Humility mitigates trauma and religious doubt

Young woman praying in a church

While many researchers focus on the positive health benefits of religion, religion’s detrimental effects should not be ignored. For instance, religion can provide a source of stress relief, but it can also cause stress in its own way. Moments of religious doubt can indeed increase a religious person’s stress levels. Fortunately, research by Neal Krause and R. David Hayward (both of the University of Michigan) suggests that humility can offset not only religious doubt, but also personal trauma.

Religious doubt itself can come from stress. The researchers suggest two ways in which this can happen. First, by witnessing the suffering of others, and second, by experiencing suffering first-hand. Either way, the problem boils down to why a good God would let bad things happen to good people. Stress works by wearing down a person’s sense of sense control in their life, but many religious people can accept this loss of control because their understanding of God fills this very void. That is, God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence assures them that their momentary crisis where they have no control is in fact in good hands. However, especially if things worsen, people may begin to ask where God is – or if there’s a God at all. In this way, stress can lead to religious doubt.

The researchers hypothesize that humility mitigates the effects of trauma. Trauma represents the pinnacle of a personal stressor because it leaves scars on one’s psyche. A person may easily get over daily stressors, but a trauma stays forever (and hence people will continually ask why God allowed this to occur). Humility can mitigate trauma in three ways. First, stressors (and especially traumatic events) typically threaten a person’s sense of self-worth, and humility relieves the person of having to maintain a strong sense of self-worth. What stressors attack no longer requires defending. Second, humility leads people to be more open to suggestions, and thus they can explore new ways to cope and adjust. Finally, humility directly combats pride, which means that a humble person will more likely find support from others during trauma when compared to a prideful person – because a prideful person tends to use people as means to an ends for their own advancement. In other words, prideful people are less likely to find support when they’re down. By learning humility, people can make friends who are really friends.

But how does any of this help someone deal with religious doubt? Humility may transform traumatic events from something that causes religious doubt to something that increases faith. A humble person may see a traumatic event as a spiritual trial that they must endure, and since they do not desire a strong sense of self and are open to new ways of coping, they may see this trauma as an opportunity to live and understand their faith. In this sense, a humble person practically needs trauma for his or her spiritual growth.

To test their proposed theories about humility, the researchers relied on data gathered from older adults. They chose older adults because research suggests that feelings of humility grow as one grows older. They analyzed data gathered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The CMS surveyed Americans age 66 or older in a series of four waves (2001, 2004, 2007, and 2008). Unfortunately, only the 2007 and 2008 waves administered items about humility. Some of these items included, “I always admit when I am wrong,” “I am always humble about the good things that happen to me,” and “I do not act as if I am a special person.” Questions about religious doubt focused on the frequency of religious doubt, and questions about lifetime trauma included items such as “Has a spouse ever died suddenly – when you didn’t expect it?,” “Has a child ever died?,” “Have you ever been in a major fire, flood, earthquake or other natural disaster?” and “Did your parents get divorced before you were 18 years old?”

As expected, exposure to lifetime trauma correlated with an increase in religious doubt for older people with low or average levels of humility. For those with high levels of humility, the researchers found that “the deleterious effects of lifetime trauma on religious doubt are completely offset.” In other words, humility completely cancels out religious doubt instilled by trauma.

Even for the non-religious person who does not struggle with religious doubt, humility can provide a buffer against major stressors like lifetime traumas. More than that, although they do not believe in a higher power, the self-surrendering power of humility may give non-religious people the benefit of one of the classical virtues: hope.

For more, see “Humility, Lifetime Trauma, and Change in Religious Doubt Among Older Adults” in The Journal of Religion and Health.

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