How do you measure the religiosity of a people? While the boundaries of the United States are somewhat porous, internally, we nevertheless still consist of somewhat self-governing states. One measure of religious belief is to take your metrics by state. Of course, some people—perhaps many—owe their state of residence to their work and not their natural choice. You’re judged by the company you keep, regardless. So when the New Jersey Star-Ledger ran a front page piece about religion in the Garden State last week, I was intrigued. I do spend quite a few of my waking hours in the neighboring New York, but for statistical purposes (and taxes and tuition) I’m considered a New Jerseyan. So what’s the damage?
The story is actually about a Pew survey undertaken last year. New Jersey, it seems, ranks 19th from the top when it comes to religious states. Ranging from Alabama as the most religious to New Hampshire as the least, the measures of devotion are four: do you attend worship, do you pray frequently, do you believe in God, and do you profess yourself religious? Each of these questions provides its own set of problems when it comes to being an actual measure of someone’s commitment to religion. I maintain, as I often declare on this blog, that religion is one of those non-quantifiable aspects of life. It cannot be measured accurately because the tangibles are immeasurable. Deep commitment may be found among those who don’t frequently attend worship. What if your religion is a very private affair? And besides, doesn’t all of this measuring sound like a locker room contest?
As a nation, we spend a lot of time worrying about how religious we are or aren’t. Since such events as presidential elections have hinged on candidates’ piety since I’ve been old enough to vote, that’s understandable, I suppose. Nevertheless, such surveys are about surface belief. I recall in college being told that if your living space didn’t have enough evidence to convict you, you weren’t really religious at all. I know I’ve got quite a few Bibles laying around, and although we rent, we do have some religious artwork on our walls and mantle. I blog about religion daily. Still, I wonder where I might fall on some survey designed to tell me how religious I am. Such things can’t be measured with surveys, but in situations where the stakes are so high, we will do what we can to understand the imponderable.
On May 31 in 1985, I was working at a church camp outside Uniontown, Pennsylvania when some severe storms rolled through the area. I had trouble sleeping through the thunder and lightning. I awoke the next morning to hear the news, in groggy disbelief, that tornadoes had invaded the county where my family lived. Frantic for their safety I tried to phone, but lines were down. It turned out all right—the nearest twister had been about five miles away from my home. This event was a shock because I grew up believing we never had tornadoes in Pennsylvania. I have always been terrified of them. I suppose that’s why I wrote my little book on weather in the Psalms. I just finished reading Mark Levine’s F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Century. I’m not sure why I’m compelled to read about what scares me so much, but I suspect it’s because tornadoes have a whiff of the divine about them. Indeed, Levine’s book makes several reference to religious imagery when describing the utter destruction of Limestone, Alabama during the Super Outbreak of April 1974. It gives me little comfort that the storms that raked Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ontario eleven years later were the second deadliest outbreak following that of the book’s exploration, up to that time. There’s so much left to chance, with tornadoes.
Despite the complete lack of any intentionality behind the raw forces of nature, the phrase “finger of God” has become a fixture in the tornadic lexicon. Perhaps it is because the human perception of divine intervention has always been sporadically applied. One person’s miracle is another’s nightmare. Obeying only the complex rules of meteorology, the weather has ways of its own that even computer models cannot yet fathom. We still stand helpless in the face of the tornado. I have often thought, without a whole lot of data to back me up, that weather has played a major role in the human understanding of the divine. Quite apart from the obvious celestial orientation, the weather is easily forgotten until it turns bad, and when it does there is nothing humanly possible to do about it.
In April of 2011 a super outbreak of 358 tornadoes swept through the eastern United States and Canada, killing 348 people. In terms of damage, it was one of the costliest natural disasters in US history. And the capriciousness of the tornado stands at the center of it all. F5 is a hard book to read. The story practically turns its own pages, but the loss in human terms in the cold face of a planet that doesn’t exist for us is sobering indeed. Many religious people in the south were asking how God could allow children to be killed and hundreds of people maimed both physically and mentally for the rest of their lives. They prayed for answers that never came. And this may be the cruelest aspect of the apparently random nature of the weather. It maintains the right to kill, and prayers seem to bounce back from that brazen sky that comes just before a tornado strikes, and especially afterwards. Skies are silent. When they are not, it is time to duck and cover.
Posted in Books, Memoirs, Natural Disasters, Posts, Science, Weather
Tagged Alabama, F5, Limestone, Mark Levine, Pennsylvania, Super Outbreak of 1974, tornado, Weather
Starting off a new administration on the right foot is the goal of many politicians. This was likely the case for Alabama’s new governor Robert Bentley. When he was sworn in on Monday he stated that anyone who was not a Christian was not his brother or sister. Likely the statesman was attempting to garner support among the predominantly Protestant population of this southern state. Instead he received a backlash from various groups complaining that his statement implied that some would be lesser citizens under his tenure. Yesterday he apologized for his remarks. The fact is, however, that the governor was not the origin of the sentiments expressed, but those of the “Bible believing” sects of the south were. This is the kind of language, Biblicalese, that they like to hear: either you’re with us or ag’in’ us.
Religions have much to gain (and lose) by maintaining high standards of separation. Exclusivity, I was told in a class on early Christianity, was what ensured the survival of this sect of Judaism. If anybody could join, then who would want to? Make it exclusive, and there’ll be a line out the door. So it is with political religion. The Bible is not a great unifier – it tends to divide people more than unite them. The real question is: should the way forward be defined by division or unity?
We have ample evidence of how division breeds religious contempt. Since I believe the correct religion, anyone who disagrees with me must be wrong. If they are wrong, my deity does not approve of them the way (generally) he approves of me. And so the story goes. And so the body count climbs. The Bible can be a great unifier, if those who wield it so decide. Venerating a book with multiple points of view, Bible readers may choose which aspect of their Scriptures they want to emphasize. And that little black-covered icon continues to pack a wallop in western culture, so the perspective you choose is backed with immense fire-power. Problem is, sometimes it backfires. The new governor of Alabama is learning this in his first week in office. It would be a lesson well learned by any who attempt to bludgeon others with the Good Book.