Do ‘Acts of God’ create more believers?

It’s an aphorism interestingly attributed by some to a US army military chaplain in his sermon before US troops in World War II’s Battle of Bataan: “There are no atheists in foxholes”.

With even hard-nosed, veteran journalists who were caught in the midst of “Yolanda” moved to declare their newfound faith in Jesus Christ, one could certainly update that saying to: “There are no atheists in super-typhoons.”

I’ve been confused though what that aphorism really wants to say.

Does it mean, as that chaplain wanted it to mean, that when death looks at us in the face, the Divine reveals Himself? Or that after all their intellectual argumentation, even non-believers turn to God in a deep personal crisis?

Sigh of the hopeless
However, it could also be interpreted in an entirely different way, especially with scientific studies just in the past ten years of religion and religious belief: That religion, to paraphrase Marx famous quote, is merely the sigh of the hopeless? That one believes in a God in order to comfort oneself, to keep up a glimmer of hope in the face of death? That faith is a cure for fear?

The first super typhoon?: The biblical deluge (painting by Ivan Alvazovsky, 1864)

The first super typhoon?: The biblical deluge (painting by Ivan Alvazovsky, 1864)

Evolutionary psychologists indeed have pointed out that such belief was essential to the survival of the human species. Without some hope created by a belief in a higher power, our cave-man ancestor wounded and trapped by a saber-toothed tiger would have given up. Instead he probably conjured up an image of a Sun God or whatever helping him—which squeezed another ounce of adrenalin for him to plunge his spear in the tiger’s heart. Religion is our great crutch in the face of an unfeeling cosmos with its random natural disasters.

The father of psychology, Sigmund Freud in what is the first scientific treatise on religion, The Future of an Illusion in its first pages immediately refers to the awesome and destructive power of nature as a major factor for the emergence of religion:

“No one is under the illusion that nature has already been vanquished. ..There are elements, which seem to mock at all human control . . . water, which deluges and drowns everything in a turmoil; storms, which blow everything before them . . . With these forces nature rises up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable; she brings to our mind once more our weakness and helplessness.”

That is, the awesome forces of nature (1) etched deep in man’s psyche the fact that there he is so small and powerless in this cosmos; and (2) that there is a higher power, literally even as the thunder and lightning came from the skies. These two notions created the belief in a powerful God, who could save puny mankind. Indeed, the most powerful god in the ancient Greek pantheon Zeus (from whence came the Latin Deus, the Spanish Dios, and Filipino Diyos) was the god of thunder and lightning.

Tribal superstitions
Intriguingly, in the Old Testament, it is Yahweh who creates natural disasters: the Deluge from which only the believers led by Noah are saved, the seven plagues that brought the Egyptian Pharaoh to his knees, and the fire and brimstone (obviously now, some kind of earthquake) that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

Following the Old Testament’s tribal superstitions, there are those who claim that Yolanda’s destruction would have been avoided if Filipinos prayed more. For instance, a preposterous article in this paper (“A miracle in Bicol region, Nov .11) reported that because residents of Albay prayed hard and that local radio stations broadcast the prayer “Oratio Imperata”, the province was spared from the kind of catastrophe that hit Leyte. A religious assembly the other day subliminally blamed Filipinos’ lack of faith as the cause of Yolanda’s devastation by calling the event “Return to God”.

But whether faith saves one from bullets or typhoons, is that adage accurate, do disasters, both man-made and natural, make people believe more intensely in the Divine, do non-believers become believers? Do “Acts of God” make people believe in God?

Surprisingly, based on actual studies, disasters cut both ways.

Questions after 9/11
In a study by researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, a tenth did say that their belief in God was strengthened after the horror of the 9/11 jihadist attack. However, roughly the same proportion of the American respondents reported that after the carnage, they were disillusioned, and questioned their faith.

Why this surprising finding? One reason is the randomness of who got killed in the attack, accounts of which were extensively reported in media, as in the case of somebody who had worked in the building for ten years but didn’t go there on that fateful day because of a head cold. Another is the attack’s shocking cruelty—heroic firemen buried when the towers fell, eight children onboard the hi-jacked planes.

How could people—Osama Bin Laden and his jihadists—who believed with the same intensity as many of those killed in the Towers murder thousands of innocent people? Maybe something’s deeply wrong in beliefs in God, one explanation went.

Another explanation is that the actual real experience of horror makes so real, and convincing, the biggest argument against the existence of God: The problem of evil. It is still the question posed by the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, that is the best articulation of the argument:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then, he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? The why is there? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Some have even commented that 9/11 has been mainly responsible for the decline in religiosity in the US, from 70 percent in 2005 to 60 percent in 2012. Whether it merely represented such decline or helped cause it, there has also been the unprecedented popularity of best-sellers by respected scholars and writers—Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett—arguing against the existence of God.

But whether there is a god or not, does belief in a Divine make people traumatized by a disaster psychologically cope better in what is called in psychology as the “Comfort Model of Religion”? Is religion, again to rephrase Marx, a good opium of the people?

Again a surprising empirical finding: Not really, at least according to rigorous study by two researchers* on the population of Christchurch, New Zealand after the 2011 earthquake that killed 188 there. Roughly similar to the New York finding, the study found that 9 percent of the respondents became more religious or even converted to religion after the earthquake while 5 percent lost their faith.

But were the believers better off psychologically than the non-believers? No, the study found. Believers reported no better subjective well-being compared to the atheists and agnostics—either before or after the earthquake.

*(Sibley, C., and Bulbulia, J. (2012). Faith after an Earthquake: A Longitudinal Study of Religion and Perceived Health before and after the 2011 Christchurch New Zealand Earthquake.)