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Poll: Few Americans believe natural disasters are signs from God
March 24th, 2011
02:00 PM ET

Poll: Few Americans believe natural disasters are signs from God

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

A new survey conducted on the heels of Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami finds that few Americans think natural disasters are signs from God and that even fewer believe God punishes nations for the sins of its citizens, as some suggested after the Japanese disaster.

At the same time, most Americans believe God is responsible for everything that happens in the world, according to the survey, which was released Thursday.

The survey was conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Religion News Service.

Fewer than 4 in 10 Americans (38%) believe that earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters are a sign from God, while roughly 3 in 10 believe that God sometimes punishes nations for the sins of some citizens, according to the survey.

Shortly after the Japanese quake and tsunami, the governor of Tokyo said publicly that the disaster was divine punishment for Japanese egoism, though he apologized for the remarks a day later.

A majority of people who self-identified as white evangelical Christians bucked the consensus against God punishing nations for the sins of its citizens, with 53% saying they believed that to be true.

Even more white evangelicals, 59%, believe that natural disasters are a sign from God, while only about one-third of Catholics and white mainline Protestants share that view.

Two thirds of white evangelicals also believe that natural disasters are evidence of the "end times," according to the survey.

The survey was conducted by telephone with 1,008 adults in the continental United States between March 17-20 as news was pouring in from the hardest-hit areas in Japan.

The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Read how prominent voices with different views on religion make sense of the suffering in Japan

Fifty-six percent of all respondents said they believe God is in control of everything that happens in the world, according to the poll.

And 7 in 10 Americans believe God is a person with whom a person can have a relationship, according to the poll.

But most Americans, 58%, said they attributed the increased severity of natural disasters to global warming, while 44% said they attribute it to what the Bible sometimes refers to as the “end times.”

The respondents tended to split along party lines - 52% of Republicans said the increased severity could be attributed to "end times” prophesies, while 75% of Democrats said it was the result of global warming.

“These kind of questions about God being in control and there simultaneously being suffering are the kind of things that keep seminarians up at night. They’re thorny theological issues. We wanted to see if we could get at it with polling to see what Americans think,” pollster Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, told CNN.

“We asked people how many were following what was going on in Japan, and nine out of 10 said they had heard a lot. This is something very clearly on the minds of Americans as they answered this poll.”

Jones said that where respondents worship played a big role in how they answered the questions.

“One thing that may be underlying this is how one approaches the Bible. Evangelical white Protestants are much more likely to take a literal approach to the Bible. In the Bible, natural disasters are used as a sign or as a punishment from God. Mainline Protestants and Catholics have a much less literal view of the bible,” Jones said.

Regardless of which pew American Christians find themselves in during the weekend, their beliefs about God’s role in matters like this are something Jones says brings a lot of debate.

Ryan Coyne, a philosopher of religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, said, “What’s interesting is the disparity ... [between] the belief that God or the divine controls actions in the world and the reluctance on the part of some to attribute some acts in the world as punishing acts.

“There’s a reluctance to think of God as a punishing god. One must look for other explanations for evil in general if one is reluctant to attribute natural disasters to the divine,” Coyne said.

“Just by virtue of calling it a ‘natural disaster’ we’re asking is this ... outside of the reach of the divine,” Coyne said. “Five hundred to 600 years ago, there wouldn’t be the assumption necessarily ... [that] something like this was not directed by divine will.”

Regardless of the cause of natural disasters, the survey found that an overwhelming number of respondents - 83% - said it was very important or somewhat important to give financial assistance to Japan despite economic troubles in the United States.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Church • Culture & Science • Protestant • United States

soundoff (976 Responses)
  1. diego

    it's a sign that god does not give a f$#k about people. no amount of praying can save your ass when disasters strike.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Atheism is the only truth

      amen.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:13 am |
  2. wowlfie

    Oh this is typical of hypocrital bible toting god fearing people. It's a 'miracle' when something really good happens, but not an act of god when something bad happens. What a bunch of hypocrits!

    March 24, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  3. Blake Southwood

    Just wait until Yellow Stones massive volcano erupts and takes out the east middle of the country in one day.
    Just wait till some new mountain ranges grow in mere days. That's when millions will die in a day.
    What has happened thus far is nothing to what will happen in the near future. We will also likely have
    many volcanic eruptions throughout the world and as Greenland and Antarctica melt the oceans will continue to
    rise and storms are getting fiercer so this is all just the beginning of mother nature and the earth evolving.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  4. Apocalypse

    It's the end of the world people!!!!! Repent and sin no more!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    March 24, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • diego

      yawn

      March 24, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Atheism is the only truth

      wait, do you mean may 21st? or do you mean 2012? or do you mean the year 2000? haha

      March 25, 2011 at 1:12 am |
  5. allan

    Most people do not truly know the Bible, including writers of religious blogs. The Bible predicted events to happen in the future on a large scale: earthquakes, wars, diseases, and worldwide preaching about the kingdom of God. Just because these events were predicted does not mean God is causing them. Is a weatherman to blame for causing the weather he predicts? The Bible says that God does not cause this to happen.

    Job 34:10 Now then, you wise, take note; you men of knowledge, give ear to me. Let it be far from God to do evil, and from the Ruler of all to do wrong.

    Job 34:12 Truly, God does not do evil,

    March 24, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • diego

      get a life.

      March 24, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • Atheism is the only truth

      The book you quote from is 2000 years old written by people who thought the earth was flat, who didn't have the technological or medical advances we have today, who thought the sun rotated around the earth. They didn't know any better. You should. You live in the 21st century where you have science and knowledge at your fingertips. You shouldn't be relying on a 2000 year old book to get your facts.

      Why do less (mentally) evolved human beings create and believe in "god" and/or any "religion" ?

      1. Causal Determinism (some humans are hard wired to need answers)...to explain phenomena, afterlife, the unknown they do not YET have answers for.

      2. Coping mechanism for Death/starvation/natural disaster/etc.

      3. Maintain social order, instill morality on society etc.

      The problem is when we don’t find a logical answer, we settle for a stupid one.
      Ritual is what happens when we run out of rational answers.
      Some people are afraid to look to science and accept that life might end at death and nothing follows afterward.
      To alleviate this anxiety and fear, they believe and have faith in the supernatural to help them cope.
      There is no proof that any god of any religion exists, and there never will be, because it's all man made and not real.

      Once upon a time, it was necessary to have a god to be able to answer all the mysteries in the world. Science has eroded this need by discovering explanations for much of what humanity did not know at the time of "jesus", who never actually existed, the story of jesus is the same story told in other religions, tweaked to fit christianity, it isn't real. Of course, one would expect anyone, who has devoted their life to religion, to find reasons to believe in supernatural beings but they simply no longer fit. So, rationalizing is required to make them fit. And the emphasis is on faith because faith is the only way it does fit. But faith is nothing more that the ability to fool yourself into believing in the unbelievable. But much like children eventually understand that they were fooled by their parents into believing in Santa Clause, humanity is slowly growing out of the childlike phase of believing in supernatural beings. Imagine what it would be like not to have terrorism based on which religion you do or don't believe in. Imagine what it would be like if we did the humane and just things we should do, not because some big brother in the sky is looking over our shoulder but because it's simply the right thing to do. That is where the myriad versions of the golden rule come from – humans doing the right things because it's how they want themselves to be treated. This is why the number of atheists has been growing at a steady rate, and eventually there will not be a need for religion, because man will evolve out of this childlike phase completely.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:11 am |
    • Ethos with pathos

      Yay, more copy/pasting from Aitot. Way to show off that big evolved brain, repeating stuff. Your momma must be so proud.

      March 25, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  6. Dave

    Only the Bible-Thumpers believe this...You know the ones who have been morons their whole life and suddenly discovered God and want to save us all...in laundromats, street corners, our front door on Sundays, etc. etc...I know you know who I am talking about...The ones that drive around with bumper stickers and ribbons that say "Support Out Troops" with another sticker right next to it that says "Abortion Stills A Human Heart" right across the way from the sticker that says "Insured By Smith & Wesson" with the sticker that reads "Ban Obamacare" etc. etc. etc.
    I wish all of these events were a sign from God and that he was on his way to take them to the promised land...because he has punished us all enough with these lunatics...

    March 24, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  7. Daniel

    And here I thought fruitcake was just fro Christmas. God isn't punishing anyone, any more than Nature is. We live in a world where natural forces can be lethal. We always have. Was God also punishing the animals and plants the the tsunami destroyed? Please.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  8. Peter

    God gave us free will, so why do we put these things on God? We're the ones living on the planet and screwing it up – why is it not our fault?

    March 24, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  9. ProveIt

    Still waiting for a scientific explanation from one of you atheists on the universe always existing, matter created from nothing, and life formed from proteins and minerals...

    Come on all knowing athiests. Don't let me down.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Q

      Responded to your other post regarding existence. With respect to abiogenesis, there is a large and growing body of evidence indicating its plausibility. In my book, some (admittedly in its infancy) evidence and testable hypotheses are far better than absolutely no evidence and absolutely no means to test for an intelligent creator.

      March 24, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • jasspecialk

      relax, you don't need someone else telling you what's going on in this world, you live here too. You have your opinions and everyone else has theirs'. No one is going to change your mind, the fact that you have posted more then once asking the same thing over again shows to me that you are just stubborn. Form your own opinions and live by them. Respect others and what they think because it's their world as well. While religion may be real or not, it's not up to you to go about galavanting your comments and calling people out.

      March 24, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  10. jloome

    @Mercker

    Nope, what you're describing is agnostic. Atheist is a belief in the impossibility of God. Agnosticism is being open minded, which in this case amounts to an admission we don't (and if you really think about it, can't) know whether there is a creator being, one way or another,

    March 24, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • kite005

      I guess I should consider myself agnostic. I have a sense or feeling that there is something, a God I guess. I also think if there is a God and we could even grasp what God is, we would be one to. Thats why I think people who believe in a God can never understand it and can only guess what God might be and never really be sure about the existence. Thats why we say "faith". As far as God influencing everything, wasn't there a point (according to the book) when God gave us "free will"? That would just about imply that from that point on God decided to take a "hands off" approach. Otherwise it wouldn't be free will.

      March 24, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
  11. godguest

    There is no God. Darwin proved it 150 years ago. All the religions are BS. Imagine a wonderful day when there is no priest, no rabbi and no mullah.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • Atheism is the only truth

      give it a couple hundred or possibly thousand years. atheist population of the earth is 15% and growing.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:06 am |
    • Ethos with pathos

      Got evidence on that or is it wishful thinking?

      March 25, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • Atheism is the only truth

      Do your research my friend, it's not hard. It's called demographics. It's not perfect, but atheism is growing. It's probably a larger number if you include agnostics and broaden the scope as there are various interpretations of atheism, non theists, agnostics, etc.

      March 26, 2011 at 1:43 am |
  12. CatholicMom

    What is going on in Yemen...not a natural disaster, right? Where is Muneef?

    March 24, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  13. kent

    can't believe we have entered the 21st century and still have this foolish thought process that a supernatural being is hovering over this little planet in the remote reaches of our universe, and thrusting his anger by shaking the world to hurt people. can we please advance beyond this or start to before i die. please. read your science. plate tectonics shakes the world. tsunamis happens when under water. people live by the coast. end of story.

    March 24, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  14. ProveIt

    Not True Karlotious. It has been proven that the universe does have a starting point. Many differing theories are out there as to what caused that to take place. Some suggest the universe just keeps expanding and collapsing on itself over and over.

    But don't just gloss over it. It's impossible for something to always exist. And it's impossible for something to be created from nothing. Both according to our beliefs in Science.

    So Science has in effect, disproven itself. Which is more unrealistic? A supreme creator or a scientific explanation that is impossible?

    Both seem equally improbable to me.

    March 24, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • Q

      To my knowledge, science has not declared it's impossible for something to exist forever, i.e. prior to the big bang there was the singularity. While not a physicist, this is something existing though not in the same way we do (i.e. in 3 dimensions and time).

      March 24, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • kite005

      It's impossible for something to always exist? You mean like space? I can't imagine that space did not always exist. I also can't imagine a certain moment in time when space began as well as space being infinite going on forever. It has not been proven that the universe has a starting point. All evidence points to the beginning of the universe we see as being about 15 billion years old and expanding at an ever faster rate from there. There is still speculation about parallel universes, worm holes and things. There is speculation about different levels of intelligent life where we would be at the low end of intelligence and abilities and the most advanced would be able to travel in time and manipulate the stars and universe. Kind of sounds like God to me.

      March 24, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • Atheism is the only truth

      Hi, I'm an atheist, just for the record.

      It is all theory, nothing has been "proven", only theorized.

      My theory is cyclical, the universe expands, contracts, goes boom, repeat.

      I don't believe the singularity theory, or the big bang from nothing, or the multiverse theory.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:05 am |
  15. Mercker

    If you truly want real answers to real questions, you are an atheist. If you choose to ignore real answers for the god answer, you are religious. One is healthy for humans and one is deadly for humans. Which one will you choose...

    March 24, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  16. Benj

    Less and less and less and less. Pretty soon, the majority of Americans might actually start applying common sense to ALL thought, not just the ones convenience serves best. I say we take that horrific phrase off our money too. I don't "trust" in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy or any other mythical creature but I'm forced to use the nonsensical phrase every day. It sickens me, the absolute lack of responsible thinking religious zealots force upon others. Most "Christians" don't even know the origin of their precious book and all that's left out of it. Those two things alone would make any sensible human being question every single thing being shoved down their throats about Christianity in this country. Use your heads, people. Read the book of Thomas or the book of Mary, dive into the Old Testament and brush up on how the bible was actually formed before you start cherry picking verses from it to "help" others.

    March 24, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  17. Karlotious

    The universe was always here whether full of matter or not....Nothing needed to create it or destroy it....ie: the meaning of life: the balance of Earth through water, oxygen, and creatures that inhabit it. Every one wants a meaning of life so bad that they create this God to suggest theres more to it.

    March 24, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • pothead

      Was the "meaning of life" proven my Monty Python or George Bushhog?

      March 24, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Atheism is the only truth

      Actually, no one really knows whether the universe was always here or not. There is the theory of the multi-verse, the big bang, the bit crunch, the big freeze. My own theory is cyclical in nature, the universe expands, contracts, goes boom, repeat. Of course it's just a theory.

      I'm glad my brain works well enough that I don't need to believe in the supernatural to explain things or come up with theories about the universe/etc.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:03 am |
    • Ethos with pathos

      Actually, your ego works well enough that you think you don't need God.

      March 25, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Atheism is the only truth

      Actually, my defensive religious friend, it has nothing to do with ego, I don't believe in god or any religion because I have a better understanding than you, of where religion (all of them) come from, and why religion was created. I also have an understanding of where the story of jesus came from (humans worshipping the sun), and how it isn't real. I also realize that there are more primitive human beings, such as yourself, that need religion, and belief in the supernatural to answer questions that you do no yet have answers to due to psychology and causal determinism.
      I don't believe in santa clause either, do you? If not, why not? Is it because you don't go to church to pray to santa with your friends/family and you don't have a book dedicated to reinforcing ignorant beliefs about santa that you can reference?
      Really, if there was a god, there would be proof, I don't need to believe in god because I wasn't brainwashed as a child, and I don't need the psychological crutch of religion/god to get me through the day, deal with anxiety of death, etc I've copied/pasted the reasons a few times. I feel lucky to have NOT been raised religious, and to be intelligent enough to realize it is all man made and isn't real, but hey, I'm sure we can still be friends, even if you believe in santa.

      March 26, 2011 at 1:39 am |
    • Lycidas

      "I don't believe in god or any religion because I have a better understanding than you, of where religion (all of them) come from, and why religion was created. "

      No, see that is ego. You do NOT know if (or if not) you have a better understanding than me on anything. You are basing your assumption on the flawed reasoning that you are right and those that disagree with you are instantly wrong.

      Curious, why is it that I have become the defensive one in all this when it is you that came on here being an evangelical atheist?

      March 29, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Earthbound

      "you are basing your assumption on the flawed reasoning that you are right and those that disagree with you are instantly wrong." You know who would be great to answer this one is HeavenSent or Prism 1234.

      March 29, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Lycidas

      Perhaps they would. Perhaps not.

      March 29, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  18. ProveIt

    One last comment. Belief in God doesn't = belief in the Bible. It's a belief in a supreme creator. One that is capable of making life from dead proteins and minerals. One that is capable of creating matter from empty space. One who is powerful enough to create an entire universe.

    That's what a belief in God is. The rest is human religion- two completely separate things.

    March 24, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • Jeanine

      Fine. Then prove it or STFU. or better yet, GTFO. People who can't argue their way out of a paper bag are a dime a dozen on the internet. We don't need you here to be stupid. We get people like you in here all the time. They come and go.
      Since intelligent debate isn't your thing, why don't you go play with the other religious kids and leave the big hairy universe questions for those who know how to read up on these things?
      Or maybe you could pray for proof!
      Yeah, why don't you try that? Pray for proof! Why can't your god do that one simple thing?
      That one simple thing.....

      That ONE SIMPLE THING....the most simple of things by way of proof....

      ...didn't think so. You fail. Again.

      March 24, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • Maybe

      ProveIt,

      Even if you posit a first cause type of god, what do you know about it? Does it even know that we (the observable universe) exist? Perhaps we are like a skin cell or sneeze droplet, or virus or germ, programmed to do what our natural law / physics does, that has been shed from some kind of ent.ity. What's up with this this donor ent.ity? What are its beginnings? What if physics, as we understand them, are different for it? We do not know.... yet, if ever.

      March 24, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Mkat2

      Correct! I suggest reading, Mark Twain's, "Letters From The Earth" , which illustrates how rediculous Man's concept of 'God' is!
      Interesting publishing history too. He wrote it in the 30's but, his daughter, Sara Clemens declined to have it published, feeling it was 'blasphemous'. She then relented saying, she realized Mark Twain belonged to the world & it was published in the 60's. Mark Twain's concept of his FELLOW MAN is absolutely hilarious!! (also, true...)

      March 24, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Pathos with Ethos

      @Jeanine- Why are you on a "faith now" thread anyway? Do you have faith that ppl will come to your way of thinking? If so, are you an irrational believer in that which cannot be?

      March 24, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • Jeanine

      Proveit – I come here seeking proof.

      Finding none, I visit scorn upon those who cannot provide any kind of incontrovertible proof of their god.
      I responded to an earlier post of yours but forgot to hit the "reply" button – my reply now sits at the end of this thread.

      Read it if you dare! ....Respond if you can! But I warn you...I demand the harshest honesty from you. I seriously doubt that your god has given you any words to say, so perhaps you should leave the question of proof to someone who actually has proof, and leave the banter to others.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • Karen

      "Why are you on a "faith now" thread anyway? " I can answer that because religion has done nothing but divide our society instead of bring it together because they think their better than everyone else. The reality is the opposite.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
    • Pathos with Ethos

      @Jeanine-So, you are seeking proof of God on a tool like a comment board where most of the conversations are one to five comments at a time? Good luck with that.

      @Karen- sounds like you have a bigger beef with humanity than religion

      March 24, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
    • Atheism is the only truth

      Why must there be a supreme creator?
      How do you know some one/thing made life from dead proteins and minerals?
      How do you know some one/thing made life from empty space?
      How do you know any one/thing made the entire Universe? Isn't the Universe still being made?
      I'm really curious if you have the answers to these questions, or if you simply believe in the supernatural so that you have a way to explain the complexities of the universe.

      Reality and make believe, are two completely different things also.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:00 am |
    • Ethos with pathos

      "Why must there be a supreme creator?"

      Why not?

      But more to the here and now, why are you on this thread? You do realize this isn't a thread about if God exists right?

      March 25, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Jeanine

      Pathos with Ethos – here you are avoiding the questions again. Why is honesty so hard for religious people?
      Is it because they have been lied to by their religion and so think that avoiding truthful answers is the way to go?

      But I don't expect an honest answer to these questions. No "person of faith" has ever been able to face tough questions that I have ever seen.
      Maybe it's because they've been relying upon their religion to do that for them.

      Lazy thinking. The hallmark of religious thought. Rabbi Heschel is another example of this. Tough answers demand honesty.

      March 25, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • Lycidas

      @Jeanine- I think everyone has been quite honest on here. But if there is anyone guilty of lazy thinking it may be you.

      I have implied that you are unable to accept the possibility that God exists. I sytand by this because you have yet expressed anything that could change your mind. That is being intellectually lazy.

      March 29, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  19. Luke

    Maybe people should wake up and smell the flowers!

    March 24, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  20. Li Tai Fang

    3 out of 10 people are nuts.

    March 24, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.