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Natural disasters make people more religious

Philosophers once predicted that religion would die out as societies modernize. This has not happened. Today, more than four out of every five people on Earth believe in God. Religion seems to be serving a purpose that modernization does not replace.

New research finds that people become more religious when hit by natural disasters. They are more likely to rank themselves as a religious person, find comfort in God, and to state that God is important in their lives. This increase in average religiosity occurs on all continents, for people belonging to all major religions, income groups, and from all educational backgrounds.

Religiosity has increased nine times more in districts across the globe hit by earthquakes compared to those that were spared over the period 1991-2009. This is mainly because believers become more religious. It’s not that non-believers tend to take up religion in the aftermath of a natural disaster. They also generally do not go to church much more often. Rather, their existing personal beliefs intensify. Believers pass on some of this increased religious intensity through generations: Children of immigrants are more religious when their parents came from earthquake-prone areas.

Comparing religiosity across the globe is difficult. It’s difficult to compare the religiosity of a Muslim from Indonesia with the religiosity of an American Protestant. Instead, new research compares religiosity of the American Protestant only to other American Protestants and the Muslim Indonesian to other Muslim Indonesians. The main measures of religiosity used are based on surveys of more than 200,000 people across the globe. Sociologists have identified six particular questions that together span global religiosity: “How important is God in your life?”, “Are you a religious person?”, “How often do you attend religious services?”, “Do you find comfort in God?”, “Do you believe in God?”, and “Do you believe in life after death?”

The link between disasters and religiosity is also there for alternative measures of religiosity. In particular, google searches on religious terms, such as “God” or “Pray” increase with higher disaster risk. These measures may not be exact, which is not a problem for the methodology used. The methodology does not depend on exact measures of religiosity, but rather on a correct ranking of religiosity between societies.

The explanation for why religiosity increases in the face of disasters could be that people go to church for material aid, that people move in the face of disasters, or that disasters also affect development or other cultural values. However, it turns out that one main reason for the impact of disasters on religiosity is religious coping. The theory of religious coping states that people use religion as a means to cope with adversity and uncertainty. Empirical evidence suggests that people hit by various adverse life events, such as cancer, heart problems, death in close family, alcoholism, divorce, or injury are more religious than others.

Disasters provide a shock to adversity and uncertainty. Research shows that adversity and uncertainty can make people across the globe more religious. People do not necessarily think that God made the earth shake, but they might use their religion to deal with the situation. It is mainly Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews who use their religion to cope with the experiences after natural disasters. Buddhists seem to be less affected. There are not enough people from other religions or spiritual groups in the data to draw any conclusions for their particular experience with coping.

What types of disasters increase religious beliefs? According to the theory on religious coping, people mainly use religion to cope with large, negative, and unpredictable events. Using religion for coping is part of what is termed emotion-focused coping, in which people aim to reduce the emotional distress arising from a situation. When people face perceived negative, but predictable events, such as an approaching exam or a job interview, they are more likely to engage in problem-focused coping, where they aim to tackle directly the problem that is causing the stress. Likewise, religiosity increases more in response to unpredictable disasters, compared to predictable ones. Of the four main geophysical and meteorological disasters, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions elevate peoples’ beliefs, while tropical storms do not. Indeed, meteorologists have a much easier time predicting storms than seismologists have in predicting earthquakes. Further, earthquakes in areas that are otherwise rarely hit increase religiosity more than earthquakes in areas that are often hit. In addition, larger earthquakes increase religiosity more than smaller earthquakes.

Other disasters, such as wars and conflict, may potentially have similar effects on religiosity as natural disasters. After the September 11 attack, nine out of ten Americans reported that they coped with their distress by turning to their religion. Further, research finds that people that have been more exposed to conflict are more likely to participate in religious groups.

Featured image credit: Praying Hands by Couleur. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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