What is God's role in a hurricane? Can prayer change anything? While most Americans pray on a daily basis, nearly 60 percent of respondents in a new Beliefnet survey say that when disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita loom, prayer can "provide comfort, but not alter events." A far smaller number, 38.6 percent combined, said that they thought prayer could either prevent disaster or lessen its impact.

Interestingly, however, only three percent of the 7,881 Beliefnet survey respondents said that the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina weakened their faith. Equal numbers, 47.5 and 49.5 percent respectively, said that the storm strengthened their faith or didn't change it.

At the heart of religious faith is the ability to live with deep ambivalence, even direct inconsistency, the survey shows.

Consider the following two apparently contradictory statements:

  • God controls everything that happens.
  • Although I believe in God, the supernatural has nothing to do with natural disasters.
  • In the survey, both of those statements received the most votes in answer to the respective questions, "What do you believe about the nature of God's power?" and "Does God have a role in natural disasters like hurricanes?"

    A strong majority, 65.8 percent, said that they didn't think God's role was to punish humanity by sending the storms.

    Of those who do feel the hurricanes were a punishment on humanity, the highest number, 26.5 percent, said that "greed and materialism" was the sin that caught God's attention. Perennially controversial social issues like abortion and homosexuality garnered only 3.8 and 9 percent, respectively. Pollution and global warming (8.9 percent), Israel pulling out of Gaza (6.2 percent) and kicking God out of public schools (7.2 percent) also made the villain list.

    But Beliefnet members who responded in writing to the question, "What do you believe God's role in hurricanes like Katrina and Rita to be?" reflected the full panoply of responses to tragedy, from the embrace of the ambivalence and struggle to the sense of having been given a "wake-up call"--to the abandonment of the idea of God altogether.

    A sampling of the responses:

    --"The main point to having a divine protector is to have it protect you. If the being that says it can protect says it is all-powerful and all-knowing cannot do all the things a leading deity should do, you must throw the being away."

    -- God's role was "to get people to pull together, to help one another, to spread the word, show our faith in the Lord. To show that we still love our neighbor. That we still have morals and want to love him."

    -- "Disasters happen for many reasons; some of which we may never know the meaning, but also, when they happen, they point out our weaknesses as a whole people: we need to improve the way we look at each other as brothers and sisters, we need to take better care of our environment and we need to share with each other and stop fighting."

    -- "I am at a loss regarding God's role in this particular instance. We do not understand all of His reasons for tragedies...and He is not required to explain them."

    -- "I don't believe he, God, has a role in its cause. I believe he created the laws of nature and exercises caution by not interfering. I believe we were given free will to adapt to nature and choose a good way of living. And I believe that the laws of man did not provide for the devastated areas to insure the safety of their occupants."

    The survey was conducted between September 22 and September 25, 2005.

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