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. andrewthree

    We live in a fallen world, where bad things happen. God does not cause every natural disaster. He also does not prevent every natural disaster, so we can see that all is not well, that there is a problem in the relationship between Him and us, and that we need to be reconciled to Him.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • JT

      Or maybe there is no god and these things just happen because we live in the natural world.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • LetsThink123

      we don't live in a fallen world because adam and eve never existed.

      August 30, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  2. archimedes109

    It's obvious the quake and storm one-two punch are God's way of giving two thumbs down for Tea Party ignorance. Duh...

    August 28, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
  3. Brian

    "Do some of you actually still believe we evolved from apes????"..................................................

    When I look at this country I get the impression evolution is running backwards. Pretty soon we will be swinging through the trees.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • Darween

      That is what my monkey dad taught me..doing a somersault as we speak
      Yipee!!! monkey kisses...xoxo

      August 28, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
    • wait

      In some cultures they actually worship monkeys. How dare you insult monkeys.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
    • JT

      No, apes evolved from us.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  4. colonelingus

    I don't care if it rains or freezes, as long as I got my plastic Jesus! Sit"s on top of my TV set and brings in great reception!

    August 28, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
  5. WeAreLikeThatOnly

    "Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans—including the overwhelming majority of American Christians—now believe that when God has something to say He speaks in less dramatic ways, including the still small voices in our hearts"

    Welcome to Hinduism, which for centuries has spoken of god within each one of us being more powerful than any external power or force.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • Venus

      Says the "Elephant God"

      August 28, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • Perspective

      Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Virgin, Saints, Angels, Elephant (Ganesh). You weren't going to attempt a monotheistic point were you? If so, the variety of gods in other religions are explained to be the attributes of the greater God, kind of like Son, Holy Ghost, Virgin, saints, angels etc.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:11 am |
  6. Reaghan

    JOregon, I'd like to say that I understand your point. My story has some common grounds with yours. I was saved from being murdered when I murmured "Jesus save me!", and as a miracle things were turned around and I was set free. I am still to find why I am still here though. Have been through really hard times after that occasion. Any light on my story?
    I prayed to God that hurricane Irene would get weaker as it made its landfall and that the least possible harms would be made to Americans. That's all I can say.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
    • archimedes109

      I once got laid because I mumbled, "Please, God, let me nail this chick..." Since then, I've tried the same plea about five thousand times and...nothing! You do the math.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • piloyguy26

      Reaghan, while I am not trying to insult your belief in God or the practice of prayer, praying for the Hurricane to weaken as it makes landfall is equivalent to praying that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. It is going to happen regardless due to the fact that Hurricanes gain their strength from warm, tropical water. This is why you see the larger and more dangerous storms in the south where the water is warm. When traveling over colder water, and land especially, the storm loses most of the energy that it gains from the high temperatures. This is why it is now Tropical Storm Irene and soon will be a depression and then nothing.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • JOregon

      Have been through really hard times after that occasion.
      I certainly don't know why it has been hard for you.
      Hard times happen to everyone, my life was certainly smoother before I became a Christian.
      A verse that gave me comfort:
      Hebrews 12:6 For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
    • John

      Reaghan- I'd really love to hear the specifics of your story and why you think muttering those words had any direct causation, rather than just correlation, to you not being murdered. I get the sense that without critical thinking skills, you now believe it was your prayer (and maybe others') that weakened the hurricane. Every single "miracle" that's out there is really not a miracle!

      August 28, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  7. I don't always read comments, but when I do, I want to downvote everything

    One: With Libya, Irene's damage, the Israeli conflicts, the Korean conflicts, economic troubles, etc, etc, how does this qualify as news?

    Two: Why does anyone here care what anyone else thinks? Everyone whose commented on this acts so self-righteous because of their belief, but why? What have you earned that others haven't? What magical insight do you have that others don't? What makes you think you're better than everyone else because you do or don't believe in God? Let people make up their own minds on what they want to believe. If you don't agree, then believe what you want, but allow other people the right to choose without your arrogant judgement.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • Leonid Brezhnev

      You sound pretty arrogant yourself.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
    • gupsphoo

      This article is posted under "Belief Blog", which CNN doesn't claim to be news.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • I don't always read comments, but when I do, I want to downvote everything

      @Leonid Brezhnev Did you even read the post? You probably did, but failed to understand what I was conveying. I'm sick of people who think they're better than everyone else for religious reasons. People are extremely judgmental of each other and fail to look past a simple fact. A person learns another is an atheist or a Christian, and they automatically refuse to understand anything more about that person because they can't look past their belief system or respect their ideals. Why don't you learn some basic critical thinking and analysis skills before you make inane accusations. And someone of your intelligence I know will say, "Well you're making accusations, too," but the proof for my accusations is all around in the comments. Try going back to middle school English and learning something.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  8. Leonid Brezhnev

    Religion is the opiate of the masses.

    Stupid, ignorant sheep, believing all these fairy tales about some supernatural being watching over them. What a crock of bull sheet.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • Perry

      Say what you want, I made out MY wish list to Santa!

      August 28, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
    • joe smegma

      and the roar of the masses could be farts

      August 28, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
    • Perspective

      Yeah Bullwinkle. Everyone knows fearless leader will do such a better job of that. Nothing up my sleeve, presto,,,,,,roar,,,,slam the monster back into the hat......"I gotta get a new hat".

      August 29, 2011 at 2:15 am |
  9. colonelingus

    SIN= Self Induced Nonsense!

    August 28, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • apple

      so you have a problem with the Sin part? there is Hope ...

      August 28, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  10. Christopher

    To assert that God did not WILL the devastation of a hurricane, earthquake, etc. is not the same as asserting that God could speak to us THROUGH such an event.

    Also, it seems foolhardy to expect God to speak to us ONLY in ways that are palatable to us. Most faiths assert that God will speak as GOD sees fit, not as WE demand.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • gupsphoo

      That makes your God virtually indistinguishable from being non-existence, unless you can provide non-anecdotal evidence that God spoke to us.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
    • dan25ny

      IOW, don't ask any questions!

      August 28, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
  11. Rick

    Stop, drop & roll doesn't work in hell. People need to wake up. Do some of you actually still believe we evolved from apes????

    August 28, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • gupsphoo

      Which hell? I hope you realize there are many versions of hell because there are tens of thousands of religions out there. You haven't avoided the risk of going to hell just because you believe in one of them.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
    • colonelingus

      Sounds a hell of a lot more logical then the foolishness you Wackos constantly spout off about.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • wwajdblogger

      It appears some of us have evolved from dinosaurs. Or more precisely, INTO dinosaurs.


      August 28, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Leonid Brezhnev

      The concept of hell was created to keep the sheeple in line. A lot of 'religions' don't even believe in the concept of a hell.

      There is no god, no afterlife, no one is watching over you. Get your heads out of your butts.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Tim

      @Rick, I assume from your post, that you are a Christian. I am too (although I probably have different feelings about creation than you do). Please understand that Darwin (or any modern scientists) ever thought we evolved from apes. Rather that apes and humans had a common ancestor sometime in the past. Please get your facts straight before posting. It makes all of us Christ-followers look bad.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
    • JT

      Do some of you actually believe that 2000 years ago a man died and rotted in a cave for 3 days and came back to life? Really?

      August 28, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
    • johnbiggscr

      'Do some of you actually still believe we evolved from apes????'
      Actually no one does, we shared a common ancestor but its a common argument used by the ignorant.

      And ah yes hell, apparently god has decided some kind of testing system is required for some weird reason. Any clue you are able to shed on that? apparently god has a large ego, and hates people enough to condemn them to eternal damnation for not believing in him or worshipping him; man he has some anger management issues there.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  12. us1776

    We need to ban all of the "Invisible Being" cults.

    Religion has been responsible for more death and suffering and destruction than anything else faced by the human race.


    August 28, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • apple

      yeah, say that to Steve P, he thinks not....

      August 28, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • taffd

      no, it hasn't–people twisting religion have

      August 28, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  13. Sun

    "Seek and you will surely find God"

    August 28, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • gupsphoo

      Translation – "If you're gullible and want to believe, you will become a believer."

      August 28, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • Gordon

      I have sought god and found nothing. To me, that means there is no god.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
  14. Chris

    CNN needs to stay out of religion as do every other news station out there. Giving it more attention is the worst thing for America. The more attention is brought to it the more people become religious. You only have to look at Islam after 9/11 to see how that is true.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  15. James F. McGrath

    I came across a sarcastic poster that sums up well the image of God one ends up with if they view a personified deity as behind forces of nature and natural disasters: http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/2011/08/27/the-connection-between-hurricane-irene-and-gay-marriage/

    August 28, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • James F. McGrath

      Let's see if it will let me embed the link so that people can just click it...


      August 28, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  16. gupsphoo

    Hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning, earthquakes .... People in the past didn't have the necessary scientific knowledge to explain such natural phenomena, so they attributed them to gods.

    As science is able come up with more and more answers, it's inevitable that religion will die off some day.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • Perspective

      Not really. Most of those that survive will do so by tempering their beliefs with the realities science discovers, and evolving to continue giving their life meaning by adjusting to the facts. They will still want community, a sense of belonging, attachment to ancesteral history and feel a sensible personal link with it ALL.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:24 am |
  17. Greg Bowyer

    This story caused me to think of an interesting notion. If a generally accepted christian viewpoint can be so radically altered, what currently held doctrines will change in the future? The idea of God's hand being directly involved in nature is far more believable than the virgin birth, the ascent of Christ, or the rapture. Will these articles of faith be discarded over time as well?

    August 28, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  18. john

    100 years ago, you don't see christians half naked on the beach, go to any beach and see.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • Peace2All


      W T F ??? 😯


      August 28, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • wwajdblogger

      I still don't see naked Christians on the beach. Which beach do you go to?

      August 28, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  19. Kebos

    Yes, god is no longer thought of, except for the weak of mind or gullible, as responsible for the creation of any natural disaster. Gradually, the god of the old and new testament loses his supernatural being. Over time, god will diminish in significance and mankind will be better off for it.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
    • Perspective

      Or man's concept of it will stop being so westernly childish and possibly evolve into maybe a more Eastern or non-man centered form.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:26 am |
  20. MashaSobaka

    Some people tremble before the power of their god. I stand in awe before the power of nature. Trust me, nature is just as miraculous and just as beautiful and just as horrifying as any god or gods of man's creation. The downside is that we don't get to believe that we can pray our way out of nature's destruction – that so long as we are faithful we will be spared while the unfaithful suffer. But then again I've never taken comfort in the thought that I might survive while others die...that actually depresses me a lot. Maybe that's why I can never embrace religion. Oh well.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Perspective

      Nature is It, what we know and what we don't know of It. We are all a part of It and cannot operate outside It's law, no matter how special we might think we are. There is a psycholigical value to praying that can actually help you do things you might not otherwise do. Tao, native American beliefs and Eastern Religions may be more in line with your thoughts. No need to embrace anything until it makes sense to you though. the truth is out there and it will set you free, or maybe at least freer.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:33 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.