It sure seems like people turn more toward God when they face tough times.
If life doesn't give us what we need, the anticipation of better things to come in an afterlife offers hope that eternity in heaven will be much more pleasant than the time we spend on Earth.
Thus an interesting letter in New Scientist hypothesizes that as near-universal health insurance through Obamacare/Affordable Care Act becomes more and more of a reality, religiosity in the United States will decline.
We can only hope.
From Rev Dr Derek Suchard
In his review of Ara Norenzayan's Big Gods: How religion transformed cooperation and conflict (28 September, p 52), Michael Bond wonders why the US, one of the most economically developed countries, is still among the most religious. This contrasts with the fact that the world's most secure countries tend to be the least religious.
As a systematic theologian, I have been fascinated by that very phenomenon and have a working hypothesis. This Suchard contention is that, in comparison with much of Europe, the US has an underdeveloped healthcare network and social security safety net, which leaves millions of citizens facing catastrophic illness and abject poverty. Such insecurity, either experienced or feared, means active religiosity and membership in a religious organisation proclaiming that God takes care of his own becomes an attractive source of immaterial comfort and hope, as well as often providing real and tangible material support.
If health and social programmes were implemented in the US to the same level of effectiveness and outcome as in much of Europe, religious society in the US would more closely resemble the unchurched Europeans. Obamacare – which seeks to widen healthcare provision – may provide us with a means of testing this hypothesis.
I am willing to predict that, if implemented in full, it will contribute, probably within one child-bearing generation, to the decrease in church attendance and literalist religious beliefs. European levels would be seen within half a century.
Haarlem, The Netherlands
This makes sense. However, even a fully functioning social safety net can't prevent all distressing things from happening to a country's citizens. Most notably, death.
So Obamacare may lessen the pressure to believe in a loving, caring, nurturing God. But no government program can take away the fear of dying and being non-existent forever. Religions always will be able to promise a benefit -- life eternal -- that earthly institutions are powerless to provide.
Even religious believers, though, appear to care more about the evident here-and-now than an unknown there-and-then.
For example, here in Oregon climbers regularly get lost on Mt. Hood during stormy winter conditions. Their family typically assembles at Timberline Lodge, where search parties take off from. Understandably, worried relatives express hope that their loved one will be found safe and sound.
But if the lost person turns out to have died, usually a TV interview will include the words: "We know that ____ has gone to a better place and is looking down upon us now."
That's a wonderful sentiment. I completely understand why a grieving family member will say this. It's a normal human reaction.
Yet my churchless self also can't help but think, "If life is a worse place than the afterlife, why do Christians and other religious believers worry about people dying on a mountain?"
The reason, I suspect, is that religious beliefs are hopes, not certainties.
So the more life seems hopeless, the stronger is the impetus to look forward to a better afterlife. Conversely, when our basic needs are met, whether through our own actions or a social safety net, the certainty of being supported here on Earth makes supernatural "maybe's" seem flimsy.