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. ScientistEvenKnow

    You don't limit GODS power.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Tom

      Except when he's tied up and ball-gagged. Anyway, I wonder why god's power is limited when it comes to amputees.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Perry

      @Tom, perhaps God has given us the knowledge to help amputees, locked within the secrets of stem cells. Ouch, right?

      August 29, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Tom

      No Perry. Just further proof that you'll keep inflating the balloon to keep the concept of a deity alive. It'll never end. Even as the shrinking knowledge gaps are continously filled by hard-working scientists, you'll find something to keep god relevant.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  2. Byrd

    No longer in the whirlwind? Good. The gallows is where he belongs.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  3. Iceman

    correct: I do not have to prove that Satan exists to people who choose think and believe he does not exist.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • harmonynoyes

      I don't believe it's within human power
      to analyze or prove anything about God, the Godman, or satan

      It's another realm, I believe God allows us to learn from stories of that realm, true, or figurative, and from experiences that cannot be easily expained away, by science or whatever- I believe we ought not let egomania prevail!

      August 29, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  4. Tom

    To all my fellow atheists/agnostics/freethinkers/humanists, etc. Has anyone ever heard that being the rationalist minority in such a religious country is like being the only sober person in a room full of drunks?

    August 29, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • waterman

      The problem is that everyone thinks that they are the only sober person in the room. The Christian thinks all these atheists and muslims and hindus crazy and misguided. The muslim thinks same, and the atheist does too. So this analogy doesn't get us very far.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Mike b

      Please Tom...it's insulting at best for you to assume you are all knowing when it's perfectly rational for us to conclude you are not.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • XAQ

      I agree with waterman. While we obviously think somewhat alike, tom, our world views are what they are because we think they are the best (if you come across someone whose world view makes more sense to you than you own, you change yours to match). So to you and I, truth is best found in logic, reason, and fact-based research, but to a religious person, truth is best found in meditation/prayer/spiritual enlightenment, etc. that you and I may dismiss as hogwash. The biggest problem with the religious approach is only had when it is applied to the physical world, which is really the only overlap between religion and science. What people like us base their conclusions on is the plain fact that in the physical world, science always trumps religion in ability to accurately explain phenomena, but whose to say we're not missing something major by not being more spiritual? Science has nothing to say on the matter of spiritualism, pro or con. It's completely outside the purview of science.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Tom

      Never said I was all-knowing. Just appalled that so many continue to believe in an invisibile, all-powerful, omniscient leprechaun who made us out of clay in a magical garden.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Alex Gessong

      @Tom: In the old days, they'd be screaming to have you burned as a heretic, so at least some minor progress has been made. 😉
      There's still plenty of rational thought in the world. Sites devoted to religious topics just tend to attract the lunatic fringe is all. Keep in mind that there are still people who think the moon landings of the 1960's and '70's were faked. Some people just can't get comfortable with reality.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • EnergyBeing3

      Tom, great post! It's difficult to reach an insane person when they have built their illusions to keep themselves locked into the brainwashed delusions. You sometimes have to step into their imaginary world to shed the light of reality on their insanity.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  5. ScientistEvenKnow

    Romans were late on everything to do with science they didn't even know how to bath until being taught by those from the Eastern side of the planet so Alex Gessong Thanks but no thanks with your theory. Their is only one GOD which is found within many but will always remain as ONE. Jesus said don't pray to him pray to GOD so even he wanted to prevent division that was to come. But here's something to ponder upon because science and math goes together so well. If before all of these billions of galaxies were created there was nothing what created the first atom that lead us to this day in time? We all know there's a cause and effect to everything so give an answer to it right now but if you can not than join your local church or mosque asap because I can guarantee you no one on here believes in the "It was a coincidence" answer any more dude society has grown way too smart to go for that crap any more we want answers.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Tom

      By the looks of your writing abilities, it's not a surprise that you're a true believer.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • XAQ

      Wow, where to begin...

      If you want answers to everything right now, then you are just making them up (or whoever is giving you the answers is making them up). That's how people thought when lightning was caused by an angry Zeus. They didn't know, so they made up an answer that made sense to them.

      What's wrong with admitting you don't know? If you have some patience and an open mind, you may get an answer one day that's based in observable fact and reasonable interpretation, rather than one that's based in 2000 year old mysticism.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • I'm The Best!

      The first atom was created when a massive amount of evergy hit one spot. The same way WE create atoms at particle colliders.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  6. Kem

    Prophecies uttered long ago, they knew way ahead of time what these last days would bring. Unbelievers don't want to see the truth lest they have to change their lifestyle.

    2 Peter 3 3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” 5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7 By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

    2 Tim 3 1 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Tom

      It was written on papyrus by illiterate goat-herders during the Bronze Age, so it must be true.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • XAQ

      Everything you said there is true of every age since the birth of Christ. The fall of the Roman Empire, most of the Dark Ages, and certainly many places today. That's the great thing about prophesy, not only is it ambiguous and can fit nearly any time and place, but the interpretation of it is in the reader's eyes. All the characteristics of people living in end times are basic human nature...

      Skepticism (where is this second coming...) comes from free will and reason (both god-given according to judeo-christian faiths)
      Greed, hedonism, etc. comes from what psychologists call the "id." An innate part of our personalities that seeks pleasure and immediate gratification without concern for others (or your future self, for that matter).

      These things have always been, and will always be part of human nature, so prophesies that point to them as evidence of this, that, or the other, are inherently laughable.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • So

      Kem, How many homeless people do you walk by and not help every day in your town that hold up signs asking for help because Jesus commanded you to give your jacket and whatever else you have to them. How many children have you adopted because you are commanded to give shelter and take care of orphans. The problem with Christians like you is that you can’t see your own greed that you are surrounded with. Are you over weight that is gluttony, but yet many Christians over look that especially in their children.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  7. MB

    There is a connection between the spiritual and the natural worlds. Most religions believe this. So yes, God can use things to teach us. However, that doesn't mean He is angry and pointing a destructive finger at a city or country. The situation is more like a father son scenerio. The father tells the son he can take the car but be sure not to speed. The roads are curvy. Don't speed. It just rained and the roads a slick. Don't speed. The son speeds and crashes the car, hurting himself and destroying the car. The father didn't cause the crash. He offered ways to avoid it. In many respects, we (as individuals and a society) have not heeded God's advice. So, God has to let the consequences of the natural world take effect instead of protecting us from them. To do otherwise would be to go against His own nature because God established all rules of nature and spirit in the first place. So we have to consider that possibility in considering the sheer number of natural disasters in our country in the past year. However, I will also say that not every tragedy or natural disaster is because of sin. As Job teaches, some things happen for no real reason at all. And as Jesus taught in healing the blind man that some things aren't allowed because of sin but because of some greater purpose. It takes a discerning heart to figure out which category things fall in and the most we can do is to look at our own hearts to make sure we stand correctly before God. As a side note, I did some research and it "just so happens" that all of America's disasters for 2011 followed–almost immediately within a couple of weeks–some statement by Obama or his administration regarding reducing support or concern for Israel. Strange coincidence.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • waterman

      ROFL, you seriously believe that? Seriously? So God sent hurricanes and earthquakes, and killed hundreds of innocent people (who may not even have voted for Obama) and children, and bankrupted many others, because the Obama admin _talked_ about reducing aid to Israel? Did not even do it? And Katrina was because of something Bush said, or was it to punish gays?

      They say to respect and not ridicule different points of view, but with this kind of views, it is hard to respect anyone.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Alex Gessong

      @MB: so, how do you know that the hurricane is not punishment for Americans allowing the Tea Party to exist? Did you hear a voice in your head telling you that some god was angry about something in particular? And why do you suppose all of the other hurricanes have happened throughout history? Does your god only get angry during hurricane season? And how about storms on other planets, such as Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune? Do you think that's divine wrath, too? Weather and earthquakes are natural phenomena. They're not political or magical in any way.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • waterman

      If God wanted to support Israel, he could (1) kill all Palestinians and their supporters, or (2) give money or natural resources like gold and oil to Israel so it never needs aid, or (3) kill Obama and ensure election of someone else who will support Israel more, or a number of other options like preventing any problem in the first place.

      But what does He do? Kill a bunch of random people who happen to live near the US coast. That's my kind of guy.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Alex Gessong

      @MB: President Obama supports Israel as much as any other U.S. President has. There has been zero change in that. No statement or policy from the current Administration is any different on that from any other Administration. This is reality. President Obama has stated on multiple occasions that the U.S. will always stand with Israel. If you believe this support has ever waivered in any way, please provide the quote that makes you believe that. And I don't mean a quote from a FoxNews commentator or talk show host. And if you think God has been protecting Israel, where was that protection during WWII when 6 million Jews were murdered? Why no earthquakes or hurricanes in Germany while the Holocaust was going on? Think the murder of 6 million Jews didn't make God mad, but s statement from a politician does? Seriously?

      August 29, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  8. XAQ

    Religion has historically had 3 main purposes (1. Explain the world we live in, 2. Provide a guide to morality and spiritualism, and 3. As a tool to control the masses used by cinical tyrants). Science offers a much better way to understand the physical world in which we live, but has no say on spiritualism. In other words, it offers answers to "HOW?," not "WHY?". Earthquakes and hurricanes are only two examples of a plethora of physical phenomena that are well understood by science today, and which had religious/supernatural explanations in ages past. When we don't know how something happens, we're quick to say, "God did it," but what we've seen through science is that that's probably a poor assumption.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • EnergyBeing3

      Agreed. Good post. Thoughtful and nice use of basic critical thinking.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  9. Ralph


    Is Francis Collins dumb or delusional?

    August 29, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  10. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    I think there's been a general trend towards only giving God credit for good things that happen to us and play down his role in the bad, which may make people feel better about the relationship with God, but is not very scriptural. When Job lost his home, his property, and his family, his first reaction was to praise God–not because he was happy it happened, but because above all else, he acknowledged God's power over everything; this is where the saying "the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away" comes from.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  11. Alex Gessong

    We call the gods of ancient pagan Europe "myths" because we choose not to believe in them, even though the people of those ancient times believed in their gods as much as we today believe in ours. And they has just as much "proof" of the existence of their gods as we do of ours. They believed that the gods caused thunder and rains and wind. It would be unfortunate if people in the 21st century are no wiser than people in the 1st. They can be excused for their ignorance because science had not really gained much momentum at that time. There's no such excuse now. Time to embrace reality: gods don't cause storms or earthquakes, and solar eclipses are not caused by a dragon devouring the sun. Storms happen on Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, etc. It's all about thermodynamics, not theology.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  12. XO

    This guy does not know his theology: Romans 8 18-25

    August 29, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  13. ScientistEvenKnow

    Nothing can tame GOD Lmao. GOD is the most popular topic of the hour so how could they even think to say there are more atheist among us. False! it is said that when the time comes those who don't believe will have no choice but too believe. The more and more you question the existence of GOD you'll believe because some have questioned it til death. Why is it that religion and science can't get along when you find them within each other all the time? Something else is in the picture disrupting the peace of what will never separate. Don't go against truth, live with it or parish.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • Bobby

      Wow you're one messed up mentally deranged dude, get help man.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Perry

      You must be privy to chapters of the bible that the rest of us aren't, because I see no science in there.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  14. hdhd

    Hahaha, you are hilarious. I was trying to have intelligent conversation with you then you said

    "Bottom line is that none of us are without sin. The wage of sin is death. God cannot deny himself and God is just. Therefore sin HAS to be payed for. So the question is whether you think you have enough spiritual capital to pay for your own sin (hint, you don't) or whether you are going to accept Jesus gracious offer to pay your debt for you. I pray that you do."

    No thanks, I won't cop out and have Jesus pay for my sins. I'll believe that if there is a God, he'll be kinder, smarter and less hateful and if the God in the books are right, I'll pay for my own sins and not have some other man pay for it. Way to sell out, lost all respect for you after that statement.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Kem

      Your ignorance is underwhelming. Don't you know you can't pay for your own sin, Jesus alone pays for them but you must humble yourself and let Him. It's a free gift, why would you choose to die when He offers life?

      August 29, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Bruce

      Kem, what does my "choice" have to do with anything? Is it not written that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh against Him, and this caused Pharaoh to act in the defiant way he did?

      Why is it that so-called "Christians" always make this about "choice," when it very clearly has nothing to do with choice? Seriously, stop patting yourselves on your backs for your "choice," because that is the same pride that says that you saved yourself.

      If Jesus' death and resurrection was sufficient to save you or me, then we don't need to add this "choice" to the list of things that are necessary for it to happen.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  15. Mark

    I would expect as much from a Baylor prof., a school which lost its religious moorings a long time ago.
    I, on the other hand, who have been praying that God would teach my people not to blaspheme, have been praying for this for some time. I wouldn't be too quick to discount the divine. Scoff if you will, but I'd recommend you repent instead. Revelation 9.21–and they did not repent of their murders nor of their sorceries nor of their immorality nor of their thefts." Hey, America, I'm praying for you!

    August 29, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • Perry

      If I repent to God, what do I tell Shiva when she collects my soul? What if YOU are wrong? Guess what, nobody knows. Believe what you want, but keep it out of the decisions that effect the future of mankind, or there won't be a future.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  16. Derock

    Hurricane hits New Orleans and its God sending a message that he doesn't like their ways. Tornado wipes out a town in the Bible Belt and its "God works in mysterious ways" or "God is testing us." A load of BS is all it really is.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  17. ScientistEvenKnow

    If it weren't for the scientist of thousands of years ago (Who believed in GOD I must add) mapping the stars pin pointing planets creating calenders predicting weather and setting the stage for these modern day scientist they wouldn't even have a clue of where to start. Okay we know we all want to see GOD walk up and shake our hands but the society we live in today still wouldn't believe it because for some reason science is being used against a power so great its causing to much confusion and destroying the people who believe in it along with all of their theories.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Bobby

      Yeah, NOT – it's people in the past who couldn't explain something so they declared it was a God but the reality is it doesn't exist. Can you imagine not knowing about meteor showers in the past and thinking it’s a God being angry. The problem is this theory of a God is stopping our ability to grow our minds and science at a faster rate it's time to come out of the dark ages and into the light

      August 29, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Laughing

      Just because you believe in a false premise doesn't mean you can't still find truth. It can also be theorized that many scientists who claimed to be christian only did so for social status and the ability to work on their projects in peace.

      Your calandar comment was idiotic and not worth a rebuttle.

      Why is science confusing us exactly? Because it gives us logical answers to questions? Honestly, if god wanted to make us believe he existed he doesn't have to go around and shake everyones hand. I nice little miracle would do, you know like regorwing the limbs for an amputee, bringing someone back from the dead after a day or two? Shouldn't be too hard right?

      August 29, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • Know What


      Isaac Newton also believed in alchemy, numerology and the occult. Nikola Tesla ended up feeding the pigeons and believing that one particular pigeon was his wife.

      Just because they got some things correct, doesn't mean that they got *everything* correct.... only the things which have been *proven* over and over again are accepted.

      p.s. Who taught you that the plural of scientist is scientist? It is 'scientists' (also atheists, biologists, etc.).

      August 29, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Free

      Even Benjamin Franklin couldn't bring himself to believe that meteors fell to earth, and he was an accomplished scientist. They believed in God until the better answer was discovered, which is how science operates. In Paul's time anyone really would have sounded like a fool for denying the existence of gods, because there wasn't an alternative answer then, but not any more. Some time in the future the evidence may again point to God being real, but in the meantime this just isn't the case. Sorry!

      August 29, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  18. Jeanette Bello

    God does not cause these natural disasters. But he does have a day, according to Acts 17:31 "Because he has set a day in which he purposes to judge the inhabited earth in righteousness..." So no, God does not play games sending bad weather to punish people for there sins.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  19. trolol

    God tamed? hahahaahhaaha.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  20. dowdotica

    ..uh, did i just walk into a room of stupid! hey folks wake up! evolution at this point is a choice and within is room for all religions. and remember there is no such thing as global warming even as we continue to suck the belly dry of good mother earth! simply put? For all religions there are 2 sides to the story. question is who really comprehends the simplistic nature of the under lying messages and who in fact walks "Gods" earth humble? ?DUH. DUH!

    August 29, 2011 at 1:43 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.