October 5, 2017

Angry Gods, Hurricanes, and TV Preachers

Tammy Faye and Jim BakkerIf you imagine prehistoric humans living roughly 6,000 years ago (you know, because the Earth is only about 6,000 years old), it is easy to understand why they might have thought that gods were responsible for the weather they faced. They didn't know any better. The concept of an angry god sending a storm their way was as plausible as any other explanation they had at the time. And so, they resorted to prayer and all sorts of other ineffective superstitions in an effort to appease their gods. They had none of the benefits of science at their disposal, so it is tough to be too critical of them for resorting to supernatural explanations.

If we jump ahead to today, it is remarkable that we still hear some religious believers making the same sort of claims (e.g., angry gods send storms our way to punish us for various offenses). Those making these claims today cannot be excused for not knowing any better. Modern science is not perfect, but it is a vastly superior approach to understanding the world around us than anything our ancient ancestors had. Unlike them, we recognize that storms are natural phenomena. And so, the evangelical fundamentalist Christians who take to the airwaves to blame hurricane victims for incurring the wrath of their preferred god deserve our criticism in a way their distant ancestors did not.

So here's my question: Do you think that many of these evangelists spewing this nonsense genuinely believe it? Do they really think that their god uses natural disasters to punish sinners and that we can avoid such disasters through "atonement" or groveling? I have a very hard time believing that they do. Some few might, but I'd guess that the majority of those pushing this message do not believe it. And if they do not really believe it, then that raises the question of why they seem to push so forcefully it at every opportunity.

I'd guess that this isn't really about what they believe but about their desire to influence and control others (i.e., their flock) in order to line their pockets. I have little doubt that some of their followers believe this garbage, but once again, I suspect that the majority probably do not (or at least they would not if they bothered to think deeply about it). I suspect that many of those who do not believe it still find it emotionally reassuring. If hurricanes are caused by an angry god, we can avoid them by pleasing this god even though we won't always be successful in doing so because...mysterious ways. Hurricanes are less scary this way than if they are random. And best of all, if hurricanes are caused by an angry god, then we don't need to worry too much about those who experience pain and suffering because they likely deserved it. Who are we to question the judgment of an angry god?

If you have a background in psychology, you may recognize that what I am suggesting here sounds a little like just world theory (i.e., the belief that good behavior will ultimately be rewarded and bad behavior will ultimately be punished). I agree, and I find that this theory explains an awful lot about the appeal of religion even among people who might not be particularly devout or committed. A religious believer hearing the evangelist go on about hurricanes does not necessarily have to believe everything he or she hears to find some comfort in the notion that bad people are being punished by weather. And why not make a small donation just in case? Of course, those who escape the bad weather can feel less guilty about doing so because it was what their god wanted.

Some parallels could also be drawn to terror management theory (i.e., our self-preservation drive conflicts with our recognition of the inevitability of our own death, and we cope with this conflict by fooling ourselves into believing in literal life-after-death scenarios like heaven or more symbolic ones like national identity). This is another theory with great relevance to religion. Here, the words of the evangelist serve as a powerful reminder just what is at stake. We could all die tomorrow if our god aims the hurricane at us. Fortunately, the evangelist offers the answer. If we repent (and send money), we'll have eternal life. Suddenly, the storm doesn't seem quite as scary.

In the end, I do blame the TV preachers for knowing that much of what they say is nonsense and using it to exploit people's psychological vulnerabilities to make a buck. I also recognize that this is one of those situations where it is often difficult not to place at least some of the blame at the feet of the victims. The gullible people who hand over their money to these preachers are victims, but they are also willing participants in a carefully orchestrated delusion from which they derive some short-term benefits.