Perhaps the most readily available and pre-packaged meaning-making systems are given to people through organized religion. Religion is one way a person is mentored into finding meaning. Religion has been considered from the psychological writings of Frankl (2000) as the search for the ultimate meaning. Thus it makes sense that religion and the related factor of spirituality would be variables of interest to a disaster mental health field considering meaning making and growth, especially given the ultimate meaning of the disaster is often what survivors question.
The field of positive psychology engaged world religions and moral philosophies in the process of identifying six core virtues that promote human goodness and flourishing: wisdom, courage, humility, justice, temperance, and transcendence (Peterson and Seligman 2004). Under the six core virtues, researchers identified 24 strengths of character that are pathways to the six core virtues (Niemiec 2013). It has been suggested that the 24 strengths of character are stable personality traits that can and do change after significant life events (Niemiec 2013). This has important implications for mental health care providers, as disaster is a significant life event that can encourage or discourage the development of character strengths. Strengths of character that have associations to trauma, meaning making, and growth include hope, forgiveness, gratitude, self-regulation, and most notably spirituality (Calhoun et al. 2000; Pargament et al. 2004; Park 2005; Werdel et al. 2014).
Spirituality has the potential to frame a person’s life experience. For a person who claims a sense of spirituality, moving through experiences of great stress such as natural disasters will evoke not only psychological but spiritual questions that will be integrated into their meaning-making process. While psychologists and theologians may separate their fields of study, a person attempting to make sense of a disaster may not be so inclined to separate these factors in their search for meaning. The potential for integrating spirituality and psychology is supported by a recent study by the Pew Research Center (2015) that found that almost 77% of Americans identify with a religion. This means that the majority of people who experience disaster claim a religion.
Additionally, research suggests that people with a pre-disaster religiosity who continue to engage with religion have lower levels of psychological distress (Chan and Rhodes 2013). Ali et al. (2012) found that three years post-disaster, self-reports of being “religious minded” correlated with lower PTSD symptoms in a sample of survivors of the 2005 Pakistani earthquake. Similarly, Chan and Rhodes (2013) found that in a sample of 386 low-income mothers surveyed before, one year after, and four years after Hurricane Katrina, negative religious coping was associated with psychological distress, and positive religious coping was associated with PTG. Their research also f ound that religious participants who engaged in church prior to the hurricane and who continued to remain engaged in church experienced psychological growth. The relationship between pre- and post-disaster religiousness and post-disaster PTG is accounted for in part by positive religious coping, or the experience of “a secure relationship with a transcendent force, a sense of spiritual connectedness with others, and a benevolent world view” (Pargament et al. 2011, p. 51). However, positive religious coping is not the only way to engage religion in times of stress and trauma. Negative religious coping, or the feeling of being punished or abandoned by God, is another possible response and is found to have a negative association with well-being after stressful life events (Werdel et al. 2014).
It has been suggested that in times of extreme stress and trauma, religion may be the most unfailing way to make meaning (Park 2005); therefore, understanding the nuances of religious coping is important in disaster work. Spiritual and religious texts consider the question of the existence of suffering. Why does suffering exist? What is our role and relationship to suffering? What is the meaning and purpose of suffering? While no one answer exists, religion and spirituality engage the question of suffering in a way that psychology does not. While psychology can provide understandings of processes and outcomes of stress and trauma, “in regard to why stress and trauma exist in the life of a person sitting across from the therapist, the silence can be deafening at times” (Werdel and Wicks 2012, p. 159). In such times of suffering, the question of the goodness of a silent ultimate spirit or God may readily be raised.
That this question might be raised by anyone who has experienced a natural disaster is to be expected. Anyone who has looked at pictures from before and after Category 5 hurricanes ripped through homes, or who has been asked to don protective gear before returning to piles of broken 2×4’s, nails, and carpet to find barely recognizable matter, understandably questions the existence of God. Anyone who has been asked to have a funeral for a spouse, a sister, a mother, a father, or a brother when no recognizable body was recoverable from flood waters that potentially graved them in mud piles understandably questions the benevolent God. Anyone who has read a story of mass graves after earthquakes destroyed too many bodies to bury as unique people understandably questions an all-powerful deity. Natural disasters, by token of their profound desecration, hold for survivors many questions of how to reconcile disaster and a deity.
A theodicy is an attempt to make sense of evil and suffering in the world and the presence of God. A theodicy “explores five interrelated theological-philosophical questions: (1) the origin of evil; (2) the nature of evil; (3) the problem of evil; (4) the reason for evil; and (5) the end of evil” (Scott 2015, p. 65). Research has provided evidence for the idea that spirituality is multifaceted and that it includes both positive and negative factors and associations with well-being. For some who claim a deity, the face of God is comforting. For others, the face of God is questioned. For others still, theirs is both a comforting and a punishing God. One’s image of God may reveal one’s underlining assumptions of how to answer a theodicy (Doka 2002). A person’s theodicy can alter their perception of stressful life experiences; consequently, it also influences their emotional experiences such as satisfaction with life (Hall and Johnson 2001; Musick 2000). A theodicy formed from a person’s spiritual or religious perspective may provide meaning and purpose in a world filled with existential anxiety produced by life’s unanswerable questions (Crews 1986). Or a person’s theodicy may fuel loneliness, guilt, shame, anxiety, or depression.