RELIGION
06/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What's God Trying To Tell Us With Eyjaffjallajokull?

By Omar Sacirbey
Religion News Service

(RNS) What do homosexuality, health care reform, and British advertising standards all have in common? They're all things that have ticked God off, some religious leaders say, and he's venting his frustration with the angry fires of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

Moscow's Interfax newswire reported that the Association of (Russian) Orthodox Experts blamed the April 14 eruption--whose gigantic cloud of ash grounded transatlantic flights for more than a week--on gay rights in Europe and Iceland's tolerance of "neo-paganism."

Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, meanwhile, said God was angry over health care reform. San Antonio megachurch pastor John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, said God was unleashing his wrath on Britain for deciding that Israeli tourism ads actually featured parts of the disputed Palestinian territories, not Israel.

The eruption is the latest in a long line of natural events to which some religious leaders attribute divine judgment. In short, God is using nature to channel his displeasure with human behavior--both the sinners and those who tolerate them--and that we had better shape up.

It's an impulse that goes back thousands of years and still thrives in religious quarters that are generally skeptical of science and seek divine explanations for natural calamities:

-- Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi recently told his Shiite Muslim followers that immodestly dressed and promiscuous women are to blame for earthquakes.

-- In February, Rabbi Yehuda Levin of the Rabbinical Alliance of America warned allowing gays in the military could cause natural disasters to strike America. "The practice of homosexuality is a spiritual cause of earthquakes," he said.

-- Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson blamed the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti on a pact between the devil and Haitians rebelling against French rule in the 18th century.

-- Both Robertson and Hagee blamed Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans' debauchery and immorality.

-- Malaysian Muslim cleric Azizan Abdul Razak said the 2004 South Asian tsunami was God's message that "he created the world and can destroy the world," while Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said it was "an expression of God's great ire with the world."

So what is it about nature's fury that attracts theological interpretation? For many religious leaders, scholars say, it's an opportunity to win new believers.

"Natural disasters are disruptive. When there's a disruption, people's worldviews are shaken, and need to be repaired," said Steven Friesen, a biblical studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

"Natural disasters are a prime time to repair people's worldviews. ... It's a long-running theme in American culture that God works to bring people into changing their worldview."

Who accepts these proclamations and who doesn't often depends on how a believer views God: benevolent, wrathful, active, passive, or maybe something less defined, like a cosmic force.

"This stuff attracts people with a strong authoritarian image of God, and who believe that he--it's almost always a he--does in fact punish people who do not follow his rules," said Wade Clark Roof, professor of American religion at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Another common thread among people who link disaster to divine judgment is that they tend to consider disasters as confirmation of already-held beliefs.

"They already think God is working in certain ways, and disasters become an example of that," said Friesen, pointing to Hagee as an example. "There's no logical connection (between Britain's ad policy and the volcano), but because he is already convinced that God works to protect Israel, he believes that God made the volcano erupt to punish Britain."

People who make such pronouncements are also claiming special power or authority, experts said. "They are claiming special knowledge of how God works in the world, and why he does what he's doing," said Friesen.

But many religious leaders reject linking disaster to divine judgment.

"It's faulty theology. People take the personal consequences of sin, which are real, and project them onto natural disaster. That's where things break down," said Joel Hunter, a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals and a megachurch pastor in suburban Orlando, Fla.

"Speculating that disaster happens because sin has reached a certain level puts God in a really bad light."

Rabbi Michael Lerner, president of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, agreed. "You start blaming the victims for a process that is a result of something that they had nothing to do with," he said.

It's not just religious types who see it as all nonsense. Purdue University undergrad Jen McCreight--a self-described "perverted atheist feminist"--encouraged women around the world to expose their cleavage as part of "Boobquake" on Monday (April 26) to see if they could spawn a natural disaster.

So far, no cleavage-induced calamities were reported, although McCreight's effort has attracted more than 81,000 Facebook fans.

While Lerner flatly rejects linking specific behaviors to specific disasters, he does believe human actions can still cause natural calamities. In short, global warming isn't an early taste of the fires of hell sent by God, but rather a very natural reaction to human action.

"God has communicated to us that there is a connection between the physical survival of the planet and whether we follow the command to be good stewards of the planet," said Lerner. "We have to stop exploiting the earth and start treating it as sacred."