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My Take: God no longer in the whirlwind
Seeing the wrath of God in natural disasters was once commonplace.
August 28th, 2011
04:56 PM ET

My Take: God no longer in the whirlwind

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

As I am riding out Hurricane Irene on Cape Cod, I cannot help thinking about how differently New Englanders in colonial times interpreted these natural disasters. While we speak of the eye of the hurricane, they were ever mindful of the eye of a God who was watching over them, and sending storms their way as punishment for their collective sins.

A fierce debate among academics about secularization theory–the view that societies will become less religious as they modernize–seems to have been won by the skeptics.

Yes, secularization of a sort is happening, but only in certain places (western Europe, most notably). And it seems to be reversible (see the United States today vs. the United States in the 1970s). So simple versions of secularization theory seem just plain wrong.

However, one place where American society, at least, plainly seems to be growing less religious is in the realm of natural disasters.

When the Great Colonial Hurricane raced up the east coast and lashed New England in August 1635, its 130 mph winds and 21-foot storm surge were almost universally viewed in supernatural rather than natural terms—as a judgment of God on the unfaithful.

We still have Puritans among us today, of course.

Pat Robertson is notorious for turning natural disasters such as the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina into supernatural communications—God’s curse on Haiti or New Orleans for bad religion or widespread abortions.

And on the radio a couple days ago I heard a talk show host suggest that the one-two punch of the recent earthquake and hurricane were two thumbs down from God on the leadership of Barack Obama.

Still, American society as a whole no longer interprets natural disasters as signs of some coming apocalypse or evidence of some past misdeeds. And those that do (Robertson, for example) we generally regard as cranks and outliers—relics of a bygone age.

Some say science and religion are engaged in a battle for the soul of America. I don’t buy that.

I know there are bitter divisions over evolution and creationism, for example. But there are all sorts of spiritual arenas where science is mum, and vice versa. Science and religion run on parallel tracks far more often than those tracks intersect.

Hurricanes and earthquakes are one arena, however, where the language of science has almost entirely routed the language of theology.

Psalms 107:25-33 reads: “For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof. . . . He turneth rivers into a wilderness, and the watersprings into dry ground."

Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans—including the overwhelming majority of American Christians—believe that when God has something to say He speaks in less dramatic ways, including the still small voices in our hearts and the slightly louder voices of the preachers in our pulpits.

When it comes to earthquakes and hurricanes, however, our authorities are geologists and meteorologists. Most of us interpret these events not through the rumblings of the biblical prophet Jeremiah or the poetry of the Book of Revelation but through the scientific truths of air pressure and tectonic plates.

As a result of this sort of secularization, we are much better at predicting the course of hurricanes. The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 arrived as a surprise and took many lives with it, including, according to the report of the Massachusetts governor John Winthrop, those of eight Native Americans taken by the storm surge while “flying from their wigwams.”

So we are better prepared, thank science. Our stories are far less dramatic, however. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God. But their God no longer acts out his fury as in Bible days.  Our storms have not yet been tamed. But our God has.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Belief • Faith • Science

soundoff (2,530 Responses)
  1. Sigh

    One only need to look elsewhere in the solar system to see just how tame and boring even the worst of our weather is. If hurricanes are the wrath of a magical sky daddy, then he must really hate Jupiter. I really wish humanity would stop trying to trump up its existence as if the universe somehow cares about it.

    August 29, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  2. Miss Demeanor

    RE: "I don't think it is just the GOP..."
    I regret that I was one of many fools who helped elect Jimmy 'god-is-my-co-pilot' Carter for prez. Considering that Carter & Dubbya were both born again southern fundamentalists and that they were also the two most inept US presidents in the past 100 years, I'm astonished that Perry can still successfully play the god-card today. Whatever steered Dubbya & Jimmy over the cliff sure wasn't divine. I hope we won't be fooled again.

    August 29, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  3. Lou

    Foreskin Follies

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=videoseries&w=640&h=360]

    August 29, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • Triago

      again... only ignoramuses still quote the old testament to spite Christianity. You "do" realize that Christians practice the New Testament: "love your neighbor as yourself", "turn the other cheek", "judge not and ye shall not be judged". Please educate yourselves before spewing that garbage. Does your mouth taste like garbage now? Just curious.

      August 29, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Triago

      hmmm. first you say "the bible is all wrong. Its all nonsense." then you try to slander religion using its stories. I dont get it. Do you believe the bible is correct or incorrect. you cant just flip flop, using both to your advantage like a democrat silly.

      August 29, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Fred1

      @Triago: Jesus said to follow the law of the old testament ALL OF IT. He also said the most difficult path is the one that leads to heaven. Pretending that you are no longer bound by the law of the Old Testament is the easy path to hell

      “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."Matthew 5:17-19

      "Heaven and earth will disappear before the smallest letter of the Law does." Luke 16:17 (CEV)

      What part of “UNTIL HEAVEN AND EARTH DISAPPEAR” don’t you understand? That doesn’t mean just until the resurrection (that is the easy path to hell).
      "You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it." Matthew 7:13-14

      August 29, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  4. TheGoat

    I like to think we can apply this same logic to many other things, including a belief that we evolved on this planet from microscopic organisms. We so well understand how we got here and how we have changed over time, is it not the very same logic as what we use to explain hurricanes? Obviously, we dint live here with the dinosaurs were here! Obviously, we didn't just magically appear on the planet 5000 years ago! Come on... this is almost laughable.

    Or what about believing we are the only living creatures in the universe? Surely there is enough science now to support the belief there are many many other planets that can contain life and very likely do.

    August 29, 2011 at 8:33 am |
    • Triago

      but they still havent found life have they? you know what they say about assuming. only morons do it.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:54 am |
    • LetsThink123

      Hey Triago
      i see that your science education is lacking. Your bible is flawed. Its very first story, the creation story, is flawed. Adam and eve is a myth, and science has the right answers. Here's why adam and eve is flawed:
      1. FACT: If a brother and sister have a child together, there is a high probability of that child suffering from retardation.
      Based on this fact, why isn't most of the world suffering from retardation if we all came from Adam and Eve?
      2. FACT: The first early humans were walking this earth 200k-500k years ago, and came out of AFRICA.
      Based on this fact, how does the Adam and Eve story hold up to such a vast error in timescale? God created the world in 7 days, and even if you say that 1 day = 1000 years, the number is still way off!
      3. FACT: The stars we see in the night sky are just other suns (some larger than our sun, some smaller). They were also formed BEFORE our sun.
      Genesis 1:3 says: And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. <– This means that the sun was created.
      Genesis 1:16 says: And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
      Why did God make the stars AFTER our sun?? It contradicts FACT.
      4. FACT: Land animals were present BEFORE animals who could aviate.
      Genesis 1:20 says: And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
      Genesis 1:21 says: And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
      Why did god do the reverse??
      5. FACT: Mendelian genetics says that a certain genetic threshold is needed for a species to survive. Example, the bengali tigers r going extinct. There are only about 250 of them left, and they will not survive for more than a couple of decades. But being an adam and eve believer, u would say, 'hey, 250 of them, thats enough! we only need 2 to reproduce and keep the species going!'. wrong! the genetic threshold for these tigers is 500. they need at least 500 to produce enough genetic variance in order to survive. So how could adam and eve, just 2 people, able to provide so much genetic variance that we see in humans today?
      Let's see if u can answer these questions logically, not the 'moronic' magical answers of 'GOD did it!'.

      September 1, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  5. Chris

    "And it [secularization] seems to be reversible (see the United States today vs. the United States in the 1970s)."

    I disagree. I think there are fewer religious idiots today than there were in the 1970s... it's just that the ones that are left are hundreds of times louder because of the internet.

    August 29, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • Shannon

      Exactly. Pew and other organizations that regularly survey Americans find an increasing degree of apathy and antipathy towards religion, if not outright rejection of it, in the US. The number who claimed "none" on religious affiliation was at an all-time high for the last census. So, once again, data reject someone's anecdotal hunch (which, interestingly, is consistent with the general theme of this article).

      August 29, 2011 at 8:36 am |
    • Justice

      "Religious idiots"? What do you gain from your hatred and anger toward others that are different than you? What do you gain from persecuting others? Stop judging others so that you may not be judged.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:38 am |
    • RightTurnClyde

      When you generalize and call people an idiot iut makes you an idiot. Perhaps you cannot understand something (like electricity) but that does make electricians idiots. It makes you an idiot to think so.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:47 am |
    • Justice

      @Shannon,

      Really Shannon? Show me the data from Pew. Otherwise, your conclusion is flawed.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  6. Lou

    Jehovah witness founder Charles Russell steals pathetic revelations from Nelson Barber in the late 1800s

    That end 1799 The Time Of The End started
    1874 Jesus Christ invisibly returns
    1914 The World Will Come to an End
    Then,
    The World Will Come to an End was pushed forward to 1915
    Then, 1918 World Will Come to an End
    But in 1916 Charles Russell dies and at his graveside stands a pyramid
    a direct slap in the face of this totally wrong predictions and information.

    Joseph Franklin Rutherford develops the millions campaign staining that millions people now living will never die.
    He now predicts The destruction of the world 1925

    August 29, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  7. btechno

    Question: how is an eternal being that exists outside of time able to act within time to affect the daily lives of humans?

    August 29, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • steelerguin

      He can if you believe He is omniscient and omnipotent. If you don't believe in God, you won't believe that He can.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • RightTurnClyde

      question is why would you think thunder or wind is a god when you know what it is. If you did not know (7 million years ago) and it scared you then maybe you think it is a big humanoid like Thor ...but even a non-meteorologist knows what it is. So also you know there is no forest god, tree god, salmpn totem, bear totem, buffalo god, sake deity, Neptune, Mars, etc. And yet some THING caused the big bang .. and masses of material to exist to be in the big bang; masses comprised to atoms and neutrons and protrons and "laws" related to ions and ionization, ... and life .. the ultimate miracle. None of that can be explained.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • btechno

      If God is omniscient, wouldn't that contradict the entire concept of free will? Why would God willingly and knowingly create humans who would go against him? What is the purpose of judgement when the outcome is already known?

      If God is not omniscient, then he cannot be omnipotent.

      I'm not attacking anyone's beliefs, just asking the question.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • LetsThink123

      @RightTurnClyde
      yes, none of that can be explained, not yet (keyword).
      if something cannot be explained, it doesn't mean that God did it!

      September 1, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  8. Rock

    The only thing "god" has to do with storms is to give the insurance companies a cop-out when the time for needing a claim pops up and ruins their precious stockholders' day.

    August 29, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  9. PCGeek

    You know – every time I see religion debated on a public forum, the whole thing is an exercise in mental futility as both the atheists and even some of the Christians make the same type of mistakes over and over again and just yell back and forth at each other. The atheists misinterpret basic Biblical teachings and make the same lame objections to Faith that have been long since dealt with – seriously atheists, nothing you are coming up with is different that what Jean Meslier came up with in 1729 – stop raising the same tired objections as if they were Earth-shattering criticisms of Christianity.

    Some Christians need to stop acting as if a.) The American Right = Christianity and b.) that "Christianity is true because it is" is a good argument

    Nothing discussed here hasn't already been discussed and debated a million other places...atheists you should try a simple google search before posting some more inane garbage.

    good site that covers much of this material already – at least read the basics before you go and post your drivel.
    http://www.tektonics.org/

    August 29, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • btechno

      The same can be said for creationists arguing against evolution. But that's what happens when you try to debate reality with magic and vice versa – it's essentially meaningless.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  10. Eric

    Dumb article and completely unnecessary. Only a moron believes natural disasters are 'God's messages/punishment'.

    August 29, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • TheWiz71

      Hear hear. But, remember, the morons are out there. Even Glenn Beck said that Irene had divine causes.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  11. Gnarly Erik

    I just love the way Christians insist on telling us what the bible really MEANS instead of what it is actually saying – and then turn around and ignore even that in practice.

    August 29, 2011 at 8:19 am |
  12. Lou

    If a man commits adultery with another man's wife both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death
    Leviticus 20:10

    August 29, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • TheWiz71

      What you are doing is no better than the fundamentalist whacko, such as Fred Phelps, who pulls passages out, ignores any context available and possible, to condemn people. Cut it out, because you have no idea what you're talking about and no idea what you're doing.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:20 am |
    • createinvent

      hmm...i thought loving god and loving your neighbor as you wished to be loved....i guess they didn't read that far yet

      August 29, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • Triago

      only ignoramuses still quote the old testament to spite Christianity. You "do" realize that Christians practice the New Testament: "love your neighbor as yourself", "turn the other cheek", "judge not and ye shall not be judged". Please educate yourselves before spewing that garbage. Does your mouth taste like garbage now? Just curious.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • Fred1

      WISDOM – Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. Proverbs 4:7 (NIV)

      WISDOM –
      For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Ecclesiastes 1:18 (KJV)

      August 29, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  13. Lou

    Children who curse their father or mother must be put to death
    Leviticus 20:9

    August 29, 2011 at 8:15 am |
    • Triago

      only ignoramuses still quote the old testament to spite Christianity. You "do" realize that Christians practice the New Testament: "love your neighbor as yourself", "turn the other cheek", "judge not and ye shall not be judged". Please educate yourselves before spewing that garbage. Does your mouth taste like garbage now? Just curious.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • LetsThink123

      @Triago
      You are the ignorant one. Here's a biblical quote where jesus says we should follow the OT:
      Jesus orders Christians to follow the Law of Moses in the Old Testament: "Do not think that I [Jesus] have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke or a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18)"

      September 1, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  14. jack

    While I think that Pat Robertson and the rest of these snake oil salesman are nothing but hucksters, but if you believe that God created all things, than it is he that also created hurricanes/typhoons, tornados, earthquakes, diseases, etc. Whats up for debate is what purposes these events serve and much to Robertsons dismay, nobody knows that answer. They say
    that they do just to control and manipulate their so called followers.

    August 29, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  15. Lou

    Kill everyone who works on the Sabbath
    Exodus 31:15
    Isaiah 40:8
    1 Peter 1:24-25
    Psalm 19:7

    August 29, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  16. Lou

    Kill everyone who does not believe in my God
    Deut 17:2-7
    Deut 13:13-19
    Lev 24:16

    August 29, 2011 at 8:13 am |
  17. JP

    Religions attempt to explain what can't be explained at the time. We used not to know what hurricanes were, so it must've been God. Now we do, so God isn't necessary.

    August 29, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • TheWiz71

      Don't know what happened to the reply I wrote to this post earlier. Here goes again – As the author of the column himself points out, religion and science, more often than not, run on parallel, not intersecting tracks. They have two different purposes. It has never been the primary motivation for any of the major world religions, to explain the scientific workings of the universe. In fact, there have been a large number of scientists throughout history who have made major scientific discoveries that have shaped so much of our knowledge, and they worked out of desire to learn the truth about the origin and nature of God's creation. Even genetic, which goes hand in hand with our understanding of evolution, was pioneered by a RC priest. So, it's a false conflict. To say that religion can be dismissed out of hand because of our scientific understanding, is overly simple at best, and just plain wrong at worst.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • LetsThink123

      @TheWiz71
      so how do u explain the fact that science has shown adam and eve and noah's ark to be myths? if u and me lived 500 yrs ago, and we discussed adam and eve, and noahs ark, u would've argued that its literally true. now with the advent of science, we know its not true. But the religious like to hold on to these myths in a 'metaphorical' context, instead of just admitting that its false.
      with science contradicting religion, and science having the evidence to back up what it says, religion and science cannot run in parallel. Unless u move religion to purely philosophical ideas, they will always contradict each other.

      September 1, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  18. PeaceOut

    I think I sort of agree with this article... I think. In older days, inexplicable distaters would be attributed to God's wrath by those inpower so that their subjects would be kept in line. Maybe these days it is not so much that are "less religious is in the realm of natural disasters" (whatever that means) but maybe they are not so gullible. Neither God nor Satan causes every good or bad thing to happen. After all, aren't there more important things than death, physical harm, or loss of property? Isn't the soul more important than all of these things?

    August 29, 2011 at 8:06 am |
  19. GaryD3

    "Our storms have not yet been tamed. But our God has."

    The author needs to take this line of thinking further. God has become a pet god who thinks what the GOP leadership wants him to think, condones what they want him to condone, hates what they want to hate. He has gotten mixed up with Santa Claus ("he sees you when you're sleeping, etc.).

    The author needs to explore what many scholars believe is the true meaning of the commandment about taking the name of the Lord in vain–not the expletives when you hit your thumb with a hammer, but when people put words in God's mouth.

    I have no trouble believing in a Higher Power. However, I find it difficult to believe in a God small enough to fit into the mind of Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, et al.

    August 29, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • Rick

      I don't think it is just the GOP. I think everyone makes god what they want it to be. Some may use the bible as an outline, but it is apparent with all the denominations that claim to use the same book that it is open to much interpretation. I think everyone should make "god" personal. Belief is personal, not top down

      August 29, 2011 at 8:07 am |
  20. Lou

    This is the way Jesus wants you to treat your family.

    Luke-14-26

    If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

    August 29, 2011 at 7:58 am |
    • TheWiz71

      What does this have to do with the article?

      August 29, 2011 at 8:04 am |
    • JPX

      Lou, who wrote that Luke-14-26 statement? You understand that the bible was written by scholars and not a magical man, right?

      August 29, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • TheWiz71

      And, by the way, if your comment is meant as a criticism of Christianity ( or of Jesus himself), then it falls flat anyway. Anyone who knows anything about the original text, as well as rhetorical style of the era knows that Jesus is not encouraging his followers to actively dislike their families (if he were he himself would be a hypocrite – note the concern his shows for his mother while he is on the cross). What he does mean is that we must love our families less than we love God. That is, God must be the first love of our lives, and in the context of our love for God, Jesus is teaching, we love our families, friends (and enemies) and our neighbors.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • JJ

      Don't want to be a disciple and don't need the Bible or any "God" to tell me how to act like a decent human being.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • JP

      @TheWiz71 Anyone who knows anything about the text knows the Bible was completely contrived in the first place, so let's not split hairs.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • TheWiz71

      @JP – Umm...no. There's a difference between taking scripture at literal face value, and examining it through the lens of textual and historical criticism. To dismiss the Bible (or almost any other sacred text) as being "completely contrived" is to dismiss the thousands of years of spiritual experience of almost countless men, women, and children contained therein. I would say that that is arrogance of the highest order. What makes you or me smarter than any of our ancestors, whether they lived 10 years ago, or 2000 years ago. We have more scientific knowledge, but that is it.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • Perry

      @thewiz: Good point. I would surely have to love my god first to willingly stone my own daughter to death for losing her virtue. God is good, right?

      August 29, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • Perry

      @thewiz again: to dismiss ANY part of the bible and to pick and choose what you will obey (this is what a "moderate christian" does) is heresy according to the bible itself. Shame shame.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • harmonynoyes

      I believe this means, when we grow to hate whatever, and we probably will, Jesus will show us the way back to Love
      and peace of mind. Praise the Lord, and thankyou Jesus.

      August 30, 2011 at 1:32 am |
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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.