In 1457, the inhabitants of a small French town witnessed a gruesome murder of a little boy. The perpetrator, a female, snuck into the house while the child’s mother was out and mutilated the little boy while he lay in bed. The townsfolk found the perpetrator covered in blood and placed her on trial. They found her guilty and then she was hung by an executioner.
This story may not seem surprising—a murder followed by trial and punishment—but what distinguishes it is that the perpetrator was not a human but a pig. And that the townsfolk pressed criminal charges instead of making bacon suggests that they weren’t just looking to end a threat, but to find someone to blame. Though we may scoff at the foolishness of French peasants, recent research suggests that when bad things happen, people universally look for something to someone to blame. And when people can’t hold livestock accountable, they often find another, more powerful agent – God.
Scholars have proposed numerous reasons why many people believe in God: Shielding us from the fear of death, explaining celestial motions, or even making us moral. New research coming out of our lab, however, suggests that what compels us to believe in God isn’t a desire to explain unexplainable events per se, but unexplainable moral events. There is something special about receiving harms or help that lead us to see a higher purpose. So, when a tree falls in the forest without explanation we might shrug it off, but when that tree fall on our brother, we ask God “Why?!”
In one study, we described a scenario in which a family went for a picnic in the bottom of a ravine. Mid-way through the picnic, water suddenly rushes through the gorge; half of participants read that the cause was unexplained or that it was due to an evil dam worker upstream. These two conditions were crossed with another manipulation, which told readers that the family either escaped with soggy sandwiches or perished in the flood. Only in the case where the cause was unexplained and the family died, did people think that God had a hand.
This suggests that people believe in God most strongly for suffering, rather than salvation. For though we may thank God for good things, it’s the things that go wrong that we really ponder over. It is when we’re victims of disease or misfortune that we really search for someone to blame for our woes. Nowhere is this more apparent than after Hurricane Katrina, when leaders across the country suggested that God sent the storm to punish people for their evil ways.
This idea that suffering leads to belief in God was further confirmed in a study that looked at religious belief and suffering on a state by state basis. Those states that had a higher “suffering index,” a composite death rate, disease rate, and crime rate also believed more in God. Of course, questions of religious belief are complex, but this suggests that the more you suffer, the more power you ascribe to the Almighty.
Kurt Gray is a social psychology professor at the University of North Carolina.
This article appeared in Psychology Today on 12 January 2010