Field of Science

How the 2004 Tsunami affected the religious beliefs of Norwegian tourists

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

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I wonder if scans were done, if areas of brain activity would change. I wonder if some people who are more "religious" are grateful for life while some are more scared of Yahweh (for instance). Some come out ready to live with the time they have left, and some want to protect themselves from more disasters with rituals or belief amplification. So I wonder that though the title "religious" is attached, that variances in their inner activity make that word deceptive.

    Or maybe the authors had an operative definition of the word "religious" that isolates that issue.

  2. Is there a control group? Do we know that these people really changed their views because of the tsunami? Maybe these are just regular changes in opinion, or at least not significantly abnormal.

  3. That is a very interesting study. I would tend to agree with your conclusion that how this trauma affected people's religious beliefs has much to do with their cultural background. It seems to me that the people of faith that I know, which is just about everybody I know, manage to include god in some way to all of their trauma's and turn to him for support in those times of need. This would imply that their faith gets stronger.

    The few atheists I associate with, myself, and much of the atheist blogosphere tend to point to these cataclysmic events as another reason why god does not exist, moving themselves further from faith.

    I find it interesting to see this validated by a study. The sad conclusion that I draw from this is that every time people suffer trauma it moves the two groups further apart, leaving little room for civil discourse.

  4. There wasn't a control group as such for this study - although there was a form of control in that some people had been exposed to much more trauma than others.


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