World Disasters Report 2014 – Chapter 2

How religion and belief influence attitudes to risk

Why is it that even when they have information about a hazard, not everyone acts to minimize the impact?

This chapter describes how people’s perceptions and attitudes towards risk are shaped by religion, custom and social norms. Religion is a particularly important driver of perceptions and behaviour.

The two dimensions of belief that emerge most prominently in the context of disaster risk reduction (DRR) are the way it forms an obstacle to reducing risk and influences people’s understanding of it.

Religion and other belief systems have been studied extensively in the sociology of religion, cultural anthropology, ethnology and the psychology of risk, yet this knowledge is rarely consulted in disaster risk management. The challenge lies in exploring people’s risk perceptions and practices without suggesting that one version of reality is superior to another.

It is difficult to look past religious and other beliefs because they are sometimes the main cause of people exposing themselves to natural hazards. Outsiders’ responses to religious interpretations of risk can be negative. Recognizing that people see the world in different ways is a crucial first step. DRR and CCA practitioners cannot simply wish people’s beliefs away.

Spirituality and belief influence perceptions of nature, including how natural hazards and associated risks are interpreted. For example, religious faith provides social networks and hope. The associated customs, rituals and traditions provide structure and identity.

Religion and other beliefs play an important role because they help explain disasters. This can help people deal with why something devastating happened to them: they can turn to their beliefs for comfort.

But to the disaster management professional, traditional beliefs can seem unhelpful –even to the point of unnecessarily increasing people’s exposure to risk.

Today there are scientific explanations for earthquakes, but one need go back only 100 years to see that there was a diversity of beliefs, usually grounded in religion or culture. Natural hazards (volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in particular) were once widely interpreted as a result of actions by a divine being within the Earth.

All over the world, there are examples of beliefs through which people seek to influence natural phenomena by attempting to communicate their wishes to the gods, and religion has modified them.

Culturally grounded knowledge about environmental risks was nurtured by most people exposed to them because it rationalized danger. Communities felt in control, commonly seeking fault within themselves, or evil intent from outside, when disaster struck.

Defining environmental risk and agreeing how to reduce it are not easy. Several examples show how people have incorporated disasters into their world view and do not aim to avoid them – Vanuatu in the Pacific, for example, where volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunami are perceived as ‘social’ rather than ‘natural’ events.

Belief systems also influence responses to climate change. While most Pacific island governments, facing rising sea levels, have embraced the rhetoric of global change, little of this has filtered down to the people, most of whom consider that their devotion to God is sufficient to protect them.

Climate change poses a different series of environmental risks that are longer-term and unprecedented for most of the world. It will, therefore, test the effectiveness of many traditional beliefs, a situation made worse by increasing population density.

The first step to changing the way that DRR institutions deal with religion and beliefs is to understand how they consider them at the moment. Belief systems generally play no part in national policy on environmental risk or threats. At sub-national levels, local belief systems are sometimes more prominent and may result in refocusing national priorities.

One major issue in many countries is whether coastal settlements vulnerable to rising sea levels should relocate – an issue in which religious beliefs can play a role. In some Pacific islands, many Christians believe that God will ensure their homes are not submerged.

Pointing to a divine cause of a disaster allows politicians and leaders to avoid taking the blame. This is useful when poor city planning, bad road construction or corruption are really what are translating a hazard into a disaster.

Religious organizations have tended to focus on aiding their own members after disasters because of easier access, but this has lessened with acceptance of non-discrimination.

Research on beliefs and risk has begun to creep slowly into the mainstream. The most recent Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that cultural dimensions need to be considered to help reduce vulnerability to climate change.

Most international organizations and donors are agnostic, arguing that to be otherwise would be to introduce a degree of subjectivity into analyses that should be informed solely by science.

Key aspects

There are at least six reasons why beliefs are relevant to disaster risk reduction. The positive ones are that beliefs:

  • help people cope
  • provide a reserve of social capital
  • provide a platform for education about risk reduction.

Those that are less helpful involve beliefs that:

  • hamper building back differently or relocating
  • contribute to vulnerability
  • make it difficult to educate about risk reduction.

People are uncomfortable with the unknown and use belief systems to help explain or understand what is happening to them and around them. Culturally significant explanations develop because they rationalize people’s continued exposure to hazards. While these can certainly be frustrating for disaster reduction professionals, religion and spirituality should be recognized as a form of social capital and prioritized as such for recovery.

The issue of beliefs and disasters is complex and provokes strong emotions. It is difficult to speak about the topic without immediately disclosing one’s own world view. At the same time, problems are likely to arise if disaster managers fail to take this crucial aspect of culture into account.