Injuries and loss of life boost religious faith after disasters

June 5, 2018, University of British Columbia
UBC planning researcher Oscar Zapata. Weather-related disasters can make people more religious but it depends on the toll they inflict, suggests new UBC research. Credit: UBC

Weather-related disasters can make people more religious but it depends on the toll they inflict, suggests new UBC research. If a disaster injures a significant number of people, it can strengthen religiosity among those who are already religious. But if a disaster inflicts mostly economic damage, the opposite effect applies.

"It's generally assumed that can intensify religious preferences or practices," said study author Oscar Zapata, a postdoctoral researcher in UBC's school of community and regional planning. "My analysis suggests that it depends on the frequency of disasters in that region and the specific impact of the disaster."

Oscar Zapata

Using data from an international survey conducted annually between 1995 and 2012, Zapata evaluated the responses of 12,333 Canadians to two questions: "Do you believe in God?" and "How often do you attend ?" He then compared their answers with records of , like avalanches, wildfires or blizzards that occurred in Canada during the same time period.

Eighty-two per cent of survey respondents said they believe in God, with the majority reporting that they are either Roman Catholic, Protestant or Christian Orthodox. Using statistical analysis, Zapata found that among the believers of God, religiosity increased following disasters that injured a significant number of people: for every one per cent increase in the number of injured due to a climate disaster, attendance at religious services increased by close to four per cent.

Disasters with largely economic impact did not have the same effect. With every one per cent increase in the number of disaster events, belief in God among survey respondents dropped 26 per cent. And for every one per cent increase in the economic cost of a natural disaster, the probability of believing in God dropped two per cent.

"In other words, economic losses caused by natural disasters had much less impact on religious beliefs or practices compared to human losses," said Zapata. "This might be because people can recover from financial losses and they can rebuild homes as long as they have emergency funds or insurance. It's losing people they know that seems to drive people to religion to ease their pain or stress."

He cautioned that the analysis is uniquely applicable to Canada, which has good infrastructure and strong insurance systems that lighten the financial burdens of disasters. "It would be interesting to compare the results with countries that experience more weather-related disasters or have weaker infrastructure and insurance markets."

Future studies could also look at the specific channels through which climate-related disasters affect religious preferences, he added. "Do people become less religious as disasters and material losses increase in number because they have more scientific information that links these disasters to human-induced climate change? Or do climate disasters reaffirm religious people's beliefs that disasters are acts of God and that God will protect them? We need to do more research to understand these mechanisms."

"Turning to God in tough times? Human versus material losses from climate disasters in Canada" was published in April in Economics of Disasters and Climate Change .

Explore further: Natural disasters in 2017 cost record $144 bn: Swiss Re

More information: Oscar Zapata, Turning to God in Tough Times? Human Versus Material Losses from Climate Disasters in Canada, Economics of Disasters and Climate Change (2018). DOI: 10.1007/s41885-018-0029-2

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4 comments

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mawil1013
not rated yet Jun 05, 2018
This is called; fox hole religion, when we are close to death, we suddenly find ourselves grasping for mental security. Usually, after the danger is gone, the promises made slowly fade from memory. Nothing new here.
mqr
not rated yet Jun 06, 2018
Carl Jung used to say somethink like: 'atheist? wait until suffering comes'....
jonesdave
1 / 5 (3) Jun 06, 2018
Yep, always makes me shake my head when you see someone interviewed after one of these disasters. They thank god for saving them, despite the fact that possibly hundreds of other people have been killed! "Hi, my name's God. I'm going to prove my love for you by wiping out a bunch of people, horribly, whilst letting you live. Praise the Lord!"
jonesdave
1 / 5 (3) Jun 06, 2018
It also puts me in mind of some lame brain American journo, called Wolf something or other, interviewing a woman after some disaster or other. Possibly a tornado. Wolf: "Do you thank God for sparing you?"
Woman: "Actually, I'm an atheist."

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