October 14th, 2010
05:17 PM ET
They survived for more than two months a half mile under the Earth's surface, and when the 33 trapped miners in Chile came out, many of them praised God.
Mario Sepulveda said he buried 40 years of his life down there. "I was with God, and I was with the devil. They fought, and God won."
Mario Gomez used to get annoyed that his wife asked him to say daily prayers. But trapped in darkness, he revisited his relationship with God and asked that a crucifix and statuettes of saints be sent down so the miners could construct a shrine.
That the miners found God in their moments of fear is not unusual. It happens to survivors of horrific events, hostages, prisoners and soldiers. Everyone has heard the phrase: There are no atheists in foxholes.
But how many of these "crisis conversions" endure?
Not many, if you ask theologian Tom Long.
"For a small percentage, this is a genuinely life-changing experience," said Long, who teaches at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. "For most people, it wanes and they settle back into their old way of life."
Long recalled how churches across America were packed on the Sundays that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He was asked then by journalists whether that was a sign of a religious renaissance in the United States. He predicted no - and he was right.
"There has been no upsurge in church membership," he said.
How long a renewal of faith lasts depends on whether the person was spiritually inquisitive or restless before the crisis event, Long said. In that case, the crisis becomes a catalyzing moment rather than an originating one, and the chances of that person continuing on that journey are much greater.
Much also depends on whether that person seeks out a community of people who reinforce the newfound faith.
Ralph Hood, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said many people come out of crisis thinking: "God has a purpose for me."
But if they cannot find the proper support group to help them continue to frame their lives in terms of God, they are likely to slip back into their former selves. They need a church, a mosque, a synagogue. They need interaction with others who will help nurture their newfound faith, said Hood, co-author of "The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach."
Terry Anderson, who was taken hostage in 1985 by Shiite militants in Lebanon for seven long years, continues to hold onto his rediscovered Catholicism more than two decades later.
He was brought up in the church but lost his religion somewhere along the way. He was starting to rethink his faith when he was kidnapped. For him, captivity served as a catalyst.
He likes to tell a story of how one of his guards asked him if he needed anything and his answer was: "I want a book. I want a Bible."
He read it cover-to-cover for seven years.
He told a Kentucky audience earlier this year that he was still on his faith journey, according to an article posted on the Campbellsville University website.
In the early 1980s, the Israeli motivational speaker Yossi Ghinsberg got lost and survived three weeks in the Bolivian jungle. The son of an atheist said in a 2006 CNN interview that he could never go back to life the way he knew it.
"There is one moment in anybody's life when you go down on your knees and you cry for help," he said. "It's like in the core, just like survival. You don't need to learn it. Also faith. So I found that, and that makes life a totally different experience."
If anyone should know about enduring conversions, it's Chuck Colson, the former aide to President Richard Nixon who entered a guilty plea to Watergate-related charges.
He entered Alabama's Maxwell Prison in 1974 as a new Christian and when he got out, he founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, the world's largest outreach to prisoners.
"In my life, I was certainly converted to Christ at a time of stress," Colson said. "I am stronger in my faith today than I was then."
Colson said that faith-based programs have helped lower recidivism rates. To him, that's evidence of prisoners following a path of God.
"What we are dealing with here is a lasting phenomena," he said. "Once people have made that turn in their life, once they have understood what it is to follow Christ, they don't want to turn back.
Colson, like the rest of the world, watched the televised rescue of the 33 trapped miners in Chile this week. He watched some of them drop to their knees and make the sign of the cross.
They must have had the same feeling that Colson had when he walked out of jail, he thought.
"I'm free. It took my breath away," he said. "I know just what was going through their minds when they came out of that mine shaft. They faced life and death - and they knew what life meant."
That's different than praying to God or reading the Bible once in a while, Colson said. That's when you connect the dots.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.