Talking to the Gods in Difficult Times

Reflections on the role of scientific and religious explanations.

Posted Apr 17, 2020

In my immediate family, I grew up practicing no religion and holding next to zero religious beliefs. I personally am not logically convinced by any arguments for the existence of God or any other higher power.

Yet, to my own surprise, when one of my dear ones was diagnosed with a serious illness, I wished there was some higher power who could hear my plea, who would make sure that it wasn't too late, who somehow had a record of us being good people with kinds hearts, and who would not let us down. Conversations with the supernatural became an everyday lunch break for me when I would walk from my office to a nearby chapel and just sit there, looking around and listening to the voices from the outside. 

I had no idea how to pray or what to say to God or even what this God was like, if not my childhood image of a cute and kind old woman with her very long chador covering the whole sky. I would just sit there, wishing there was some power that miraculously knew what I want and would grant it. To express my integrity, following my cultural observations growing up, I traded "good deeds" with God and made promises to her that I would keep if she watched out for me: "If you make things turn out to be OK, I'll make sure to provide nutritious food for at least 10 individuals who are homeless once every year." 

I also appealed not just to the God I had heard about from grandmothers, teachers, and in the media growing up in a religious society, but to all kinds of other gods. Every day, half-jokingly but half-wishfully, I consulted my polytheistic friend about which of the gods he has talked to and what signs they have given him.

Things turned out to be OK. It was not yet too late to treat the condition, and although it was a challenging time, the gods seemed to have heard my pleas and done something about it. Or was it the doctors, the medical operations, the treatment plans, and the drugs? 

Of course, once I knew that we would get the medical attention that we need and that we could afford all of it with the public health option in the state where we were living, appealing to the gods was a luxury I could indulge in. While I was constantly reading scientific articles, keeping up with the most recent research, asking the medical team endlessly many questions, and relying, more than ever, on scientific explanations for life and death, I found myself seeking comfort in the unknown, the unseen, and the inexplicable. I really hoped that there is more to life and death than can be explained, rationalized, and made sense of by medical journals, the risks and benefits of medical treatments, the wonders of turmeric and orange juice, and the mortality rate of different diseases. It was the first time in my life where rationalizing and firmly holding on to reality did not provide as much comfort as before.

Sometimes our real circumstances become so confusing, unexpectedly shocking, and out of control that even the most militantly atheist among us might find some comfort and relief in at least hoping for supernatural intervention. There might be a threshold for when the feeling of "I wish there were some gods or god-like powers" kicks in, and that threshold is certainly different for different people. But when the threat of suffering or disasters becomes too personal and too real, wishing for the miraculous, and not having to worry about "how," the cause-and-effect story, the rational theory, or the scientific explanation, might provide some emotional or psychological relief.

With collaborators at Princeton University and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, we are currently asking related questions in our research. In a number of preregistered studies, Tania Lombrozo and I are investigating intuitive beliefs about the functional roles of religious and scientific explanations for existential questions.

We find that, in fact, U.S. adults generally perceive religious explanations as more comforting and anxiety-reducing while they judge scientific explanations as more logical and evidential. However, people's own religious beliefs influence the characteristics they attribute to religious and scientific explanations. While religious people tend to believe that both scientific and religious explanations are logical and evidential, non-religious people, not surprisingly, do not find religious explanations very logical or based on evidence.

Perhaps somewhat more surprising to me was the finding that non-religious people in our sample also see no comforting or anxiety-reducing value in the religious explanations for existential questions. Given my own experience as a non-religious person finding some comfort in the hope for the supernatural to do something, I suspect that all it takes for seeking comfort in the imagined powers of the supernatural is how close we come to real threats to our existence.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us may have already felt the threat personally and may have found some relief or comfort in the idea of trading "good deeds" with the gods or wishing for supernatural intervention. In fact, amidst the chaotic responses by the governments, the absence of job security, the long hours of sullenness and confinement, and the constant reminder of mortality, even some of the most scientific-oriented and rational minds among us may have sought comfort in wishing or hoping for some inexplicable, unknown, and otherworldly way out of this bizarre situation. While science has the answer, explains the process, and uncovers the naked truth, the truth may sometimes be too real and too much, to a point where we would rather resort to the unfathomable and seek relief in the possibility of a miracle, no matter how remote the possibility.

So, I suggest we keep cool, express our gratitude to the medical and all other essential workers, hope for the science to find cures, treatments, vaccines, therapies, and prevention methods, and let the gods do their part in providing us with comfort and peace of mind, or even just a silent sounding board.