Does a traumatic experience encourage people towards religion, or does it have the opposite effect? In a previous post, I ran through the evidence that Americans who had lost a relative in the 9-11 terrorist attacks tended to become less religious afterwards.
So what about a different country, and a different trauma? Ajmal Hussain, at the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies in Oslo, quizzed 1,000 Norwegian tourists who were in South East Asia at the time of the 2004 Tsunami – a major disaster that killed over 200,000 people.
The survey was run 2 years after the disaster, at which time 8% reported their religious beliefs had strengthened since before the disaster, and 5% reported that their beliefs had weakened.
Those whose beliefs strengthened also tended to report they had pre-tsunami mental health problems, felt that their life was threatened more, that they had lost a family member or close friend, that they had suffered injuries themselves, and that they had experienced post-traumatic stress and post-tsunami adverse life events. However, after putting all the different factors into a statistical pot (including factors like age, sex and education), only two factors remained important: pre-tsunami mental health problems (which increased the chances of becoming more religious by 80%) and with post-traumatic stress (which increased the chances by 62%).
However, those whose beliefs weakened also tended to report that their life was threatened more, and that they had post-traumatic stress and post-tsunami adverse life events! They also tended to be younger – and both age and post-traumatic stress remained important after adjusting for other factors.
Hussain conclude that living through the terrifying events of the Tsunami did not have much effect on the religious beliefs of Norwegians (they were, after all, repatriated within days of the event and, apart from this event, live mostly trauma-free lives).
However, those who were the most traumatised were more likely to change their religious beliefs – but the effect could go either way. To me, this suggests that whether trauma makes you more or less religious probably depends a lot on your cultural background.
Hussain, A., Weisaeth, L., & Heir, T. (2010). Changes in religious beliefs and the relation of religiosity to posttraumatic stress and life satisfaction after a natural disaster. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 46 (10), 1027-1032 DOI: 10.1007/s00127-010-0270-7