Does religion still provide comfort in times of crisis?

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Does religion still provide comfort in times of crisis?

In times of crisis, people look for comfort. For a long time, religion took this function. But what about today, in the age of secularism?

Times of crisis and the feeling of threat

We live in an age of insecurities, uncertainties, and disruption. Worldwide trouble spots such as political unrest, armed conflicts, and the resulting forced flight movements are shaking people’s lives, making them particularly aware of their vulnerability. In addition, there is an increasing destruction of the environment which many people perceive as threatening.[1]

Such global crises contrast with the fact that our immediate life context is largely untouched by threats. For most people in Europe, everyday life is not directly marked by dramatic crises.[2] Therefore, those disturbances are rather abstract and frightening and not at all concrete. Since what worries people remains largely unspecific and therefore incomprehensible, no concrete means can be used to eliminate the threat. For this reason, the very idea of threat can become a particular burden and turn into an uncontrollable and monstrous quantity in one’s thoughts. A similar situation of threat could remind one of the apocalyptic texts of the Bible.[3]

Religious language and the topic of threat

Biblical language and spiritual-religious expressions, however, are little familiar to many people. This extensive loss of religious language means that the linguistic and cultural patterns for articulating fear and anxiety have also largely been lost.[4] This widespread religious speechlessness means that, at least in part, the necessary vocabulary for naming and dealing with the crisis is also lacking. In this area, however, lies one of the core competencies of biblical linguistic tradition: it makes the threat, which is so unspecific and therefore even more disturbing, more tangible and comprehensible, thus reducing the threatening character in the long run.[5]

In view of this situation, the question arises if there is a connection between the mentioned religious speechlessness and existential fears. Pursuing this thought further, another question arises. Can religion still fulfill its comforting function today and give people support in times of crisis?

Between comforting and spreading fear

As an example, dealing with death can be very challenging and overwhelming for most people. Here, rituals can help to guide both the handling of death and the grief of the bereaved into formal channels. They offer guidance for action at a moment when most people find it difficult to make their own decisions. Therefore, many believers find the death and mourning rituals of their religion to be a kind of safety net or guardrails in a difficult life situation.[6][7]

However, faith can give strength not only in exceptional situations, but also in everyday life. In Islam, for example, people pray five times a day. Here, devout Muslims can pause and find confidence. In many verses of the Quran, confidence and trust in God are very important topics. It says in the Quran: “In the remembrance of God, the hearts calm down.”

“You have no guarantee, but a firm certainty that God will stand by you – no matter what happens to you,” says Aiman Mazyek, member of the General Assembly of the Central Council of Muslims.[8] The example of people finding strength in prayer certainly applies not only to Islam, but also to many other religions.

Nevertheless, religion can also cause fear and, in extreme cases, even make some people ill. In her book Wie ist es so im Himmel? (‘What’s it like in heaven?’), the former head of the Evangelical Churches of Germany (EKD), ex-Bishop Käßmann, writes about children made sick by religion. According to Käßmann, there is always a great fear of hell or of a punishing God, especially among children.[9]

A field of tension

As seen in the examples above, a field of tension seems to emerge. On the one hand, religion can give strength by naming fears or taking up strong feelings such as grief and loss, and directing them into hopeful and comforting paths. In Christianity, for example, the hope of resurrection plays an important role. On the other hand, dealing with the question of what comes after death can also fuel fears, for example of eternal damnation.

The impact of religious language

Overall, religion can still have a comforting function today, which is particularly important in times of crisis. This is often expressed in spiritual-religious language, through which, for example, Christian ideas of heaven, hell, and purgatory are transported. However, religious language must be handled with particular care and responsibility so that it does not have the opposite effect.

Maike Domsel

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[1] Domsel, Maike Maria: Hinter dem Horizont. Zum spirituell-religiösen Selbstverständnis von Religionslehrkräften, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer 2023, 164.

[2] Krisen in Raum und Zeit

[3] Domsel, Maike Maria: Hinter dem Horizont. Zum spirituell-religiösen Selbstverständnis von Religionslehrkräften, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer 2023, 178..

[4] Jubilieren. Über religiöse Rede

[5] Theologie und Krise

[6] Tod & Trauer: Den Tod ins Leben einordnen und mit Trauer umgehen

[7] Mourning culture without religion? Dealing with death and dying in secular contemporary societies

[8] Wie Gläubige im Islam Zuversicht finden können

[9] Was ist das Sacco-Syndrom?