Hurricane Katrina was one of the deadliest and most expensive natural disasters in the history of our country. The only explanation many people could conjure, once the floods subsided and the debris settled, was that Katrina was "an act of God." But not everyone invoked God to explain the devastation. So why is it that some people rely on religious explanations for catastrophic events while others do not?

Certainly religious identification (and the demographic factors that predict it, such as being a member of a racial or ethnic minority, or having a lower level of education) may play a role. But Nicole Stephens, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, suspected that religious belief was not the only factor.

Data from recent laboratory studies suggest that feelings of uncertainty and helplessness often drive participants to search for meaning wherever they can. Disasters such as Katrina are, of course, prime candidates for engendering these sorts of feelings in the real world. Stephens reasoned that the more devastation an individual experienced, the more anxiety and helplessness he would feel, and thus the more likely he would be to invoke God as a way of offsetting these feelings. Specifically, she hypothesized that, for survivors of Hurricane Katrina, more hardship—defined as “unpredictable, uncontrollable, and disruptive experiences”—would lead to more “religious meaning-making.”

“We basically found that demographics alone can’t explain religious meaning-making. It’s not that clear-cut.”

Study 1: Hurricane Katrina Survivors
Stephens, along with her research colleagues Stephanie Fryberg of the University of Arizona and Hazel Markus and MarYam Hamedani of Stanford University, asked 75 Hurricane Katrina survivors two open-ended questions: What happened to you before and after the hurricane, and why do you think the hurricane happened? In addition, demographic information was collected, and survivors were asked to rate their own levels of religiosity.

Most hardships reported by the survivors fell into one of four categories: watching people die, seeing dead bodies, having belongings destroyed, and experiencing persistent hardship for more than a month. Researchers also classified survivors’ subjective psychological reactions to these hardships: these fell in the categories of fear, anger, and distress.

When asked to explain why Hurricane Katrina had happened, over a third of the survivors (35%) attributed the storm to an act of God (e.g., “It was all God’s doing. I think it was God’s way of slowing some of that down.”). As expected based on previous research, participants who were African American had lower levels of educational attainment, had higher self-reported levels of religiosity, and were more likely to explain the storm in terms of God.

But even after controlling for these demographic factors, the degree of hardship survivors experienced predicted the frequency with which they invoked God to explain the hurricane. "We basically found that demographics alone can't explain religious meaning-making. It's not that clear-cut," Stephens says. "It turns out that people's individual experiences are also very important to whether they interpret those experiences in terms of God or not."  Interestingly, however, survivor’s subjective psychological responses—how they reported dealing with these hardships—did not predict religious meaning-making.

Study 2: A Cross-cultural Perspective
In 2010, an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.8 on the Richter scale shook Chile. Stephens and her colleagues wondered whether their findings from the study of Hurricane Katrina survivors could be extended to the Chilean earthquake survivors: Would the degree of hardship experienced by the survivors, more so than their subjective responses to hardship, influence the extent to which they invoked God to explain the disaster?

There are reasons to expect this not to be the case. Unlike survivors of Katrina, who were largely products of an American culture that emphasizes individualism, personal choice, and autonomy, survivors of the Chilean earthquake are products of a culture that emphasizes collectivism, solidarity with one’s family, and a desire for harmonious interpersonal relations. The two nations also differ in racial composition and religious tradition. But according to Stephens, this makes it an ideal test case to explore the universality of the Hurricane Katrina survivors’ experiences. "We look for a [cultural] context that is very different, and if you can replicate that research in that context, then you can be more certain you're right about how people function rather than just right about [how they function in] this one particular context," Stephens says.

Despite the difference between the two populations, the same general pattern of results emerged from interviews collected with 96 Chilean earthquake survivors: over a third of the participants described the earthquake as an act of God and, importantly, extreme hardship (but not subjective psychological responses) predicted the frequency with which respondents invoked God above and beyond any effects of demographics or religiosity.

A Wider Understanding
Stephens often conducts research into how experiences within different social-class contexts can shape how people make sense of their lives. This study—which grew out of a larger study conducted with Hurricane Katrina survivors about the effects of class on sense-making before, during and after the storm—was prompted by interesting observations Stephens had made about survivors' explanations for the disasters they had endured.

"The tendency in the U.S. is for people to say that other people do things because they have certain attributes or characteristics," Stephens says, referring to our habit of categorizing people based on their level of education or degree of religiosity. "But we tend to underestimate the environment, or the situation in which people find themselves—how those situations can play a role in how people behave." Put another way, we tend to discount the influence of the accumulation of experiences an individual endures.

"I think what this study suggests is that the types of experiences that someone has in their life can make religious explanations more or less useful for them," Stephens says. "So if you experience a lot of low control, a lot of chaos in your life, then you are probably more likely to explain your life in terms of God versus if you have a lot of certainty and control." Because people who hold lower social standing in American society tend to encounter uncertainty and hardship more frequently in their everyday lives, this study offers a compelling reason why groups with low social status also tend to be more religious.