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. Dr. Canuck

    So this tells me that 30-40% of Americans are morons, and 50-60% of American evangelicals are imbeciles. Good luck in trying to become #1 in the world again in education America. Better pray to your "god;" you're going to need all the help you can get.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
  2. jim

    God will punish Americans too... There's bunch of GREED, LIE, CHEAT, STEAL, ETC!!!!!

    March 24, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
  3. Siyajkak

    meh...I subscribe more to a deeistic belief, though not completely. I think for the most part, God allows the world to work according to the laws he set to govern it. That way we can make sense of our everyday lives, and use our knowledge of His laws to our advantage. Occassionally, he will intervene, but usually he gives us guidance via the Holy Spirit and grants us personal strength, so that we might do our best in this world. Natural disasters...who knows? If God did it, perhaps its for a reason. Maybe its a warning towards the dangers of nuclear energy, maybe its a reminder that we can die at any moment, and should always live good and righteous lives. maybe it was to give the international community an opportunity to do good. I do not pretend to know the ways of God, but I have faith that He is great, good, and watching over us.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  4. PDXmum

    "And 7 in 10 Americans believe God is a person with whom a person can have a relationship, according to the poll." That's cute. My three year old son had a relationship with an invisible person too, and he called him Bobo. And then he turned four and outgrew it.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  5. friend of jesus

    God says only a FOOL says there is no God-the world is full of fools

    March 24, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • Atheism is the only truth

      where is your proof god even exists? Are you aware the story of jesus isn't even real, and thus, christianity isn't real?
      Do some research:

      Stories similar/identical to the story of jesus.

      Alexandria: Aion
      Asia Minor: Attis
      Babylonia: Antiochus
      Egypt: Osiris and Horus
      Greece: Dionysus and Asclepius
      Syria: Adonis
      Italy: Bacchus
      Persia: Mithras
      India: Krishna

      The reason why all these narratives are so similar, with a godman who are born to virgins, who were born in caves or mangers, who were visited by 3 wise men, who lives were threatened by evil rulers, who had to flee for his life, who was at 12 noon in the house or temple of the "Most High" thereby beginning "his Father's work" at "age" 12, who begins their ministry at the age of 30, who was tempted by a Devil, who has 12 followers or disciples, who later sends out the 72 disciples, who walked on water, who raised the dead, who does miracles, who was crowned with thorns, who was crucified and resurrected after 3 days, who descended into hell for these 3 days, who rose again after 3 days, who ascended into Heaven, is that these stories were based on the movements of the sun through the heavens, an astrotheological development that can be found throughout the planet because the sun and the 12 zodiac signs can be observed around the globe. This same story is repeated down through history over and over again in almost every sun worshipping nation under "the Sun".
      Do your research before you so blindly follow your religious beliefs, whatever they may be.
      Learn about why religion and "god" was created, for all religions around the world, be a smart human being, not a sheep.

      March 26, 2011 at 3:22 am |
  6. DixieSam

    Well, the Mayan Calender Quits/Stops in 2012....???

    March 24, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • Siyajkak

      actually, its just the end of the largest cycle they have, of 13 Baktuns. their cycles are based on astronomical patterns, so the only significance of 2012 is that something will happen in the sky that hasn't happened since 3114 BC. (and we all know the world is older than that (even the bible puts it at around 4200 BC). The Maya even made predictions past 2012. The dynasty founded by K'inich Janaab' Pakal the Great was predicted to last 8000 years; that's until 8615 AD, long after 2012

      March 24, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
  7. friend of jesus

    in the bible it says that "the devil comes to steal, kill, and destroy, Jesus came that we may have life". I don't think GOD it doing bad things, but Satan is. Satan is responsible for bad things, and all good things come from God.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • Jeffrey M.

      They are not bad if God does them. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, he flooded the earth killing everything and everyone.. you don't think He is doing this? He struck a place that was worshiping false gods.. seems like God to me!

      March 24, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • Observer

      People have worshiped false gods since religion began. It was worth destroying every person on the face of the earth (with 6 exceptions), but God has changed his mind and won't do that again according to the Bible.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
    • Jeffrey M.

      Yes Observer you are correct except for one thing.. Next time it will be by fire.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
    • Jeffrey M.

      Hey Observer.. I would be happy to answer any questions you have. If you would like you can email me at kraftmacincheese@yahoo.com

      March 24, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
    • Observer

      @Jeffrey M.,

      Thank you for your "off-line" chat offer, but I feel that if you are on an intenational forum telling people how to lead their lives, then you should step up and be willing to answer questions in the same forum. I'd guess that you participate in CNN blogs and advocate the "immorality" of being pro-choice or being gay. If you are going to use your religion to put down other people or deny them of equal rights, then I think you should be able to demonstrate the logic and perfection of your source.

      March 24, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
    • Atheism is the only truth

      Hi friend of Jesus: Are you associating what we call "mother nature" to "satan" ? Sure sounds like it...

      March 26, 2011 at 3:21 am |
  8. Mike

    One of these days one of these "nut jobs" is going to be right. Then what are you going to do? Espescailly if there is a God and you have to face judgement. Dangergous odds you have a 50/50 chance if your wrong. For the Saved ones if you are wrong you won't loose much. But for the unbelievers if you are wrong.............................

    March 24, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • PDXmum

      The problem is, right wrong or indifferent, it doesn't matter, because an unbeliever can't make themselves believe. I could pay lip service and go sit in a certain building every Sunday and pretend I'm listening to a sermon, but if god is real don't you think he/she/it would know the difference? Give me a sign, a real sign that can't be explained in any way by science. Let me see someone regrow a severed limb, that would probably convince me.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Mike wrote: "One of these days one of these "nut jobs" is going to be right."

      Perhaps... after all, even a stopped clock is right twice a day...

      Fairy Tales... can come True... it can happen... to you... if you're young... in your brain...

      March 24, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
  9. IsraelRocksBaby

    well, the facts are that they are. read THE Bible people and you'll see. these are "sings of the times" for the last days, sugar.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
  10. Kregg

    Few see cnn as real news

    March 24, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
    • Atheism is the only truth

      CNN is much less biased than fox news is. Sure they lean left a little, but fox leans right a LOT.

      March 26, 2011 at 3:19 am |
  11. pothead

    Photos of god, $29.95! I bought one and made copies! I'm very transparent about this deal. Wow, up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane, it's "geegod". Video tapes, $59.95.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
  12. Jeffrey M.

    God does most certainly punish nations for their peoples sins. I don't agree with a lot of what the westboro people say and the methods they use.. but they are right that God is punishing this world for it's sins. Jesus is coming back and we all are sinners in need of Gods only son to save us. You see these earthquakes and tsunamis? You may not think that they are from God now but you just watch and see with your own eyes the glory and the wrath of God come down on this sinful world. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.. and no one comes to the Father except through Him. Remember that whenever you start to get afraid by the things happening around you. God does NOT want ANY of you to parish! He has provided a life raft that can pull you up out of this sinful condition you all have. Acts 2:21 "And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
    You think these earthquakes and such are bad.. you haven't seen anything yet! Keep your eyes open guys.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • Observer

      Let me make a guess. You are strongly "anti-abortion".

      Let me make another guess. You believe it's fine to kill pregnant women, fetuses, and babies as long as God does it.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • pothead

      If you know god, tell me where he is so I can tell the damn asses that keep coming to my house to help me find him. Same goes for that idiot jesus that is hiding out! Oh yeah, I thought you people believe that you are all the children of god! Explain that preacher.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
    • Jeffrey M.

      Observer you don't know how to properly read the Bible because you have not been given the ability to. I know what all of this sounds like to you for I used to be just like you.. but I tell you the truth. This is not fairy tale.
      I used to hate Christians too, I know what it's like to see some Christian preaching and just think "Man would you just just the F*** up!" I know. But God turned me around.
      I am not going to argue with you because all you have in your heart is an urge to fight. I know you whole thing of testing Christians to try to trip them up and than say "Oh well, I use logic" or something to that nature. I used to live that same life.. but I was wrong just as you are wrong now. I wish you no ill will, I will not retaliate.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
    • Observer

      I don't hate any Christians. (although I might make an exception for Westboro)
      So am I right about killing fetuses and pregnant women?

      March 24, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • Jeffrey M.

      I know what you are trying to do, and like I said before I am not going to retaliate. I know that no matter how I would answer your question it would only be the inevitable result of you trying to prove that I am some a hypocrite, or a seemingly crazy bad person. I know you are just trying to trip me up with your misguided heart. Trust me dude.. I know. And I'm not going to fall into your little trap, so you can safe your breathe. (or keystrokes in this manner) 🙂

      March 24, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
    • Q

      What I'm reading in Jeffery M's replies is that he understands any answer he gives will be irrational, abhorrent and confound his premises so he's choosing to disengage rather than confront the inherent conflict.

      March 24, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • Jeanine

      Q – I agree. Nice post, btw.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:41 am |
    • Ethos with pathos

      Actually, Jeffrey is correct about responding to either of you. You don't define what evidence is and all you want him to do is list stuff that you will snidely shoot down as if you are clever. It really isn't.

      So, to show off how clever the atheists are on here, plz tell us what scientific criteria could be offered to you that would prove that God exists to you. But I bet that if you mention anything and someone could show you evidence you would dismiss it outright. Why? Because you don't really want to learn anything on here. Honestly, you are pretty pitiful if you run from the challenege.

      March 25, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Ethos with pathos: I want to see someone part the Red Sea again, or take a person who's been certified dead/deceased/nolongerliving and buried for three days (hell, you can leave them out in the hot sun if you want) and raise them from the dead.

      So, in a nutshell, the only evidence I will accept is a recreation of the biblical miracles. That's what convinced everyone that Jesus was god in the first place, right?

      March 25, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Ethos with pathos

      @SeanNJ-"So, in a nutshell, the only evidence I will accept is a recreation of the biblical miracles. That's what convinced everyone that Jesus was god in the first place, right?"

      Then I guess you will just have to wait won't you? On the miracles, no...it didn't convince me that Jesus was the Messiah. But if it takes miracle to prove something to you, I have a feeling that if one would happen...you would just dismiss it. Am I right?

      March 25, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Ethos with pathos: If you're intention is to pass of some other unusual occurrence as a miracle, then yes, I would. But, if a actual verifiable miracle of the type that I described were to take place, then why would I dismiss it?

      I think you are right about one thing...I will have to continue to wait.

      March 26, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
  13. Nicoli Pi

    People used to use divine influence on disasters as a way to explain the unexplainable. We should be well past that now with our awesome technology. I'm not against God, just against stupid people that can't read a geology book. And the God I pray to doesn't create a 30 foot wave to kill thousands of people. So don't read me scripture that was written by people that couldn't comprehend the world around them.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  14. wilson

    My God is better than your God. N-yah, n-yah...

    March 24, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
  15. Erick

    Oh, come on! It is not sign from God! it is from mother's nature!! SIGH!!

    March 24, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
    • Weep4America

      Don't forget: Father God created mother nature.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
    • Chakka

      Yep, turns out mother nature produces all sorts of fruits and nuts!

      March 24, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  16. AsayaYeahyas

    I have a pet rock named God. Now, I know he exist. My god loves me more than your god loves you. He told me so. I heard it in my head that is how he talks to me.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
    • Sadface

      With mocking skills like that you must be a popular person.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
    • Pathos with Ethos

      If it brings about your salvation and gives you purpose, good luck with that.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • Chakka

      When it pees on your carpet, do you rub its nose in it?

      Does it work?

      March 24, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
  17. Weep4America

    There is no denying (only ignoring) what the Bible says. I do believe that natural disasters are warning signs from God. They are warnings and signs for ALL people, not just a certain location. They are meant to bring people to repentance.

    Then the earth shook and trembled;
    The foundations of the hills also quaked and were shaken,
    Because He was angry. (Psalm 18:7).

    I will punish the world for its evil…
    And will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.
    Therefore I will shake the heavens,
    And the earth will move out of her place,
    In the wrath of the LORD of hosts
    And in the day of His fierce anger. (Isaiah 13:11, 13).

    You will be punished by the LORD of hosts
    With thunder and earthquake and great noise. (Isaiah 29:6).

    When God makes the mountains tremble, and the earth shake, shall not our hearts be moved? “‘Do you not fear Me?’ says the LORD. ‘Will you not tremble at My presence?’” (Jeremiah 5:22).

    O that His fear might this moment fall upon all you who hear these words; constraining every one of you to cry out, “My flesh trembles for fear of You, and I am afraid of Your judgments” (Psalm 119:120).

    “‘Now, therefore,’ says the LORD” — who is not willing any should perish:

    “Turn to Me with all your heart,
    With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”

    So rend your heart, and not your garments;
    Return to the LORD your God,
    For He is gracious and merciful,
    Slow to anger, and of great kindness;
    And He relents from doing harm.
    Who knows if He will turn and relent,
    And leave a blessing behind Him? (Joel 2:12-14)

    March 24, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • wilson

      Your kind of a nut-job aren't cha?

      March 24, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
    • Observer

      "For He is gracious and merciful,
      Slow to anger, and of great kindness;
      And He relents from doing harm"

      Did you read your earlier statement: " I do believe that natural disasters are warning signs from God."?

      March 24, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
    • Weep4America

      To Observer – You quoted Joel 2:13 and that's the PERFECT example, actually. You have to read the verses around it, too. That passage talks about how, even in the midst of judgment, opportunity to repent was given. If they would demonstrate genuine repentance, the Lord stood ready to forgive and bless.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • Observer


      Are you supporting the deaths of pregnant women, fetuses, and babies as long as God does it?

      March 24, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • Weep4America

      To Observer – God is eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. He is sovereign. People are none of those things so we're not able to fully understand God’s ways. If we could, He wouldn't be God.

      The book of Job deals with this issue. God had allowed Satan to do everything he wanted to Job except kill him. What was Job’s reaction? “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15). “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:21). Job did not understand why God had allowed the things He did, but he knew God was good and therefore continued to trust in Him. Ultimately, that should be our reaction as well.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • Observer

      "People are none of those things so we're not able to fully understand God’s ways"

      So why do you think you understand God?
      What about killing fetuses and pregnant women?

      March 24, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Weep4America

      To Observer – What I understand about God is that He's sovereign and that His ways are good and right. He's a God of love and also of wrath. He's not the namby-pamby Jesus, meek and mild that people want to believe He is. He created all things and He gave all things. So, it stands to reason that He can also take them away. That includes life.

      Now, what about the scriptures I quoted in my original post? People want to believe He's only a God of love and doesn't punish but that's because it's what they WANT Him to be like.

      My main point (so as to not stray from the original purpose) is that earthquakes are warnings from God for people to repent and turn back to Him. But, the Bible says that few will. Most will reject Him and shake their fists at Him in anger. In the end, we are all responsible for our own decisions. And the ultimate decision we make is what we're going to do with Jesus. People will either accept or reject Him.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • Observer

      It's interesting that you prefer the often vain, arrogant, mass-killing God portrayed in the Bible to the "namby-pamby" (your words) Christ for whom the religion is named. I'm not sure I've heard anyone before prefer the Old Testament version of God, who commanded the killing of people for reasons like being unruly children, to Jesus who convinced "unchanging" God to change all the punishments. Most Christians use Jesus and the New Testament as an excuse for the seemingly irrational commands from God in the Old Testament.

      March 24, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
    • Pathos with Ethos

      @Observer- Might I recommend the book "The Prophets" by Rabbi Heschel. You will see God described in a manner much different than the one you described here.

      March 24, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
    • Weep4America

      To Observer – God is the same yesterday, today and forever. The God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. He hasn't changed. You have a problem with God in the Old Testament yet you quoted a passage of the OT to try to prove your point. You can't have it both ways. You've not been able to address or refute any of the points I made so you turned snippy. That's the common approach for those who don't know, or hate, Him.

      No one has all the answers. No one can explain God, or His ways, in a way that you're going to be able to fully understand. But those of us who do believe have seen our need for Him and have accepted Him (and His ways) in faith. That's how everyone has to come to Him. In faith. I pray that you'll come to see your need for Him while His grace, mercy and forgiveness can still be found because time is running out. Right now, He promises that all those who seek Him with all their hearts will find Him.

      March 24, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
    • Observer


      Given the chance to give the 10 most important pieces of advice to humans, God chose 40% of them to say "Praise me". If that's not vain and arrogant, find something that is. As far as God being a mass-murderer, just read the Bible about the flood where God killed every man, woman, child and fetus on the earth with only 6 exceptions. Obvious.

      March 24, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
    • Observer

      "(God) hasn't changed." Please read the Bible if you are going to support it. Look at all the commands from God to kill people and then tell me that Jesus didn't supposedly change all that. Should we still kill unruly children or people who work on the Sabbath as God commanded or did he change the rules? The Bible says that God even changed part of the 10 Commandments when it came to retribution on generations to come.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:00 am |
    • Atheism is the only truth

      It's great that you can conveniently use various quotes to explain things using your own interpretations.
      Where is your proof god exists? Do you believe in santa clause? If not, why not?
      Were you brainwashed as a child? or did you become religious as you grew older?

      March 26, 2011 at 3:13 am |
  18. AnarchistScholar

    Many posters here are somewhat funny. Eg. tax-money gets channeled to the defense industry, which surely has little interest to not see the US killing, and hey, brings ratings too, and someone who gets sick has to pay up front, and persons killing each other for a few dollars, and glorification of violence, and other things, but oh noes, persons expressing their opinion through some pre-prepared poll are da evil because they don't really want to fully play along with the upper-class system, where the 'value' of a human being is determined by its property. But sure, 'let's all just be tools who bash anyone who isn't as self-centered and egoistical as expected' for the amusement of the 'privileged' few.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
  19. Rock God

    The fanatics at the Westboro Baptist Church sure do. God's got better things to do than kill people, like watch American Idol. Don't bother praying to Her on Wednesday and Thursday nights! She's busy!

    March 24, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
  20. maxhedroom

    Well maybe there is some hope after all. I always seems the doomsday nutjobs get the most attention, so it get's blown out of proportion.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
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About this blog

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.