Whatever Will Be, Will Be?

The following is not a word-for-word recounting of the story I heard in my college-level class on natural hazards, but it’s pretty close.

When people in Illinois are expecting a tornado, they do the sensible thing and seek cover. When people in Alabama are expecting a tornado, they sit outside and drink iced tea. People in the American South, you see, are know-nothing fundamentalists. They don’t buy into all that science-is-our-savior jazz. God decides who will live and who will die, not the National Weather Service.

I was offended. Some of my best friends drank iced tea. If they ever got close to a twister, I could count on them to say it sounded like a freight train. I could also count on them to duck and cover.

Hard to see through the tress. This twister was part of the deadly April 25–28, 2011, outbreak [credit: NWS/Wikimedia]

Hard to see through the trees. This twister was part of the deadly outbreak across the Southeastern U.S., April 25-28, 2011 [credit: NWS/Wikimedia]

The tornado story can be traced back to a paper published in 1972 by John Sims and Duane Baumann.[1] They were trying to explain why tornadoes in the South were so deadly, compared to other parts of the country. As far as they could tell, it had nothing to do with external factors such as population density or the severity of tornado outbreaks. They began to look for cultural differences. Surveys revealed that people in the South were prone to saying things like this: “As far as my own life is concerned, God controls it.” Sims and Baumann detected a commitment to fatalism: the belief that God is actively determining every aspect of their lives. If a tornado was going to hit their house, then there was nothing they could do about it.

Midwesterners, they concluded, saw God as a kindly but distant father figure. Whether they survived a twister was up to them. God couldn’t be expected to intervene.

Forty years later, the Sims and Baumann paper is still widely cited, but is it true? Is a Bible-toting Southerner his own worst enemy?

After conducting a thorough analysis of tornado data, Walker Ashley identified a number of external risk factors peculiar to the American South, including the nature of the tornado season and the abundance of manufactured homes.[2] The bottom line is that people in the South are more likely than their Midwestern counterparts to be caught unawares in vulnerable structures, and so are more likely to die when a tornado hits.

It turns out that Sims and Baumann were wrong about the external factors. They were also wrong about the cultural differences. According to research conducted by Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett, people in the South are no more fatalistic than people in the Midwest.[3]

And yet the Sims-Baumann legend lives on because it confirms our prejudices. It plants the image in our heads of Joe Bob leaving everything up to Jesus while the Big One bears down on his doublewide trailer. But this is not just a story about stereotypes. It’s also a story about worldviews.

Fatalism – the idea that whatever happens, must happen – is not a Christian belief. Sure, you can find people in the church who think this way, but that doesn’t make it right. Fatalism is fundamentally incompatible with a Christian worldview because it denies both the freedom to choose and the notion of personal responsibility.

Sims and Baumann’s Midwestern alternative – a benevolent God who leaves us to our own devices – is no less problematic. This is the absentee landlord of deism. This is the God who wants our respect, but not our prayers.

So, if the urban legend is true, all Christians in tornado-prone areas are either deists or fatalists, depending on whether they live north or south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Surely that can’t be right. We expect a few people to get basic theology wrong, but how could so many people miss the core commitments of their own religion?

Or maybe it’s not them. Maybe the fault lies with the people who are asking the questions. Academics have a hard time getting the questions about Christianity right because they have a hard time getting the content of Christianity right. As a group, college professors are notoriously secular, and most can’t abide the sort of religious conservatism that prevails in the Bible Belt.[4]

Think back to that reply: “God is in control.” What, exactly, does that mean? Is it a concession to fatalism? Who knows? We would have to ask some follow-up questions. I suspect this is what we would find: Christians can believe that worry is useless, especially when the situation is beyond their control (Luke 12:29). They can believe that God is fully in charge of His own creation (Hebrews 1:3). They can believe all of that, and still duck into a tornado shelter, or buckle their seatbelt, or look both ways before they cross the street. Southerners probably get that. Sims and Baumann apparently never did.

And this is coming from someone who doesn’t even like boiled okra.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think magazine, March 2013, p. 24.]

 


[1] John Sims and Duane Baumann, “The Tornado Threat: Coping Styles of the North and South,” Science, 1972, 176:1386-1392.

[2] Walker Ashley, “Spatial and temporal analysis of tornado fatalities in the United States: 1880–2005,” Weather and Forecasting, 2007, 22:1214-1228.

[3] Dov Cohen, and Richard Nisbett, “Are there differences in fatalism between rural Southerners and Midwesterners? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1998, 28: 2181–2195.

[4] E.g, Gary Tobin and Aryeh Weinberg, Religious Beliefs & Behavior of College Faculty. San Francisco: IJCR, 2007.

© 2014 – 2016, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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