Is God's wrath at work in natural disasters?

By omar sacirbey
Saturday, May 1, 2010

What do homosexuality, the health-care overhaul and British advertising standards all have in common? They're all things that have ticked God off, some religious leaders say, and he's venting his frustration with the angry fires of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

Moscow's Interfax newswire reported that the Association of (Russian) Orthodox Experts called the April 14 eruption -- whose gigantic cloud of ash grounded transatlantic flights for more than a week -- a response to gay rights in Europe and Iceland's tolerance of "neo-paganism." Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said God was angry over health-care legislation. San Antonio megachurch pastor John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, said God was unleashing his wrath on Britain for deciding that Israeli tourism ads featured parts of the disputed Palestinian territories, not Israel.

The eruption is one in a long line of natural events that some religious leaders have attributed to divine judgment. In short, they say that God is using nature to channel his displeasure with human beings -- both the sinners and those who tolerate them -- and that we had better shape up.

It's an impulse that goes back thousands of years and still thrives among people who are generally skeptical of science and who seek divine explanations for natural calamities. Some examples:

-- Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi recently told his Shiite Muslim followers that immodestly dressed and promiscuous women are to blame for earthquakes.

-- In February, Rabbi Yehuda Levin of the Rabbinical Alliance of America warned that allowing gays to serve openly in the military could cause natural disasters to strike America. "The practice of homosexuality is a spiritual cause of earthquakes," he said.

-- Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson blamed the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti on a pact between the devil and the Haitians who rebelled against French rule in the 18th century.

-- Robertson and Hagee blamed Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans' debauchery and immorality.

-- Malaysian Muslim cleric Azizan Abdul Razak said the 2004 South Asian tsunami was a message from God that "He created the world and can destroy the world," and Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said it was "an expression of God's great ire with the world."

So what is it about nature's fury that attracts theological interpretation? For many religious leaders, scholars say, it's an opportunity to win new believers.

"Natural disasters are disruptive. When there's a disruption, people's worldviews are shaken and need to be repaired," said Steve Friesen, a biblical studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

"Natural disasters are a prime time to repair people's worldviews. . . . It's a long-running theme in American culture that God works to bring people into changing their worldview," Friesen said.

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