Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, has caused considerable offence Stateside by describing the oil spill off the coast of Louisiana as an "act of God". In contrast to Barack Obama, who has already made it clear who he thinks is to blame -- "BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill," the president said -- Perry's view is that, "From time to time there are going to be things that occur that are acts of God that cannot be prevented."
The Texas governor later defended his remarks by saying that the term was a legal definition which meant "nobody knows what happened". Bearing him out, perhaps, my New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines "act of God" as "the operation of uncontrollable natural forces".
Why, however, should such events be blamed on God, and what consequences flow from assigning responsibility to Him? The term clearly dates from a time when belief in an omniscient and omnipotent god was near universal, and it made sense to ascribe events not connected with human activity -- earthquakes, volcanoes, and so on -- to divine action.
But this leads directly into a question familiar to any student of philosophy or theology -- the Problem of Evil. As St Augustine put it: "Either God cannot abolish evil or He will not: if He cannot then He is not all-powerful; if He will not then He is not all-good."
Favour to the Almighty
All the arguments justifying the necessity of natural evil have always seemed to me utterly bizarre -- even more so than the Free Will Defence, which seeks to explain human evil by claiming that a God who could have created a world in which everyone always chose to do good (Flew and Mackie's "good robots") preferred one in which He knew people would do evil instead.
Indeed, some argue that a consequence of divine omniscience is that nothing happens without God's say-so: in which case, as the late philosopher D Z Phillips wrote: "What are we to say of the child dying of throat cancer? . . . If this has been done to anyone, it is bad enough, but to be done for a purpose, to be planned from eternity -- that is the deepest evil. If God is this kind of agent, He cannot justify His actions, and His evil nature is revealed."
Richard Swinburne explained natural evil in The Existence of God thus: "If men are to have the opportunity to bring about serious evils for themselves or others by actions or negligence, or to prevent their occurrence, and if all knowledge of the future is obtained by induction from patterns of similar events in the past -- then there must be serious natural evils occurring to man or animals."
Convincing? Another popularly cited get-out clause, associated with St Augustine, was that natural evils are caused by fallen angels -- in which case such events should surely not be described as "acts of God" at all.
Whichever way you look at it, it doesn't seem to me that describing an oil slick half the size of Wales, and which threatens 25 per cent of America's fresh fish haul, as an "act of God" is particularly helpful. It wouldn't appear to do the Almighty many favours, either: a point worth pondering in a country where professions of Christian faith by those in public life are almost compulsory.