By Trevor Major
The following is not a word-for-word recounting of a story I once heard in my college-level class on natural hazards, but it is very 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.
The tornado story can be traced back to a paper published in 1972 by John Sims and Duane Baumann.i They were trying to explain why tornados 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 were going to hit their house, then Southerners thought 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 completely up to them. God was not going 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.ii The bottom line is that people in the South are more likely to be caught unawares in vulnerable structures.
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.iii
And yet the urban legend lives on because it fits our narratives. 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 is also a story about worldviews.
Fatalism––the idea that whatever happens, must happen––is not a Christian belief. Sure, you can find Christians who think this way, but that does not make it right. Fatalism is fundamentally incompatible with a Christian worldview, because it denies personal freedom and 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 love, but not our prayers.
If they are right, all Christians are either deists or fatalists, depending on where they live in relation to the Mason-Dixon Line. As Cohen and Nisbett have shown, this is simply not right. We expect a few people here and there to get the basics wrong, but how could so many believers miss the core commitments of their own religion?
Maybe it is not the followers of the religion who are to blame, but the people who frame the questions and interpret the results. Academics often have a hard time getting the questions right because they have a hard time getting the religion right. As a group, college professors are notoriously secular, and most cannot abide the sort of religious conservatism that prevails in the Bible Belt.iv
Even the answer “God is in control” is open to interpretation. Is this a concession to fatalism? Who knows? We would have to ask a few more questions. I suspect this much though: 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 control of His own creation (Hebrews 1:3). They can believe all of that, without contradiction, and still duck into a tornado shelter when the siren goes off, or buckle their seatbelts, 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.
Whatever Will Be, Will Be?
By Trevor Major