Religious belief allows people to hope against hope when the odds are stacked against them
I was in Rome last week attending a conference on the Catholic media with 200 other journalists from 85 countries. Most were from Spanish-speaking countries, including a delegation from Chile.
During one of the sessions, a member of the Chilean delegation unfurled the Chilean flag and on it was written the signatures of the 33 miners who have been pulled out of their underground prison over the past couple of days.
On Thursday, the last day of the conference, the flag was presented to the Pope in person. This was only one small example of the role, the overwhelmingly positive role that religion and faith has played in this drama.
Every inch of the way, the miners and their families have been fortified by their own prayers and the prayers of millions upon millions of other people.
The rescue operation was called Operation San Lorenzo, after St Laurence, the patron saint of miners. In August, when they found the men, a statue of San Lorenzo, complete with miner's hat, was brought to the site and an impromptu shrine set up that people prayed at day and night.
The Chilean president had a statue of the saint brought to the presidential palace.
Underground, the miners set up their own shrine and were each provided with a set of rosary beads blessed by the Pope. They knew he was among the millions of other Christians praying for them.
As the men emerged from their ordeal one by one, many of them blessed themselves or fell on their knees or looked heavenward.
The second man rescued, Mario Sepulveda, the one who hugged everyone he could find, told the cameras a little later how he had met both God and the devil while he was trapped down below, but that God had won and his faith had helped to sustain him.
Another miner said he had been "praying to God all the time".
Jonathan Vega, the brother of Alex Vega, yet another of the miners, said, "God has given me a lesson about life."
When people face adversity like this it is religion they frequently turn to and this has been shown time and again.
When Flight 1549 crash-landed in the Hudson River in January 2009, many of the passengers told journalists about how they had prayed their way through the ordeal.
Similarly, many of those who lived (or died) through the events of September 11 turned to their faith for strength.
When the Asian tsunami killed a quarter of a million people in 2004 most of the families of the victims, to judge from reports, didn't turn away from God, they turned towards Him.
In 1972, a plane crash-landed in the Andes and the survivors famously sustained themselves physically by cannibalising the dead passengers. But their faith played a huge part in sustaining them psychologically, as documented in the book and the movie, 'Alive'.
(By the way, why is it that in real-life disasters people almost always pray, but almost never in disaster movies, 'Alive' being an exception, seeing as it is based on real life?)
The media reporting on the rescue of the miners spent a lot of their time talking to psychologists and other counsellors about the likely psychological effects of the ordeal upon the men.
They would have been better off speaking to chaplains about the role religion plays in helping people to cope with adversity. And it does help. We know this now from research.
For example, people who practise a religion live longer on average than those who don't. One reason for this is that they tend to be healthier because they're less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, for instance.
Religious believers are also less likely to commit suicide, or succumb to depression. They recover faster from serious illness. They get over a bereavement faster.
One reason believers can cope better with adversity is because they have a source outside themselves to which they can turn and that helps them to accept whatever is in store for them.
It allows them to hope against hope when the odds are stacked against them, and when all is lost, it allows them to accept that fact, not to rage against it, and to seek forgiveness for any wrong they may have done and therefore go to God in peace.
Of course, this doesn't prove that there is a God. Nor is it saying that people who don't practise religion can't cope with adversity, because many can, sometimes better than people who do have faith.
But research shows that, on average, it is better in these situations to have a religious faith and it is completely natural to think of God and to pray in such circumstances because religion is a natural and ineradicable part of human nature.
The story of the Chilean miners proves this yet again. Faith is what helped many of these men to cope with their ordeal. The old adage says, 'no atheists in foxholes'.
Now we know there are no atheists in collapsed mines either.