Many people blame God for terrorism, natural disasters and other calamities. If they are religious, they may interpret a disaster as God's collective punishment – usually acknowledged as eminently reasonable, since it is God's will – visited upon a large group of people for the offense of a subgroup. In the cases where such thoughts are not just held privately but are expressed out loud, they may appear on the surface to provide an explanatory cause for the disaster, but they actually exploit and redirect the public's negative emotions surrounding the disaster, often with the intent of maligning an unpopular group.
Jerry Falwell's comments about Sept. 11
Two days after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2011 in which militant Arab Muslims attacked New York and Washington, Rev. Jerry Falwell appeared on "The 700 Club" television show and declared:
"The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen'."
The usual theological clarification of this statement is that God did not actively violently attack people, but rather lifted his usual protection and allowed the attacks to happen; one might see the moral distinction as analogous to passive euthanasia.
A few people agreed with him. That year, on Oct. 4, the Rev. Lou Sheldon opined that relief services for victims of the terrorist attack should be meted out with a priority rating based on the victims' sexual orientations and marital status.
Most people, however, leapt to disagree with Falwell's statement. Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American way, called Falwell's broadcast "absolutely inappropriate and irresponsible." Spencer Phillips made the pointed jab in Front Page Magazine on Sept. 17, 2001 that Falwell's type of coercive, us-and-them fundamentalism "may have been the inspiration for 9/11 because it is an opinion wholly shared by the Islamic fundamentalists behind the attack."
In 2006, David Kuo, former special assistant to President George W. Bush, wrote of Falwell's original statement:
"No one doubted Falwell's ability to make outrageous statements. This wasn't outrageous. It was immoral. It was insane."
In 2011, Biblical scholar Jennifer Wright Knust debunked the late Falwell's claims as having
"no parallel at all in biblical writings: the word 'pagan' does not appear; abortion is not discussed; there was no ancient 'feminist' movement; 'gays and lesbians' with a 'lifestyle' are never mentioned; 'secularism' as a concept had not yet been invented; and 'pedophilia' is not talked about, let alone defined as a crime..." The American Civil Liberties Union said they "refused to dignify" Falwell's broadcast with a response. Despite the wishes of many that Falwell's statement could be swept under the table, the words still ring powerfully in people's memories years after they were spoken.
Other attempts to link 'homosexuality' and 'terrorism' in the public perception
The idea that homosexuality draws God's wrath in the form of terrorist attacks resurfaced several months later in Israel. Jerusalem's first Gay Pride event was held on June 7, 2002 despite the mayor's refusal to finance it. One writer praised the gay activists for "beat[ing] the system by ignoring it, acting as if justice and peace were fait accompli instead of a receding fantasy." Counter-protesters accused the marchers of angering God and leaving Jerusalem prone to terrorist attacks.
The association of homosexuality and terrorism persisted on a subconscious level. Fox News Channel talk show host Bill O'Reilly complained on "The O'Reilly Factor" on June 2, 2010 about a new advertisement that McDonald's was airing in France inviting gay people to "come as you are." O'Reilly asked, “Do they have an Al-Qaeda ad, you know, come as you are?”
The idea that God is angered by human sexual transgression is very old, going back at least as far as a Byzantine association of homosexuality with paganism. In the year 528 CE, earthquakes hit Antioch and destroyed much of the city of Soloi Pompeiopolis. Some people blamed God's anger over human sexual transgression. The next year, a bishop from Rhodes and a bishop from Thrace were tried before the city prefect of Constantinople; one was tortured and exiled, the other castrated and put on display. "Justinian then ordered a more comprehensive round-up of people engaging in pederasty....The penalties for conviction on charges of 'religious deviance' included public humiliation, flogging, and castration – sometimes inflicted with such brutality that the victims died." Basianius, a supporter of the Greens, was "dragged out of a church" on Theodora's orders, "tortured during the trial and castrated upon conviction," according to Procopius. (David Potter, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 135-136.)
How do the injured parties give an account of the situation?
The otherwise satisfying belief that victims, however remotely, somehow deserve their suffering has a shortcoming: it is primarily reassuring when one's enemies suffer, and it is never a satisfying explanation for the suffering of oneself and one's allies.
Examples abound. On June 2, 2006, a small plane owned by the Rev. Pat Robertson - who, on a broad level, shares many beliefs with Jerry Falwell - crashed in Long Island Sound, killing both pilots. Would Falwell have said that God chose not to protect Robertson's property and employees because he was angry at feminists?
And why was a flammable, six-story-tall Christian statue known as "Touchdown Jesus" in Monroe, Ohio struck by lightning in 2010? Perhaps God was angry at atheistic culture, so he stopped protecting Christian works of art?
When someone is personally injured, they may feel angry, and that anger may tie in with anger about unrelated subjects. There may be a tendency to conflate two issues together even though they are plainly unrelated; in this way, people may experience complex anger about victimhood. In his book "The Belief Instinct," Jesse Bering quoted Ray Nagin, the African-American mayor of New Orleans in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, who conflated his anger about the Iraq war with his anger about the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina when he said to reporters: "Surely God is mad at America. Surely He's not approving of us being in Iraq under false pretense. But surely He's mad at black America, too. We're not taking care of ourselves." Nagin subsequently had to apologize and backpedal.
According to theologies that involve collective punishment, people don't always suffer for the contemporary sins of their neighbors; God may turn against an entire country for something that happened hundreds of years ago. When Haiti suffered an earthquake on Jan. 13, 2010 that killed hundreds of thousands of people, Robertson commented the same day on "The 700 Club":
"They [Haitians] were under the heel of the French, uh, you know Napoleon the 3rd and whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. ... And, uh, they kicked the French out, you know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by, by one thing after the other, desperately poor."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called Robertson's comments "really stupid."
Stupider yet was the German Evangelical Conference at Darmstadt, soon after World War II ended, which "claimed that Jewish suffering in the Holocaust had been a divine visitation and called upon Jews to stop rejecting and crucifying Christ." As Bart D. Ehrman noted in "God's Problem," it "was not German Christianity's finest moment."
More recently, Rev. John Hagee argued that Hitler was the "hunter" referred to in Jeremiah 16 who pursued the Jews and who therefore at least indirectly fulfilled God's will by hastening the creation of the state of Israel. (Sen. John McCain rejected Hagee's endorsement of his 2008 presidential bid due to these comments.) Hagee also called Hurricane Katrina "an act of God for a society that has become Sodom and Gomorrah."
In 2014, Susanne Atanus, running in a primary election to become a Republican Congressional representative for Illinois, said that God was angry about same-sex marriage and abortions and that he was punishing Americans with tornadoes and autism. The state's Republican party denied that it had ever supported her and recommended that she withdraw from the race.
Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
Responding to the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, media mogul Ted Turner said in an interview:
"I'm not a real religious person, but I'm somewhat religious and I'm just wondering if God's telling us He doesn't want us to drill offshore, because He sure is setting back offshore drilling. And right before that we had that coal mine disaster in West Virginia where we lost 29 miners and...the Chinese lost 29 miners too in another mine disaster over in China...I think maybe we just oughta leave the coal in the ground and go with solar and wind power and geothermal...could be He's sending us a message."
A different Ted Turner - the Rev. Theodore Turner of Boothville, La. - said: "The oil spill is part of prophecy. The Bible prophesized hardships." At least to the extent that he was quoted in this article, he did not, however, make the extra leap of claiming that he knew why certain hardships were befalling certain people. His seems to be a more honest, humble approach.
Not just Christianity
People of religions other than Christianity may subscribe to analogous theological beliefs.
Former Israeli chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu blamed opposition to the state of Israel for causing the 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Asia, and, not having learned his lesson, he told an ultra-Orthodox radio station in 2007 that the Holocaust, which killed millions of Jews and non-Jews, was God's indiscriminate punishment delivered because some Jews were modifying and liberalizing religious tradition.
Iranian Muslim cleric Hojatoleslam Kazim Sadeghi said in a YouTube video in 2010 that inappropriate female dress leads to promiscuity, and "when promiscuity spreads, earthquakes increase." The reference to earthquakes was pointed, as tens of thousands of Iranians died in an earthquake in 2003.
The governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, said that an earthquake-caused tsunami that killed thousands of people was divine punishment [tembatsu] for the sin of "egoism and populism." John Nelson, a professor of religious studies at the University of San Francisco, explained that the Japanese Buddhist idea of "the gods having an agenda was instrumental to the ideology of the prewar years, when it was said to be Japan's divine mission to conquer Asia and establish an empire."
Bigotry against anyone doesn't improve the victims' condition
Even if one assumes that God exists and that God is offended by certain human behaviors, it is, by the laws of probability, increasingly unlikely that additional assumptions will also be true. Common assumptions can include psychologically implausible gems such as that God wants to make large numbers of innocent people suffer. Hopefully, it is obvious to most people that much of human suffering is caused, not by divine retribution, but by human malice or simple accidents – and that there is no need to compound that pain by lacing misfortune with bigotry.
Image: Tornado in Elie, Manitoba. Image by: Justin Hobson © GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version Wikimedia Commons.
This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Feb. 21, 2011.