Lessons from Hurricanes

Lessons from Hurricanes? What can a hurricane possibly tell us about the psychology of religion? Perhaps more than you might expect at first glance.

Earlier this month Hurricane Katrina thrashed Louisiana and Mississippi. Hundreds of people died as a result of the storm, millions were displaced from their homes, and reconstruction will take years.

Of course, people want to make sense of calamities such as this. Some explain them by saying that the victims did something to deserve the disaster. For example, see what Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had to say about the hurricane -- that "It was God’s retribution” for U.S. President George Bush’s support of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. And Yosef explains that the disaster appeared to affect more African Americans because they are less likely to study Torah.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein issued a quick response to Yosef.

Where Yosef sees God as vindictive and harsh; Epstein sees a more loving God. In a public statement to Yosef, Epstein replies “[M]y understanding of God does not permit me to accept that every bad or good thing that occurs is a reward or punishment."

Of course, many people in the US tried to make sense of the storm. Pat Robertson disagrees with Yosef on the question of Jesus as the Messiah, but they share the view that God is a Vengeful Scorekeeper. In his account of the storm Robertson didn’t cite Bush’s support of Israel. Instead, Robertson suggests that God is angry at U.S. abortion laws, and that terrorist attacks and natural disaster are God’s response to a wayward nation. Their reasons for God's wrath are different, but they see wrath just the same.

Whether you agree more with Yosef, Robertson or Epstein, this example shows one of the fascinating things about people: We interpret events through our worldviews, and try to maintain a sense of consistency. For Yosef, Israel’s welfare shapes his view of a storm. For Robertson, it is the morality of abortion. And for Epstein it is that sometimes bad things happen to good people. Not necessarily because God wants them to. They simply happen.

One of the things that makes religion a powerful force in people’s lives is that it helps them see everyday events in ways that extend far beyond the moment. A storm signifies a punishment, while good fortune signifies a reward from above. It is tempting to think of life as a grand experiment in an operant conditioning chamber, where our actions are reinforced and punished by some grand Skinner in the Sky we call God.

After all, there is a certain security in the idea that good deeds are rewarded and bad ones punished. Especially when the punishments are directed at someone else. But experiment after experiment shows our belief in a Just World is an illusion we use to help us think the world is safe and predictable.

The truth is, the world is safe and predictable only from a distance, when the Bad Things are happening to someone else. When we are the ones suffering from a storm, an earthquake or other misfortune, the world is not at all fair.

The old saying is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe the new saying should be that it isn’t beauty, but God.


Paul Kleinginna said...

Another perspective becoming more common today is interpreting catastrophic events (e.g., hurricanes) using *risk analysis*, where insurers, scientists, and emergency managers *predict the probability* of events, and lawyers, courts, legislators, and special commissions determine who, if anyone, was at *fault* and to what degree. In the case of the hurricane, those at fault could be meteorologists, emergency planners, mayors, governors, presidents, or even federal legislators for not providing money to build adequate levees before the hurricane, or people who decided to take the risk of having their family live in a flood zone, or chose to not evacuate when ordered. The list of those partially responsible for making the disaster worse could go on and on. We could even blame almost everyone for global warming, if it affected the water temperature of the Gulf of Mexico thereby fueling stronger hurricanes. While I think this perspective has some merit, it like most perspectives, has its own problems. For example, many of the people that made "poor decisions" dealing with the hurricane may not have had much choice (e.g., their parent's or nursing home director's decision may have left them little choice). Possibly administrators had difficult decisions to make (e.g., when to order evacuations and force the sick and disabled to go through the difficult process of being moved). It also can be cruel and harmful to place too much blame on the victims (or the rescuers) of a disaster, even if they are partially at fault. What is particularly interesting about this perspective, however, is that it puts more (but not all) of the blame for disasters and reactions to disasters on many people, since usually almost everyone could have done something either to avoid the disaster, or at least mitigate its effects. It is a shift in the direction of locus of control to more personal responsibility, with a strong emphasis on preparing for the future. While some of those that accept the risk analysis perspective will never-the-less want to leave room for some Divine intervention or luck, they will be different in the degree that they try to teach people to prepare for the future and take more responsibiliy for events around them.

RTC said...

Great post! This is one of the ideas that led me to finally disavow a religious worldview - realizing that every religion has a relative perspective based upon their beliefs and that they all claim their perspective to be, in some sense at least, superior to the others, is a powerful thought. It helps me to see the socially constructed origins of religion. After all, if there really was just one god, there would not be alternative interpretations.

I look forward to your posts.

Mark E. Koltko-Rivera said...

The blog entry on the relation of Hurricanes Katrina/Rita to the psychology of religion does a good job of pointing out, not only how religion is a pervasive influence, but how inter-religious differences have important consequences. In this politically correct era, when it is the fashion to emphasize commonalities rather than differences, it is easy to overlook the importance of differences and their effects.

In this connection, students of the psychology of religion might be interested in reading an old but undeservedly overlooked classic of an address by R. D. Kahoe, in which he urged psychologists to pay attention to the psychological consequences of differences in religious belief. Reference: Kahoe, R.D. (1987). Toward a radical psychotheology. _Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues Newsletter: Division 36--American Psychological Association_, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 2-6.

Incidentally, I really liked the explicit connection of worldview to the psychology of religion. [See: Koltko-Rivera, M.E. (2004). The psychology of worldviews. _Review of General Psychology_, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 3-58.] There is much that is worth investigating in this regard.

One final and crucial issue, worth going into greater detail than I will here: I have a somewhat different approach than "rtc"'s regarding religion as a whole. I think that there is a logical issue here; specifically, I don't see the logical connection between (a) the idea that there are different religious interpretations of god, and (b) the conclusion that therefore god does not exist, which seems to be rtc's position.

It is part of the existential human situation that there are many different interpretations of what appears to be a single physical reality. (This is the message in much literature, and has been the subject of such disparate artistic products as the film "Rashomon" and the third-season episode of The X-Files known as "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'." )

All that the multiplicity of religious interpretations shows is that, IF God exists, THEN this multiplicity suggests that God does not step in to enforce one interpretation on us all. (This does not mean that one interpretation is not ultimately true, either; it simply does not address the issue of one--or more!-- being ultimately true.)

If God exists, then God is like so many other entities in life: at this point, we are free to make many different interpretations of reality. (There's worldview creeping in again.) The interpretations may be right or wrong; they certainly have consequences; however, their multiplicity does not, in and of itself speak to the nature of the underlying reality.

Russ said...

Franklin Grahm was on ABC news today, saying that the problem of explaining tragic events is a recurrent one for Christians. But the explanation remains the same: the fall of man.

To which DW (Dear Wife) replied, "It's amazing how they are so locked into their box."

Me: "That's called faith, Dear."

DW: "Yes, but when you step out of the box, it looks so absurd..."

Me: "They never step out; that's the whole idea."

Blaming things on "the fall" presupposes a literal or near-literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden allegory. That story is taken seriously by local fundamentalists. Some local relatives by marriage who grew up here in the Savannah/Statesboro area were debating whether Adam and Eve were vegetarians. This was a serious discussion.
I agree with Mark (above) that the differences Mike cited were fascinating and important. Yet you could also say that the most important division is between those making any religious interpretation at all of tragic natural events (which requires a literalist mind-set) and those who see religion as being about people's psychological truths, not the natural world (the "metaphor" perspective popularized by Joseph Campbell).
As I claimed a few times while visiting Mike's Psychology of Religion class, the divide between metaphorical and literal views of religion may be more important than differences between doctrines, when it comes to the psychological ramifications of religion. (I think Karen Armstrong agrees, in "The Battle for God" which I am currently reading, on loan from Marky.) Any literalist in any religion is likely to see God's hand in natural events. The details will differ in convenient ways, as Mike's original post pointed out. In fact, each doctrine will try to use current events to bolster itself, in Darwinian fashion, in the ongoing struggle for religious survival.
But any literalist will have an religious explanation of the hurricane, because a literalist treats religion as a map of external reality, not just an expression of psychological truths. In fact, one's interpretation of the hurricane is diagnostic (a shibboleth?) because anybody giving a religious interpretation of it is betraying a mindset which puts that person on a side opposite to modernity, science, tolerance, and possibly (this is the fear of the literalist) the disintegration of traditional religious practices.

Mark E. Koltko-Rivera said...

Russ, Who exactly leant you Karen Armstrong's book?