“Few men are so obstinate in their atheism that a pressing danger will not compel them to the acknowledgment of a divine power.” —Plato (428-348 B.C.)
“I don’t believe in God, though I’m not prepared to call myself an atheist either. You know the old phrase: ‘There are no atheists in foxholes.’ I’ve never been in a foxhole, and if I ever find myself in a foxhole, I’ll let you know if I believe in God or not.” —Ed Asner (The Forward interview, 2012)
“Riesengebirge” by David Caspar Friedrich (c. 1810) from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts collection.
Source: David Caspar Friedrich painting/Public domain
“There are no atheists in foxholes” is an aphorism that addresses how people who didn’t previously consider themselves religious will have the knee-jerk reaction to pray for help from a “higher power” when they find themselves in a life-or-death crisis. Have you ever found yourself in a perilous situation and prayed for divine intervention? Would you consider yourself a religious or spiritual person?
New research on “religiosity and resilience” deconstructs the coping mechanisms used by religious people in times of distress and highlights “the mediating role of reappraisal and coping self-efficacy in the protecting role of religious coping against anxiety and depression symptoms.” These findings (Dolcos et al., 2021) were published on January 7 in the Journal of Religion and Health.
By pinpointing two emotion regulation mechanisms (cognitive reappraisal and coping self-efficacy) that mediate the link between psychological well-being and religious coping, this study has secular implications that could help agnostics and atheists boost their resilience without necessarily believing in God.
For some context: Cognitive reappraisal is defined as “the attempt to reinterpret an emotion-eliciting situation in a way that alters its meaning and changes its emotional impact.” (Lazarus & Alfert, 1964) Coping self-efficacy reflects the degree that someone thinks he or she can effectively cope with hardship and life challenges.
“It appears that religious people are making use of some of the same tools that psychologists have systematically identified as effective in increasing well-being and protecting against distress,” first author Florin Dolcos, professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said in a news release. “This suggests that science and religion are on the same page when it comes to coping with hardship.”
For this study, the researchers recruited 203 study participants and had them answer questions about their religious and spiritual beliefs; test subjects also filled out out a questionnaire designed to have them self-report “measures of religious coping, habitual use of specific coping strategies (positive reappraisal) and perceived confidence in using coping strategies.”
“We asked them about their coping styles,” coauthor Kelly Hohl of the Dolcos Lab explained in the news release. “So, for religious coping, we asked if they try to find comfort in their religious or spiritual beliefs. We asked them how often they reappraise negative situations to find a more positive way of framing them or whether they suppress their emotions.”
As mentioned, this research suggests that the combination of positive reappraisal and having faith in one’s ability to cope with distress are at the heart of effective religious coping.
“[Our] results point to a mediating role of reappraisal and coping self-efficacy as part of mechanisms that provide a protecting role of religious coping against emotional distress,” the authors conclude. “These results provide novel scientific evidence further validating millennia-old traditional coping practices and shed light on psychological factors influencing adaptive behaviors that promote increased resilience, reduce symptoms of distress, and maintain emotional well-being.”
“Riesengebirge” 1810 oil on canvas painting by Caspar David Friedrich from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts collection (public domain)