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.