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The Religious Dimension of Coping: The Roles of Cosmologies and Religious Practices


To many people in the world, being able to turn to a transcendental sphere provides a key resource in coping with adversity. Religious beliefs shape the way humans face disaster, as they provide interpretative frames for meaning-making, values with which believers can face hardship, solace through religious practices, or support from religious communities. However, dominant coping and disaster theories have cultivated a negative stereotype of religion as fatalism, which tells us little about the religious context referred to, but a great deal about the implicit values of these approaches themselves, namely the notion of human control. Using the ethnographic context of post-earthquake Bantul, Java, this chapter provides an example of how belief in divine omnipotence and relative human weakness may serve as a consoling truth. Against this cosmological background, this chapter explores religious meaning-making processes in the aftermath of disaster, where survivors sought answers to “how” and “why” the destructive force had unfolded. It continues by discussing the coping resources provided by the belief in divine omnipotence, human fate, the notion of divine lessons, and instantiation of the triad of human acceptance, surrender, and effort. In concluding, we address religion as containing both vertical and horizontal relationships, where believers find support in their personal communication with God and their religious communities.


  • Religious coping
  • Meaning-making
  • Prayer
  • Cosmologies
  • Islam
  • Javanism
  • Kejawen
  • Surrender
  • Fatalism
  • Disaster

This chapter was written by the first author, based on her conceptual work and in-depth analysis of the data. The second author’s contribution to the chapter lies in the preliminary analysis of data on this same subject.

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Fig. 12.1


  1. 1.

    More in-depth interview material on religious matters might have provided us with a clearer picture, though a certain degree of indistinctiveness may be a characteristic of the field itself, as Beatty (1999) has argued for Banyuwangi.

  2. 2.

    As indicated by this literal translation, the emic term is grammatically ambivalent, designating either a singular divine being or plural divine beings. Yang kuasa might be imagined as one or many, leaving interpretative flexibility to contestations of pantheistic and monotheistic perspectives (see Beatty 1999).

  3. 3.

    The Indonesian term peringatan even literally translates as “reminder”. Accordingly, Schlehe (2006) has chosen the German translation Erinnerung.

  4. 4.

    Most interviews did not touch upon physical explanations of the event because the interview guidelines rather asked about assigned meanings (makna, arti) and the subjective relevance of the event rather than causal explanations.

  5. 5.

    Such differences call for reflections on the intersubjectivity of research: our interviews were conducted by Indonesian university students, who interviewed a range of village elite and ordinary residents. Talking to young representatives of the Indonesian academia, village residents might have elaborated on views of disaster they thought would be “acceptable” according to such standards, while neglecting others. Conversely, Schlehe might have produced the opposite tendency, as she has been researching kejawen mythology for many years and based her data on interviews conducted with people she specifically approached to elaborate on spiritual aspects of the earthquake in 2006 (see Schlehe 2006).

  6. 6.

    The phrase “izal zull zillaha” is a Javanese pronunciation of the first words of the sura, “The earthquake” in Arabic, which refers to Judgment Day: “When the earth is shaken violently in its [last] quaking, when the earth throws out its burdens, when man cries, ‘What is happening to it?’; on that Day, it will tell all because your Lord will inspire it [to do so]. On that Day, people will come forward in separate groups to be shown their deeds: whoever has done an atom’s-weight of good will see it, but whoever has done an atom’s-weight of evil will see that.“ (Quran 99: 18).

  7. 7.

    The concepts of surrender (pasrah) and acceptance (nirmo) are closely interrelated and commonly deduced from each other. Even though respondents used both terms almost interchangeably, in its syntactical use, pasrah is related to the transcendent (pasrah sama/ kepada tuhan), and is therefore translated as surrender, whereas the Javanese nrimo or the Indonesian menerima, if specified by an object, refers to the acceptance of a situation (nrimo lelakon/menerima keadaan).

  8. 8.

    From the perspective of life conduct, the correlation between acceptance and effort is discussed as consideration of inwardly and outwardly directed agency in Chap. 11.

  9. 9.

    He further tied this principle of self-guidance to four key codes of conduct, presented by Pak Priyanto in yet another metaphor: “Every human alive needs reins (kendali). Just as animals have bridles and cars or bicycles have brakes, humans need ethical principles: patience (sabar), faith in the divine (tawakal), surrender (pasrah), remembering (ingat) [the divine].”

  10. 10.

    Ceremonies for the deceased should be held after 3, 7, 40, 100, and 1,000 days.

  11. 11.

    Curhat is an abbreviation of curah(an) hati, literally ‘pouring out one’s heart’.

  12. 12.

    This case was elaborated by Tiara R. Widastuti in her presentation “Earthquake and its relief processes as triggers of social inclusion and exclusion: a case study in Bantul, Yogyakarta” at the Congress of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology in Melbourne, Australia, 08.07.2010.


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The editors would like to thank Robert Parkin for his assistance in editing this chapter.

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Correspondence to Mechthild von Vacano .

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von Vacano, M., Schwarz, S. (2014). The Religious Dimension of Coping: The Roles of Cosmologies and Religious Practices. In: Zaumseil, M., Schwarz, S., von Vacano, M., Sullivan, G., Prawitasari-Hadiyono, J. (eds) Cultural Psychology of Coping with Disasters. Springer, New York, NY.

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