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Posted on Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 10:48 a.m.

Is there some 'sign of God' in the Japan tsunami disaster?

By Wayne Baker

0328 Canadian Japanese fundraiser.jpg

These high-tech Japan relief T-shirts feature a code that, when scanned with a smartphone, takes you directly to the Red Cross' mobile donation site.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing the tragedy in Japan, and the many questions it evokes.

All weekend, my elementary-age son wore a black T-shirt with “Japan Disaster Relief 2011” on the front and “I supported the Japan Disaster Relief” on the back. He even slept with it. He purchased it on his own at the dojo where he learns ninjitsu, a Japanese martial art. The senior instructors at the school have trained in Japan, and the head instructor has just returned from Japan several weeks ago. All funds from the sale of the T-shirts go to support humanitarian efforts in Japan.

My son wasn’t alone. T-shirts are a popular part of disaster relief efforts. One news story from a Canadian indie-news website, called ChrisD.CA, reported on the high-tech T-shirts shown above.

They contain a small black logo (in the red “O”) that smartphone users can photograph and then jump to a Red Cross website to donate via their phones.

And there’s also that conspicuous God reference on the Canadian shirts. These are natural expressions for millions. Given the magnitude of the Japanese disaster, and the increasingly bad news about radiation exposure, the need will be great and last for a long time — and one obvious God connection lies in the relief effort from faith-based groups.

However, a significant minority sees God's anger in disasters.

These positive responses I have described stand in sharp contrast to another reaction — one that blames the victims. Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, for example, said that the Japan earthquake was some sort of “message” from God — a warning or even punishment for transgressions of … something.

Beck’s remarks place him at the head of an inglorious line that includes other conservative public figures who have linked natural disasters with God’s displeasure. Rush Limbaugh linked the new health care law with eruptions of volcanic ash in Europe. Pat Robertson claimed that Hurricane Katrina was also God’s smiting hand.

What do surveys show us about God and disasters?

Most Americans don’t see negative connections — but it may surprise you to know that there is a sizable minority that does, according to a survey taken by the Public Religion Research Institute after the Japan earthquake and tsunami.

Just over a third of Americans (38 percent) agree that “earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters are a sign from God.” About 3 in 10 (29 percent) say “God sometimes punishes nations for the sins of some of its citizens.” White evangelical Protestants are especially prone to see God’s wrath in natural disasters. Almost 6 of 10 (59 percent) of this group say that natural disasters are a sign from God, and 53 percent say that God punishes nations for the sins of its people.

Are you surprised by those attitudes? Do you think there is a link between God and natural disasters?

Comment below. This is a hotly debated issue. Please, share a bit of your wisdom.

Dr. Wayne E. Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at



Thu, Mar 31, 2011 : 4:34 a.m.

I support the view stated by Goofus. I see the divine intervention by understanding the instinctive response of compassion that the event generated in my heart. I see God's nature in His Mercy, and Compassion and the human instinct of kindness or compassion speaks about man's existence as a moral, and spiritual being.


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 12:49 p.m.

Can anybody tell me exactly what Japan would be being punished for? Why would God have it out for them? Any Beck fans got the info on this?


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 3:07 p.m.

They may be being "punished" ...but its not by god. Its by the emprically predictable geological consequence of the bad decision to site a nuclear power plant on an active tectonic zone and tsunami access route.


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 1:27 a.m.

Oh please. Primitive people invented deities to explain natural phenomena like earthquakes, storms, etc. that they couldn't explain any other way. Now that we can explain these things, why do so many still cling to these beliefs? What satisfaction is gained in thinking that events like these are punishment for something we (or more likely "they") have done wrong? Doesn't it just give cause for saying we don't have to help because god is punishing those people and they deserve it? The only heaven and hell are the ones we create on earth in the choices we make about how to treat each other. The sooner we all realize and act on this idea, the sooner we will actually achieve something that so many misguided people think is only possible after death.


Thu, Mar 31, 2011 : 2:57 a.m.

I'm mystified by those who feel that science and theology contradict each other. Most people who study science realize that there is far more that we don't know than what we do know. Good scientists keep an open mind and try to logically explain their observations. This does not prove or disprove God's existence. If you feel that you need to be proved God's existence, then that's your problem. I agree with Will that there is plenty of "evidence" that you are discounting. If you choose not to believe, then so be it and I respect your choice. But you certainly have no evidence to diminish my choice, nor does your choice make you any more enlightened than I.


Thu, Mar 31, 2011 : 12:13 a.m.

Hi Macabre, My understanding of WWII is perfectly accurate. Hitler was not elected by a popular majority. Are you claiming he was? Are you arguing Hitler was a Christian? He hated Christianity and said so. He renamed Christmas to remove the Christmas elements. Those who knew Hitler (Joseph Goebbels, Albert Speer, and Martin Bormann) all note that Hitler generally had negative opinions of religion and Christianity/Catholicism in particular. Your understanding of Vatican II is wrong. It had nothing to do with dealing with antisemitism and traditional catholics (such as Gibson) didn't break away for that reason but because the liturgy changed.

Macabre Sunset

Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 10:02 p.m.

Your understanding of 1930s Germany is sadly lacking. The Christians definitely had a cross to bear there. And Hitler himself was expressing his version of Catholicism. Even the Vatican realized something went seriously wrong there. Hence the Vatican II bull, which led to the schism which led to Mel Gibson and his merry band of bigots.


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 6:17 p.m.

Hi, //There is zero evidence for the existence of a deity of any kind.// I think the evidence is all around us. The existence of the laws of physics. The existence of morals and ethics. The existence or reason and order. All of these things (that are foundations for science by the way) only make sense if there is a Creator. //The atrocities of Nazi Germany would not have been possible without the support of the Christian population of Germany....// So you think that we should blame a population for the wickedness of its Dictators? Do you hold this opinion about Libya? How about with China? Hitler never told anyone he was going to attempt to exterminate all the Jews other than his inner circle. He rose to power not because of a popular majority but by using the poor rules of German government and he was opposed by a huge percentage of the population even when it was darn risky to oppose him. //You made my point exactly about Galileo. He should have been "yielding to the church" instead of actually searching for truth.// No. You missed my point. They didn't care about the science. They cared about the theology. This has nothing to do with science. //As for teaching other views (i.e. creationism), once again there is simply no evidence to support those other views.// Open discussion should determine that. Not censors. If it is stupid and baseless to question Darwin, fine. Let the marketplace of ideas determine that. //Back to the original subject here: Can you provide any support to the idea that natural disasters are punishment from some god or gods? Or is it just a convenient fiction to justify that the victims had it coming to them?// I have no evidence that Japan was a punishment. I said that on's last post on Japan. But I do believe that God is Providential over all things. In other words, he is the author of all things that come to pass. But that doesn't mean that all things that come to pass are judgment or punishment.


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 1:33 p.m.

There is zero evidence for the existence of a deity of any kind. The atrocities of Nazi Germany would not have been possible without the support of the Christian population of Germany, occupied Poland, etc. and in many cases of the church itself. You made my point exactly about Galileo. He should have been "yielding to the church" instead of actually searching for truth. There is no truth in the belief in something that does not exist. As for teaching other views (i.e. creationism), once again there is simply no evidence to support those other views. Back to the original subject here: Can you provide any support to the idea that natural disasters are punishment from some god or gods? Or is it just a convenient fiction to justify that the victims had it coming to them?


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 4:09 a.m.

I think you missed my point. My point was not that all advanced cultures have been monotheistic. My point was that there is no correlation between atheism and societal evolution. For the record, Hitler was not a Christian. He hated Christianity. He changed the name of Christmas. He killed lots of Catholics and Lutherans. Large contingents of both the Catholic and Lutheran churches opposed Hitler at great personal risk. But this is a side discussion that doesn't relate to our discussion. //As for science, religion has been a block to science more than a help.// Simply false. The Catholic church was the largest benefactor of science during the middle ages. All the early scientists (including Galileo and Newton) were devout Theists. Science came to age in Christian countries for a reason. It didn't happen in spite of Christianity but because of it. // Galileo is a nice example - punished by the church for suggesting that the earth is not fixed in place as the bible states.// You may want to reread the Galileo story using original sources. First of all, he was a devout Christian (so at worst this is a story about Christians opposing other Christians). Furthermore, most of his enemies were not church officials but fellow academics who tried to sabotage his work (because it undermined theirs) by trumping up charges against him. The charges against him (in the church) were much more related to the Protestant Reformation that was raging in northern Europe (there was concern that Galileo was interpreting the Bible like a Protestant instead of yielding to the church like a Catholic). The proof that the Catholic church cared little about the theory itself is that Copernicus' epoch-making book caused only mild controversy when it was published and was not condemned. /Not to mention another genius, Darwin../ I don't know of any Christians who want to silence the theory, they simply want freedom to teach other views in conjunction with his. Hardly fierce opposition.


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 2:34 a.m.

Define advanced culture. Was ancient Rome advanced for its time? Was it monotheistic? What about ancient Greece? What about modern Japan? I don't see the relationship between monotheism and being advanced. What about Hitler's Germany? Monotheistic and church supported, but nothing to be proud of. As for science, religion has been a block to science more than a help. Galileo is a nice example - punished by the church for suggesting that the earth is not fixed in place as the bible states. Not to mention another genius, Darwin, who you left off your list, and who continues to be ridiculed by many believers. Sorry but your attempt to equate religious thought with advanced culture is groundless.


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 2:10 a.m.

Monotheism was theorized by Plato and Aristotle on the basis of philosophical argumentation. The most advanced cultures of all time have been monotheistic. Genius's such as Isaac Newton, Descartes, Galileo and just about every early scientist were all monotheistic. Monotheists continue to be influential in science. For example, an evangelical named Francis Collins is the scientist who led the mapping of the human genome. Looking back on history, we see atheists in the earliest days as well. Ancient Rome had atheists. Ancient Egypt had atheists. There is no evidence that atheism is an evolution to an enlightened point of view. Both views are old. Both views have been held by highly intelligent people. The attempt to say that religion is more primitive is groundless.


Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 8:58 p.m.

We are hardly atoms floating on a speck of dust in the grandeur of our Universe and yet some think that we are the greatest beings that have ever been created (or evolved). And even if/when we recognize that there may be something greater than us, we arrogantly believe that we could comprehend the machinations of such a being. My recommendation is that if you believe, pray for the victims of the tragedy and also help them in any way you can. Maybe it is not they who are being tested, but us...


Thu, Mar 31, 2011 : 2:45 a.m.

Macabre: You choose to misinterpret my posts through your own prism. As I said, I do not know why bad things happen. In your previous post, you questioned how an omniscient and omnipotent entity could exist, basically asking the same thing. I do not believe God created an earthquake, tsunami or other disaster to smite the Japanese people. The event occurred because of a shift in the Earth's crust that cascaded into other events. No magic necessary. My point was directed towards who think the Japanese people somehow did something wrong in the eyes of God - that maybe they should consider their response rather than point fingers. Some see God's hand in the creation of tragedy, I see His hand in the response to it. How much of the Universe's knowledge do you think you will acquire? One billionth? One trillionth? Probably less, right? It requires little conjuring in the vastness and age of the Universe to hypothesize that some entity has more than we do. I do not have the ego to assume that I can understand such a being. You ask for proof. Most of science is theory, not proven. What proof could I offer you? Why need I prove anything to you? In the depths of our minds, we all share the same thoughts and questions: why are we here, what is our purpose, what happens when we die, is this all there is? Faith needs no proof. It accepts that reality does not encompass all we can see. How can I be so sure? I can't explain it, I just know it to be true.

Macabre Sunset

Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 4:46 a.m.

As you are the one inventing the supreme being, it is incumbent on you to prove its existence. You can't prove something to the negative. You can only set a hypothesis and prove it's true. Terrible things happen in this world. You're asking us to believe that they happen intentionally as a measure for testing our response to suffering. What a cruel leader your universe suffers under.


Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 10:21 p.m.

What dotdash said. I don't know why bad things happen to good people. I don't know why God allows evil to exist. I don't know why you are so angry either. It doesn't really matter to me, nor that I understand it completely. Do you have enough humility to accept that maybe, just maybe, you don't have all the answers either? If you choose not to believe that's your choice and I respect that. What evidence could you possibly offer to prove your choice? Probably the same that I could offer to prove mine...


Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 10 p.m.

Macabre, I think 1bit's point was that how we respond to the suffering of others is a measure of ourselves.

Macabre Sunset

Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 9:05 p.m.

So your opinion is that the families and friends of the 20,000 people who recently died in Japan are suffering for our entertainment? No, I don't think you are anywhere near the greatest being who has ever evolved.

Macabre Sunset

Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 8:19 p.m.

Was the tragedy of a homeless man dying in the woods the other day just outside of town a divine punishment for the excesses of local religious leaders?


Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 7:53 p.m.

This is the SECOND pure opinion essay A2dotcom has published discussing the non-issue of "divine intervention" in the Japanese tsunami. Meanwhile, you have very little actual NEWS coverage of the actual event in the whole two weeks since it has occurred. No stories on the reactors, no scientific interviews with local UM faculty who might have some scientific know-how and actual factual research about implications or engineering angles, and no follow-up on the very few articles about actual UM/Ann Arbor connections to the disaster that you have published. Meanwhile, you find the space and time to publish not one...but 2!...opinion pieces about whether the Great and Powerful Jehovah may or may not have had an hand in events. This is journalism?


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 2:02 a.m.

Wayne Baker is not a paid staff member. He is a community contributer. So no resources were wasted by posting this story. Maybe they should have more hard news on the quake but you cannot blame the opinion pieces for that.

Macabre Sunset

Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 7:34 p.m.

If your supreme being is all-powerful and all-knowing, then of course it created the tsunami. It's ridiculous to suggest otherwise. So either your supreme being is not all that powerful or it is not all that knowing. In either case, it is hardly worthy of worship even if you have faith in it.


Thu, Mar 31, 2011 : 12:24 a.m.

//Your assumption is that if something happens, there must be a "good" reason, because your being is all-knowing and all-powerful.// I didn't make that "assumption", I simply said that your logical proof falls apart if that were to be true. Which it does. Which is why no one uses your argument anymore. //Why are so many thinking, feeling people being sacrificed for your benefit?// No one said it was for my benefit. But what if God could raise the dead? What if he could judge sins and revive memories. What if, in another words, he could fix what now appears to be broken. Have you ever had a bad situation (a sickness, a failed test, etc) that, in retrospect, made you better? Well, what if evil is similar in the world? What if what now appears to be impossible to fix could be fixed? How glorious would that be? Your reading of Job is not a good one. Your representation of the Christian reading is not right either. Here is what the book is about. Job is tested. Job passes the test. We learn that evil is not always a result of judgement but is sometimes due to the mysterious plan of God. The restoration of Job's family is not complete of course but it is a picture of the true restoration that will happen at the end of history when all death (including Job and his family) will be overcome. //Religious people are narcissists. They see only themselves - only Job - only Job's sacrifices. Non-religious people see his wife and his first ten children as well.....// I disagree. I have put myself in the wife's place. I have put myself in the children's place. But both the wife and the children have hope because there is a God. If you are right and there is no God. That wind that destroyed the house and killed the kids was not God being unreasonable, it was random bad luck. Their deaths can't be fixed at all. The world is out of control. I think my reading of the story is more pleasant for the wife and the kids.

Macabre Sunset

Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 10:23 p.m.

Your assumption is that if something happens, there must be a "good" reason, because your being is all-knowing and all-powerful. There's an awful lot of suffering out there. If that's "good", we need to understand the justification. Why are so many thinking, feeling people being sacrificed for your benefit? The book of Job is a good example. As a "test" of the worship concept, your god allows his friend to kill all of Job's children, take all his money, then cause Job immense pain. His stupid friends natter on about Job must have done something terrible to deserve this punishment while your god giggles. Job rejects his wife, because she at least has the sense to understand that if there is a god up there, it's a mighty cruel dude who doesn't really care about suffering. Finally, he understands and curses his existence. And your god feels some guilt (because Job had previously been number one in terms of blind worship) and replaces all the dead children and the money he took. Now, the religious crowd views this story as a positive one. Job blindly worshiped, even as his children were murdered and his wealth and health taken from him and his friends and wife were horrified by the crazy man who continued to worship. And because of that faith, Job was rewarded with a personal Eden in which to live a long retirement. I see a man who suffered incredible pain, and somehow accepted compensation for the horrible deaths of ten children. Ten innocent people who were apparently murdered for the "good" of Job, who himself was just the victim of a game between your good and one of his friends. Religious people are narcissists. They see only themselves - only Job - only Job's sacrifices. Non-religious people see his wife and his first ten children as well. The story isn't a pleasant one from their perspectives. What did they do to deserve such horrible lives?


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 11:35 a.m.

You are not making sense now. If the reason was good, why would he be a shmuck? That makes no sense.

Macabre Sunset

Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 4:43 a.m.

And if there's a "good" reason to allow such suffering, then the only logical conclusion is that your god is a schmuck, and thus unworthy of worship. Either not that powerful, not that knowing, or not that worthy. Let's say you were living in Libya, under Ghaddafi, and he had your wife killed because he wanted to demonstrate he was serious about some law preventing women from expressing themselves. Now, Ghaddafi certainly has power and certainly has eyes everywhere. But would you obey the rules out of fear, or out of love? If he asked for reverence, would you give it to him without batting an eye? In your paradigm, your god is more powerful than Ghaddafi in Libya - in fact he could have Ghaddafi killed in an instant, as Ghaddafi is actually an instrument of your god. In other words, your god is a complete schmuck. And if I did have faith, I'd probably look him in the proverbial eye and tell him to go do something that's anatomically impossible (well, not for him, no doubt).


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 1:59 a.m.

Hi Macabre, This is the old argument advanced by David Hume in the 18th century. It is not used by atheist philosophers anymore. In fact, there has been no major scholarly work advancing this argument since the 1980s. Why? Because it has a major flaw. The argument Hume laid out was just as you have: The presence of evil shows that either God is not all powerful or he is not good. But a good and all powerful God would stop evil. But this logical argument can be refuted with a single sentence. "Unless a good and all powerful God has a good reason for allowing evil." Hume's argument falls apart. Now, we can argue whether or not it is possible that there is a good reason to allow evil. But that is an entirely different discussion.

Macabre Sunset

Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 8:16 p.m.

Or it could be just a mean mother blanker. But I agree. I understand that those who prophet from the god trade are going to indulge in theobabble, as you put it. It would be nice if this blog kept the babble on the back pages and devoted just a tiny amount to the scientific world. Considering we have one of the top 20 universities in the world in our immediate vicinity, it doesn't seem like much to ask.


Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 7:57 p.m.

..or is an underachiever, as Woody Allen once suggested. In any case geology...not the more relevant topic to address on this issue. Im frankly fed up ( and frightened since it seems a sign of the 'stupidification' of the species,!!) with all the 'theobabble' on topics much more readily understood by secular science/analysis of some sort or other.


Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 3:48 p.m.

(sorry, that last comment got cut off). Should read "whatever it takes."


Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 3:47 p.m.

I was raised in the evangelical tradition and got my first theology degree at an evangelical school; became Catholic in my 30s and am just completing my Master's thesis at Sacred Heart in Detroit. C.S. Lewis in his book "The Problem with Pain" noted that God talks to us in our daily lives -- but he shouts to us in our pain. Not because he sends the painful experiences to "get" us -- he does not. Sometimes the pain finds us because we get caught in the crossfire of the universe, which runs by certain laws that God set in motion (earthquakes and tsunamis). Sometimes the pain comes through the free, willful acts of other people. I've noticed that people who seldom think of God at any other time, suddenly shoulder him with responsibility for the natural disasters. That hardly seems fair -- but then, these disasters do get people thinking about the eternal questions, and that in itself is a gift. (I have one relative who frequently mocked me for my beliefs until he got some unfortunate test results ... All of a sudden he wanted to hear what I had to say on the subject. (As might be expected, he's since returned to his former self ... and though it was nice while it lasted it's not something I would wish for him to experience again, not like that.) In the book of Romans, St. Paul taught that all of creation is "groaning" (like a woman in childbirth), waiting in anticipation for the end, when the Kingdom of God comes and we see everything returned to its original glory. When I hear of stories like what's happening in Japan, I am reminded of that labor of creation, and realize that we are that much closer to the glory. in the meantime, we must pray for God's mercy on both a macro level (toward nations) and a micro level (toward individuals). I think most of us underestimate the depths of God's mercy. Certainly that is true when anger and fear predominate in our conscious thinking. Nevertheless, God waits patiently for us to turn to him -- whatever

Macabre Sunset

Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 7:36 p.m.

I understand the temptation to turn to bibles and gospels for explanations, but it is a lot like using the manual for a washing machine to explain the weather. Of course, I'm talking about the Book of Maytag here. I wouldn't waste my time with the Book of Kenmore.