Guest Blog: Religion

by Dr. Alice Jones

LISTEN: Religion Podcast

I found this week’s show compelling and thought-provoking; bringing up an issue with no clear answer; no obvious right way to respond. As a psychologist, I’m interested in resilience and psychological functioning after trauma, and so I’ve decided to think more here about the associations between religiosity and trauma. I’m interested in why ‘George’s’ parents have rejected their previous set of beliefs and embraced a new faith.

For some, trauma seems to lead to becoming more open to religion and spirituality. ‘George’s’ parents have been through something distressing and life-changing, and as some result of this have re-examined their ideas about the world and affiliated themselves to a religion. That’s not to say that their development of faith is a maladaptive response to the accident and difficult recovery. Many people use religious actions to cope when times are tough, when at other times they would not consider themselves to be active believers. While some trauma survivors find their faith a comfort, others find it a source of distress and anxiety, while others abandon their faith altogether. The relationship between faith and trauma is not clear-cut.

Philippa, John and Ian discuss the idea of seeking structure and rigidity as a response to the trauma, and this is also something that has been explored by psychologists. People recovering from traumatic events often need to develop a new sense of self, and as Philippa suggested, create a new narrative about their lives. One important way trauma disrupts our lives is by shattering our assumptions about the amount of power and control we exert over our selves and the world around us. People who find religion after a major life event often credit this with their recovery, and it’s certainly not the case that turning to an existing faith, or developing a new sense of faith is as unreasonable as ‘George’ thinks. Several studies on religiosity and coping after trauma have noted that aspects of faith and spirituality, like using religion as a distraction, or actively giving over control of a difficult situation are associated with recovery and growth. It’s also been suggested that the social support aspects of religious involvement are associated with better outcomes. This is hardly surprising, given that supportive social networks have been consistently demonstrated to be associated with better coping and better mental health.  

It sounds like one of the things that ‘George’ is struggling with most isn’t the development of faith in his parents, but their change in views. It seems like there’s a lot of judging going on here. ‘George’ observes his parents becoming more ‘judgemental’, while at the same time seeming to judge his parents for turning to faith. Rigid and close-minded thinking is certainly not the preserve of active believers. ‘George’s’ relationship with his parents has changed dramatically, and this is tough to deal with. The feeling of grief for the loss of the parent-child relationship that ‘George’ has grown up with is palpable. John raises the point that ‘George’ might want to think about his and his parents’ reliance on certainties; exchanging dogmatic atheism for born-again Christianity, and I think this is something worth exploring. I realize that ‘George’ might want his parents back, but I don’t think this is about to happen. Instead, I hope that ‘George’ and his parents can work out a way of understanding each others’ viewpoints, without either feeling judged or less valued.

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