their havoc, skeptics and believers justifiably ask, “Why would God allow such devastation, suffering, and death?”

Philosophers formalize questions like this into the problem of evil. If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, how could earthquakes exist in a creation God called good?

Typically, philosophers group evil into two categories: moral and natural. For many people, moral evil presents much less of a conundrum than natural evil because God isn’t held responsible for the acts of moral creatures. Rather, free-will beings who perpetrate evil by violating God’s standards of goodness are ultimately culpable.

But natural evil—the outworking of processes integral to the creation—is another matter. Many people attribute natural evil exclusively to God.

Is it possible that what is thought to be natural evil is really moral evil in disguise? A recent study by engineers from the Imperial College of London and University of Colorado, Boulder, supports this notion2 (as does earlier work on cholera prevention in Bangladesh).

These researchers noted that over the last century significant engineering advances have been made in quake-resistant building designs. Yet, in the last decade, 60,000 people per year have died from earthquakes (and secondary effects like tsunamis, landslides, and fires).

The engineers observed, however, that there exists a significant nation-to-nation difference in earthquake-related fatalities. Part of this difference is due to poverty. Typically, when a quake strikes, more deaths occur in poverty-stricken parts of the world than in wealthy, developed countries. This makes sense. Poor countries are often marked by a lack of education in the best building practices and by the use of substandard materials to construct edifices.

Yet, there’s another factor at play. Some countries experience more (and less) deaths than expected based on the country’s income.

It turns out that this disparity is directly related to the corruption of those countries. Using the Corruption Perception Index tabulated by Transparency International in Berlin, Germany, the researchers uncovered the critical role that society-wide corruption plays in earthquake-caused deaths. According to the researchers, “Some nations are more corrupt than anticipated. It is in these countries that about 83% of all deaths from earthquakes in the past three decades have occurred.”3

Perhaps most striking is the comparison of the recent temblors in Haiti and New Zealand, both measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale. The death toll in Haiti, where corruption is high, was, by many estimates, well over 300,000. In New Zealand, where little corruption exists, the death toll was, in effect, zero.

The bottom line: quake-related deaths stem from, in large measure, moral failings and could rightly be understood as an example of moral evil, not natural evil. Blame corrupt humans, not God.

  1. This data was taken from the USGS website, accessed June 29, 2012.
  2. Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham, “Corruption Kills,” Nature 469 (January 13, 2011): 153–55.
  3. Ibid.

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