Volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis make people more religious according to a study reported by Adam Becket in today’s Church Times. Why? Is it because ‘religious coping provides a stable reason for why people believe in God’?
This explanation is religiously neutral: it tells us belief in God is psychologically helpful, regardless of whether it is true. This post suggests that believers can make stronger claims.
The study, by Jeanet Bentzen of the University of Copenhagen, was published in The Economic Journal. It finds that religiosity increases by 7.6 per cent in an area that had experienced a recent earthquake, when compared with an area that had not experienced one.
Figures are reported for earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis. Storms and hurricanes, on the other hand,
do not cause an increase in religiosity. Ms Bentzen accounts for this by saying that it is unpredictable disasters that have an impact, whereas weather systems can be predicted.
Bentzen concludes that this confirms
the idea by early scholars such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud that all religions provide a psychological coping mechanism.
Empiricism and atheism
It tells us something about Bentzen that she can call Marx and Freud ‘early scholars’. They were heavily influenced by earlier scholars. One idea they inherited was characteristic of 19th century anthropologists and sociologists: that uncritical empiricism was the only reason to believe anything. If you can’t see it or hear it, you have no reason to suppose it exists. It followed that belief in God was a puzzle needing to be explained. Why did our ancestors believe in gods they couldn’t see? Who invented religion?
Philosophers have long since abandoned uncritical empiricism. All our beliefs involve theories as well as seeing and hearing. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors believed, quite rightly, that the world must be maintained by forces more complex than they themselves could understand. The obvious assumption was that those forces were agents more intelligent than humans.
Atheism claims that those forces are neither agents nor intelligent, but automatic and unthinking ‘laws of nature’. Believing they are automatic and unthinking is just as much an act of faith as believing they know what they are doing; but these different acts of faith produce different consequences for the way we think of our lives.
As long as we thought the forces of nature were more intelligent than us, we had good reason to respect the natural environment. It was better for us than anything we could have created ourselves. We could not explain everything – why God gave us volcanoes and earthquakes remained a puzzle – but puzzles are only to be expected as we are not designed to understand everything.
Atheism turns this on its head. No form of life knows things better than humans do. No form of life evaluates good and bad better than humans do. If we don’t know the truth, the truth is not known. What is good is what we judge to be good.
Atheism, therefore, quite logically sees it as its task to take over responsibility for running the world. What exists is what humans experience. What is good is what humans like. We may as well change the world to suit ourselves. One result, not surprisingly, is the climate crisis we have now.
Here we have two different accounts of security. We all want some sense of security, some sense that the world order is ultimately okay. Nobody wants to go back to the idea that absolutely nothing is predictable because the world is run by different gods with different agendas in conflict with each other. This was common among ancient polytheists, but we all want to hang onto a stronger sense that, when disaster strikes us and our loved ones, somehow there is still order and security in the grand scheme of things.
We have two methods for seeking it. The atheist method offers us the security of a regularity which is known by scientists, but produced by impersonal, automatic laws of nature. Why should we trust the laws of nature? Why should we believe that, in the grand scheme of things, all is well? The only possible reason is that scientists know about the laws of nature, and tell us that, ultimately, all is in order. Faith in science.
When Bentzen tells us that storms and hurricanes do not increase religiosity, we can see why. They do not challenge the dominant secular paradigm. We may not like the slates coming off our roof, but we can retain the sense of security provided by faith in science. All is well in the sense that scientists know what is happening.
Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, on the other hand, do challenge faith in science. They remind us that science does not have the world sewn up. If there is any reason for ultimate trust in the world order, we will not get it from science. We must seek it somewhere else.
The older, god-based account of the world works better on this level. Maintaining the universe, knowing how it works, and knowing the best way for humans to live, all have the same source. Our security lies in accepting that, whether we live or die, that source of all true facts and values remains constant – and, in some way we often cannot perceive, is on our side.
When the volcano erupts, it undermines faith in secular control. It doesn’t undermine faith in God.