As the Atlantic hurricane season begins, meteorologists are watching the Gulf of Mexico with increasing concern. A current of warm, tropical water known as the Loop Current is causing forecasters to fear “monster hurricanes” and a generally intense tropical storm season.
Hurricane Katrina, which went on to famously devastate large swaths of Louisiana and Mississippi, including New Orleans, crossed just such a Loop Current before making its harrowing landfall in 2005.
Extreme weather events like Katrina, climate convulsions and other natural disasters such as fires, earthquakes or tornadoes have inspired a range of religious reactions from the fearful or affected faithful.
Some interpret them as a form of divine retribution and look for scapegoats upon which to place the blame. Others turn to religion as a form of “positive religious coping,” taking comfort in a higher power. Still others spring to action, providing critical support in the aftermath or offering prophetic hope for the future.
With the hurricane and tornado seasons already upon us, post-summer wildfires looming on the horizon, global famine forecasts and potentially cataclysmic climate instability to come in the near future, this edition of ReligionLink explores the fascinating and often unsettling connection between natural disasters and religion.
Experiencing something between sublime terror and numinous indescribability, when humans come face-to-face with volcanic eruptions, floods, earthquakes or epidemics they often seek to explain their upturned worlds in religious terms.
Examining Americans’ experience with tornadoes over the years, historian Peter J. Thuesen wrote that reactions range between abject fear and awestruck fascination. “In the tornado, Americans experience something that is at once culturally peculiar and religiously primal,” he wrote. Exposing them to mysteries “above and beyond themselves,” the tornado whips up a “vortex of theodicy and the broader question of whether there is purpose or chaos in the universe.”
Likewise, historian Philip Jenkins said that time and again, the languages of apocalypse, persecution and judgment have been used to understand climate catastrophes. Looking back over the long term, Jenkins wrote that disasters and climate change often result in “far-reaching changes in the nature of religion and spirituality.”
Astute religion newswriters have taken notice. Given the increasing intensity of natural disasters brought on by changes in climate conditions and the ominous threat of other cataclysms always a possibility, stories about the intersections between natural disasters and religion are featuring more and more in our reporting.
Although religion is not “the only aspect of human affairs that is transformed during climate-driven disasters,” Jenkins wrote, “it is a very significant one, especially because this has so often been the primary means through which human beings have interpreted the world they see around them.”
Taking a look at the resources below, these stories chronicle a mix of terror, trembling and spiritual searching. They feature narratives of renewed passion and inspiring commitment, scapegoating and persecution, apocalyptic expectations and mystical interpretations. Above all, they show how the convergence of faith and disaster is an area ripe for more nuanced, in-depth religion reporting.
Sociologists, historians, philosophers, and scientists have studied the meeting point between religion and natural disasters from varying perspectives and come to differing conclusions. Some have traced the ways people cope in the wake of disaster, others how disaster can kindle religious revival, and others how people of faith have come to grips with the theological implications behind “acts of God.” Below is a rundown of some of the most relevant and recent research on the faith and disaster nexus.
- Explore the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture’s collection on “Disaster Response.”
- Read Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather by Peter J. Thuesen.
- Read “In their own words, how Americans explain why bad things happen” from Pew Research Center on Nov. 19, 2021.
- Read Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval by Philip Jenkins.
- Read “Is God good? In the shadow of mass disaster, great minds have argued the toss,” from The Conversation on April 28, 2020.
- Read “Acts of God? Religiosity and Natural Disasters Across Subnational World Districts,” from The Economic Journal in August 2019.
- Read “Natural disasters ‘make people more religious’” from Church Times on July 19, 2019.
- Read “The psychological study of religion and spirituality in a disaster context: A systematic review,” from Psychological Trauma in 2019.
- Read “Injuries and loss of life boost religious faith after disasters” from Science Daily on June 5, 2018.
- Read “Christian faith doesn’t just say disasters are God’s retribution,” from The Conversation on Sept. 6, 2017.
- Read “Faith after an Earthquake: A Longitudinal Study of Religion and Perceived Health before and after the 2011 Christchurch New Zealand Earthquake,” from PLOS One on Dec. 5, 2012.
- Read “Religious Responses to the Katrina Disaster in New Orleans and the American Gulf Coast” from Journal of Religious Studies in September 2012.
- Read “November 1, 1755: The Earthquake of Lisbon: Wrath of God or Natural Disaster?” from Scientific American on Nov. 1, 2011.
- Watch “Religious group travels across state lines to aid Bryan County in tornado aftermath,” from Fox 28 Savannah on April 16, 2022.
- Read “Disasters and Accidents” articles from Australian Broadcast Corp. Religion & Ethics, the latest on March 9, 2022.
- Read “Christians must avoid ‘lifeboat mentality’ in climate crisis,” from Sojourners on March 3, 2022 (Op-ed).
- Read “An old church warehouse will now house and feed displaced Texans during next disaster,” from the Houston Chronicle on Jan. 4, 2022.
- Read “NASA used religious experts to predict how humans may react to aliens,” from The Hill on Dec. 28, 2021.
- Read “Don’t Blame God For Natural Disasters, Says Coalition Of Muslim NGOs,” from The Rakyat Post on Dec. 21, 2021.
- Read “A church is people. But it’s also a place. What happens when the faithful can’t use a building?” from The Tennessean on Dec. 20, 2021.
- Read “Faith groups’ disaster response relies on local and national agencies in hard-hit states,” from The Tennessean on Dec. 15, 2021.
- Read “Jehovah’s Witnesses use dedicated family time to ease anxieties,” from The Sentinel on Dec. 14, 2021.
- Read “Faith-based disaster relief teams fan out across 6 states to help tornado recovery,” from Religion News Service on Dec. 13, 2021.
- Read “Kentucky rabbi says Jewish communities donating to victims of deadly tornadoes,” from The Jerusalem Post on Dec. 12, 2021.
- Read “Humanitarian Disasters Are Worse than Ever. One Research Institute Is There to Help the Church Prepare” from Christianity Today on Nov. 18, 2021 (Op-ed).
- Read “As COP26 conference gathers, faith-based environmentalists fight ‘eco-grief’” from Religion News Service on Nov. 2, 2021.
- Read “Faith groups increasingly join fight against climate change” from AP News on Nov. 2, 2021.
- Read “I’m a Climate Scientist Because of My Faith—Not in Spite of It,” from Christianity Today on Oct. 21, 2021 (Op-ed).
- Read “Indigenous communities in Louisiana’s Delta overwhelmed by damage from Ida,” from Religion News Service on Sept. 1, 2021.
- Read “Turkey’s struggle against natural disasters: wildfires, drought, floods, and a possible earthquake,” from Global Voices on Sept. 1, 2021.
- Read “Faith-based disaster relief groups balance COVID safety with speedy response to Hurricane Ida,” from Religion News Service on Aug. 31, 2021.
- Read “Aztec Pictograms Are the First Written Records of Earthquakes in the Americas,” from Smithsonian Magazine on Aug. 30, 2021.
- Read “The great climate migration is happening and you might be the next to move,” from Deseret News on Aug. 14, 2021.
- Read “Who is to blame? A question at the heart of Swiss response to natural disasters,” from Swiss Info on Aug. 6, 2021.
- Read “Expert in faith-based disaster management new leader of Homeland Security center,” from Religion News Service on Aug. 2, 2021.
- Read “‘A moment of unity’: Jewish community comes together to support families after Florida building collapse,” from USA Today on June 26, 2021.
- Read “When climate catastrophes spark religious turmoil,” from The Washington Post on June 17, 2021 (Analysis).
- Read “Climate catastrophes can reshape religion,” from Big Think on May 21, 2021.
- Read “Constitutional Amendment to Keep Religious Services Open During Disasters Passes Texas House,” from The Texan on May 12, 2021.
- Read “Pastor of Disaster: Minister Weathered Tornado, Hurricane,” from U.S. News and World Report on May 1, 2021.
- Read “Muslim communities in the U.S. are becoming more involved in disaster relief projects,” from The Washington Post on Nov. 6, 2020.
- Read “Acts of God or natural disasters?” from the Santa Maria Times on Sept. 1, 2020 (Op-ed).
- Listen “Another Break From The Past: Government Will Help Churches Pay Pastor Salaries,” from NPR on April 6, 2020.
- Read “Religious Questions: Does God cause natural disasters?” from Chattanooga Times Free Press on July 19, 2019 (Op-ed).
- Read “Natural disasters ‘make people more religious’” from Church Times UK on July 19, 2019.
- Read “Land Conflict Has Long Been a Problem in Nigeria. Here’s How Climate Change Is Making It Worse,” from Time magazine on June 28, 2018.
- Read “Faith groups provide the bulk of disaster recovery, in coordination with FEMA,” from USA Today on Sept. 10, 2017.
- Read “The complicated role churches play in disaster relief,” from Pacific Standard on Sept. 1, 2017.
- Read “Where are the condemnations of Harvey as God’s punishment?” from Religion News Service on Aug. 29, 2017.
Potential experts and sources
Philip Almond is emeritus professor of religious studies at the University of Queensland and is deputy director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses. He has written on religious reactions to natural disasters in European history.
The American Red Cross is teaming with African American religious and civic groups to train volunteers who will be ready to help when future disasters occur. The Red Cross has sent trainers to work with groups from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the NAACP.
Jamie Aten is founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. He is an expert on religious responses to public emergencies, including hurricanes and mass shootings. Aten is also a founding signer of the Prayers and Action petition, which calls on the evangelical Christian community to do more to address gun violence.
Jeanet Bentzen is associate professor in the department of economics at the University of Copenhagen. Bentzen’s research focuses on economic approaches to decision-making and culture and includes topics related to religion, institutions, economic growth, economic history and geographic confounders.
Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation is a Taiwanese international humanitarian NGO with a branch in the U.S. that delivers medical aid, disaster relief and environmental support programs.
Buddhist Global Relief, based in Sparta, New Jersey, is an interdenominational organization consisting of people from different Buddhist groups who are committed to alleviating social and economic suffering. Its mission is to combat chronic hunger and malnutrition.
Catholic Charities USA works in various areas such as adoption counseling, disaster relief, poverty awareness and raising awareness of social issues such as human trafficking and racial inequality. It works to provide aid to people in need and to activate the Catholic population to action.
Catholic Relief Services, based in Baltimore, has a peacebuilding unit that has been working worldwide since the mid-1990s through development, education, advocacy, diplomacy and a variety of other means. Nikki Gamer is the senior public affairs manager.
Marcus Coleman is director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The center serves as a clearinghouse for information, connecting with faith-based organizations to help overcome coordination challenges among faith-based organizations, emergency managers and other stakeholders engaging a broad cross-section of faith-based organizations in all stages of the disaster cycle.
Covenant World Relief is the Evangelical Covenant Church’s philanthropic arm that has worked in five continents on community issue projects and disaster relief. Some efforts include working with women in human sex trafficking, building micro-loans for women’s small businesses and developing their agricultural skills.
The Disaster Relief for Indigenous Communities Grant Program supports the recovery and revitalization of Indigenous peoples and communities throughout the North Valley region of California impacted by disaster.
GreenFaith is an interfaith coalition based in New Jersey that works with houses of worship, religious schools and people of all faiths to help them become better environmental stewards. The Rev. Fletcher Harper is executive director.
Katharine Hayhoe is a professor of political science and co-director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She is also the co-author of A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. Hayhoe is an expert on Christian responses to global warming, and she works to reconcile science and faith in Christian communities.
The Humanitarian Disaster Institute is an interdisciplinary research center based at Wheaton College in Illinois. The institute examines the humanitarian needs of underserved and vulnerable communities throughout the nation and world. Jamie Aten, whose research focuses on the psychology of religion and disasters, is founder and co-director.
Islamic Relief USA is a California-based international Islamic nonprofit agency founded in 1984. It operates projects in education and training, water and sanitation, income generation, orphan support, health and nutrition, and emergency relief in foreign countries and in the U.S. It has a four-star rating from Charity Navigator.
Philip Jenkins is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. He also is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and serves as co-director for the institute’s Initiative on Historical Studies of Religion. He is the author of Climate, Catastrophe and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval and The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, which includes extensive discussion of the global impact of Pentecostalism.
Fred Krüger is full professor of geography at Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen/Nuremberg, Germany. His research and teaching interests focus on development geography and on urban studies, including linkages between culture(s) and risk, with a focus on vulnerability, livelihood security, and disaster prevention and preparedness.
Brie Loskota is the Executive Director of the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion. She researches religious change and facilitates partnerships between faith groups and the government. She is the co-creator of the Disasters and Religions religious literacy and competency app, which helps disaster responders better serve America’s diverse religious communities and build partnerships with religious leaders.
Lutheran World Relief works in 35 countries on issues such as water accessibility, disaster relief and supporting women’s businesses.
The Muslim Philanthropy Initiative was established in 2017 as an initiative of Lake Institute on Faith and Giving and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. MPI organizes symposiums and seminars, convenes philanthropic leaders, holds training programs, conducts research and recruits Muslims in the field to train and empower a new generation of philanthropic and nonprofit leaders.
National Disaster Interfaith Services, based in New York City, is a faith-based network provides training for clergy, religious leaders and faith-based groups, to help them plan for responding to disasters, and helps with recovery when a disaster does occur. Contact through executive director Peter Gudaitis.
National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster helps voluntary organizations work together to train and plan for disaster response. NVOAD, based in Alexandria, Virginia, also helps build connections between the voluntary groups and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Religions for Peace – USA includes more than 60 religious communities and promotes multireligious cooperation toward peace.
Hugh Ross founded the international nonprofit Reasons to Believe in 1986, an organization that seeks to dispel the idea that religious beliefs and scientific studies should be kept separate. He holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Toronto and has written more than two dozen books on a variety of science-faith topics, including Weathering Climate Change, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, and The Creator and the Cosmos.
Lisa Schipper is environmental social science research fellow at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on what causes people to be vulnerable to climate change in developing countries, and the barriers and enablers for people to adapt to the changes in climate.
Peter J. Thuesen is professor of religious studies and adjunct professor of American studies at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, co-editor of Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation and director of humanities research in the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. He is the author of Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather.
Catherine Wessinger, professor of religious studies at Loyola University in New Orleans, has written widely on theosophy, millennialism, New Religious Movements and New Age religions. She is co-editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions.
Oscar Zapata is assistant professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. His research examines energy security, community well-being and the promotion of renewable energy projects in remote, isolated and First Nations communities. He has written on how injuries and loss of life boost religious faith among survivors after disasters.
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