Natural disasters and religious belief

Volcano with picture of Jesus above it

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.

Becket reports:

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.

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21 Responses to Natural disasters and religious belief

  1. Why did our ancestors believe in gods they couldn’t see? The answer is they didn’t! Our ancestors had no psychological or political vocabulary to talk about the powers they experienced in the universe. So they talked about them in the only way they could by using mythological language. Here a god or spirit stands for the power in question talked about. So the power of a river was spoken about as the goddess inhabiting it. This worked well only people were always liable to fall into the superstition trap by stupidly taking these gods and goddesses at face value. Hence religion arose as a secondary phenomenon as a result of people falling into the superstition trap. Obvious when you see it.

    • Andrew, thanks for this but as you would expect I disagree. I agree that our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have the wealth of vocabulary that we have, but I think attributing natural forces to gods was far from being a ‘superstition trap’. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and perhaps more widely, the same word was used for both the force and the god of the force. This meant, for example, that Egyptians could refer to Re without specifying whether they meant the sun or the god of the sun. But they didn’t use ‘mythological language’ (a category I would dispute) just for lack of better language. People could see for themselves that the world worked in ways more complex than their own minds could conceive. They therefore assumed – all over the world – that those forces must be intentional agents more intelligent than humans. The whole of modern science has failed to prove them wrong.

  2. How can you assume to know what people thought? The facts are that all primitives we know about used mythological language when speaking about their world (mythological language itself being a well authenticated phenomenon) and the first myths we know about in Summer and Mesopotamia – where writing first developed – are clearly about politics showing very little if any interest in religion as any scholar will tell you. We moderns simply assume mythological language constitutes religious language but the evidence does not support us. What makes you think you can know what people could see for themselves? No wonder you want to pretend evidence is not the end of the story for it reveal how truly half-baked your thesis really is.

    • Andrew, you ask how I can know what ancient people thought, and then tell me what you think they thought. Is that logical?
      We’ve discussed this before, but to me you are making the all-too-common error of applying to the ancients a belief that only arose at the end of the 17th century: the idea that politics and religion are completely separate from each other. If you read the Atrahasis or the Enuma Elis or the Pentateuch there is a logical sequence. The purpose of human life is explained by explaining the purpose for which the gods created us. When we know the purpose of our lives, we know how we should live. The Atrahasis and Enuma Elis are similar to each other: the gods created humans to maintain the temples and offer sacrifices. If that was true, it justfied a hierarchical political system where the peasants brought their produce to the temple as instructed by the priests. The priests were the real beneficiaries, of course. It followed that individuals were expendable so long as the nation as a whole did what the gods commanded. The Pentateuch offers the same structure, but with different content. A god who needs nothing created the world, including humans, simply for our sakes, to bless us. The political task, therefore, is to make sure everybody receives the blessing.
      My point is that there is a structure there with a clear logic. Analysing which bits of it count as religion, or politics, or mythology is what modern secularists do. It isn’t what they did. They didn’t divide reality up that way.

  3. The ancients did not attributing natural forces to god and spirits on the contrary they spoke about these forces in the only way they could by adopting mythological language. The trap was then in a secondary manner to take these representations (god and spirits) at face value which is how religion arose. You speculate that since humans have always been able to see the world works in more complex ways than they could conceive that they therefore speculated that there must be more intelligent agents at work. However, when you look at the first myths that were recorded in writing in Mesopotamia it’s quite clear theses gods and goddesses on the whole represent the political forces present at that time and that the interest in religion is hardly apparent.

  4. Julie Mansfield says:

    Interesting discussion! Of course, I haven’t a clue whether there are or aren’t intentional forces operating in the universe. How can any of us know. What I can say is that (1) despite what I was brought up to believe, I now dispute the idea that God (in the conventional Christian sense) is benevolent or worthy of worship. You only have to look at that most natural process – birth – to see how devastatingly brutal and uncaring is the force which designed it. And (2) if there is a force which can be called God It either doesn’t want to be understood or It is selectively deaf. Academics and clerics have always loved God ( obviously) but none of them can agree what He wants or is about which is interesting in itself.

    • Julie, you make good points. My responses are as follows.
      1) Childbirth. Why is it so painful, and why is it so much easier for other mammals? I’m not up to date with the latest research but I think there was a stage when they put it down to the increased size of the human head and that has now been rejected (all to do with how fast a woman can run). My guess is that other mammals do their conceiving and giving birth in harmony with their hormones. They conceive when they feel like it. We humans surround ourselves with moral rules, social customs and economic pressures, which puts extra pressure on the body. Characteristically, human women have their first baby too late in life, especially in the modern West. But I don’t claim any expertise in this.
      2) What is God like? Why so much uncertainty and disagreement? My answer to this is in two parts. Part 1 is simply that our minds haven’t been designed to know all about the divine. We only need to trust that it knows what it’s doing, and cares for us. Part 2 is the disastrous history of the religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, which produced passionate hostilities. It only happened in Europe, but soon after that Europeans travelled round the world discovering other societies, and attributed those European hostilities to everyone else. There are loads of truly awful versions of belief about God, many of which make life much harder (by inducing guilt, for example, or the arrogant sense that they know it all and have the right to bully everyone else) but I think there are better versions of belief that make like better than it can be for atheists.

      • Julie Mansfield says:

        Jonathan, thanks for that but I wasn’t talking about childbirth nor was I talking about pain. I was meaning that all birth is dangerous and often has disastrous consequences for mother animal and it’s offspring, both the one being born and those at risk of being orphaned. Since birth is the single most natural process and therefore the easiest thing on which we can judge nature’s designer then I hold the designer hugely deficient. I thought it was more than a tad ironic that Christian Aid’s campaign this year was all about making birth safer for African women. Nobody was expecting God to do it! I don’t know why you think birth is safer for animals. As far as I’m aware it isn’t.

        Re (2) I wasn’t talking about wars long ago. I’m talking about today’s disagreements about God. I haven’t a clue whether there is a God but my naaturally-provided powers of observation and reason tell me that if God wants me to know about Him then He will get in touch directly. Clerics and academics only serve themselves with their competing unprovable theories about what God is and wants and feels.

        • Hello again Julie.
          Sorry I misunderstood you on pain.
          You write: ‘Since birth is the single most natural process…’ I don’t know why you think it’s more natural than growing, eating, decaying, etc. In any case, I don’t think we are in a position to judge nature’s designer. Nature is incomparably more complex than the whole of modern science has been able to describe. We can think we could have made a better world, but to be realistic we don’t know how we’d do it.
          I think most mammals rarely die in childbirth; it’s humans who need a panoply of medical help. But I don’t remember statistics!
          ‘if God wants me to know about Him then He will get in touch directly’. First, rather a large proportion of the population report something of this sort, though they may not use God language – according to the Alister Hardy Religious Research Centre; but not everyone, so your point stands. What I’m much more concerned about is the huge amount of religious bullying that goes on. If you don’t want to know about God, I feel sure God doesn’t mind – just as I don’t want to know what my dentist is getting up to when I haven’t got toothache. But centuries of oppressive teaching have terrified people into believing they have to know all the answers. I only know about Christianity. It was worst from the 15th to the 17th centuries. There are lots of churches today that still teach it. I argue against them. I’ve just heard that Holy Trinity Brompton are about to take over a local church I know to make it a church plant. They are good at velvet glove with iron fist inside. You have to believe what they tell you. You’ll go to hell otherwise. I don’t know whether they are relenting yet over gays and lesbians but they seem as determined as ever about male headship. But now I’m drifting into church politics!

          • Julie Mansfield says:

            I chose birth because it is a natural but cruel process. My point is that God may exist but as far as I can see it would be mad to put my trust in Him. ( and I’m guessing you only trust Him up to a point which opens up another whole can of worms,) That was what I was trying to illustrate with the Christian Aid appeal: African women in remote communities won’t be helped by putting their trust in God and the same goes for any struggling people. It’s a lovely idea but it doesn’t bear scrutiny. In fact, putting trust in God may be more dangerous for struggling people because it may stop them seeking human help. And which version of God should folk put their trust in anyway? You don’t like HTB but who’s to say they’re not right? You don’t have a more privileged hotline than them or anyone else.

  5. Jonathan, unlike you I don’t speculate about what the ancients thought. Darwin supposed that the ancients must all have wondered how the universe developed which, as he saw it, explains their creation stories. However, we now know that the ancients didn’t think developmentally but saw the universe as essentially static. So, I prefer to stick to the evidence which is that all ancient societies that we know of used mythological language to converse about the universe. This involved representing the powers they experienced as spirits. Hence the secondary development of religion. In distinguishing between politics and religion I am simply making use of our advance in linguistics. The ancients had no word for politics or religion just as they were incapable of saying something as simple as I think. That does not mean they were ignorant of what we talk about as politics for their myths are full of the stuff even though they had no name for it. I have, of course, read the myths you speak about. Indeed, I have produced them in carton form on my website for all to enjoy. You’re wrong in saying the Pentateuch speaks of a God who created us for our own sake, to bless us. Genesis 2 certainly does something like that, but Genesis 1 makes it quite clear humans were created to be in charge of creation, a rather different matter!

    • Andrew, you are speculating about what the ancients thought just as much as I am: ‘…we now know that the ancients didn’t think developmentally…’ etc. Other than that I agree with the first half of what you say here. Where I disagree is from ‘Hence the secondary development of religion’ onwards. The notion that the natural forces were intentional agents was there all along, not secondary. On politics and religion, you are not just distinguishing: you are separating them, in the way first invented in the later 17th century. Charles I believed in the divine right of kings, as most literature did from the beginning of history. Even Sargon did. Isn’t that combining politics and religion?
      I’m unsure about your use of the words ‘myth’ and ‘religion’. By ‘myth’ I assume you mean, as historians usually mean, ‘story about the gods’. Whether the story is true or not is a separate issue. Unfortunately it’s complicated by the popular use of the word ‘myth’ to mean ‘falsehood’.
      As for ‘religion’, have you come across Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s ‘The Meaning and End of Religion’? He shows how the meaning of the word changed. Until the end of the 17th century it had no plural, because like ‘piety’ or ‘honesty’ it’s about what goes on inside the mind. This changed when people started looking at beliefs about God as from the outside. Later, 19th century atheists used the word to refer to the package of beliefs and actions which they considered superfluous because they presupposed some god or other. On principle (being atheists) they insisted that this package had nothing to contribute to modern knowledge. This is where we are now, with the word ‘religion’ used as a self-contained category for all the stuff atheists don’t believe in. Not only is it a modern concept: as you yourself noted, anthropologists haven’t found any other society (until Western influence arrived) that had the concept. This is because no other society separated their beliefs about the divine from practical matters.
      Blessing does appear in Genesis 1. ‘Dominion’ does too, but it would be anachronistic to assume that it meant everything later medievals took it to mean. The scholars I’ve read think it applies to what people were permitted to eat. If there is more specific relevance, it permits 2 activities: ploughing the land and domesticating cattle.

  6. It’s not true about my speculating. I base my understanding on the fact that, in the absence of a more complicated linguistics, the ancients communicated about their world using mythological language. Where is the speculation there? I then go on to note that unfortunately the ancients’ mythological linguistics included an inbuilt trap… the fact that the representations used can all too easily be taken literally. Where’s the speculation there I ask you? When I say the ancients didn’t think developmentally I am only reporting what modern scholarship has concluded from studying the evidence furnished by the ancient texts. So where’s the speculation there? As for the word religion the ancients didn’t use it and I use it simply to mean an unwarranted pretence based on no evidence that the world is subject to unseen spirit forces working either from within or from without the universe.

    • Andrew, I really don’t know why you are persisting with this. It was you who accused me of speculating about things I didn’t know. I replied that you were speculating in the same way. We’re both depending on professional scholars. But to give one more example, you say ‘in the absence of a more complicated linguistics, the ancients communicated about their world using mythological language’. I take it that by ‘mythological language’ you mean ‘language about gods’. You cannot know that the reason they used language about gods was that they didn’t have more accurate language to describe what they really believed. You just cannot know that. You are speculating, or at least your sources are. You may have heard about the British Social Attitudes Survey that came out a couple of weeks ago. Just over half the population in Britain describe themselves as ‘no religion’, but in the world as a whole the percentage is only 16%. So there are plenty of people you could ask about their use of God-language today.
      ‘an unwarranted pretence based on no evidence that the world is subject to unseen spirit forces working either from within or from without the universe.’ This is classic 19th century positivism again. Have you read Thomas Kuhn or even Karl Popper? They are philosophers of science. They show that no scientific theory depends only on evidence. They also depend on theories. The belief that the world is run by divine beings is the result of thousands of years of speculation about what kinds of forces must be hypothesised to account for the way the world is.
      Because they all thought some divine beings must be involved, modern atheists simply ignore it all. This leaves atheist scholars with a problem. If there is no God, why did an erroneous belief in gods arise in every ancient and medieval society? So scholars ask: who invented religion? It’s no more sensible than asking who invented breast feeding, or which children invented playing. Belief in gods was there as far back as we can go, everywhere, because it was obvious to every society that the way the world worked had to be explained by forces more intelligent than humans. Even Richard Dawkins accepted that before the theory of evolution was developed, atheism had a problem looking intellectually respectable!

  7. What I know for a fact is that the ancients didn’t have our modern political and psychological linguistics. I also know they used mythological language to talk about the powers they experienced in the world. So of course I can know that they used mythological language instead to do this because they had no other better way of talking about these things for if they had they would have used them. That stands to reason and it is not conjecture which is what you are always doing.

    Mythological language is a common expression which means a lot more than simply talking about gods as you put it. It means using story forms to express what you want to say as for example the nativity story of the wise men (no gods in that!).

    It is true that science deals in approximations built on the best evidence available and that its result must always remain open to change as more evidence turns up but that does not make it in the least bit speculative as you would want to believe in order to cover up your own make believe. I did not have to read Thomas Kuhn or Karl Popper (though I have read both of them) to become aware of all of this since I was trained as a scientist myself.

    What modern atheist believe and think may be of interest to you but it is of no interest to me since my field of research in the Bible… something you appear to know little about.

    • Andrew, he who flings mud loses ground

    • Andy says:

      Hi Andrew,
      You make some good points, but as I understand it, evidence for the irrationality of religious belief is mixed. Human cultures are so diverse in their religious beliefs and practices that straightforward naturalistic or evolutionary models are not applicable.
      Moreover, recent ethnographical studies have discovered that people in various cultures have no qualms about combining supernatural and natural explanations. For example, it was noted that South Africans are aware AIDS is caused by a virus, but some also believe that the viral infection is ultimately caused by a witch.

  8. Andy says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    I always enjoy your posts, but this is the first time I have been moved to reply. I am a scientist by profession, but one who is searching for a scientifically respectable way to justify my Christian beliefs, so this issue touches on my core concerns.
    My limited philosophical training has taught me that the mere fact that we can’t explain something does not entail that it doesn’t exist. For example, we humans might not be able to attribute natural causes to earthquakes and volcanoes (perhaps because we are not geologists or not sophisticated in a modern sense), but we are nevertheless entitled to believe that a natural cause always exists. I am guessing that a majority of scientists would assent to this view, which I believe is known as ‘causal closure of the physical’. It means that supernatural causes (or intentional agents) for natural phenomena are superfluous, since every single physical thing is caused by some other physical thing. There are no ‘causal gaps’. Indeed, it would be difficult to be a practising scientist if one did not believe this, and it is a major driver of progress.
    Now, even if we accept this no-causal-gap thesis, we might still justifiably believe that humans will never have complete knowledge of nature. There is no such thing as a perfect physics. Our human mental capacities, and associated theorising, are limited. I would strongly hold to this view.
    I have heard several theologians profess their belief in a ‘God of the gaps’, but I am inclined to think that a scientifically respectable argument for religion would be based the (epistemological) gap in our knowledge, rather a (metaphysical) gap filled by supernatural causes. We can find God from the standpoint of our human limitations (and sin), but not from the mechanics of how the natural world exists and develops.

    • Thanks Andy.
      I completely agree with you about science.
      If there’s a problem, I guess it’s about the nature of causation. Physicists and philosophers approach it in different ways. If I push you and you fall over, physicists may say I used force which caused you to fall. That’s enough for physicists: it’s then possible to proceed with calculations about pressure, acceleration, etc.
      Philosophers ask what it means. In the middle of the eighteenth century David Hume pointed out that we never see causation. We can see me pushing and you falling, and predict that if I push like that you will fall like that, because that’s how the world always is. So causation means ‘whenever x happens, y happens’. That’s all scientists need to know. But philosophically, it’s a puzzle. If the only things that exist are things we can observe, there is no causation – which is obviously unsatisfactory.
      Hume made this observation at a stage in the development of European thought when it was for the first time normal to speculate about these things without bringing God into it. A generation or so earlier, Newton and Leibniz had fallen out over the laws of nature. Both agreed that the laws of nature were God’s way of doing things regularly, but they disagreed about how. Newton thought God sometimes also does things irregularly (the God of the gaps). Leibniz didn’t. For both, God is the cause, the laws of nature are the regularities. Soon afterwards, Hume led the way to the modern secular assumption that the laws of nature *are* the causes.
      This is obviously incorrect. Laws of nature are defined as equations. Equations don’t make anything happen. They describe what happens. The laws of nature are observed regularities, not causal forces. This is confusing for physicists, because they use the words ’cause’ and ‘force’ in that other sense. For practical purposes, scientists can treat the laws of nature as causal forces without any problem. But conceiving them this way is inaccurate. The inaccuracy camouflages one of the biggest gaps in the modern attempt to explain the world without invoking God. Philosophically, we can ask: if the laws of nature are unbreakable, why? What makes them unbreakable? Science can only *presuppose* that they are unbreakable because otherwise science doesn’t work.
      I hope I’ve made it clear that I’m not defending the God of the gaps. Newton was wrong about that.
      Does this make sense to you? I’m happy to continue the dialogue if you want to.

      • Andy says:

        Thanks Jonathan.
        The nature of causation and laws of nature is such a complicated and contested subject that it is hard to get very far in real understanding. The certainty we appear to have that events will follow an expected course (for example, that if I don’t feed my goldfish it will die) is a bit of a mystery (and this gap in our knowledge might very well be a God-filled one). As you say, we have these laws, and they are provisional, but when they break down, they always seem to be replaced by other laws. Hence my intuition that every physical event has a physical explanation, even if we do not know what the true explanation might be. (The one event I might make an exception for is the beginning of the universe as a whole, which I will happily attribute to God).
        Non physical or supernatural explanations that have been advanced for physical events have always seemed to me either woefully ad-hoc (designed to satisfy some particular vested interest), or not capable of independent verification, or not reproducible in laboratory conditions. I stand to be corrected on this, but so far I have not seen or heard anything to convince me otherwise.

        • Yes quite.
          I don’t think we should expect everything to be ‘capable of independent verification’. What counts as verification? Being able to reproduce an experiment and get the same result? Lots of things aren’t: the origin of the universe, what you had for breakfast.
          In practice, science achieves what it does with a great deal of trust, hunch, probability guesses. The impressive thing is that it works so well. *Why* it works so well is open to debate!

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