[Photo of folks fleeing the Florida Keys on August 17 '08]
Surveys that deal with the religious beliefs and practices of Americans are notoriously inaccurate. There is often a discrepancy between what people say and what they actually do. For years, various polls have indicated that about 40-44 percent of Americans say they attend religious services on a weekly basis. But when that data is compared with statistics from church records, the percentage drops to somewhere around 20 percent.
The website, Religious Tolerance notes that "Public opinion polls generally do not report real opinions or events. They report only the information that the individuals choose to tell the pollsters. Quite often, their answers will be distorted by a phenomenon called 'social desirability bias.' Pollees answer questions according to what they think they should be doing, rather than what they are doing."
Nevertheless, Americans by and large are a religious people. The Washington Post reported last June that about 92 percent believe in a god or universal spirit and over half pray once a day. Additionally, information derived from the Pew Forum on Religion indicates that "Most Americans believe that angels and demons are active in the world, and nearly 80 percent think miracles occur."
About one-third of Americans are convinced they have "witnessed a divine healing of an illness or injury.
One would think with all this religiosity, believers would take a rather relaxed view of impending hurricanes and their offspring, tornadoes. God, by definition, is all-knowing and all-powerful. Prayer is a method of manipulating God to suit one's desires. As a hurricane approaches, it should be simply a matter of praying to God to cancel, disrupt or re-route the storm.
The faith of most believers appears to be rather weak, however. They may pray, but remain unconvinced that God can or will do anything about the coming storm. Thus, they make the same preparations as non-believers.
Today, in Florida, we are watching the approach of Tropical Storm Fay, soon, it seems, to be called Hurricane Fay. With a few exceptions, residents and visitors in the Florida Keys are hitting the road north, fleeing the inexorable churning of this natural disaster. Throughout the state, people are buying up food, water, gasoline, propane, generators, and plywood. Those who have storm shutters are busily covering their windows. The two stores we visited yesterday had already been cleaned out of water.
It is likely that at least 20 percent of Floridians attended church over the weekend where they prayed for exemption from the wrath of Fay. From my observation, however, many more skipped singing praises to their deity in favor of going it alone. (The stores were jammed!) After all, didn't someone promise that "God helps those who help themselves"?
Maybe the "faith" of most Americans is an illusion?
There are always exceptions, of course. And rationalizations. When Hurricane Ivan hit the Cayman Islands in 2004, it's "mountainous waves and 200-mph winds mangled about 90% of [the island's] homes." A lot of people did a lot of praying before Ivan arrived. Rita Bush, a taxi driver, said "This is a very religious island, and we did a lot of praying before the storm. It didn't stop the hurricane from coming, but it's given us courage, hope and faith to rebuild."
In other words, God couldn't or wouldn't change Ivan's course or intensity, or shut it down completely, but now that it's over, the people can thank God they're alive and for some reason garner "courage, hope and faith to rebuild." That's a big jump of faith! Why would God knock the stuffing out of the Caymans only to give the people "courage, hope, and faith"?
In other cases, people gave in to delusion. Hurricane Dean was headed directly for Jamaica in 2007. Jamaicans prayed desperately for the storm to turn away from the island. It didn't happen. Jamaica was devastated and at least nine people died.
But Hurricane Ivan did a wobble in 2004. A Reverend Carmen Stewart claims that Ivan turned because of the people's prayers. And it wasn't the first time, say the rev. "It has happened time and time again. I know people have been praying and I don't see any other reason why it (the hurricane) would make such a drastic turn.... God hears prayer."
Well, not really. While Hurricane Allen, a category 5 storm did wobble around the island, Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 did not, and as we said, Hurricane Dean made a mess. Maybe the people didn't pray hard enough. Or maybe God was out to lunch that day.
But it's not just Christians or god-believers who give up reason in favor of delusionary "faith." Tracey Johnson is a witch. She lives in Petal, Mississippi. When Hurricane Katrina approached, she said "wards" (whatever that means) over her store and her trailer home. Although places around her were destroyed, she sustained only the loss of a 6-inch water pipe, which, of course, was the result of her magic. Not only so, but she also believes that her collection of tarot, pendulums, runes, herbs, stones, Raven Flight Dragon's Blood, oils and potions helped "heal" people after the storm.
Other witches also turned to magic to ameliorate the effects of Katrina. Starhawk, a witch involved in "modern Earth-based spirituality," claims that "On the night before the hurricane was due to hit, I made a ritual with a small group of friends to support the spiritual efforts that I knew were being made by priestesses ... all over the country. That same night, Christians were praying and Orisha priestesses were working Oya and the hurricane did shift its course, slightly, and lessen its force, down to a Category Four."
It's amazing what can happen when you combine Christian faith with witchcraft!
Then, of course, we have the judgmental types who believe that God uses nature's violence to shower his wrath upon the evil ones. John Hagee, the wingnut preacher from San Antonio, Texas, has said that Katrina was God's judgment upon New Orleans for the city's decadent ways--referring especially to homosexuality.
Hagee isn't alone. Michael Marcavage, the director of an off-the-wall website called Repent America says that "Although the loss of lives is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city ... New Orleans was a city that had its doors wide open to the public celebration of sin.
"We must help and pray for those ravaged by this disaster, but let us not forget that the citizens of New Orleans tolerated and welcomed the wickedness in their city for so long. May this act of God causes us all to think about what we tolerate in our city limits, and bring us trembling before the throne of Almighty God."
Then there's something called "Christian Life and Liberty," an anti-abortion group. They urge that Christians "Pray God's Hurricane helps save America, and destroys Florida abortion centers."
"Lord bring forth Your Wind upon these death centers!"
"If you are a Christian patriot who loves your country, then please consider praying, imprecatorily, that God might be pleased to use His Hurricane (the Act of God called 'Wilma') to destroy some of Florida's 73 child-murder-by-abortion centers..."
One wonders why Christians should pray that God would destroy just "some" of these abortion centers? Why not pray he destroys them all? If he can destroy "some," why stop short of total victory?
By way of explanation: "Imprecatory praying is praying for God's righteous judgment to come upon His enemies. Those who murder the innocent in Florida's 73 child-sacrifice-by-abortion centers are the enemies of God ..."
So, we have one group of the faithful who are realistic. They know they can pray until they're blue in the face and nothing is going to change. Tropical Storm Fay which, according to the expert's predictions, will soon become Hurricane Fay, will continue on its relentless path raining down its fury on theist and atheist alike.
This group is likely to pray, however, that God will give them strength to withstand the storm and put the pieces of their lives back together after the storm.
That's kind of a luke-warm faith.
Then you have those who are convinced that they can change the course of the storm by their prayers. It doesn't always work, but once in awhile a wobble occurs in their favor which they immediately attribute to their prayers which manipulated the deity into doing their will. Included in this group are the pagans and witches who rely on magic to obtain the same end. They, too, are convinced that their machinations had some effect on, if not god, then Mother Nature.
Finally, we must put up with the weirdos who want God to use the hurricane to blast away those they perceive as evil and wicked, either for promoting abortion or homosexuality. These folks are just plain nuts and very limited in their scope as to what constitutes sin.
If they had any sense, they'd ask that Fay, whatever she becomes, head right toward Washington, D.C. and take out the entire White House, most of the Congress and every damn lobbyist in town! I mean, c'mon, if you want to deal with sin, you've got to go where it all starts!