Pramudya A Oktavinanda
The argument that moral violations invite God’s punishment (such as in the form of natural disaster) is a famous one. In a way, this argument is usually used by its proponents to support moral enforcement. Since God’s punishment will be very costly to all of us, it would be better if we spend our resources to maintain the good morality of society.
The question is: Is this a plausible argument? The quick answer would be no. Some of the arguments against moral enforcement have already been set out in my previous article. This time around, we will try to take a look at this famous religious foundation of moral enforcement.
Saying that God might punish the people for misbehavior and moral violations is not necessarily incorrect. There are certain instances in the Holy Book that give us examples of God’s harsh punishment to those who oppose God’s rules. So we have some precedents here.
But we need to dig deeper and try to understand the major aspects of those precedents, at least from Islamic point of view. All of those cases happen in the distant past where the prophets and their supporters are minorities, they involve a situation where the prophets have directly informed the people about the possible punishment from God, and there are also preliminary warnings from the nature indicating the coming of a disaster.
What can we derive from such cases? God practically works in accordance with modern legal conceptions, i.e. no law shall be enforced to the people without proper and timely public disclosure. By proper, I mean that the law has been disseminated in a way that is understandable to the public. After all, you cannot expect someone to follow your order if they do not have any capacity to understand such order.
Of course this will be problematic for our modern age since the last prophet of Islam died more than 1,400 years ago. There are no longer direct messenger of God that can actually inform us precisely what God really wants.
Now, some might argue that the existence of prophet is no longer necessary since the prophet has left us the Holy Book. That might be plausible but not sufficient. Based on the precedents provided by the Koran, God’s punishment was enforced to society where no record of systematic holy book was available. Interestingly, for societies that received a systematic holy book, there is also no record of direct punishment from God.
One then can argue that when a society have a systematic rules of moral values, God gives the chance to such society to settle their own problems. Whether they will follow such rules or whether they will prosper or not is simply another case.
Notice also that once we discussed the history of Islam, we no longer see any threats of punishment from God and the history of Islamic civilization works in accordance with the laws of nature. Some existed for a long time and prospered, some were crushed. But at all time, the civilizations depend entirely on how good they cope with the situation and condition, including in this case, how they apply and enforce the rules.
And I think this is the correct interpretation. In a world where a prophet still exists and can directly deliver the heavenly message to all of us, people can easily understand what God wants. Then it would be logical for the people to comply with God rules of morality and for God to gives punishment based on a fair warning mechanism.
But without a prophet, rules become rationally indeterminate, namely that there are various ways to read the provisions of such rules and how to enforce them in practice (i.e. whether they should stay as moral rules or whether they should be formally turned into laws).
Without any practical authority to determine the absolutely correct interpretation (since no one can speak on behalf of God), how can we expect a fair God to impose punishment in the form of disasters against indeterminate moral violations?
Furthermore, there is no way we can actually know whether a disaster is a part of God’s punishment. First, without any authority from God, making the claim that a disaster is a form of God’s punishment is as easy as making the claims that cats and dogs are spies from Mars.
Second, we can actually say that in terms of fairness, the overall distribution of natural disaster might be fair enough, i.e. that no one in this planet is completely safe from the power of nature. This means that whether you are good or bad, disaster may always occur against you. So how should we interpret that?
Thus, we should stick with such fact and accept the notion that there is indeed a missing link between moral violations and God’s punishment. Sure, you can always make your own claim, but it is not good enough to justify any moral enforcement attempt.