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. JJ

    I am a believer of God, and I also believe in evolution. I believe that since we are materials of science, and that the universe is made through science, then why cant God judge through science(ex:hurricanes)? Why is there a split between science and religion? I think they are one. I also believe both sides of the debate are slightly wrong. Einstein once said, "Science without Religion Is lame, Religion without Science Is blind"

    August 28, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • gupsphoo

      I hope you're not a Christian, because if evolution is true, Adam & Eve couldn't possibly exist. If Adam & Eve didn't exit, there's not original sin. If there's no original sin, Jesus must have died in vain.

      So why are you still a Christian?

      August 28, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • 21k

      "judge thru science (hurricanes)": seems like a hurricane is not a judgement, it's the penalty phase. for what, i don't know. mathematically, more "good" folks were adversely affected than bad ones, if only because there are more good folks in the world. so if you mean that irene is a punishment for the bad folks, then it's like using a nuclear weapon to hit a taliban jeep. i guess god doesn't have very advanced punishment technology.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • J.W

      Why couldnt Adam and Eve exist if there was evolution? Could not two of the people who evolved be named Adam and Eve?

      August 28, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • Peace2All


      Hey there -J.W... Keeping everyone entertained...and... enlightened tonight...?

      " Why couldnt Adam and Eve exist if there was evolution? Could not two of the people who evolved be named Adam and Eve? "

      Are you claiming the biblical literalists story as a possibility here, while trying to mix the OT mythology with the science of evolution...?



      August 29, 2011 at 2:21 am |
    • LetsThink123

      adam and eve could not exist given what evolution and mendelian genetics say. The WHOLE human race of currently 6+ billion people could not just have come from 2 people. That is balderdash! There is not enough genetic variance for that to be possible.
      Current day example of mendelian genetics: The Bengali tigers r going extinct in another 2 decades. There are only 250 of them left. But, an adam and eve believer would say, 'wait, theres 250 of them, we just need 2 to keep the species going!' u couldn't be more wrong. The genetic threshold for these tigers is 500, which means that u need at least 500 tigers to have enough genetic variance for the species to survive.
      Thus, adam and eve is untrue. This is just one aspect of adam and eve being untrue, there are many more other problems i can list that show that it cannot be true, but i won't get that detailed here.
      Summarizing what the above poster said:
      1. The basis of Christianity: Jesus died on the cross for us so that we may be saved by the grace of god because of original sin committed by adam and eve.
      2. Adam and eve cannot be true from the above argument -> this means there is no original sin -> this means that Jesus died for nothing -> this also shows that Jesus is not god (why would a god come to earth to die for a mythical story?? being a god who knows all, shouldn't a god know that the story he died for is a myth?)
      3. Combining the logic in steps 1 and 2, the basis of Christianity is shown to be false.

      August 30, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  2. ijreilly

    You know god is made in your image when he hates all the same people you do.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
    • oneself

      Do you see God when you look at yourself in the Mirror?

      August 28, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  3. Science

    Where was science to forewarn people about the earthquake strike in the east coast this past week?

    August 28, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
    • Gordon

      That must be it. Since we can't predict earthquakes, that proves that god did it. What an idiotic statement.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Chris

      Science gave us the ability to map fault lines. So, when 'God' puts an earthquake where there isn't a fault line, then I'll be impressed.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • gupsphoo

      Where's your god to forewarn his believers about the earthquake strike in the east coast this past week?

      Science doesn't have answers to everything, but at least it has WAY MORE PRACTICAL ANSWERS than your god.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • Science


      Well if you claim Science has answers to everything...then sadly that is not true...we must acknowledge that a Higher Power exists, his ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not ours..he is not accountable to us as much as we are to him

      Our duty is to Obey him.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • Peace2All


      Hey -Science...

      You Said: " Where was science to forewarn people about the earthquake strike in the east coast this past week? "

      And then you said to @Gordon " Well if you claim Science has answers to everything...then sadly that is not true...we must acknowledge that a Higher Power exists, his ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not ours..he is not accountable to us as much as we are to him "

      So -Science... W T F are you thinking here...?!?!?

      Let's summarize your assertion in an IF/THEN statement. If... science does not have 'all' the answers to everything, nor can 'always' predict the outcomes or events... THEN, that *means* or = there is a God...?

      Just because science doesn't have all the answers now, doesn't automatically equate to nor mean that there is a God. I mean, how do you make that leap all of a sudden...? Your argument is a version of the classic "God of the Gaps" argument. If science doesn't have the answers, then...it must mean..."Goddidit"

      However, as time is marching forward and scientific progress is being made, it is becoming harder and harder to use the God of the Gaps argument, as science 'is' unquestionably 'continuing' to fill in those gaps and answers.

      And just because they don't have the answers...(yet) doesn't mean that they never will, more likely it is just a matter of time.

      You Said: " we must acknowledge that a Higher Power exists, his ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not ours..he is not accountable to us as much as we are to him "

      O.K... I'll admit that you 'may' be right (In that there 'may' be some kind of Higher Power, just to be intellectually honest here). But for you to assert, as 'fact' that a "Higher Power" exists, etc... is pure speculation and opinion on your part. It's easy to say we don't understand 'his ways' nor 'his thoughts'... how convenient. As for 'his' not being accountable to us, but we are to him... again, more God worship speculation.

      You Said: " Our duty is to Obey him. "

      More speculation, -Science...



      August 29, 2011 at 2:41 am |
    • tallulah13

      "Science", I would hate to be you. How horrible it must be, to accept an easy, made up answer because you lack the intellectual curiosity to seek the truth.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:48 am |
    • Science

      Have seen where your intellectual curiosity is leading you to by your comments, good try..your false sense of intellectual pursuits don't really interest me..but rather amuses me ..you feed and live on conceit and ignorance by refusing a moral authority.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • Peace2All


      Well, I guess no sense in having a conversation or debate with you. You refuse to acknowledge just some basic undeniable points of reference for discussion.

      You are doing the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears, and putting a pillow over your eyes and saying... "nope, I'm right, and you're wrong."

      I mean come on dude, if you are going to have a conversation, at least have the intellectual honesty to admit when someone points out some obviously direct and spot-on assertions and counter-arguments to you, that you have the maturity to at least say... o.k... you're right on that.



      August 29, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  4. Rob

    Kevin – you are so wrong.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • wait

      r u talking about that naughty kid?

      August 28, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  5. Bo

    ====================================== If anyone said that the fish follow the paths of tne sea; what would you have any idea what the person was talking about? Does any body have an idea? ====================================

    August 28, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
  6. Tom

    No evidence presented that - in past times, Americans really thought the coming of a storm was the wrath of God. May or may not be true, but the point is that the article simply asserts that.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
  7. timz

    I think it's important to remember that God did not send the earthquake and the hurricane until the Tea Partiers voted to default on our national obligations. Heaven help us if they had won.

    And does anyone really believe that the historic drought and wild fires in Texas have nothing to do with Rick Perry?

    August 28, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
  8. Chester Diaz (@iamchesterdiaz)

    Storms and such cyclones were created by God. Those cyclones are challenges and trials of your lives. Life is still short but we must have faith in Christ Jesus.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
    • Chris

      Or, you can move away from a coast, fault line, and away from 'tornado alley' (if in the US).................

      August 28, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  9. timz

    I think it's important to remember that God did not send the earthquake and the hurricane until the Tea Partiers voted to default on our national obligations. Heaven help us if they had won.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Precisely, because there is no such thing as "god".

      August 28, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  10. sybaris

    So when there is a severe natural event in an uninhabited area was your god practicing or did it miss?

    August 28, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
  11. No one of consequence

    The scientific truths of air pressure and tectonic plates don't make God's role in natural disasters any less impressive. God is very much in the whirlwind. God set the world in motion and preordained all things. He set the clock in motion at the beginning of time, we see the gears moving and can predict what they will cause, but that doesn't mean God didn't plan it. The wonder of the earthquake or hurricane is no less today than it was 2,000 years ago.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • Perry

      His plan is working a charm in Chad, Darfur and the Congo. I imagine you'll feel just as proud of Him if he strikes down someone you love as part of His plan, too.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:07 pm |
    • inhok

      I don't think you understand the author's point. We know now that storms are not due to a retribution or punishment from God. Even if God put in motion the process of evolution and natural cycles, we know that those natural cycles have a cause and effect that has nothing to do with the old testament version of storm interpretation.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
  12. Liz the First

    We live in the real world, and God doesn't micromanage it. we haven't 'tamed' God, we've grown past the ridiculous representations of God our ancestors clung to, and some fundamentalists still cling to. God isn't some old coot sitting on a throne, who's subject to all the human characteristics we like to give it. God is everything there is, there's nothing else. the earth does what it does and we go to school to understand why. we go to church to learn who created the whole universe, not how it was done. God gave us the brains to figure that our ourselves.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
  13. Gavin Ford

    Kevin: you are so right.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  14. Bo

    ==========@HotAirAce6:02================ Ther is plenty of evidence of God if you know how to look for it. ===================================

    August 28, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
    • moomoo

      and UFO's

      August 28, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • One7777777

      "So we are better prepared, thank science"
      – And God would be responsible for creating their minds.

      "Our stories are far less dramatic, however."
      – Ugh, no. Your stories are filled with creating FEAR and lies. That would only be from the devil.

      " The overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God."
      – True!

      " But their God no longer acts out his fury as in Bible days."
      – Wrong. Just to quote your founder, who seemed to know in advance when the world would end, wrote this motto in 1980 for your company: "We won't be signing off until the world ends. We'll be on, and we will cover the end of the world, live, and that will be our last event... we'll play 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' before we sign off." Maybe he was aware of what's coming from space and the impact on our sun.

      "Our storms have not yet been tamed. But our God has."
      Blasphemy....why don't you go and look at what He created in our clouds on August 4th? Search by "face in the clouds" + august 4th. Forty goats were killed by resulting lightening. Who do you think foiled Irene (the "goddess" of peace)?

      And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.
      Joshua 24:15

      August 28, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      So Bo, how about doing the christian thing and showing this poor non-believer a little evidence. But please, reply with something more tangible than "You just have to have faith!"

      August 29, 2011 at 2:00 am |
    • LetsThink123

      are you on medication? god and the devil don't exist. Show me where they are rather than just using words and quoting a book written by man (the bible)/

      August 30, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  15. koga

    This was news how? We are all, at least all the sane of us, aware that natural disasters are not god. In fact nothing is god. He simply is not real. No amount of belief will make an untrue thing a fact.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  16. Kevin

    God doesn't exist. We might as well blame these on Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny... You religious nuts cause more harm than good.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
    • gupsphoo

      Take Rick Perry for example – what did he do in times of crisis? He organized prayer rallies instead of working to solve problems. He actually did this TWICE.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • naughty

      CNN a kid that believes in Santa and bunnies sneaked into the belief blog...

      August 28, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
    • J.W

      You are saying that believing in God is like believing in Santa Claus? No one has ever made that comparison on this blog before. You are so original.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • Peace2All




      August 29, 2011 at 2:42 am |
    • LetsThink123

      god and santaclaus fall in the same category, because, there is no evidence for either one's existence.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  17. BGHokie

    So...the Bible is wrong about the weath and natural disasters...but it is right about other stuff? We are to brush aside comments in the Bible about controlling the wind, etc, but people are to take the 7 days of creationism literally?

    Please...make up my mind.

    This is why religion is "losing" to secularism...sceince KNOWS it doesn't have all of the answers and goes into the fray appropriately. Religions KNOW they KNOW the answer...and then it takes 2,000 years to convince them they are wrong (but only about SOME things!).

    Pick a side. Either the book is correct or it is not correct. Stop cherry picking!

    August 28, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  18. NW1000

    This guy sounds like a nut.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
  19. roger

    A "religious scholar" at Boston. I would have expected more evidence on your claims. Anyway, maybe that's cnn's fault and you are just expected to crank out some stories here and there. Whether or not God is behind natural disasters, I will never know. But you say God doesn't act out in fury anymore... in a way, I agree with you. I mean what's the point?
    After the pillar-of-fire show, the amazement wears off and some of us go back to our hedonistic selves. If you are looking for God's miracles, invite Christ in your life and follow him. I am not perfect and I will never be. But I have experienced many "miracles" in my life. BTW, Mr. Prothero, in the future when you write, try to speak what you feel, not assume what we are thinking and believing.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
  20. gupsphoo

    Why do you believe in Yaweh/Jesus instead of Allah, Lord Veda, Buddha, Shinto gods, etc?

    I can answer that for you. It's because you were born in America and were indoctrinated to believe in Christianity from an early age.

    Think about that, and hopefully you'd realize that there's an overwhelming probability that you're WRONG.

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

      You lost them when you said "think about that".

      August 28, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • thanks

      Thanks for the enlightenment...and should we also include you in the list to be considered?

      August 28, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • gupsphoo

      @thanks – considered for what?

      August 28, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • J.W

      You realize that Yahweh and Allah are both God right?

      August 28, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
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