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My Take: God not in whirlwinds of Sandy, presidential race
A NASA image of Hurricane Sandy.
October 29th, 2012
01:33 PM ET

My Take: God not in whirlwinds of Sandy, presidential race

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

I am riding out Sandy on Cape Cod and wondering whether this, too, is God’s will.

As this storm has carved its path through the Caribbean and up the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, it has taken 67 lives and (so far) spared the rest of us. Was it the will of the Almighty that so many should perish?

Is God angry with Cuba, where 11 died last week? More angry with Haiti, where 51 perished? Relatively unperturbed with Jamaica, where the death toll was only two? If a tree falls on my house today, will that be an Act of God, too?

There has been a lot of talk lately about what is and what isn’t willed by Providence, thanks to Richard Mourdock, the Indiana Republican and U.S. Senate candidate who said last week, “I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”

Whether “it” in this sentence refers to rape or to conception, it assumes that God is both busy and capricious. Why does God offer the gift of life to some rape victims and not to others? Why does God allow some elections to be close and not others?

One answer, of course, is that God does nothing of the sort. Perhaps there is no God. Or perhaps God is more like the watchmaker divinity of Deism fame who winds up the universe, sets it in motion and then leaves it to its own devices.

In the thought worlds of Indian religions, things operate not by the will of God but in keeping with the laws of karma. So to put it in crudest terms, those who are injured in Sandy somehow have it coming to them, as do victims of rape who find themselves pregnant.

The western religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have argued that God has a hand not only in setting our story in motion but also in seeing it through to the end. So Jews, Christians, and Muslims have had to reckon with the classical problem of “theodicy”: In a world in which God is all powerful and all good, why do bad things happen to good people?

As I wrestle with these questions, I cannot help thinking about how differently my New England forebears interpreted these natural disasters. While we speak of the eye of the hurricane, New England's colonists were ever mindful of the eye of a God who was forever watching over them, and sending storms their way as punishment for their collective sins.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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.

Televangelist 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 with this “Stormpocalpyse” arriving on the eve of the election, I suspect some will suggest that the rain and the wind are God’s judgment on the leadership of President Obama.

Still, American society as a whole no longer interprets natural disasters as signs of a coming apocalypse or evidence of past misdeeds. When it comes to earthquakes and hurricanes, we tune in to the Weather Channel, not the Christian Broadcasting Network. And we interpret these events not through the rumblings of biblical prophets but through the scientific truths of air pressure and tectonic plates.

As a result of this sort of secular turn, 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.” Sandy is a surprise to no one, thanks to science.

Still, we Americans cannot give up on talk of God’s will. At least according to Newt Gingrich, Mourdock’s foray into rape and theology reflects the position of “virtually every Catholic” in the United States. And if we are to believe the full-page ads taken out  by Billy Graham, God wills the victory of Mitt Romney over Barack Obama.

As for me, I am less sure about what God wills for our storms (political or otherwise). In my view, any God worth worshiping isn’t going to be so predictable, or so capricious.

I don’t think Graham, Mourdock, or Gingrich is speaking on behalf of God. They are speaking on behalf of themselves, on the basis of their own fears and experiences. And they are reading the Bible through their politics, not the other way around.

When it comes to storms like Sandy, I just don't believe in a God who drowns black babies in Haiti yet refuses to drown out the voices of cranky white men who claim so irreverently to speak in His name.

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

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 2012 Election • Belief • Billy Graham • Christianity • Church and state • Newt Gingrich • Politics • Science • United States

soundoff (2,188 Responses)
  1. Smokey

    I gotta say, when I saw that radar showing the storm going right over D.C. coming up on election day, my first thought was "the wrath of God is upon America!" On second thought that may be a little crazy. But it's difficult not to take something like that as a sign.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • Jarsbait

      It is difficult...if you're a complete idiot.

      October 30, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  2. Rummy Pirate Times (In Greed We Trust)

    Bain closed GST Steel plant in 2001 laying off 750 workers.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  3. ArthurP

    "He's not the author of them."

    So things work based on established principles of physics and chemistry. (evolution / abiogenesis )

    October 29, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Phillip Neff

      Things work on scientific principles as we understand them, that does not disprove God or His actions.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • ArthurP

      @Phillip Neff:

      So The Theory of Evolution is correct and the hypothesis of abiogenesis has merit. Great.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      it also does not prove god. nothing does. there is exactly ZERO proof for god. so the smart thing to do is not to believe in things we have no proof for. for instance, if i claim my left nut is god, but offer no proof - why would you believe it? same goes to the christian god. there is no proof - why would you believe in god?

      the storm does prove that if there is a god, he is either evil or powerless. he's evil if he has the power to stop a catastrophic storm, but chooses not to help. if he is good and wants to help, then he must not be as powerful as christians think. the most logical answer is that god does not exist and never has. the universe is a natural place with no "magic" beings or realms.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  4. Hipster Slayer

    "Religious scholar'" huh? That's like an astrologist or a cryptozoologist, right? Those guys go to school for a LONG time.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • Phillip Neff

      You can get a Theology degree's online in just about any flavor, not to discount his work, but I too am endowed with this degree. I spend my life studying it!

      October 29, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  5. Tina

    Either God is in everything, or He is in nothing. The view of a God who goes by the name of God and yet is limited in any way is illogical. Either He created, controls, gives, takes, planned, and purposed each and every life...or we are spinning soullessly, off into oblivion, without any meaning or purpose to what we think, what we do, or what happens to us. And THAT is unthinkable. God also does not OWE us an answer, explanation, or reasoning for what He chooses to do. He will reveal all in His own timing, not ours. He will also more than compensate for the tragedies and sorrows of this life. Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal. it's not pie in the sky. It's His promise. And despite how things "look"...God is not slow in keeping His promises. One day to Him is like a thousand years. He is right on time. And He is using even terrible things like storms to get our attention, that we are NOT in control. Predicting is a million miles from preventing. Analyzing data is lightyears from altering events. Science is one of His gifts but can and never will replace Him. For those with eyes to see, science shows just how big He is, and just how meticulously He is running this universe.
    It's hard work, striving to NOT believe in Him. One can't let down their guard for even a second, or the Truth just might begin to actually make sense.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • Keith

      Why is it so unthinkable that we're left to our own devices and that this is all there is? That doesn't make us amoral, soulless, or damned. It makes us finite, responsible to make the world better for all of us through our own efforts alone, and limited to living on through the legacy of our benefit of humanity (rather than sitting on a cloud playing a harp for eternity). Read some Sartre. For anyone with the courage to admit the absurdity of our situation, there's an awful lot of meaning to construct and a lot fo work to be done in a short time.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  6. Socal Reggae

    shorelinerootz.com
    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HATNN2cyq6A&w=640&h=360]

    October 29, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  7. Army Wife

    Be Ye not deceived. God is not mocked.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • Chris

      Anyone who believes in a God in the 21st Century is wasting my oxygen.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Wizard

      There is no god. Why is that so hard for your little mind?

      October 29, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  8. Shortsighted?

    7 – And if thou shouldst be cast into the apit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the bdeep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to chedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of dhell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee eexperience, and shall be for thy good.

    8 – The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?

    Rather... prophetic. Don't you think?

    October 29, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  9. NorthVanCan

    Do I feel sorry for religious people or do I spend my life angry at their stupidity and all that it results?
    I tired of listening to their empty arguments and circle talk. Keep children out of church and do us all a favour .

    October 29, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • Phillip Neff

      Stalin would have agreed, we should make it a law that "Children are not allowed to attend church" as they did in the USSR.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Army Wife

      Keeping children out of church is one of the reasons the educational system is in the mess it's in. Children have no
      values.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Spencer

      And by no values you mean values that are not the same as yours.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • Phillip Neff

      Do not feel sorry for us nor be angry at us, but rather leave us alone, as we shall you. Liberty and freedom for all!

      October 29, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • Wizard

      Army wife...gee I thought thats what parents were supposed to do. Did you miss that memo? Shame on you...

      October 29, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  10. KLL

    How about we look at this as an act of Mother Nature? All I know that in times like this (Hurricane Sandy) we need to be there for others, both humans and animals. Ignore all the crap from the blowhards and do what's right, plain and simple.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  11. ThermalJockey

    Socialist liberals. Like that Jesus guy...

    October 29, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  12. Russell

    Strange that CNN asks a none believer to comment on religion ... their right, but just say'n.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Phillip Neff

      I said the same thing just a few post ago, and got crucified for it. This "Theologian" is just a Secularist, no believer.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
    • Strong Induction

      Wouldn't it be considered biased in a different way if a devout Christian wrote this article as well? It's one of the other, so why is it an issue if this writer wrote about the correlation between religion and natural disasters? An intelligent reader would actually take this article as an opinion pieces (considering it's a blog), and form their own thoughts.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  13. Laurie

    sorry but I do not share your point of view. Sin has its effect on nature. It is a mystical reality believe it or not.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Answer

      LOL

      October 29, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • MalcomR

      No, physics is reality believe it or not. You just choose to veil your intellect (I know it's in there somewhere) in fearful ignorance.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Mickey1313

      Tard

      October 29, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • ThinkRationally

      Laurie, it would be interesting to hear you try to establish that as fact, or present a single piece of evidence. Please note that opinion is not evidence.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  14. Bob Sagat

    God is a fairytale for adults, when will we stop talking about fictional creatures as if they are real? Unicorns are also not Hurricane Sandy. FFS.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  15. GreenChile

    Not a bad articulation, up until the last paragraph where you went off into a racist rant.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  16. Nash

    The concept of all-powerful, all-knowing and benevolent being cannot be reconciled with the reality. Any person who is not afraid of coming to a logical conclusion no matter what it may be, even if that conclusion means having to reject what they were taught as a child by their parents, church and society as a whole, will inevitably reject this concept. Persisting in the irrational belief simply means that a person: a) doesn't have the capacity for logical thinking or b) is not intellectually honest.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • MalcomR

      Or, just as likely, is terrified of reality as it is.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • btldriver

      So what you're saying is that people like Henry Eyering, a noted chemist who won numerous awards, wrote numerous books and was a devoutly religious man, is not capable of thinking logically. While some may fit into your illogical presumption, not everyone, and probably not even most, do or ever will.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • Baal

      Btldriver, You might have overlooked the second option.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  17. Hindu

    CNN has this RELIGION HATER as their expert RELIGION SCHOLAR. Would they have an EVOLUTION HATER as their expert EVOLUTION SCHOLAR? Hypocrisy EXPOSED!

    October 29, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • JohnnyYuma61

      CNN is a clearing house for socialist liberals. Don't get upset, simply watch and enjoy their demise.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • MalcomR

      What's wrong with social liberalism? Not self-aggrandizing enough for you?

      October 29, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • Mickey1313

      Malcom I agree.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • ThinkRationally

      Hindu, what a shrill, over-the-top response to a relatively well through-out article (even though I don't share Prothero's faith). Why have you concluded that he's a religion hater? I don't think being reasonable and thoughtful makes one a hater. If there must be religious people, I mush prefer his kind to the fear-mongers and fire-and-brimstone preachers.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  18. Clyde Farris

    Gods were created by men and only live in the minds of believers. If someone is wresting about whether gods cause natural disasters, then the wrestling match is between reason and ignorance.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • Nancy

      Bingo.

      October 29, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  19. JennyTX

    What a waste of energy. Such effort is expended on trying to figure out whether something is god's will or not. Face the fact that your god is a human invention, and instead channel your energy into something useful and productive like charity work or tutoring kids who need help in school.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  20. Jeff Johnson

    Wonderful. A theologian who limits God, who decides where God might be at work, and might not.

    The real truth is that God has just begun to shake this earth, to wake us from our sin and confusion and evil doing. He will do this to purify the earth, as His Son can come back to nothing less than that.

    God exists, and I hope he forgives this writer, and his lousy prose.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • MalcomR

      That's hilarious! "and his lousy prose"... Hahahaha!!!

      October 29, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • Answer

      Hilarious!

      You wish your god would exist. LOL

      October 29, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • ThinkRationally

      Wonderful. A religious person who somehow knows what God is up to when there's no way he could have such knowledge. I laugh when I see someone essentially say that someone else doesn't understand God, then follow it up with statements that imply that they themselves DO understand God. I laugh again when I think about just how many millions of different narratives there are from people who think they know the mind of God. There are two options–one interpretation is right, or none are (I favor the latter). Are you the one, Jeff? If not,why should we listen to you?

      October 29, 2012 at 7:35 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.