Hurricanes, Homosexuality, and Belief in the Hand of God

Pat Robertson's evangelism, with its walls of protection, storms on.

Posted Sep 13, 2018

The Great Day of His Wrath, John Martin (1851)
Public domain
Source: The Great Day of His Wrath, John Martin (1851)

It’s hurricane season and televangelist Pat Robertson is at it again.

On Monday during a 700 Club TV appearance, with Hurricane Florence bearing down on the East Coast, Robertson commanded the coming storm to “cease its forward motion and go harmlessly into the Atlantic… up north and away from land and veer off, in the name of Jesus!” Citing concern over potential damage to his own Christian Broadcasting Network and Regent University, both located in Virginia Beach, Robertson declared a “shield of protection all over Tidewater and… a shield of protection over those innocent people in the path of this hurricane.”

This isn’t the first time Robertson has invoked the name of Jesus to put up a “wall of protection” against impending cyclones. In this week’s speech, he claimed to have successfully done so against Hurricane Esther back in 1961, going so far as to describe how it stopped and turned around as if a dog obeying his command. After making similar claims in 1985 after Hurricane Gloria, he noted that his apparent ability to control weather served as inspiration to run for president, stating, “if I couldn’t move a hurricane, I could hardly move a nation.”

Were we keeping score, we might chalk this up to chance variance, wishful thinking, and harmless prayer, noting that Robertson’s walls of protection failed to spare Virginia Beach from Hurricane Bonnie in 1998 or from Hurricane Isabel in 2003 and that his 1988 presidential bid was a flop. But what’s harder to dismiss is that in claiming to be able to influence the course of hurricanes as an agent of God, Robertson has a long record of also threatening that God might deliberately opt out of protecting the U.S. from the likes of natural disasters due to increasing public acceptance of homosexuality. In 1998, he specifically suggested that God might send hurricanes and a hellfire of lightning bolts to Florida to destroy Disneyworld in retaliation for sponsoring a “Gay Days” weekend. After 9/11, he joined Jerry Falwell in attributing the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC to God’s wrath aimed at “pagans, abortionists, gays, lesbians, [and] the American Civil Liberties Union.”

Do televangelists really harness the hand of God to steer natural disasters away from the “innocent” into the path of the LGBT community and its supporters? Fortunately, we now have some empirical evidence to address this question. In what is almost surely a shoe-in for an Ig Nobel Prize, a study by Aidan Bissell-Siders tested the hypotheses that “higher gayness causes higher storm damages” and that “higher godliness causes lower storm damages.”1 Using data from the American Community Survey and the National Climatic Data Center, he found no statistically significant correlation between gay marriage and per capita storm damage by US state. He did however find a positive correlation between storm damage and the percentage of persons employed in religious service, leading him to conclude (with obvious tongue-in-cheek):

“We confidently report that same-sex couples reduce storm damages while religious servicepersons increase them. It appears that, in His wisdom, God has let same-sex couples off the hook and instead directed His stormy anger towards religious servicepersons for their failure to stop gay marriage.”1

These results echo those of a previous study published in Skeptic magazine by Robert Warren and MJ Olejniczak in 2016 that examined correlations between annual hurricane intensity and predominant political party affiliation by state.2 The authors found that more intense hurricanes were significantly more likely in states with more Republican voters, with no significant differences when comparing states that passed legislation legalizing or banning gay marriage. The authors concluded:

“Our results suggest no divine punishment for voting Democrat or approving gay marriage… either God has longstanding wrath against the southern US states or they just happen to fall in the path of hurricanes.…Our results not only illustrate the fallacy in a faith-based explanation for weather events, but also the problem of a faith-based approach to statistical analysis. Taken at face value, the data imply a statistically significant pattern of divine retribution against Republicans and the banning of gay marriage.…Great doubt should be placed upon results that lack a plausible causal mechanism, regardless of statistical significance.”2

Hurrican Isabel, NASA (2003)
Public domain
Source: Hurrican Isabel, NASA (2003)

Both of these studies seem to represent serious attempts to use science, or statistics, to dispel ridiculous claims like Robertson’s. Leaving aside the likelihood that the studies used cherry-picked data from multiple correlations, may not have been peer-reviewed, and in any case have not been published in academic journals, the findings nonetheless invite explanation. Warren and Olejniczak note that in their analysis, hurricane intensity wasn’t only correlated with Republican-leaning “red states,” but also with southern latitudes, suggesting a meteorological explanation that doesn’t require the active hand of God. Similarly, just this week, new research adds to already existing evidence supporting the likelihood that the recent and projected future trend of more powerful hurricanes is related to global warming.3

If the course and intensification of hurricanes can be explained by meteorology and climate science, why do televangelists like Robertson and their followers feel the need to invoke a higher power to explain things? Of course, scientific explanations can coexist with religious explanations, but breaching the boundaries of Occam’s Razor in search of divine mechanics paves a slippery slope to free-wheeling claims that fit the data, like Bissell-Siders’ facetious theory that God is punishing religious people for not stopping gay marriage.

One explanation for this kind of “teleological thinking”—defined as the attribution of purpose linked to a final or end goal—is that it represents a kind of normally distributed cognitive bias that makes some of us more likely to believe in the idea that “everything happens for a reason,” or in this case, that God feels the need to actively intercede in events from moment to moment, changing the path of hurricanes in response to prayers and in order to teach us a larger moral lesson. In a new study that received widespread attention in the lay press last month, teleological thinking was found to be a common underlying trait of people who embraced belief in creationism as well in conspiracy theories.4 Indeed, the idea that Robertson, in cahoots with God, can control the weather to protect the “innocent” and punish the LGBT community and its supporters may be equal parts religious belief and conspiracy theory.

While teleological explanations no doubt offer a comforting sense of purpose in contrast to the scientific model of a cold universe devoid of apparent meaning, to accept that hurricanes are a weapon of God that punishes human sexual behavior is to believe that He (or She) is a cruel, capricious, vindictive, and petty supreme being. Although Robertson prays in the name of Jesus for his shield of protection, a God like that sounds much more like the Father of the Old Testament—or one taken from Greek mythology—than the just and loving Son of the New.

There's certainly nothing wrong with, or pathological about, praying over the course of Hurricane Florence. But if we’re going to seek comfort in prayers invoking Jesus' name, shouldn’t we pray for the safety of all those in its path?

References

1. Bissel-Siders A. Gays don’t cause storms. PsyArXiv Preprints; April 1, 2018. https://psyarxiv.com/5tdjc/

2. Warren R, Olejniczak MJ. Hurricane strikes as divine retribution: an empirical test. Skeptic 2016; 21:19-21.

3. Bhatia K. Projected response of tropical cyclone intensity and intensification in a global climate model. Journal of Climate 2018 https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/JCLI-D-17-0898.1

4. Wagner-Egger P, Delouvee S, Gauvrit N, Diegez S. Creationism and conspiracism share a common teleological basis. Current Biology 2018; 28:R847-R870.