God Is Just a Natural Disaster Away

Experiencing natural disasters reverses trends toward secularization.

Posted Feb 05, 2015

No Atheists in Foxholes? 

The very existence of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers demonstrates that the commonplace observation that there are no atheists in foxholes is overstated.  Still, empirical research bearing on veterans’ subsequent attitudes and their memories for such things suggests that that aphorism captures fairly well a general, though by no means universal, trend among combatants.  When they faced continuous, immediate threats to life and limb a substantial majority of American veterans of World War II, who were surveyed, reported requesting divine intervention and protection.

Detecting mortal danger ignites hypothalamic activity.  The hypothalamus signals critical bodily systems to marshal resources in preparation for action, whether flight or fight.  The consequences include everything from suppressing immune response to surges of adrenalin that notably prepare us for either bolting or brawling.  Although it is probably not one of the instant consequences of this autonomic nervous system functioning, it appears that the persisting stress of combat quickly turns the mind, at least among those with the relevant cultural preparation, to appealing to the gods for aid.

The Secularization Exception?

I and other cognitive scientists of religion have argued that much about standard cognitive development in our species facilitates the ready acquisition of religious representations and practices.  I have maintained that, at least compared with other cultural activities such as science, religious thought and behavior can be usefully described as cognitively natural.   The core suggestion is that ideas about agents possessing counter-intuitive properties and forms of putative interaction with them will regularly arise in human populations. 

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski and Ara Norenzayan have raised a friendly qualification to the cognitive naturalness of religion thesis, pointing to what appears to be the precipitous decline of religiosity among people in highly secularized societies, such as those of northern Europe.  In foxholes humans may be inclined to stay in constant contact with the gods, but these researchers suggest that successful, secularized societies, as a matter of fact, indirectly but substantially check people’s interests in religion. 

Such secularized societies have insured that virtually all of their citizens have their most basic material needs met.   (As a result, among the world’s nations these societies have comparatively low levels of income inequality.)  Citizens live in relatively safe, secure environments.  When societies with adequate material resources develop governments with trustworthy institutions, legal systems, police forces, and more, which monitor human conduct in ways that are similar to the sorts of oversight that the gods are supposed to carry out, their populations’ interests in the gods decrease dramatically.  

Foxholes for Populations?

No one advocating the cognitive naturalness of religion denies the fundamental role that cultural and material conditions can play in how humans’ cognitive systems are tuned, so these observations about the impact of secularization on humans’ religious proclivities are a valuable codicil.  Still, it is a fair to ask how stable these effects are.

Societies that have undergone substantial secularization have for the most part done an admirable job of improving such things as public health and education and, more generally, of insuring a measure of domestic tranquility.  The question arises, however, whether circumstances exist that would constitute analogues, for the members of such secularized societies, of soldiers’ experiences in foxholes. The list of contingencies capable of disrupting a society’s safety and security is long and includes problems for which no government can ever be adequately prepared. 

A Test in New Zealand

The devastating series of earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand constitutes a natural test.  On February 22, 2011 those earthquakes led to 185 deaths and thousands of injuries and reduced roughly one third of New Zealand’s third largest city to rubble, ultimately resulting in the demolition of nearly 10,000 buildings, including scores of churches. 

Joseph Bulbulia mined data from The New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, a large, longitudinal study of New Zealanders’ views since 2009.  What that data showed was that the half-century trend of increasing secularization and, correspondingly, of decreasing religious affiliation among New Zealanders by roughly 1% per year was reversed among the residents of Christchurch and among New Zealanders who reported that their lives were affected by the earthquakes.  The more than 3% increase in religious affiliation among this population contrasted starkly with the continuing trends of increasing secularization and decreasing religiosity among New Zealanders overall during the same period of time. 

The data from Christchruch suggest that reversals of the shrinking religiosity characteristic of secularized populations may be no more than a natural disaster away.  It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that such disasters are often referred to as “acts of God.”