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(RNS) We may never know why bad things happen to good people, but most Americans — except evangelicals — reject the idea that natural disasters are divine punishment, a test of faith or some other sign from God, according to a new poll.

The poll released Thursday (March 24), by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, was conducted a week after a March 11 earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan.

Nearly six in 10 evangelicals believe God can use natural disasters to send messages — nearly twice the number of Catholics (31 percent) or mainline Protestants (34 percent). Evangelicals (53 percent) are also more than twice as likely as the one in five Catholics or mainline Protestants to believe God punishes nations for the sins of some citizens.

The poll found that a majority (56 percent) of Americans believe God is in control of the earth, but the idea of God employing Mother Nature to dispense judgment (38 percent of all Americans) or God punishing entire nations for the sins of a few (29 percent) has less support.

From Noah’s fabled flood to 21st-century disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, some people blame incomprehensible calamities on human sinfulness.

Such interpretations often offend victims, however. Public outcry prompted Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara to apologize for calling the disaster a “divine punishment” for Japanese egoism.

“It’s interesting that most Americans believe in a personal God and that God is in control of everything that happens in the world … but then resist drawing a straight line from those beliefs to God’s direct role or judgment in natural disasters,” noted Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute.

The poll found that most racial and ethnic minority Christians (61 percent) believe natural disasters are God’s way of testing our faith — an idea that resonates with African-Americans’ history of surviving through slavery and racial discrimination.

(Japan’s population is predominantly Shinto or Buddhist — religions that view nature as a force beyond our control or understanding — but the poll could not get a representative sample of those groups in the United States.)

In other findings:

  • Most white evangelicals (84 percent) and minority Christians (76 percent) believe God is in control of everything that happens in the world, compared to slimmer majorities of white mainline Protestants (55 percent) and Catholics (52 percent).
  • Nearly half of Americans (44 percent) say the increased severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of biblical “end times,” but a larger share (58 percent) believe it is evidence of climate change. The only religious group more likely to see natural disasters as evidence of “end times” (67 percent) than climate change (52 percent) is white evangelicals.
  • Across political and religious lines, roughly eight in 10 Americans say government relief aid to Japan is very important (42 percent) or somewhat important (41 percent), despite our current economic problems.

“After one of these disasters, people turn to their clergy and their theologians and they look for answers, and there are no great answers,” said Gary Stern, author of Can God Intervene? How Religion Explains Natural Disasters. “But almost every group believes you have to help people who are suffering.”

– NICOLE NEROULIAS, Religion News Service

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