Poll: Most Americans don’t blame God for disasters
Nicole Neroulias, Religion News Service
March 25, 2011

Poll: Most Americans don’t blame God for disasters

Poll: Most Americans don’t blame God for disasters
Nicole Neroulias, Religion News Service
March 25, 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 released March 24, 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 10 evangelicals believe God can use

natural disasters to send messages — nearly twice the number of Catholics (31

percent) or mainline Protestants (34 percent). Evangelicals (53 percent) are

also more than twice as likely as the one in five Catholics or mainline

Protestants to believe God punishes nations for the sins of some citizens.

The poll found that a majority (56 percent) of

Americans believe God is in control of the earth, 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 Gov. Shintaro Ishihara to apologize for calling

the 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 natural disasters are God’s way of testing our

faith — an idea that resonates with African-Americans’ history of surviving

through slavery and racial discrimination.

(Japan’s population is predominantly Shinto or Buddhist —

religions that view nature as a force beyond our control or understanding — but

the poll could not get a representative sample of those groups in the United States.)

In other findings:

  • Most white evangelicals (84 percent) and minority

    Christians (76 percent) believe 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. The only religious group more likely to see natural disasters as

    evidence of “end times” (67 percent) than climate change (52 percent) is white


  • Across political and religious lines, roughly eight

    in 10 Americans say government relief aid to Japan is very important (42

    percent) or somewhat important (41 percent), despite our current economic


“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 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.”

The question of God’s role in, and humans’ response

to, disasters has long vexed the world’s major religious traditions, Stern

said, even as answers often remain elusive.

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.

“The evangelical world is definitely focused on

original sin and on the general sinfulness of our world … and it won’t end

until Christ returns,” Stern said. “In the mainline world, their theology is

not well-suited to why God allows these things to happen, so their emphasis is

on looking for God in the rescue efforts. And Catholics feel that suffering

makes us holy, and there are mysteries that we can’t answer in this life, and

we’ll find the answers in the next life.”

But 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 California.

“There are a lot of things that I wouldn’t cause to

happen to my children to teach them certain lessons, but I might allow them to

happen, so they might learn the lesson,” said Geivett, a former president of

the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

“This is 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.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – The PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll 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.)

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