fb-pixel
IDEAS

The pandemic is making people more religious

Established religious institutions have been in decline, but a COVID-induced spiritual awakening is likely to find new outlets.

A woman held prayer beads while listening to the Dalai Lama in Boston in 2017.
A woman held prayer beads while listening to the Dalai Lama in Boston in 2017.Pat Greenhouse

The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 800,000 people worldwide, sickened many more, and triggered the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. But one consequence of the pandemic has received less attention. In the past few months, as the pandemic hit one country after another, religiosity has risen across the world, from the United States to Indonesia.

In April, even as congregations across the United States closed regular worship services to the public, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that 24 percent of Americans said their faith had strengthened since the onset of the crisis; only 2 percent said that it had weakened. More than half of all Americans said that they had prayed to end the coronavirus. Google searches related to prayer, meanwhile, soared as the pandemic hit. In March, according to research by the economist Jeanet Bentzen, the share of Google searches for prayer surged to the highest level ever recorded. The biggest increases in religiosity occurred in more religious societies, such as Indonesia, and were especially strong among Christians and Muslims.

Advertisement



This sudden resurgence of religion reverses a decade and a half decline in religious fervor around the world. One of the most influential theories about the rise and fall of religion links its popularity to existential insecurity. When survival is uncertain, religion helps people cope with intense uncertainty and stress. But the more secure people become, the less religious they tend to be. As societies grow richer and life expectancy increases, existential security rises and religion wanes. From 2007 to 2019, the overwhelming majority of the 49 countries studied by the political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris became less religious. Secularism rose in rich and poor countries alike. And nowhere was this trend stronger than in the United States, which since 2007 has experienced the largest shift away from religion of any country for which data is available.

The recent resurgence in religiosity may reverse this decline. Indeed, this rise in religiosity is consistent with a large body of social science research showing that religion can serve as a buffer against depression in times of stress and uncertainty, such as financial insecurity and war. In Europe, religious people of all denominations suffer less psychological harm from unemployment than the nonreligious. During the pandemic, hard-hit religious Jewish communities in the United States and Israel have reported surprisingly little mental distress despite the significant toll the virus has taken on the public health and economic life of their communities.

Advertisement



More generally, people tend to turn to religion in times of adversity. Individuals who suffer misfortunes, such as cancer, heart disease, the death of a relative, or divorce, are more religious than others. Natural disasters have been associated with heightened religiosity, too. During the Middle Ages, unusually large Nile river floods strengthened the power of Islamic religious authorities in Egypt. Earthquakes played a similar role in Italy. Recent research links proximity to earthquakes in modern times to personal religiosity — and even the religiosity of one’s children. And religiosity increases more in response to unpredictable natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions, than after more routine ones like storms. A new paper in Nature Human Behavior shows that exposure to war boosted personal religiosity in Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, and Uganda. People who were exposed to higher levels of violent conflict were more likely to participate in Christian or Muslim religious groups and rituals, even several years after the conflicts had ended.

Advertisement



There are at least three possible paths for today’s religious resurgence in the United States. One, if the virus is brought under control in the near future, and the economic recovery materializes more rapidly than most economists anticipate, the religious resurgence could dissipate without leaving much impact, its legacy little more than a short-lived spike in Google searches and an uptick in prayers whispered for comfort and solace during the worst months of the disease.

Two, if the pandemic continues for several years, or if its economic devastation ushers in a new era of existential insecurity even in one of the world’s richest countries, increased religiosity may prove to be one of its enduring legacies — and established religious institutions could be the beneficiaries. Today, institutionalized religion in the United States appears to be in terminal decline. The Mainline Protestant establishment has collapsed over the past half-century; the Catholic Church continues to reel from scandal. But the pandemic could be the jumpstart these beleaguered institutions need for their reinvigoration. And past religious revivals — such as the “Great Awakening” of the 18th century or the more recent Islamic revival in the Middle East — have unleashed profound and unpredictable political and cultural developments.

Advertisement



But a more likely outcome is a third scenario, in which America’s established religious institutions continue their steady decline, and the turbo-charged religious impulse manifests elsewhere instead. Even before the pandemic hit, the American religious instinct had not disappeared. In the early 2000s, when Gallup asked if “a profound religious experience or awakening” had changed the direction of their lives, almost half of Americans said the statement completely applied to them; that number had doubled since the 1960s, when institutional religion remained far more robust. Today, a pandemic-induced spiritual awakening could be channeled into new, decentralized forms of religious engagement — think, for example, of New Age practices, or novel online sects of Christianity — or even into cultish social movements. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that the last few months have witnessed the rise of Internet-driven conspiracy groups like QAnon, which a recent profile in the Atlantic described as “not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”

Just as the pandemic may reshape the nature of modern office work, public health practices, and global trade, it also may leave a lasting imprint on the spiritual beliefs and practices of billions around the world.

Bryan Schonfeld and Sam Winter-Levy are PhD candidates in politics at Princeton University.