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Religion Rises After Disaster Strikes

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticDecember 27, 2012 12:37 AM


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People turn to religion after natural disasters - but it doesn't actually provide much solace.


So say researchers Sibley and Bulbulia, who examined the population of Christchurch, New Zealand, before and after the 2011 earthquake. 185 died and many city landmarks were damaged in the disaster.

The paper, Faith after an Earthquake, opens with a Biblical quote.

Sibley and Bulbulia took advantage of the fact that a longitudinal study of the 'health and values' of the New Zealanders was already underway when the quake struck, and the survey included questionnaires about religious beliefs.

They found that, compared to before the event, residents of the affected Canterbury region were more likely to report becoming religious (8.6%) than of losing their faith (5.3%); in the rest of the country religion declined from 2009 to 2011, so the earthquake-hit area was exceptional.

The authors say:


Philosophers have plausibly argued that natural disasters such as the Christchurch earthquake are rationally incompatible with the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving God, because natural disasters cause pointless suffering to innocents... though faith eroded elsewhere in New Zealand, there was a significant upturn in religious faith among those who experienced the misery of New Zealand's most lethal natural disaster in eighty years.

But did faith help people cope with the disaster?

No - believers reported no better subjective well-being compared to the non-religious, either before or after the earthquake, although those who both lost their faith (apostates) during the period and were personally affected suffered a decline.

What's rather odd about this, however, is that other results showed that apart from the apostates, well-being wasn't affected by the earthquake at all. So it's no surprise that the religious coped no better: the irreligious already coped very well, so there was no room for improvement.


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 PLoS ONE, 7 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0049648

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