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Value Conflict
Arising from a Disaster

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 1999-2

Value Conflict Arising from a Disaster

A.J.W. Taylor, Emeritus Professor, School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand. Email: Tony.Taylor@vuw.ac.nz
Keywords: Value conflicts, religion and health, natural disaster causation

AJW Taylor

Emeritus Professor
School of Psychology
Victoria University of Wellington
PO Box 600 Wellington
New Zealand


A stress/trauma assignment in the Cook Islands revived questions about the effect of certain Christian belief/value systems in the immediate post-impact period of recovery. It suggested that although there is no question that values have a fundamental place in guiding human behaviour, the specific attributions that the clergy made at the time for the cause of the calamity were inappropriate and anachronistic. The topic will be opened up, its antecedents traced, and the implications explored. At issue is the validity of using moral transgression as the cause of natural disasters and of expecting atonement, when a tenable and well-attested scientific alternative explanation is available. It raises matters to which academics, practitioners, and emergency workers might need to pay attention.

Value Conflict Arising from a Disaster


Values are the guiding principles by which individuals order their lives. Their place is as much evident in matters of immoral and criminal behaviour, as in those at the other extreme. Long ago the World Health Organisation (1986) went so far as to accord them equal status with mental, physical, and social factors in the promotion of health. In the therapeutic area, Mollica (1988) made clear to trauma consultants the essential part that value systems play both in producing symptomatology and in helping the recovery of immigrant refugees, and Paton (1992) mentioned the effect of value-conflicts experienced by international emergency workers when working in critical situations abroad. Then Benson and Stark (1996) presented clinical and research evidence to show that values have an identifiable physiological effect on human behaviour.

Most recently Francis (1999) traced the philosophical origins that cover value systems, before showing how firmly they feature in codes of ethics to cover obligations with subjects in research and in post-graduate professional relationships. But values get scant attention as central topics in applied research, and they are a neglected topic within formal courses of academic psychology, because they are fluid in substance and difficult to conceptualise and objectify. Yet in reality, values are a strong and pervasive force in human behaviour.

It became necessary to address a difference in value systems after a cyclone in the Cook Islands of the South Pacific, when the clergy attributed the disaster to the departure of the target population from the paths of righteousness and a trauma therapist thought otherwise (Taylor, 1998). Although the clergy did their full share of helping with the rescue and recovery work, they did not focus exclusively on the immediate comfort of the bereaved and the bereft in their spiritual work. Instead they obliged their followers to search their souls to discover, disclose, and to expiate the unspecified sins that were believed to have brought the catastrophe about. Thus to the therapist, religion seemed to offer its followers little consolation when they were grieving for their dead and struggling to regain sufficient courage to continue with life. Its focus was on the Book of Revelations rather than on the Gospels of the New Testament.

At the outset it has to be said that the Christian Churches play a central part in the daily life of the 15 widely scattered Cook Island communities. This is particularly true for the group of four there that has official recognition - i.e. the Cook Island Christian Church, the Latter Day Saints, Roman Catholic, and the Seventh Day Adventist. Their teaching underpins the administration and much of the social as well as the spiritual welfare of the total population of about 23,000 islanders. They were united in attributing the event to an angry God who had applied it to His flock as a punishment for their unspecified moral transgressions. They did not regard the disaster an inexplicable 'Act of God' or a case of force majeure, in the sense which commercial insurers use the term. Much less did they consider it a meteorological change wrought by the well-substantiated El Nino weather pattern.

Some of the leading local politicians followed suit. But they attributed the disaster specifically to the failure of the particular island community to attend Church regularly, to working on Sundays, and to paying too much attention to its burgeoning pearl-farm industry.

The admonitions left the survivors either despondent or angry, according to the extent of their acceptance of clerical authority and respect for politicians. The despondent did not question the justice of innocents being sacrificed for the transgressions of the living, although among the 20 fatalities was a clergyman, his wife, young children, and others whose behaviour was known to have been beyond reproach. Nor did they question the enormity of the punishment imposed on the dead and missing and their grieving families. Instead, they accepted the moral condemnation, and they tried to recollect the sinful behaviour for which they had to atone if they and their community were to avoid further wrath from a punishing God. They were under additional pressure to resolve the issue because the yearly sequence of cyclones had just begun, and there was the prospect of more devastation to come unless they made amends.

The angry rejected the moral impositions. They were mostly islanders who had been educated abroad and were aware of alternative explanations for the calamity. They avoided the frequent community prayer meetings, and did not speak openly on other occasions for fear of causing disruption during the period when the community required cohesion for its survival. But they muttered among themselves that:

  1. the somewhat predictable world-wide weather pattern was not a matter for which they as individuals and their community as a whole could be held responsible
  2. the same politicians who were now criticising the pearl-farming industry had praised it not long before for its contribution to the national economy
  3. church attendance should not be obligatory and enforced for fear that absenteeism would cause disaster, and in any case
  4. the unidentified villagers who were alleged to work on Sundays might have included Seventh Day Adventists who worshipped on Saturdays and would not therefore have deserved the condemnation.

To an outsider, the moral obligation imposed on the survivors in the immediate aftermath of the disaster seemed to endanger their already fragile sense of security and self-esteem. Such self-blame was considered a maladaptive method for coping with continuing trauma (Holahan, Moos, & Schaefer, 1997). It was also thought to reinforce feelings of helplessness in the survivors, create an extra burden, and impede the recovery of the survivors at a time when encouragement, inspiration, and support from all sources were more likely to help them maintain their desperate existence. It also introduced an element of discord at a time when community needed to affirm its bonds, share its grief, acknowledge the heroic deeds of its members who saved many lives, and ponder its future location.

In response to direct questioning about my position at open community meetings at the time, I could only say that there were compelling alternative scientific explanations for the atmospheric and oceanographic phenomenon that had occurred. I said that their acceptance, to my mind, would enhance rather than detract from the power of religion to support the bereaved in times of adversity.

Subsequently some of the clergy inquired directly about such explanations, and in response I was able to forward posters that had been written and illustrated by the Ministry of Civil Defence on the origins of natural disasters specifically for the information of Polynesian communities in New Zealand.


But questions arose in my mind as to whether the Church might be prepared to revise some aspects of its fundamentalist teaching to make it consistent with that of cognate disciplines. Then, if the answers were in the affirmative, I wondered how the Church would rationalise a shift of emphasis, and impart the change to its believers. The further query arose because changes of such magnitude might create anxiety in those who had been taught that punishment for natural disasters was a keystone of their beliefs. Having thus begun, the queries took me into unfamiliar territory relating to the function of explanations, the creation of beliefs, and the emergence of Christian explanations for natural disasters as follows.


First, in an attempt to put the major matter into context, it has to be said that all disasters, whether natural, technological, or human, provoke a desire for simple explanations to account for their occurrence, and for the quick formulation of plans to prevent their recurrence. Such explanations are like myths - defined by McLeish (1996, p.v) as providing 'the continuum of identity which allows the community to make sense of everything it experiences or thinks' - that can be either widely or narrowly held. They reflect the current zeitgeist - i.e. the prevailing educational, experiential, and intellectual climate of the times. They are based on either supernatural belief or scientific proof, and sometimes a mixture of both. The first is drawn from either from superstition or scripture, the second from observation and verification, and the third from an amalgam when either kind of explanation alone is insufficient to account for the facts as observed.

Each of the three types of explanation would have consequences for bringing about the reduction of hazards and their effects. It is even conceivable that different religions might offer different explanations to account for different kinds of natural disasters. But according to one authority, no matter whether the religion was predominantly monotheist or polytheistic, the hope would be that those affected might take remedial action for restoring a state of righteousness and holiness (Private communication, Dr James Veitch, Department of Religious Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, 2 February 1998). However, although there would be merit in promoting a comparative study of religious conceptions of disaster, the present focus will remain on the early polytheistic pre-Christian and the later monotheistic Christian explanations for catastrophe, and the emerging scientific alternatives, because of its relevance for the disaster-prone population immediately under consideration.


The basic purpose for the creation of beliefs is unknown. The simplest explanation is that the ancient cultures projected their own human qualities of emotion and reason onto the universe, in an attempt to impose order and meaning onto the mysterious phenomena of natural events which they observed in their daily lives (Lloyd Geering, private communication, 19 March 1998). No doubt because of the vagaries of the prevailing weather and climate, the ancients perceived their array of Gods initially to be capricious. But over time they imbued the Deities with the power of using the forces of nature to punish cultures that failed to pay proper respect.

With regard specifically to the polytheism of the South Sea Islanders, an early missionary wrote as follows:

(They) appear under circumstances peculiarly favourable to happiness, but their idolatry exhibits them as removed to the farthest extreme from such a state. The baneful effect of their delusions was increased by the vast preponderance of malignant deities, frequently the personification of cruelty and vice. They ... regarded their (religious) duties with horrific dread, and worshipped only with enslaving fear.'

 William Ellis (1829, vol.1, Pp. vii - viii).

The same Missionary went on to draw similarities between the pagan worship of the South Sea Islanders and that of the people of antiquity. But from his account their polytheism seems not to have been so systematised as in Ancient Rome, where at times the Emperors required the priests to consult the treasured Sibylline texts to account for the occurrence of droughts, earthquakes, famine, floods, plagues, pestilence and volcanic eruptions (Ogilvie, 1986). When called upon in this way, the priests had either to give advice about placating one of the array of existing Gods, or to go abroad to find out about others whom inadvertently the populace might have offended (Private communication, Dr Alex Scobie, Classics scholar, Wellington, 27 February 1998).

Christian explanation for natural disasters

However, within the short space of 20 years from the time of their arrival in the Cook Islands in 1821, the Reverend John Williams and his two local assistants converted the entire population from pagan polytheism to Christian monotheism (Gutch, 1974). The conversion retained the punitive rationale for natural disasters, but consistent with the wider teachings of Christianity at the time, narrowed it to the punishment imposed by God on communities for the moral transgression of their individual members. The Missionaries hoped that by persuading the islanders to ascribe the power of punishment to a single God rather than to many, and by interpreting calamities as an indication of His wrath for their iniquities, the islanders might also relinquish the practice of punishing each other so severely. In essence they wanted their God to terrorise the converts into peaceful obedience.

According to Gilson (1980, p.32), the early Missionaries were regarded as

 'powerful white chiefs whose supply of valuable articles and fleet of ships seemed inexhaustible, but whose prime concern was that the people should observe special injunctions pronounced by the supreme Jehovah. A breach of these rules made them very sad; when they became sad they expounded on the fate of sinners in the afterworld. An occasional disaster indicated that retribution might come even sooner.' (My emphasis).

To this day the monotheistic explanation for disasters has remained central to the existence of the Cook Islanders (cf. South Pacific Bureau for Economic Co-operation, 1979). Although on the one hand, as in other island communities (and in the population of more developed countries), traces of the earlier polytheism are still to be found (Luomala, 1984). On the other hand, alternative scientific explanations for catastrophe are held simultaneously with those of the religious in some quarters, and there are grounds for thinking that their wider dissemination to the clergy and the population at large might not be too difficult.

Concurrent scientific explanation

Since the 1950's visiting scientists and politicians in the South Pacific region have expressed their concerns sporadically about global climatic warming and local associated sea level changes (Brook, Basher, Bruce, Parsons, & Sullivan, 1991, p. 2). From the 1980's numerous island governments have been working with the United Nations Disaster Relief Office on regional hazard reviews. They have embarked on five-year planning schemes, set priorities, and improved their managerial infrastructures for coping with disasters (UNDRO, 1990). Some have come tacitly to acknowledge that cyclones are atmospheric, climatic, and oceanographic events whose intensity varies with the five-year cycles of the El Nino - Southern Oscillation (Basher, Collen, Fitzharris, Hay, Mullan, & Sallinger, 1992; Goodwin, 1997). They have also joined others from the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean to complain of the slow progress made by the developed nations in controlling pollution to mitigate the disastrous effects of climate change (Dr. Tom Clarkson, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, Wellington, private communication, 6 January 1998).

Resolving the discrepancy

While it could be argued that a patchwork of inconsistent explanations has more appeal than one of consistency and uniformity, the dissonance is somewhat intellectually and morally untenable, and it has harsh humanitarian implications. Fortunately, a few clergy from different theological schools agree, and they have given pointers to show how the resolution might be achieved. For example, Rabbi Michael Abrahams of the Wellington Liberal Synagogue (private communication 18 December 1997) would finesse the question by redefining the theological rationale for regarding disasters as Divinely inspired punishment. He suggests that the clergy could give more consideration:
  1. to God's specific covenant not to harm mankind (Genesis 9:13)
  2. to God's concern for the spiritual recovery of the wicked and not for their death (Ezekiel, 33: 10), and
  3. to the shift of emphasis in the Old Testament away from corporate guilt for sinful behaviour to that of individual guilt.

In their publications, other theologians like Robinson and Edwards (1963), Geering (1986), and Spong (1991), suggest that the clergy should place more emphasis on inner spiritual growth and redemption through worship than on outward behavioural conformity through fear of punishment. Bishop Spong (1991, p.33) would also have each generation re-interpret the world in the light of the knowledge and suppositions currently available. Geering (1994) would go further and make the existential core of humanity the focus of religion, and regard the myths of creation and catastrophe the stepping-stones en route.

Somewhat in advance of such propositions, Douglas cited Greta Hort (1980, pp. 1234-1237) to suggest that with the exception of the death of all the first-born, the ten plagues of Egypt were linked biologically rather than theologically. He said that they could have been the outcome of a series of events that began with an abnormally high tide that carried fine particles of red earth and micro-organisms. These in turn would have poisoned fish, caused frogs to swim ashore, and bred an abundance of mosquitoes and flies that infected cattle and gave skin rash to humans. The heavy rains that followed would have ruined the staple food crop, caused floods, and made conditions suitable for locusts to breed. The drought that completed the cycle would have baked the ground, from which a three-day whirlwind would have blown particles of dust about to block the light of the sun.

However, a reading of the original paper shows that in making the connections between the sequence of calamities, Hort (1957) was seeking simply to establish the historical truth for the actual occurrence of the plagues. She was not trying to offer a biological alternative for the widely held theological explanation for the disasters as forming an 'invincible sequence and growing severity'. No doubt had she done so, she would have created uproar, because in the words of Dr. Nan Burgess, former Lecturer in Pastoral Theology, Knox College, Dunedin (private communication, 9 December 1997), the acceptance of biological accounts for natural disaster would require the clergy to think theologically rather than biblically. In my view it would also require them:

  1. to think scientifically and to be bold enough to discard redundant explanations
  2. to allow their findings to percolate through their scriptural teaching
  3. to admit that they should have expounded their previous religious explanations more tentatively, and
  4. to work through the implications of value change with their congregations, and support them through the inevitable period of uncertainty that follows any recalibration of basic values.

Were they to do this, the clergy might ponder Sagan's (1997) thesis on the historical and contemporary conflict between irrationality and rationality in the development of science. They might also take heart from Tenner's (1996) cautionary tale of the unintended consequences of so-called technological progress, and come to appreciate that the findings of science and technology, like those of scholarship, are not always beyond dispute!


The suggestion is not outlandish. It is perhaps even timely, because to overcome the effects of widespread ecological neglect and bring a concern for the environment within a framework of religion, Marsh (1991) has mooted a 'Down to earth religion'. Already the influential World Council of Churches (WCC) has recommended that a specific concern for the environment be introduced into Christian theology (Eyles, 1993). Were the WCC to be successful, and go just a little further with proposals for modifying religious explanations for the causation of natural disasters, it might be easier for the Cook Island Churches and others like them to follow suit. Then they might come to place less emphasis on punishment in times of adversity and more on compassion. The change of emphasis would repair the apparent rift in their community on the issue, promote the resilience of a vulnerable population that chooses to remain in a disaster-prone area of the globe, and remove some of the dissonance between theology and science.


Those from outside a stricken community who accept stress/trauma assignments, need to give detailed attention to the web of belief/value systems that they are likely to encounter. This would apply as much to civil engineers dealing with issues such as water-supply, sanitation, and property ownership, as to health professionals dealing with grief and trauma. In doing this they might be breaking new ground, because the topic does not feature in many emergency service training courses, and the information they require might not be readily available except from cultural anthropologists and former Missionaries. But once obtained, it will provide the helpful sketch of a framework to which they can adapt the interventions they propose to transport. It might also indicate areas of potential conflict that initially outsiders will be obliged to tolerate but at an appropriate time afterwards be able to raise for discussion - as in the present paper.


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AJW Taylor© 1999. The author assigns to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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