AP/NORC poll: Most religious Americans see a message from God in the coronavirus pandemic

July 26, 2020 • 9:00 am

In one way things haven’t changed since the Middle Ages: the onset of a pandemic leads people to search for a greater meaning, usually involving the wrath of a god. So, for instance, the Black Death was blamed on a lack of piety (penitentes arose), the perfidy of the Jews, and so on.

Now, in America, many of us are still seeing God’s will in what’s happening. A poll by the Associated Press and the respected polling operation NORC, along with the University of Chicago Divinity School (!), shows that roughly two-thirds of Americans who believe in God think that the deity is sending us a message through the pandemic.

Click on the screenshot to read the report:

An excerpt:

The poll found that 31% of Americans who believe in God feel strongly that the virus is a sign of God telling humanity to change, with the same number feeling that somewhat. Evangelical Protestants are more likely than others to believe that strongly, at 43%, compared with 28% of Catholics and mainline Protestants.

The sad tale is told in the first graph below. Note that this is not a cross section of Americans, but of believers. Yet even 42% of the “unaffiliated” (i.e., the “nones”) think that the pandemic somehow conveys a message from God. Of course born-again Protestants think that in  spades (70% of them), but even 65% of Catholics adhere to that delusion.

Note too that the message is “humanity needs to change how we are living.”  It’s not clear exactly what we’re doing wrong this time, or what we were doing wrong in 1918, but surely this is a nasty God. After all, did he have to kill 644,000 people (today’s total death toll worldwide) to convey that message? Why did he kill the children, too? And are the U.S. and Brazil particularly in need of that message? And why, in the fourteenth century, did God kill off 60% of all Europeans? After all, they were far more pious than Americans today, but yet they got an even sterner message.

The second row in the figure below shows that 73% of born-agains, compared with 52% of Catholics and only 32% of nones, think that God will protect them from being infected.

All this testifies to the power of delusion, since there’s not an iota of evidence that God engineered this pandemic. Those who assert such a thing must answer these questions: How do you know this? What are we doing wrong to anger God? And do the national disparities in death tolls comport with the message that God’s supposed to be sending?


There’s a racial breakdown too, though it’s not graphed:

The question was asked of all Americans who said they believe in God, without specifying a specific faith. The survey did not have a sample size large enough to report on the opinions of religious faiths with smaller numbers of U.S. adherents, including Muslims and Jews.

In addition, black Americans were more likely than those of other racial backgrounds to say they feel the virus is a sign God wants humanity to change, regardless of education, income or gender. Forty-seven percent say they feel that strongly, compared with 37% of Latino and 27% of white Americans.

An explanation from the Sophisticated Theologians®:

David Emmanuel Goatley, a professor at Duke University’s divinity school who was not involved with the survey, said religious black Americans’ view of godly protection could convey “confidence or hope that God is able to provide — that does not relinquish personal responsibility, but it says God is able.”

Goatley, who directs the school’s Office of Black Church Studies, noted a potential distinction between how religious black Americans and religious white Americans might see their protective relationship with God.

Within black Christian theology is a sense of connection to the divine in which “God is personally engaged and God is present,” he said. That belief, he added, is “different from a number of white Christians, evangelical and not, who would have a theology that’s more a private relationship with God.”

Now talk about a real delusion, have a look at the figure below. (This appears to be a sample of all Americans, not just those who believe in God, though it’s not clear.)

As the report notes, “Overall, 82% of Americans say they believe in God, and 26% of Americans say their sense of faith or spirituality has grown stronger as a result of the outbreak. Just 1% say it has weakened.”

Think about that: a naturalistic pandemic that kills people willy-nilly, still increases people’s faith in God!

What, pray tell, would decrease their faith in God? When there’s no pandemic faith remains steady, when there is a pandemic faith grows stronger, so should we expect that when the pandemic wanes, or we get a vaccine, faith in God will decrease? No, of course not: believers will just say that God is satisfied that people will change their lives. Still, it’s up to believers who think God’s sending a message to be explicit about what that message is. After all, if you know God is sending us a message, you must also know its content.

46 thoughts on “AP/NORC poll: Most religious Americans see a message from God in the coronavirus pandemic

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  1. “Oy vey” indeed! It’s incredible that people still believe that kind of nonsense in the 21st century.

  2. Perhaps the message God is sending to us via the pandemic is “for My sake, don’t re-elect Donald Trump.”

    1. Or perhaps it is: “you, humans, are too prosperous, you need a little challenge”. After all the Babel episode suggests that God fears Humanity and whish that it stays dumber than him.

      The only thing granted is that, if God existed and sent a message in the form of a pandemic, it is not a very intelligent God.

      1. Or, a very intelligible message. After all, to paraphrase Hitchens, even if you establish that god really is sending a message via this pandemic, you still have all your work ahead of you.

        Or, to be blunt, “OK, what is this message?” We should become christians? We should become muslims? We should stop believing in arbitrary, irrational, cruel gods? We should masturbate in front of traffic cameras? We should be more woke? Less woke? We should calculate the first hundred digits of pi manually, working from one of the infinite series that converges to pi? We should subscribe to the journal Cerebral Cortex? We should have raspberry jam on our peanut butter sandwiches, instead of strawberry? We should watch the even-numbered innings of National League baseball games on TV, but the odd-numbered innings of American League games? We should all learn to juggle? Paint our toenails silver? Memorize the third chapter of Moby Dick? Meditate on the fact that “Britney Spears” is an anagram of “presbyterians”?

        Here’s a line from a story that I just finished reading a few minutes ago, John Kessel’s Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance: “There are no gods! Just voices in your head. They tell you to do what you already want to do.”

    2. I seem to recall something like, as happened in US in 2016, the religion nutcases, evangelical in particular, were a major factor in the election of Bolsonaro, (Minor? Mass Murderer president) in Brazil.

      These two countries are competing for who ends up with the worst deaths to population ratios in the world.

      So I suppose the gods of the literal biblical believers must be testing their faith by murdering their young (and old). Their bible does contain stories like that IIRC.

      Perhaps their gods are somewhat like a delusional version of murderous raping kidnappers who often gain a large dose of sympathy from their victims.

  3. Chrissake, read your own goddam Book, dumb asses: He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

  4. Message from God:

    “In my Father’s house are many rooms. Some are even en suite. So wash your hands with soap and water.”

  5. I’m sure a lot of this opinion is sincerely held belief. But, I wonder how much of it is just a reflex? People hear this stuff all their lives – this is a sign – God will protect me – my faith is stronger… People don’t know what else to say. They go straight for the cliche without more than a fuzzy pass at actual thinking.

  6. The results of these surveys are not particularly surprising. This is because humans, at least part of the time, do not reach judgments based on rational deliberation. In times of crisis, they look for reassurance, regardless if it comes from nonsense. The questions raised in this post can also be asked regarding Jews and the holocaust. Why did so many Jews (the vast majority I would think) retain their faith after one of the most horrific events in human history? In 2016, a Jew asked a rabbi this question: “If God was unwilling or unable to intervene during the Holocaust, why would we imagine that He cares for us individually, as we say He does, over the High Holy Days?” The rabbi’s response was: “Life is a mystery. It contains blessing and tragedy, joy and pain, light and darkness. Just because we are unable to sense God’s manifestation in the darkness should not lead us to dismiss His presence in times of illumination.” So, the rabbi had to fall back on the last defense of the religious: God is a mystery; he knows what he is doing; we should not worry that we have no idea what it is. No matter what the crisis, this “explanation” provides succor to the faithful.


    1. Reminds me of the embroidery comparison: in this life we only see the loose back ends, but in the hereafter we can see God’s brilliance by seeing the pattern. I always found it an imbecilic comparison.

    2. On the other hand, wasn’t it Primo Levi who pointed out that Jews who still believed in god after the Holocaust simply weren’t paying attention?

      1. As a result of my Jewish doctor telling me that a friend of his said that Primo Levi’s books should be among the most important ten books anyone read, I read “If This Is a Man” about his time in Auschwitz and “The Truce” about his long journey back to Italy from Auschwitz when he was released. If anyone can believe in god after what Primo Levi and so many others went through, I don’t know how it is possible.

        From Wiki: “Shortly before the camp was liberated by the Red Army, he fell ill with scarlet fever and was placed in the camp’s sanatorium (camp hospital). On 18 January 1945, the SS hurriedly evacuated the camp as the Red Army approached, forcing all but the gravely ill on a long death march to a site further from the front, which resulted in the deaths of the vast majority of the remaining prisoners on the march. Levi’s illness spared him this fate.” He died in 1987 from a fall down three flights of stairs in his home, which was officially ruled a suicide.

  7. Isn’t it obvious why God is punishing the US and Brazil in particular? These morons voted for Mr Trump and Mr Bolsonaro! I would not be pleased if I were God.
    However, I would have struck my bolts a bit more precisely. It appears that as far as collateral damage goes, God’s technology hasn’t improved much since Sodom or the Plagues of Egypt.

    1. The number three and four countries are India (Modi) and Russia (Putin) – a pattern??? But Xi also fits the brutal dictator model, so perhaps god only punishes ineffectual and would be dictators.

  8. In the picture they show of it, the virus looks for all the world like a naval mine with little red knitted pom-poms over its contact spikes. Maybe God is a malicious grandma.

  9. If we could learn what change is wanted from god, I predict that the answers would be rather predictable. Since this fits perfectly into declaring ones’ own desires, what people would claim is that god wants [insert something that the particular person wants].
    So a religious person would say that god wants us to be more pious and to get back closer to god and Jesus and so on. Some would say of course that god wants us to stop gay marriage or stop abortion on demand. Sex before marriage had better stop too.
    The unaffiliateds would likely say that god wants something humanistic from us.

    1. The most probable message from God is,

      “Hey!—git yer asses outa fruit bat habitat—I **mean** it!!”

    2. What are the odds that god would speak to Americans and tell them to turn their guns into ploughshares?

  10. I would think an omnipotent god could send a clearer message without harming innocent bystanders, say write a message in the sky.

  11. “Overall, 82% of Americans say they believe in God, and 26% of Americans say their sense of faith or spirituality has grown stronger as a result of the outbreak.”

    It’s significant, I think, that the question of faith in God growing stronger doesn’t include what qualities of God one has faith in. For example, the Black Death increased the faithful’s belief in God’s power but shattered their belief in His benignity. One could argue that it was this lack of faith in God’s benignity that eventually led to the Scientific Revolution—if God isn’t going to take care of us, we have to find ways to take care of ourselves.

    Since then we’ve come full circle: at the outset of the twentieth century, science represented an unmitigated boon for humankind. Later developments (e.g., the invention and deployment of the atomic bomb in 1945) increased our faith in science’s power, but significantly lowered our faith in its benignity.

    In both of these cases, there’s a fine line between faith and fear.

  12. Another clear example of how religion keeps people in a state of mental immaturity. We’re surrounded by millions of adult children.

  13. How can people believe than the guy that healed lepers an blind people in the Bible is now going to kill millions just to send a message? Religion really is a kind of mental illness.

  14. David Emmanuel Goatley:

    ‘Within black Christian theology is a sense of connection to the divine in which “God is personally engaged and God is present” . . . “different from a number of white Christians, evangelical and not, who would have a theology that’s more a private relationship with God.”

    I guess I’m dense today. Is being “personally engaged and God is present” not reasonably synonymous with [being engaged in] “a private relationship with God”?

    I can understand there’s a difference if “engaged” in the former perhaps means communal sonic exultation and ululation with waving raised hands (accentuated with jazzy, bluesy church organ riffs).

  15. According to the fantasy fiction that is this deity’s “inspired” word, it has been sending these messages for about five thousand years. If the religious were going to listen and modify their behaviour they would have done it long since assuming that, as posted above, they could figure it out.

    BTW was the 1918 flu pandemic a sign from this deity? If so it was ignored as usual. No wonder it is getting more pissed off. It used to bestraf just the jews but now we’re all in the crosshairs. Bad scene!

  16. Regarding that 25% of Americans who say the pandemic has made their faith stronger, well, the indiscriminate killing of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of innocent people definitely is one of God’s favorite pastimes.

  17. In Brazil, there has also been a plague of locusts! My wife was getting messages from university-educated friends explaining to her that the End Times were defo coming – while a secular friend posted a picture of lightning striking a pyramid, with the caption “Great – now we have zombies to worry about too”

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