The Paradox at the heart of the problem of natural evil.

Should personal experience of natural evil such as a catastrophic earthquake turn folk away from belief in an all-powerful benevolent God? This fascinating study indicates exactly the opposite:


On 22 February 2011, Christchurch New Zealand (population 367,700) experienced a devastating earthquake, causing extensive damage and killing one hundred and eighty-five people. The earthquake and aftershocks occurred between the 2009 and 2011 waves of a longitudinal probability sample conducted in New Zealand, enabling us to examine how a natural disaster of this magnitude affected deeply held commitments and global ratings of personal health, depending on earthquake exposure. We first investigated whether the earthquake-affected were more likely to believe in God. Consistent with the Religious Comfort Hypothesis, religious faith increased among the earthquake-affected, despite an overall decline in religious faith elsewhere. This result offers the first population-level demonstration that secular people turn to religion at times of natural crisis. We then examined whether religious affiliation was associated with differences in subjective ratings of personal health. We found no evidence for superior buffering from having religious faith. Among those affected by the earthquake, however, a loss of faith was associated with significant subjective health declines. Those who lost faith elsewhere in the country did not experience similar health declines. Our findings suggest that religious conversion after a natural disaster is unlikely to improve subjective well-being, yet upholding faith might be an important step on the road to recovery.

The entire report is worth reading; however, if you would prefer a more concise synopsis then I recommend reading Connor Wood over on Patheos (Science on Religion) entitled simply: Does suffering drive us to religion? Yep.

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One Response to “The Paradox at the heart of the problem of natural evil.”

  1. Peter D Says:

    A few months ago I posted a comment on Heresy Corner that contained a usual theme of mine (so usual these days that I bore myself writing it, so I’m sure it must be a similar endurance to read!): namely how the majority of liberal, secular democracies score far better than religiously conservative societies on ‘social wholesomeness’ indicators such as teen pregnancy, divorce, violent crime etc. The comment received a reply from someone calling him/herself ‘Woolly Minded Liberal’ noting that one of the greatest threats to religious belief and faith isn’t secularism or atheism or the like, but state provided health care, societal security etc. Societies where these are lacking and/or there is greater existential uncertainty are the societies where we find far more religious belief. Hence in part at least, the lack religion in many liberal democracies could be related to the role of the state and its social welfare and legal authority thro’ which rights and standards are maintained which have substantially reduced individual’s existential anxiety.

    Well I think there is some truth in this. In many Western societies we live fairly secure lives where our health care and physical and basic financial security are met or a minimum standard is guaranteed an unwritten contract with the state. We pay our taxes and the state looks after us – and I think many are unaware (not to mention ungrateful) of just how broad and multi-facetted is the ‘care’ we receive via the state. Obviously health and social care are prime examples, but I think few people realise that if Alistair Darling hadn’t stepped in to save the banks in 2008 it is likely many of us would have lost our savings and the financial fabric of society would have collapsed. (Of course in reality taxes don’t meet the cost of our services and infrastructure. National Debt now stands at around £18,000 per capita (excluding bank bailout) yet we see the various securities and standard of services we receive as a right – the fact we’re just piling up debt for children yet unborn so we can have a standard of public services we can’t afford rarely if ever crosses the mind of your average parishioner!)

    It only takes a stroll through a Victorian graveyard or a visit to an industrial folk museum or the like to see that life even a hundred years ago was far more precarious and difficult than it is now. A simple scratch could lead to a painful death from blood poisoning, huge numbers of women died in child birth and celebrating your 80th birthday was a rare exception. Access to healthcare, education, equality before the law, suffrage etc. was almost always based on class and/or income.

    Yet at the same time, religious belief was far more prevalent. Could it be that existential uncertainty means greater religious belief? – I think so. Which is ironic as you’d think that the more precarious life becomes, the greater distrust people would have in a loving God who orders all things for our well-being. But this doesn’t seem to be the case at all.

    I think part, at least, of the reason for this anomaly is linked to the management of stress. What causes us the most stress in life is the feeling of not being in control; hence we feel the greatest stress in our lives when our life suffers insults that are beyond our control: mortal illness, natural disasters, untimely bereavements etc. Thus a belief and perceived communion with an omnipotent God can be a way of gaining control and of rationalising the irrationality of personal and social disasters and life’s mishaps and tragedies.

    As with any social scientific theorising about religion, I don’t think there are universal rules concerning this or that manifestation of religion. The US for instance is an advanced Western society which is heavily reliant on bureaucratic and legalistic authority, yet it has very high levels of religious belief and practice (and high levels of the social problems noted above – not least in the Bible Belt states) – tho’ a weak and punitive welfare system and a financially accessed health care system. Hence it is obvious there is more to this conundrum than a simplistic theory that the greater the degree of ‘protection’ provided by a society results in lower levels of religious belief and practice and vice versa. Yet it does appear that there is a greater likelihood of this being the case.

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