According to just over half of Americans, God is in control of everything that happens on Earth. But slightly fewer are willing to blame an omnipotent power for natural disasters such as Japan's earthquake and tsunami.
A new poll finds that 56 percent of Americans agree or mostly agree that God is in control of all Earthly events. Forty-four percent think that natural disasters are or could be a sign from the Almighty. The fire-and-brimstone version of a vengeful God is even less popular in America: Only 29 percent of people felt that God sometimes punishes an entire nation for the sins of a few individuals.
Nonetheless, the desire to turn to God for an explanation after a disaster is a widespread human urge, said Scott Schieman, a sociologist at the University of Toronto who studies people's beliefs about God's influence on daily life.
"There's just something about the randomness of the universe that is too unsettling," Schieman told LiveScience. "We like explanations for why things happen … many times people weave in these divine narratives." [Read At God We Rage: Anger at the Almighty Found to Be Common]
Deity of disaster
The poll surveyed a random sample of 1,008 adults in the continental United States in the few days after the Japanese disaster. The sample was weighted by age, sex, geographic region, education and race to reflect the entire population of U.S. adults.
The poll found that evangelical Christians are more likely to see disasters as a sign from God than other religious faiths. Of white evangelicals, 59 percent said disasters are or could be a message from the deity, compared with 31 percent of Catholics and 34 percent of non-evangelical Protestants. The margin of error for the survey was plus or minus 3 percent.
Forty-four percent of all Americans said that recent natural disasters could be a sign of the Biblical end times, with 67 percent of white evangelicals holding that view. (In comparison, 58 percent of Americans attributed recent severe natural disasters to global climate change, as did 52 percent of evangelicals.)
It makes sense that those who interpret the Bible more literally would link disasters to God, said David Foy, a psychologist at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles who has studied religious coping and post-traumatic stress disorder. However, Foy said, the poll should be interpreted with caution.
"They try to draw some conclusions between evangelicals and mainline Protestants and Catholics, and I don't think they can do that from the data that they've got," Foy told LiveScience. "[The poll participants] weren't selected on those variables, and other things that could have influenced their responses weren't controlled."
A vengeful God?
The poll found that 53 percent of white evangelical respondents and 20 percent of Catholics and mainline protestants said God sometimes punishes entire nations for the sins of a few.
That belief can make it harder to cope after a tragedy, Foy said. In his work with combat veterans, Foy has found that those who see tragedies as evidence of God's wrath are not as psychologically well-off as those who seek other explanations for negative events.
Less clear are the risks and benefits of believing that God is in the driver's seat, Schieman said, adding that the number of people in the survey who believe in a God that controls the universe (56 percent) matches what he's seen in his work.
"It doesn't surprise me, especially given the nature of God-talk in everyday society, how people talk about God being in control and influential," he said.
Among the group of people who believe in a take-charge kind of God are those who see the hand in the divine in every aspect of life, down to the number of empty parking spaces at a busy shopping mall, Schieman said. And then there are those who see God as an absentee sort of manager — someone who cares and is in-charge, but isn't fiddling with the weather or engineering tsunamis.
"It's an interesting question," Schieman said. "If you package or interpret events like this in the context of divine control, does it make people feel better? Does it make people feel more motivated?"
There's no straightforward answer to that question, Schieman said. In one 2008 study of data from a phone survey of U.S. adults, Schieman found that people who believed in a controlling God felt that they had less personal control over their own lives. But that association was strongest in people who rarely prayed or went to religious services. Those who believed in a controlling God but were invested in services and prayer showed no decrease in personal feelings of control, Schieman found.
One of the toughest questions for believers is how to reconcile the image of an "all-powerful, all-good and all-mighty" deity with one that allows disasters like the Japanese tsunami, Foy said. How people cope with the question depends on their conception of God, he said.
"If you believe God ultimately is in charge of everything but doesn't control the minutiae of daily life, then I think it's easier to reconcile," Foy said. "God would still care, but did not cause the tsunami to punish people."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.