Will the COVID-19 pandemic lead to a global spike in religiosity?

Starting the conversation…

Judd Birdsall, Director, Cambridge Initiative on Religion & International Studies, Centre for Geopolitics

Around the world, and especially in the Global South, many religious communities are growing in size, salience, and political influence. How might the current pandemic affect this trend?

Both religion and plague have been central to human experience for millennia. Religious communities have responded to the ravages of epidemics by providing solidarity, assistance, comfort for the dying and bereaved, and spiritual interpretations that help believers to make sense of the disaster. These responses have often reinforced religiosity—for good and ill—in times of crisis.

But what happens when churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and shrines are all closed?

In the modern era we continue to see this dynamic at play. Even in highly developed, highly secularised places like New York and Paris churches were packed for weeks after the calamities of 9/11 and Notre-Dame fire.

But what happens when churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and shrines are all closed? The COVID-19 pandemic is no ordinary plague. In many countries the main sources of comfort that religious groups can provide in times of disaster—worship services, funerals, visitations by clergy—have all been taken away in an effort to enforce social distancing. Many religious groups have adapted by switching to virtual formats, but it’s unclear what impact these stop-gap measures will have on levels of religiosity.

Will these social distancing measures lead to a distancing from routine religious life, as some believers get out of the habit of attending services? Or will this sudden loss of religious services, coupled with the pressures of disease and isolation, lead to a great pent up demand for religious community and ritual?

And it’s worth asking what impact our unprecedented scientific understanding of this pandemic will mean for levels of religiosity. Whereas people in previous centuries had no understanding of the natural, microscopic mechanisms of pestilence and looked for supernatural explanations, we know a great deal about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 respiratory disease. This pandemic is much less mysterious to us than, say, the Black Death was to Medieval Europeans. As religious people face the threat of the coronavirus, will they put their faith more in epidemiologists and medics than in theologians and clerics?

Responses…

Jeanet Sinding Bentzen, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen

In times of crisis, humans have a tendency to turn to religion for stress relief and explanation. In my research I found that people become more religious when hit by natural disasters. They are more likely to rank themselves as a religious person, find comfort in God, and to state that God is important in their lives. It is not so much non-believers turning to religion. Rather believers use their religion more intensively and I find that they pass on this intensified religiosity through generations. The main explanation is religious coping: people use religion as a means to cope with adversity and uncertainty. The2020 COVID-19 pandemic may instigate an intensified use of religion in much the same way.

According to the theory on religious coping, people mainly use religion to cope with large, negative, and unpredictable events, like the COVID-19. Using religion for coping is part of what is termed emotion-focused coping, in which people aim to reduce the emotional distress arising from a situation. When people face perceived negative, but predictable events, such as an approaching job interview, they engage in problem-focused coping, aiming to tackle directly the problem that is causing the stress. This is also what I find in the data: Religiosity increases more in response to unpredictable disasters, compared to predictable ones. 

In keeping with the religious coping theory, the church closures should not dampen the increased religiosity in the face of the pandemic much. People are more likely to use their intrinsic religiosity, such as prayer and personal relation to God, to cope with adversity rather than their extrinsic religiosity, such as churchgoing. When faced with adversity, people are thus more likely to use their private beliefs to cope rather than to go to church. Likewise, natural disasters intensifies private religious beliefs and affect churchgoing to a much lesser extent.

Brian Hollar, Associate Professor, Marymount University

In times past, pandemics and economic contractions were a time when people would draw near to their religious communities. As more people find themselves unemployed, previous experience shows they have more time. In economic jargon, their opportunity cost of church involvement decreases and so we have seen a corresponding increase in church attendance. But the current situation is different on several dimensions. 

First, the nature of the current pandemic restricts the ability for churches to meet in person. Those who were previously active in a church community may still watch their worship services on YouTube or Zoom, but this “virtual church” makes it harder for newcomers to meet others and become involved in the social community of a church, which is (arguably) one of the most valuable services church attendance provides. 

Second, governments in the developed world have continued to grow in state capacity — and support they bring to families and individuals in this time of crisis may “crowd-out” charitable services that churches in times past may have provided. This may weaken the felt need for people to draw into religious community. 

Third, weekly church attendance has been in decline for several decades in the United States and a new generation is growing up that may be less rooted in a church background to rely on in times of crisis. 

Finally, many churches have older congregations who will be less likely than younger individuals to have broadband internet connection at home and may be less likely to have access to attending church online. (Limited access may also be of concern in poorer communities and rural areas.)

For all of these reasons, churches will have an extra challenge in meeting the needs of their members and communities as COVID-19 forces people to stay at home. It will also be difficult to find an appropriate measurement of religious participation if people are not able to show up in the pews. What is equivalent to church attendance during a time when everyone is staying home? YouTube or Twitch views? Weekly financial contributions (which will almost certainly go down as people lose jobs)?

There is a good chance that many churches, just like businesses and other social organizations, will see some very real contraction in participation ahead. And the longer we are forced to stay apart, the more severe and longer-lived these effects may last.

Lori Beaman, Professor, University of Ottawa

During the last few weeks there have been a number of very creative responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by religious leaders and institutions: a drive-in Pentecostal service on Easter Sunday in Nova Scotia, Canada; Passover seders by zoom with online instructions circulating in the days prior; drive-through confessions for Roman Catholics; and ongoing discussions amongst Muslims on the topic of how to best create virtual community and shared fast-breaking during Ramadan. But what do these innovative approaches and the enthusiasm with which they are apparently being received tell us?

Will the COVID-19 pandemic impact religiosity? Is religiosity in fact on the rise? 

One of the challenges of assessing religiosity is that the notion of religion and its measurement is not easy to pin down. What ‘counts’ as religion varies depending on the context. In some places it is socially undesirable not to identify with a religion. Some religions make it difficult to disaffiliate and so people continue their membership as a default position rather than an engaged commitment. Some behaviors are unrelated to religious commitment or identity—taking an elderly parent to church or fulfilling another type of obligation that puts one in a religious setting.

How people self-identify also varies in meaning. What, for example, does high membership but low participation tell us about religion and its salience in everyday life? A further consideration is the dynamic nature of religious participation over the life course. Events like World War II or the current pandemic may trigger a need for community or connection that is expressed through available means—in the contemporary context by virtual church services or drive-in holiday celebrations—but not necessarily core to identity or viable in a non-crisis situation.

To further complicate things, for many people who have a religious identity there are various frameworks that inform their approach to life—one can take the science of COVID-19 seriously and also pray, participate in religious rituals and affiliate, even virtually, with others who similarly self-identify. Further, unlike other times in history, there are many options for virtual community that are meaningful for people. This is not to say that religion is not important or doesn’t have a role to play to help people cope with the stress and anxiety provoked by the pandemic. But conclusions about religiosity must always be critically assessed. 

Walking by the empty yeast shelf in the baking section of my local grocery store the other day has similar resonances. Apparently being house-bound has brought out the inner baker in many people. There are Zoom bread making lessons and virtual condominium building bake-offs. No doubt people are connecting with others through this new shared activity and traces of those relationships will remain post-pandemic. But it remains to be seen just how many people will spend time baking once confinement ends. 

Paul Freston, Professor, Balsillie School of International Affairs

COVID-19 is the first truly global pandemic to affect the post-Christian West. It is probable that fewer people in the developed West will turn to religious institutions for solace than in preceding centuries. Elsewhere, higher levels of pre-existing religiosity may lead to a contrasting outcome. In times of crisis, the vast majority of people turn to what they know. 

As for the diversity of responses of religious institutions to the crisis: notwithstanding sensationalist headlines, one actually (and predictably) finds everything from the most sane and humanitarian and altruistic, to the most head-in-the-sand and navel-gazing and self-absorbed. Nothing new there in the history of religions. In general, in Brazil, readings of “divine purpose” in the pandemic have followed entirely predictable patterns, which means the pandemic itself has as yet provoked little serious theological reflection, serving rather as an occasion to trot out ready-made accusations against such-and-such a segment of society or such-and-such an inadequate theology.

As to the longer-term implications for religious institutions, epidemics and other such catastrophes were often times of church growth in early centuries, whether through higher Christian survival rates or through the attractiveness of the altruism shown. In contrast, Western evaluations of the current crisis seem often to stress the opposite outcome: people now look to government and medical science to save them; and the older demographic of congregations will mean not only higher mortality but also a longer period of isolation and a decline in participation, social capital and funding, with economic contraction mirrored by religious contraction. But while it is true that ironically, the world over, a situation that might lead to at least a temporary increase in demand for religious services cannot be met by conventional means such as meetings, we should not extrapolate globally from the conditions of the developed West. In much of the world, much less can be expected from government, especially lower down the social scale; and religious institutions may disproportionately recruit from the younger and middle-aged rather than the elderly. 

Nevertheless, the crisis is a particular challenge to forms of religiosity that rely above all on what Durkheim called “effervescent assemblies.” They will either be hampered for some time to come, or will insist on restarting and run the risk of being seen as indifferent to public health. One might say that the virus preys on collective prayer. Techniques of “virtual effervescence” have yet to be perfected, if indeed they ever can be. The result, in Latin America and elsewhere, may be a shaking-up of the religious field, with some older providers disadvantaged and some new ones appearing.

In addition, the coronavirus crisis will one day end and there will be formal and informal stock-taking. Judgements will not be lenient with those forms of religion which have been self-centred, self-absorbed and incapable of viewing events through a larger prism. Egotism in a time of crisis (whether as irresponsible “super-spreaders”, or as determined protectors of privileges, or as paranoid about “threats to religious freedom”) will not be easily forgotten. 

 

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