Most don’t blame God for disasters

March 24, 2011

We may never know why bad things happen to good people, but most
Americans—except evangelicals—reject the idea that natural disasters are
divine punishment, a test of faith or some other sign from God,
according to a new poll.

The poll, by Public Religion Research
Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, was conducted a
week after a March 11 earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami and
nuclear crisis in Japan.

Nearly six in ten evangelicals (59
percent) believe that God can use natural di­sasters to send
messages—nearly twice the number of Catholics (31 percent) or mainline
Protestants (34 percent) who so believe. Evangelicals (53 percent) are
also more than twice as likely as the one in five Catholics or mainline
Protestants to believe that God punishes nations for the sins of some
citizens.

The poll, released March 24, found that a majority (56
percent) of Americans believe that God is in control of the world, but
the idea of God employing Mother Nature to dispense judgment (38 percent
of all Americans) or God punishing entire nations for the sins of a few
(29 percent) has less support.

From Noah's fabled flood to
21st-century disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 earthquake in
Haiti, some people blame incomprehensible calamities on human
sinfulness.

Such interpretations often offend victims, however.
Public outcry prompted Tokyo's governor, Shintarō Ishihara, to apologize
for calling Japan's recent disaster a "divine punishment" for Japanese
egoism.

"It's interesting that most Americans believe in a
personal God and that God is in control of everything that happens in
the world . . . but then resist drawing a straight line from those
beliefs to God's direct role or judgment in natural disasters," noted
Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute.

The
poll found that most racial and ethnic minority Christians (61 percent)
be­lieve that natural disasters are God's way of testing our faith—an
idea that resonates with African Americans' history of surviving slavery
and racial discrimination.

In other findings:

  • Most white evangelicals (84 percent) and minority Christians (76
    percent) believe that God is in control of everything that happens in
    the world, compared to slimmer majorities of white mainline Protestants
    (55 percent) and Catholics (52 percent).
  • Nearly half of
    Americans (44 percent) say the increased severity of recent natural
    disasters is evidence of biblical "end times," but a larger share (58
    percent) believe it is evidence of climate change. White evangelicals
    are the only religious group more likely to see natural disasters as
    evidence of "end times" (67 percent) than climate change (52 percent).
  • Across political and religious lines, roughly eight in ten Americans
    say government relief aid to Japan is very important (42 percent) or
    somewhat important (41 percent), despite our current economic problems.

"After
one of these disasters, people turn to their clergy and their
theologians and they look for answers, and there are no great answers,"
said journalist Gary Stern, author of Can God Intervene? How Religion Explains Natural Disasters. "But almost every group believes you have to help people who are suffering."

Prompted
by the 2004 tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia, Stern interviewed
dozens of American ministers, priests, imams, rabbis, monks, professors
and nonbelievers about their theories. They offered disparate views,
sometimes at the same time: forces of nature are impersonal; God is
all-knowing but not all-powerful; nature is destructive be­cause of
original sin or collective karma; victims are sinners; suffering helps
test our faith and purify us.

Among evangelicals, there's a wide
gulf between the fundamentalist perspective that sees disasters as proof
of God's wrath and the moderate view that sees "a distinction between
an earthquake as part of God's plan and God causing that earthquake,"
said R. Douglas Geivett, a religion professor at Biola University in La
Mirada, Calif­ornia.

Natural disasters are tragic, "but if you ask
[why God allows] earthquakes, you have to ask it anytime that people
die. We would have to be prophets of God to know that," said Geivett, a
former president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

The
PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey was based on telephone interviews of 1,008
U.S. adults between March 17 and 20. The poll has a margin of error of
plus or minus 3 percentage points.  —RNS