Do ‘Acts of God’ create more believers?

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It’s an aphorism interestingly attributed by some to a US army military chaplain in his sermon before US troops in World War II’s Battle of Bataan: “There are no atheists in foxholes”.

With even hard-nosed, veteran journalists who were caught in the midst of “Yolanda” moved to declare their newfound faith in Jesus Christ, one could certainly update that saying to: “There are no atheists in super-typhoons.”

I’ve been confused though what that aphorism really wants to say.

Does it mean, as that chaplain wanted it to mean, that when death looks at us in the face, the Divine reveals Himself? Or that after all their intellectual argumentation, even non-believers turn to God in a deep personal crisis?


Sigh of the hopeless
However, it could also be interpreted in an entirely different way, especially with scientific studies just in the past ten years of religion and religious belief: That religion, to paraphrase Marx famous quote, is merely the sigh of the hopeless? That one believes in a God in order to comfort oneself, to keep up a glimmer of hope in the face of death? That faith is a cure for fear?

The first super typhoon?: The biblical deluge (painting by Ivan Alvazovsky, 1864)

The first super typhoon?: The biblical deluge (painting by Ivan Alvazovsky, 1864)

Evolutionary psychologists indeed have pointed out that such belief was essential to the survival of the human species. Without some hope created by a belief in a higher power, our cave-man ancestor wounded and trapped by a saber-toothed tiger would have given up. Instead he probably conjured up an image of a Sun God or whatever helping him—which squeezed another ounce of adrenalin for him to plunge his spear in the tiger’s heart. Religion is our great crutch in the face of an unfeeling cosmos with its random natural disasters.

The father of psychology, Sigmund Freud in what is the first scientific treatise on religion, The Future of an Illusion in its first pages immediately refers to the awesome and destructive power of nature as a major factor for the emergence of religion:

“No one is under the illusion that nature has already been vanquished. ..There are elements, which seem to mock at all human control . . . water, which deluges and drowns everything in a turmoil; storms, which blow everything before them . . . With these forces nature rises up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable; she brings to our mind once more our weakness and helplessness.”

That is, the awesome forces of nature (1) etched deep in man’s psyche the fact that there he is so small and powerless in this cosmos; and (2) that there is a higher power, literally even as the thunder and lightning came from the skies. These two notions created the belief in a powerful God, who could save puny mankind. Indeed, the most powerful god in the ancient Greek pantheon Zeus (from whence came the Latin Deus, the Spanish Dios, and Filipino Diyos) was the god of thunder and lightning.

Tribal superstitions
Intriguingly, in the Old Testament, it is Yahweh who creates natural disasters: the Deluge from which only the believers led by Noah are saved, the seven plagues that brought the Egyptian Pharaoh to his knees, and the fire and brimstone (obviously now, some kind of earthquake) that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

Following the Old Testament’s tribal superstitions, there are those who claim that Yolanda’s destruction would have been avoided if Filipinos prayed more. For instance, a preposterous article in this paper (“A miracle in Bicol region, Nov .11) reported that because residents of Albay prayed hard and that local radio stations broadcast the prayer “Oratio Imperata”, the province was spared from the kind of catastrophe that hit Leyte. A religious assembly the other day subliminally blamed Filipinos’ lack of faith as the cause of Yolanda’s devastation by calling the event “Return to God”.

But whether faith saves one from bullets or typhoons, is that adage accurate, do disasters, both man-made and natural, make people believe more intensely in the Divine, do non-believers become believers? Do “Acts of God” make people believe in God?

Surprisingly, based on actual studies, disasters cut both ways.

Questions after 9/11
In a study by researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, a tenth did say that their belief in God was strengthened after the horror of the 9/11 jihadist attack. However, roughly the same proportion of the American respondents reported that after the carnage, they were disillusioned, and questioned their faith.

Why this surprising finding? One reason is the randomness of who got killed in the attack, accounts of which were extensively reported in media, as in the case of somebody who had worked in the building for ten years but didn’t go there on that fateful day because of a head cold. Another is the attack’s shocking cruelty—heroic firemen buried when the towers fell, eight children onboard the hi-jacked planes.

How could people—Osama Bin Laden and his jihadists—who believed with the same intensity as many of those killed in the Towers murder thousands of innocent people? Maybe something’s deeply wrong in beliefs in God, one explanation went.

Another explanation is that the actual real experience of horror makes so real, and convincing, the biggest argument against the existence of God: The problem of evil. It is still the question posed by the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, that is the best articulation of the argument:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then, he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? The why is there? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Some have even commented that 9/11 has been mainly responsible for the decline in religiosity in the US, from 70 percent in 2005 to 60 percent in 2012. Whether it merely represented such decline or helped cause it, there has also been the unprecedented popularity of best-sellers by respected scholars and writers—Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett—arguing against the existence of God.

But whether there is a god or not, does belief in a Divine make people traumatized by a disaster psychologically cope better in what is called in psychology as the “Comfort Model of Religion”? Is religion, again to rephrase Marx, a good opium of the people?

Again a surprising empirical finding: Not really, at least according to rigorous study by two researchers* on the population of Christchurch, New Zealand after the 2011 earthquake that killed 188 there. Roughly similar to the New York finding, the study found that 9 percent of the respondents became more religious or even converted to religion after the earthquake while 5 percent lost their faith.

But were the believers better off psychologically than the non-believers? No, the study found. Believers reported no better subjective well-being compared to the atheists and agnostics—either before or after the earthquake.

*(Sibley, C., and Bulbulia, J. (2012). Faith after an Earthquake: A Longitudinal Study of Religion and Perceived Health before and after the 2011 Christchurch New Zealand Earthquake.)

tiglao.manilatimes@gmail.com
www.rigobertotiglao.com and www.trigger.ph

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12 Comments

  1. Mr. Taglao,
    Thank you for that well-written and well thought out article. You make some excellent points. However there are some gaps in your logic. For instance, Epicurus’ reasoning is very limited; he does not understand that God gave man free will and authority over the earth. Free will means the freedom to choose good or evil. The freedom to choose evil must come with the freedom to do evil, otherwise it’s just an illusion.

    If God were to intervene (for instance, to stop the sexual abuse of 100,000 children in the Philippines), then man would have no free will at all. Man must have the ability to choose good or evil in order to spend eternity with God. That is why we are here on this planet – to prepare for Eternity.

    God can, and does intervene at times, but He takes His authority to do so from those who pray. To do otherwise is to usurp the very authority He gave man over the earth. Then you would call him a hypocrite.

    Your article ignores the question of Who Jesus Christ was (is), and it assumes that God doesn’t exist, therefore all communication with God is one way and God has never proved His existence.

    God has proved Himself to millions of Christians in many, many ways. He is not part of our imagination but a very real part of our lives. That you cannot communicate with Him is because you are not willing to believe. It’s always a question of will. Once you are willing, God can begin to open your eyes to the truth. Are you willing?

  2. Very interesting article! The best! It is nature that brings forth these destructions, volcanoes/ earthquakes/tsunamis/hurricanes/etc. All of these are very well explained by science, reasons why they happen, how they occur, and the extent of devastation that each can bring. It is very cruel for a person to say that they were saved because they prayed. If we recall every devastation on earth, many of the dead are babies and children, they who never even learned to say something bad, or do something bad. Why? Is it the will of god? I don’t believe so. Anybody who is in the path of a devastating typhoon/volcano/tsunami will be killed. It is not god who saves us, it is how we prepare for them. Knowledge of these natural occurrences are vital for survival. whether you pray a million times if you are in the path of a hurricane, do you think there is a god who would put his arms around you and save you? It is for us humans to do what we are supposed to do. Prepare, prepare, prepare. god was created to give hope to people but if we know how we came into being, believing does not save us nor give us comfort. How many years have we all been praying for world peace? Since I was a child some 65 years ago. Is there world peace? it is getting worse. How many years have people been praying for a better life? only those who have money coming from their ancestors have the money. there is no god who will strike a rock that will turn into gold and give it to you because you are a good person. It is in fact cruel to tell the dying to reach out to the lord when we as mortals, like every living animal on earth will perish. There is no stopping that, and there is no special place to go to. It is just going back to the earth, nothing else. The Spaniards introduced religion to our country to hide the corruption they were engaged during that time, don’t do that because it is a sin, don’t say that because it is a sin. so people closed their eyes to the corruption and dirty work until they finally revolted. about 20% of the world’s population believes there is no supernatural being, only about 5% or so are athiests. that means many Christians believe there is no super god but are afraid to admit it. as john lenon once sang, “imagine there’s no heaven….”

  3. That Monsignor associated with that Corruptors of all Crooks, Janet Napoles -knowingly knew her activities and nefarious business dealings – but condone the deeds – just the same.

    These Crooks of the Lowest Forms – Filipino politicians and Government Officials of all kind – from the President, down to the lowest Barangay Chairman and his able-bodied accomplices of Kagawads, – at one time or another -, from time to time, – on a regular basis, – bonds with his local pastor/priest, go church hopping visibility photo ops, confesses and pray with humility – but of course we all know the truth. HE IS PRAYING FOR MORE GOVERNMENT MONEY TO STEAL, MORE OPPORTUNITIES TO BROKER AGENDAS – HERE, AND THERE…CUT DEALS, UNDER, AND OVER, ABOVE BOARD AND EVERYTHING….INFLUENCE TO PEDDLE AND WHAT HAVE YOU….F@#&*ing HIPOCRITES!!!!!!!

  4. “When you were young and strong you do not know me”.

    God works in wonder. God is waiting for your return and will allow things to happen to know him.

  5. Voice from the Wilderness on

    The central tenet of religiosity seems to center on the subject and dogma of mortality and immortality. Even if humanity knows that living and being alive in this world of ours has limitations, it still harbors the hope that immortality either physical or in other forms will be there as a reward for being morally upright according to their mores. It dreams and hopes of living in a paradise in an afterlife that if analyzed with common sense will really be a life of boredom. They think that the absence of problems and struggles in the afterlife will be an ideal life. Theirs is the world of fantasy courtesy of a being called God. But if one will survey the opinion and beliefs of the top physicists scientists of the world, we can find that they are either atheists or agnostics for they have the scientific evidence of facts and theoretical models that says everything even the present existing Universe and Cosmos will experience death. But recent development in their scientific theory says of the existence of the multiple universe in which universes will exist forever as in a bubble that the death of one universe will just be negligible. And their other hopeful theory which may comfort humans is that the death of material things in this universe will not be lost forever because there is one thing that is immortal,and that is, the information of everything that will forever exist in the edges of the BLACKHOLE.

  6. Pinoy Makabayan on

    And God does not need more believers. Even the legions of demons and Satan himself believe in Him. He wants followers because He wants to share His glory with them. Tragedies, sickness, broken families, loss of lives, lovelihood, etc. are not God’s will.
    To those who follow him, Jeremiah 29:11-12 says” For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. ‘Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.…”

  7. Pinoy Makabayan on

    Yes, you may ask all thse questions and you may have all the best arguments…but at the end of the day, ask…Why do we have Israel?
    Who wrote the bible that is so full of wisdom so vast and so deep that its words are the only one that can bring real change and cause you to do things humanly impossible? Have you experienced forgiving your vilest offender? Have you ever given water to an enemy who was thirsty? Have you given something til it hurts? Have you touched a dirty person and fed the hungry? Have you spoken on behalf of the voiceless? Have you stood up for the oppressed? If you had been in any of those situations, didn’t you feel that it would have been easier to walk away? You could not have done any of this all alone because human nature will tell you to just eat, drink and be merry! Only the One who is all good and wise and powerful, and whose very nature is different from your own, could have caused you to do all these. I cannot explain why He allows all these tragedies. But all i know is that He allows good to take over the bad, or that He can turn bad situations into something good. You see that all around you. You’ve seen tht in Kathrina, in Haiti, 911, Sandy Hook, etc. In everything, He molds our character. We all are like clay that a silversmith refines over fire until it reaches its perfection. He knows that it is done when He sees his face on it!

  8. Religion is that proverbial straw a drowning man will hold on to. Prayer is a wasteful exercise. It is a primitive ritual copied from chants of shamans and witch doctors made fashionable by the high priests of organized religions. Hurricanes are not acts of of a supernatural being they call God, it’s the science of thermodynamics.

  9. Sir, its about time to place faith in the human adaptabiliy to face the rapidly changing enviornment in nature. The Philiphines people will prove to the world, that they can survive any natural disaster, provided the world at large, takes its fair share of the responsibilty in times of a mega disaster. The so called “borderless world” , “global village” and the sorts will make no sense , if we humans sit and watch , failed to act contructively and not contributing in the true sense of the word . This is not the time, to finger pointing, If there is a finger pointer, let it be god for heavens sake, because : we have failed once again to unite as humans in the face of adversity ! God never purnishes in one way or other. The planet ” earth” witnessed many mega disasters, since the ice ages. We humans as the top predators in the food chain, survived against the odds.This is gods gift to us.But we put our soul, mind and brains destroying each other since ages.Blame it in god,s will ? What a pity ! Lets move on, and help the victims of a natural disaster.God was/is/and will be for those who help others.SO LET US HELP NOW unreservedly one of our humankind. Thanks to science community and the international media for coverings this mega storm for the world community. I realised the power of god and nature in the planet we live.Humbled and lets help in any way we can.Thanks and gratefull to science and god, for heavens sake.

  10. PHL is a very religious catholic country, and yet still a 3rd world country not being able to feed its population let alone these natural disasters. prayers alone will not solve these problems, religious but corrupt? is another strange mix. yes keep on waiting for miracles until you die.