Growing up, history was one of my least favorite subjects in school. Maybe it was the dull uninspiring teachers who seemed to drone on with dates, names and dusty facts. Or maybe my personality simply preferred math, science and logic. But I didn’t like history. In college, I finally realized how significant history was. My church history class was truly fascinating, and world history became interesting as well.
Somehow, I totally missed the history lesson on the natural disaster that befell Lisbon Portugal in 1755. I also never knew about the surge of philosophical thought that came as a result. Here’s a quick summary if you’re unfamiliar with it.
The year was 1755. The place was Lisbon, which was Portugal’s capital and the largest city in the area. It was known as one of the biggest ports on the Atlantic Ocean, and the city played a critical role in world trade. It was also a pious city of devout Christians. It was November 1, All Saints Day. Most people were gathered in their churches and synagogues. They were praying and worshiping. Suddenly, an earthquake that likely had a magnitude of 8.0, struck the area. Contemporary reports said it lasted between 3 – 6 minutes, causing fissures 5 meters (15 feet) in length to open in the city centre. Roughly 85% of Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed, which includes nearly all of the churches whose structures tended to be among the tallest, and thus the most deadly when they collapsed on their occupants. The screams of terror must have been horrific. It would be later known as one of the deadliest earthquakes ever recorded.
To make matters worse, forty minutes later a tsunami engulfed the area killing many more. Close to the coast, a 6 meter (20-foot) tall wave rushed ashore, the first of three. And if collapsing buildings and huge waves of water wasn’t bad enough, fires broke out which raged for 5 days. If the earthquake didn’t get you, the water or fire likely did. The death toll estimates ranged between 10,000 – 50,000 from these natural disasters. An exact number isn’t known since accurate records were either not kept or any records of the populace that existed were destroyed by the disasters.
Many that survived, which included escaped prisoners, fled Lisbon immediately. The survivors soon began to ask the question, why did this happen? Was God the cause? If God is love, how could this happen? Was it divine judgment?
Religious authorities did proclaim that the earthquake was the wrath of God against the sins of the people. It was a common reaction of the time to look to the heavens when disaster struck. Many philosophers rejected those notions, in part, because Lisbon’s red-light district suffered only minor damage while nearly all of the churches were destroyed in this very devout Christian city. Voltaire later parodied the religious thinking in the book Candide. Voltaire was a French writer, playwright and philosopher. I remember hearing his name most often from preachers who condemned him as an atheist and/or as anti-Christian. While Voltaire was probably more of a deist, he expressed his sentiments about Christianity in his later years in a letter:
“[Christianity] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world. Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition, I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened and who are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think, among those who wish to think. … My one regret in dying is that I cannot aid you in this noble enterprise, the finest and most respectable which the human mind can point out..”
Some say that modern atheism had its roots in the devastation that occurred in 1755. Voltaire certainly didn’t mince his feelings about Christianity. I have wondered if events like the 1755 quake are one of the reasons that much of Europe is ahead of the U.S. in regard to leaving man-made religion behind? What are your thoughts?
One good thing that came from the disasters that befell Lisbon: a strong start to the science of seismology. An earlier hypothesis as to the cause of the quake involved the shifting of huge subterranean caverns filled with hot gases. This early attempt to explain the disaster was later replaced with the science of tectonics. The reconstruction of the city of Lisbon also gave us some of the earliest designs for earthquake-proof building design.