'Gumboot Religion'

Religious Responses to an Australian Natural Disaster


  • Aaron Ghiloni Trinity Theological College & Australian Catholic University
  • Sylvie Shaw University of Queensland




Australia, environmental disasters, religion, secularism, pragmatism


Environmental disasters bring about a palpable intersection of religious, natural, and cultural forces. Following the Queensland floods of 2011, we conducted in-depth interviews with leaders from a wide range of religious traditions. We found that religious responses to the flood were more pragmatic and civic than theological or liturgical. Faced with an extreme weather event, religions offered a robust level of practical support but focused less on questions of doctrine and scripture. They viewed their work as acting for the common good rather than for traditional religious loyalties. Although environmental issues were seen as theoretically relevant to the faith traditions, the flood itself was not understood in terms of either the doctrinal teachings of a religion or the ongoing climate change debates in Australia. An unexpected foil to religious leaders’ understanding of the flood was provided by political leaders who used theologically laden language to explain the crisis. Occurring at the nexus of religion, nature, and culture, Queenslanders’ responses to the flood provide a tangible example of how civil religion is manifested in a disaster event.

Author Biographies

Aaron Ghiloni, Trinity Theological College & Australian Catholic University

Education Coordinator, Moreton Rivers Presbytery, The Uniting Church in Australia

Sylvie Shaw, University of Queensland

Lecturer, Religion and Spirituality Studies, School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics.


ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation]. 2011. ‘Old Floods Damage Australia’s Economic Performance’, ABC News, January 5.

Abdu'l-Baha. 1972. Paris Talks (London: UK Bahá’í Publishing Trust).

ABS [Australian Bureau of Statistics]. 2012. ‘2011 Census Reveals Hinduism as the Fastest Growing Religion in Australia’, June 21. Online: http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/censushome.nsf/home/CO-61?opendocument&navpos=620.

The Australian. 2011. ‘An Inland Tsunami—Like a Fury from Hell’, 15 January.

Bellah, Robert Neelly. 1975. The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time of Trial (New York: Seabury Press).

Benight, Charles C. 2004. ‘Collective Efficacy Following a Series of Natural Disasters’, Anxiety, Stress & Coping 17.4: 401-20. Doi: 10.1080/10615800512331328768.

Bouma, Gary D. 2006. Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the Twenty-first Century (Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press).

Bradfield, Cecil, Mary Lou Wylie, and Lennis G. Echterling. 1989. ‘After the Flood: The Response of Ministers to a Natural Disaster’, Sociological Analysis 49.4: 397-407. Doi: 10.2307/3711225.

Brittain, Christopher G. 2011. Religion at Ground Zero: Theological Responses to Times of Crisis (London/New York: Continuum).

Caniglia, Fiona, and Amy Trotman. 2011. A Silver Lining: Community Development, Crisis and Belonging: Exploring the Role of Community Development in Queensland’s Recovery from the January 2011 Floods (Brisbane: Under One Roof).

Charmaz, Kathy C. 2007. Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide through Qualitative Analysis (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage).

Chester, David K. 2005. ‘Theology and Disaster Studies: The Need for Dialogue’, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 146: 319-28. Doi: 10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2005.03.004.

Chester, David K., and Angus M. Duncan. 2010. ‘Responding to Disasters within the Christian Tradition, with Reference to Volcanic Eruptions and Earthquakes’, Religion 40.2: 85-95. Doi: 10.1016/j.religion.2009.12.005.

Courier Mail. 2011b. ‘Toowoomba and Lockyer Valley Flash Floods Death Toll Rises, Dozens Still Missing’, 12 January.

Cristi, Marcela. 2006. From Civil to Political Religion: The Intersection of Culture, Religion and Politics (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press).

Crouter, Richard. 1990. ‘Beyond Bellah: American Civil Religion and the Australian Experience’, Australian Journal of Politics and History 36.2: 154-65. Doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8497.1990.tb00650.x.

Dewey, John. 1986. A Common Faith: The Later Works of John Dewey, vol. 9 (ed. Jo Ann Boydston; Carbondale/Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press).

Dylan, Bob. 1971. ‘Down in the Flood’, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, vol. 2 (Columbia Records).

———. 2006. ‘Spirit on the Water’, Modern Times (Columbia Records).

Echterling, Lennis G., Cecil Bradfield, and Mary Lou Wylie. 1988. ‘Responses of Urban and Rural Ministers to a Natural Disaster’, Journal of Rural Community Psychology 9.1: 36-46.

Eliade, Mircea. 1959. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Falk, Monica L. 2010. ‘Recovery and Buddhist Practices in the Aftermath of the Tsunami in Southern Thailand’, Religion 40.2: 96-103. Doi: 10.1016/j.religion.2009.12.002.

Hoffman, Susanna M. 1999. ‘The Worst of Times, the Best of Times’, in Anthony Oliver-Smith and Susanna M. Hoffman (eds.), The Angry Earth: Disaster in Anthropological Perspective (New York/London: Routledge): 134-55.

Jencson, Linda. 2001. ‘Disastrous Rites: Liminality and Communitas in a Flood Crisis’, Anthropology and Humanism 26.1: 46-58. Doi: 10.1525/ahu.2001.26.1.46.

Koenig, Harold G. (ed.). 2006. In the Wake of Disaster: Religious Response to Terrorism and Catastrophe (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press).

Kroll-Smith, J. Stephen, and Stephen R. Couch. 1987. ‘A Chronic Technical Disaster and the Irrelevance of Religious Meaning: The Case of Centralia, Pennsylvania’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26.1: 25-37. Doi: 10.2307/1385839.

Levy, Becca R., Martin D. Slade, and Padmini Ranasinghe. 2009. ‘Causal Thinking after a Tsunami Wave: Karma Beliefs, Pessimistic Explanatory Style and Health among Sri Lankan Survivors’, Journal of Religion and Health 48.1: 38-45. Doi: 10.1007/s10943-008-9162-5.

Lichterman, Paul, and C. Brady Potts (eds.). 2008. The Civic Life of American Religion (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press).

Mackellar, Dorothea. 1911. The Closed Door (Melbourne: Australasian Authors’ Agency).

Magowan, Fiona. 2005. ‘Yolngu Waters of Being (Australia)’, in Taylor 2005: 1787-88.

Maller, Cecily, Mardi Townsend, Anita Pryor, Peter Brown, and Lawrence St Leger. 2005. ‘Healthy Nature Healthy People: “Contact with Nature” as an Upstream Health Promotion Prevention for Populations’, Health Promotion International 21.1: 45-54. Doi: 10.1093/heapro/dai032.

Massey, Kevin, and Jeannette Sutton. 2007. ‘Faith Community’s Role in Responding to Disasters’, Southern Medical Journal 100.9: 944-45. Doi: 10.1097/SMJ.0b013e318145a847.

Mayer, F. Stephan, Cynthia McPherson Frantz, Emma Bruehlman-Senecal, and Kyffin Dolliver. 2009. ‘Why Is Nature Beneficial? The Role of Connectedness to Nature’, Environment and Behavior 41.5: 607-43. Doi: 10.1177/0013916508319745.

McGraw, Barbara A. 2003. Rediscovering America's Sacred Ground: Public Religion and Pursuit of the Good in a Pluralistic America (Albany: State University of New York Press).

Memmott, Paul. 2005. ‘Rainbow Serpent (North Wellesley Islands, Australia)’, in Taylor 2005: 1336-37.

Merli, Claudia. 2010. ‘Context-bound Islamic Theodicies: The Tsunami as Supernatural Retribution vs. Natural Catastrophe in Southern Thailand’, Religion 40.2: 104-11. Doi: 10.1016/j.religion.2009.12.003.

MHum, Tuti Alawiyah, Holly Bell, Loretta Pyles, and Rationa C. Runnels. 2011. ‘Spirituality and Faith-Based Interventions: Pathways to Disaster Resilience for African American Hurricane Katrina Survivors’, Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought 30.3: 294-319. Doi: 10.1080/15426432.2011.587.

Morse, Janice M., Phyllis Norager Stern, Juliet M. Corbin, Kathy C. Charmaz, Barbara Bowers, and Adele Clarke. 2009. Developing Grounded Theory: The Second Generation (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press).

Murch, Ausma O., Storm Swain, and Stephen Harding. 2007. ‘Self-Care’, in S. Harding (ed.), Spiritual Care and Mental Health for Disaster Response and Recovery: NYDIS Manual for New York City Religious Leaders (New York: NYDIS): 22-28.

Nugteren, Albertina. 2001. ‘Collective/Public Ritual Behaviour after Disasters: An Emerging Manifestation of Civil Religion?’ (paper presented at the ‘Spiritual Supermarket’ Conference, London School of Economics, April).

Paradise, Thomas R. 2008. ‘Islam and Earthquakes: Seismic Risk Perception in a Muslim City’, Journal of Islamic Law and Culture 10.2: 216-33. Doi: 10.1080/15288170802285447.

Reale, Andreana. 2010. ‘Acts of God(s): The Role of Religion in Disaster Risk Reduction’, Humanitarian Exchange Magazine 48 (October). Online: www.odihpn.org/report.asp?id=3141.

Roach, Catherine M. 2005. ‘Mother Nature Imagery’, in Taylor 2005: 1107-11.

Robinson, Stephen. 2007. Ministry in Disaster Settings: Lessons from the Edge (Atlantis: Frenchs Forest, NSW).

Rorty, Richard. 1989. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511804397.

Rudd, Kevin. 2011. ‘Speech to Thank Australian Volunteers—A Question of Character’, January 24. Online: http://www.foreignminister.gov.au/speeches/2011/kr_sp_110124.html.

Sage, William. 2007. ‘The Faith Community as Immediate and Long-Term Caregiver’, in S. Harding (ed.), Spiritual Care and Mental Health for Disaster Response and Recovery: NYDIS Manual for New York City Religious Leaders (New York: NYDIS): 15-21.

Schmuck, Hanna. 2000. ‘ “An Act of Allah”: Religious Explanations for Floods in Bangladesh as Survival Strategy’, International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 18.1: 85-95.

Schneider, Mary L. 1976. ‘The American Civil Religion Course: Problems and Perspectives’, Religious Education 71.3: 317-29. Doi: 10.1080/0034408760710311.

Shaw, Sylvie. 2009. ‘Snaking its Way through Brisbane’, Nexus (Environmental Sociology) 21.1: 14-16.

Smith, Bruce W., Kenneth Pargament, Curtis Brant, and Joan M. Oliver. 2000. ‘Noah Revisited: Coping by Church Members and the Impact of the 1993 Midwest Flood’, Journal of Community Psychology 28.2: 169-86. Doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1520-6629(200003)28:2<169::AID-JCOP5>3.0.CO;2-I.

Stern, Gary. 2007. Can God Intervene? How Religion Explains Natural Disasters (Westport, CT: Praeger).

Sufrin, Chanoch H. 2011. ‘Proud to Be an Aussie’, Disaster Relief Blog (Chabad Brisbane). Online: http://www.chabadbrisbane.com/templates/blog/default_cdo/ aid/1410124/year/2011/month/1.

Sunday Mail. 2011. ‘For Many, Worst Is Still to Come as Disaster of “Biblical” Proportions Grips State’, 2 January.

Tacey, David. 2000. ReEnchantment: The New Australian Spirituality (Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers).

Taylor, Bron (ed.). 2005. Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (New York: Continuum).

Weaver, Andrew J. 1993. ‘Psychological Trauma: What Clergy Need to Know’, Pastoral Psychology 41.6: 385-408. Doi: 10.1007/BF01032818.

Weaver, Andrew J., Harold G. Koenig, and Frank M. Ochberg. 1996. ‘Posttraumatic Stress, Mental Health Professionals, and the Clergy: A Need for Collaboration, Training, and Research’, Journal of Traumatic Stress 9.4: 847-56. Doi: 10.1002/jts.2490090412

Williams, Rhys H. 1999. ‘Public Religion and Hegemony: Contesting the Language of the Common Good’, in William S. Swatos Jr and James K. Wellman (eds.), The Power of Religious Publics: Staking Claims in American Society (Westport, CT: Praeger): 169-86.

Williams, Rhys H., and N.J. Demerath III. 1991. ‘Religion and Political Processes in an American City’, American Sociological Review 56.4: 417-31. Doi: 10.2307/2096265.

Wright, Judith. 1953. The Gateway (Sydney: Angus & Robertson).



How to Cite

Ghiloni, A., & Shaw, S. (2013). ’Gumboot Religion’: Religious Responses to an Australian Natural Disaster. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 7(1), 27–48. https://doi.org/10.1558/jsrnc.v7i1.27