Jamie Aten on Reconciling God & Disasters

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and A Walking Disaster . In 2016, he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion Award at the White House. Follow on Twitter @drjamieaten. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


When disaster strikes, research shows that many people turn to religion to make meaning and cope in the aftermath. But significant traumatic events like disasters can challenge peoples’ previously held beliefs and experiences, including their idea of God.

This can threaten to turn their worldviews upside down. They may wonder how God allowed this tragedy to happen, or how to reconcile their idea of a “good” God with the reality of pain and suffering they see.

Within the psychology of religion/spirituality literature, this is often referred to as a “head-heart discrepancy.” This may lead to what is known as religious cognitive dissonance. The Encyclopedia of Religion and Society explains the phenomenon as follows:

People prefer a situation in which their cognitions are consistent with each other and their cognitions are consistent with their behaviors. If there are inconsistencies among a person’s cognitions, or between cognitions and behaviors, these will cause disquiet in the person, leading him or her to seek some resolution of the discomfort.

Simply put, the bigger the discrepancy, the more likely people will feel stressed as they try to reconcile their disaster experience with their established religious beliefs and experiences.

To better understand why some people might experience greater religious cognitive dissonance than others in the aftermath of a disaster, our team at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute recently conducted a laboratory study led by Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren (Hope College) and published our findings in the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

Particularly, we wanted to better understand what role the centrality of one’s religious belief might play. We measured the degree to which religion acts as a guide for people’s lives through a scale that measures what is technically known as intrinsic religiousness.

According to the Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine:

Intrinsic religiousness (initially and still sometimes referred to as intrinsic religiosity) is characterized as religion that is an end in itself, a master motive. Thus, individuals described by intrinsic religiousness view their religion as the framework for their lives, and they try to consistently live the religion they believe. A prototypic intrinsic religiousness test item is, ’My whole approach to life is based upon my religion.’

The study was comprised of 149 participants who were randomly designated to watch one of four brief video clips that ran for approximately three minutes in length, without sound to reduce confounding variables that could have been introduced (i.e., some sounds may have been perceived as more threatening than others).

More specifically, participants watched clips of one of the following: raging forest fire, 9/11 terrorist attacks, Deepwater Horizon oil spill (oil vessel on fire flowing into ocean), or serene nature images.

Findings showed that individuals for whom religion played a less significant role in their daily life were more likely to view God as less loving and good after watching video clips of the raging fire or 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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Source: Christianity Today