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Religious believers often invoke the name of the Almighty in their speech. Survivors of natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or earthquakes thank God for protecting them…and apparently absolve Him of blame for failing to protect those who perished. They may justify that in their own mind by believing they were more righteous than the unfortunate victims, who apparently didn’t measure up to the standards necessary to be spared. And then, they will nod knowingly, asserting that “we mere humans cannot know the infinite mind of God, and the plan He has for each of us.”

Those natural disasters are referred to as “Acts of God,” and not just by religionists. The term is part of the legal language to define events that were not caused by humans. Here is an excerpt from a legal blog called First Light Law that describes the origin of the phrase, and its use in legal and insurance claims today:

The concept of an Act of God first appeared in Roman Law and seems to have entered English court verdicts in the 16th century. At that time, it was used as an excuse for someone not being able to appear in court because of an unavoidable event.

In current law, An Act of God is often invoked when people or organizations want to escape accountability for things they believe to be entirely out of their control. Contractual language referring to acts of God is known as force majeure clauses, which are often used by insurance companies. These clauses typically limit or remove liability for injuries, damages, and losses caused by acts of God.

What is the legal definition of an Act of God, and how is it used in contracts and insurance claims? 

Again, from First Light Law:

An act of God doesn’t necessarily imply that no one is liable for damages. In the case of the flooding caused by ‘act of God’ Hurricane Katrina in the US, a judge ruled that the US Army Corps had been negligent in not maintaining adequate flood defenses. In the event of a hurricane flattening a dilapidated building, an insurance claim can be denied because the owner didn’t maintain the structure’s integrity.

We all contribute to the environmental catastrophe that is approaching. God cannot be blamed for our own stupidity.

A personal experience that illustrates the latter case

A few years ago, a section of the block wall separating our property from our neighbor’s collapsed in a windstorm. The wall was very old, in precarious condition, and has needed replacement for several years. Nevertheless, our neighbor filed an insurance claim, and since we both had the same insurance carrier, we also filed a claim. The insurance adjuster who came out to inspect the damage noted that the remaining sections of the wall were leaning, and about to collapse. After he submitted his report, we were notified that the claim was denied, which was no surprise to me, but our neighbor was outraged.

The precedent in case law is defined by Nugent v Smith (1876) which says that an act of God is caused by “elementary forces of nature unconnected with the agency of man or other cause.” It is understandable that such an archaic term would originate in 16th Century English law, but why has it survived in current law? A more descriptive term would be “act of nature,” or better yet, “natural event.”

An interesting article on the New America website titled “Climate Change Should Kill the Act of God” suggests that the term is currently being misused:

Broadly, two criteria qualify an event as an act of God: 1) No human agency could have stopped the event, and 2) no human agency could have exercised due care to prevent or avoid the event’s effects. In other words, acts of God must be unpredictable, and their damage must be unpreventable. On that basis alone, the act of God is nearly obsolete, or at least it should be. While specific weather events such as hurricanes or fires may seem to be acts of God, our growing knowledge of climate systems challenges any vision of weather divorced from human activity. Humans meddle with the climate, which meddles with weather, and the two can’t be disentangled.

The act of God relies on a view of nature separate from humanity. For an act of God defense to make sense, nature must be a closed system uninfluenced by human activity. But climate science challenges the closed-system model. Human activity may not determine specific weather events, but humans have certainly increased the frequency and intensity of weather patterns. The act of God’s artificial distinction between human and nature does not hold. The danger becomes clear when we look at the act of God in the public imagination. As a rhetorical maneuver, it nearly always runs cover for the powerful and the culpable.”

Pinning the blame on fossil fuel companies is a convenient deflection, but we are all culpable. As Pogo said in Walt Kelley’s famous comic strip, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”

We all contribute to the environmental catastrophe that is approaching. God cannot be blamed for our own stupidity.

Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in electronic systems and software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. You can contact him at bigelowbert@gmail.com.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...