God, Cosmos, Katrina and Rita

Newswise — The desire to assign cosmic significance to the arrival of hurricanes Katrina and Rita is an example of humankind's ages-old need to find reason within chaos, according to University at Buffalo anthropologist Phillips Stevens Jr., Ph.D., a renowned expert on the origins, nature and meaning of cults, superstitions and cultural identities.

"Disasters are almost always ascribed to supernatural causes by many people," Stevens explains. "People need an explanation, they need a cause, and they need an answer to the question 'Why?', even though there may not be answers."

Stevens is not surprised by Internet postings that say Katrina and Rita are "punishments from God," nor does it surprise him that people want to extract meaning from the fact that the same letters used to spell "Rita" are contained in the word "Katrina."

"People are looking for this kind of thing all the time," he says. "The idea that we are pawns in a cosmic plan, this is a widespread mode of thinking."

Many people sought the same sort of cosmic meaning behind the numbers 9 and 11 after the World Trade Centers were attacked and when the Madrid train bombings occurred 911 days after 9/11, Stevens points out. And some people claimed God's retribution was behind the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and behind earthquakes in California and Japan.

Such theories actually are comforting to people, according to Stevens.

"It's a reaction to our discomfort with lack of understanding, with a lack of explanation," he says. "Any explanation, even a supernatural explanation, can be not only comforting but also stabilizing for people."

Creation of conspiracy theories -- such as those that blamed U.S. nuclear testing for the Indian Ocean tsunami -- are another example of the human need to find answers for the unanswerable, Stevens says. These theories, too, serve an anthropological purpose.

"We love conspiracy theories; they are almost always spun by one group about another, or about some network of cosmic forces," he says. "Somehow the suspicion of others is rooted in our evolutionary biology and it may have a positive function because suspicion of others keeps a group together."

Storms, disasters and epidemic diseases also have been linked to Christian millennial expectations, Stevens notes.

"Prior to the year 2000 there was a lot of this kind of thinking,"he says. "There are some Christians today who expect the apocalypse at any time, and I will not be surprised to hear global warming and increased hurricane frequency and intensity identified as signs of the coming end."

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