By Douglas Anele
According to Sugata Masaaki, an expert in the religion, “Shinto is so woven into the fabric of Japanese daily life that people are barely aware of its existence. To the Japanese, it is less a religion than an unobtrusive environmental fixture, like the air they breathe.”
The Shinto teaching of “Ask nothing but submit to divine providence,” permeates and controls Japanese thinking and makes the people more capable of enduring natural calamities with equanimity, just as the Stoic doctrine of indifference to adversity and suffering as a virtue provides Stoics some form of consolation when things go awry.
The Japanese are picking up the bits and pieces of their broken lives with grace, courage and philosophical equanimity. We feel their pain, and wish them the very best in their efforts to heal, recover and rebuild. But beyond the death, physical destruction and egregious economic losses occasioned by the disaster, the psychological damages are immense. In the case of children, for instance, the horror of swaying and shaking houses, falling objects and the terrifying sounds of rushing water as the water waves rushed in during the tsunami give them sleepless nights and nightmares.
In varying degrees, the adults are terrified as well, in addition to the heartbreaking loss of loved ones and valuable property. The most worrisome problem now is how to contain the dangerous radiation coming from the disabled Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Japanese authorities have banned the consumption of milk and dairy products from the areas around the plant because of the health hazards associated with radioactive contamination. Residents of Tokyo have been advised not to give water from taps to infants because of that. The daunting challenges posed by the crippled Daiichi plant have raised once again the question of safety with respect to human exploitation of atomic energy.
Ever since humans learnt of the enormous energy locked inside matter, thanks to the famous equation e=mc2 formulated by Albert Einstein, the idea of harnessing it for human benefit (and, regrettably, for war also) has challenged the ingenuity of physicists and engineers. With time, both goals were realised, through artificially-induced nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. Japan, is one of the advanced countries that rely on nuclear energy for electricity.
The fundamental problem centres on the harmful effects of radioactive elements used in nuclear reactors. The radiations from plutonium-239 and uranium-235 are dangerous on living tissue. X rays, gamma rays and other sub-atomic particles have enough penetrating power to induce changes in the cells by disrupting the intricate interconnected chemical systems that control cellular functions in living organisms.
Cancers of the skin and bone marrow are common conditions arising from exposure to high levels of radiation. Now, when the radiation level is too high, it can lead to death in a matter of weeks or months as a result of total breakdown of the cells’ chemistry. Moreover, due to the penetrating power of the radioisotopes in nuclear reactors, normal sex cells in parents exposed to abnormal levels of radiation could mutate and be passed on to their offspring.
These mutations are dangerous because they produce deformities in unfortunate children that inherit them. The bottom line in all this is that both the immediate and long-term effects of the nuclear crisis are dire and difficult to identify exhaustively. Perhaps, humankind should desist from meddling with nuclear power until much safer means than present are found for handling harmful radiation in nuclear processes.
Frankly speaking, despite the tremendous resilience of Japanese people and their first class technological prowess, the multi-faceted problems facing Japan at the moment require huge efforts from the global community to tackle. From a more philosophical perspective, the calamity that befell Japan on March 11 raises once again the perplexing question of evil and the existence of an omnipotent good God.
Even before the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, boldly posed the dilemma entailed by the idea of a good omnipotent deity in a world of suffering and evil, sages in Africa and elsewhere had pondered the issue very seriously. In the olden days, virtually everyone believed that natural disasters were God’s punishment for sin. But with the spread of scientific knowledge and its application in technology, the belief is dying out. There is, of course, a perfectly valid scientific explanation for what happened in Japan. Seismic phenomena are part and parcel of the evolutionary processes occurring on earth all the time.
Yet, many religious bigots describe them as acts of God. But why would a good God trigger natural disasters that kill innocent children and other non-human creatures – assuming that all adults in the disaster area were chronic sinners and deserve divine punishment? Believers sometimes see such monumental tragidies as manifestations of the almighty power of God which makes it necessary for people to worship and fear him.
Still, while should a loving almighty father choose very violent and devastating means to showcase his power? I am convinced that the irrational fear and worship of naked brutal power is one of the crucial psychological springboards of belief in an omnipotent deity. Those of us who prefer reason and love to brute force can never accept a fascist God that seems to enjoy willful destruction of the things he created.