As a stir-crazy nation slowly emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, debates about what our “new normal” will be like are intensifying. Will the shock of the lockdown bring a transformative moment of social solidarity? Or tear us apart in tribal strife? Will there be a baby boom or baby bust? More marriages or more divorces? Capitalism is over, some say, while others promise the rich will only get richer.
The future of our national religious life is also the subject of growing speculation, with the sunny-side-up view arguing that we are primed for a new “Great Awakening” of the sort that have periodically transformed American culture.
This revival will be spurred, the thinking goes, by a flood of Americans who ache for a return to communal worship that has been denied them for months. They will be joined by newcomers who, chastened by this national memento mori, discover or rediscover the balm of faith. “Could a plague of biblical proportions be America’s best hope for religious revival?” Robert Nicholson wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “[T]here is reason to think so.” Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution had the same question: “It could also go the other way,” he tweeted, “but my instinct is to think that a great awakening is now *more* likely, at least in America, by 2050.”
To many, the prospect of a resurgence in religious observance is an enticing vision, because faith communities can be anchors of social solidarity, which has been steadily eroding for decades.
The data and history tell a different story, however, and, much like the economic outlook, the forecast for religion looks more like recession than resurrection.
Historians of early Christianity note that Jesus’ disciples jump-started the church’s growth by remaining with the sick during various outbreaks that coursed through the Roman Empire, from the Antonine Plague in the second century to the Plague of Cyprian in the third. “Indeed, the impact of Christian mercy was so evident that in the fourth century when the emperor Julian attempted to restore paganism, he exhorted the pagan priesthood to compete with the Christian charities,” sociologist Rodney Stark wrote in The Triumph of Christianity.
Yet the world is far different today. The martyrs of Covid-19 are the doctors and nurses and essential workers who keep hospitals running, grocery shelves stocked, mass transit running, and sanitation crews and truck lines operating—the people Pope Francis calls “the saints next door.” This time, owing to the way the novel coronavirus spreads, pastors serve best by remaining isolated from the people they were ordained to serve while hospital chaplains and other ministries serve the sick and dying.
The most visible religious icons of this pandemic are the few but vocal self-styled divines who insist on holding in-person services to make a grandstand on religious liberty or to show the secular world how tough they are. At best, they are preaching to the converted, the regular churchgoers, mainly white evangelicals and Catholics, who have already been trending conservative in recent decades. But their unholy foolishness is not the kind of witness that will stir souls to greater observance, and surveys show their numbers are shrinking. Such congregations have been more effective dispersal mechanisms for the virus than for the faith.
Another argument for a post-pandemic revival rests with what is known as “existential security theory,” or the “Religious Comfort Hypothesis”—social scientists’ way of saying there are no atheists in foxholes. Existential security theory was popularized by political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in a 2004 study that sought to explain why the global population is getting more religious, not more secular, as conventional wisdom suggests. Their explanation: The continuing experience of death and grief causes people to turn to religion as a balm. Richer and more secure societies, the argument goes, have less “need” for religion because faith in progress and policies—and, in the United States, a belief in our protected status as blessed by the Almighty—stands in for the comforts of traditional religion.
But what happens when natural disasters and societal breakdowns happen in industrialized countries like the U.S.?
The best case study for the Religious Comfort Hypothesis was the February 2011 earthquake that devastated Christchurch in New Zealand, by any measure a highly secularized country. It was the worst disaster in the country in 80 years. One-third of the city’s buildings were destroyed and 185 people were killed in an urban region of fewer than 400,000. Chris Sibley, a psychology professor at the University of Auckland, and Joseph Bulbulia, a religious studies professor there, were in the midst of a longitudinal study of the values of New Zealanders when the earthquake struck. So they had data from before the disaster to compare with behaviors immediately afterward. “Consistent with the Religious Comfort Hypothesis, religious faith increased among the earthquake-affected, despite an overall decline in religious faith elsewhere,” they concluded.
At first blush, this seems to be true for the coronavirus response, as well. A study just published by Danish economics professor Jeanet Sinding Bentzen, a leading researcher on the religious coping phenomenon, argues that, based on rates of Google searches for prayer, “the demand for religion has risen dramatically since the onset of the pandemic.”
“A pandemic this size potentially changes our societies for years to come, especially if it impacts our deep-rooted values and beliefs. I find that the COVID-19 crisis impacts one of the deepest rooted of human behaviors: religion,” Bentzen tweeted.
Plenty of data support that view. A Pew survey showed that one-quarter of Americans say the pandemic has strengthened their faith, and downloads of Bible and prayer apps are spiking. One in 20 Britons say they have started to pray—a noticeable uptick in a notably secular nation. “I’ve never known a time in my life when people are more open to [God’s word] than they are now,” Nicky Gumbel, pastor of Holy Trinity Brompton, one of the UK’s largest churches, said during a recent online conference. “There are no other distractions. There’s no football, there’s no sport. There’s no entertainment. People have time to hear the Gospel.”
Yet Bentzen’s own research shows that Googling for prayer during a crisis does not translate into increased churchgoing. Nine out of 10 Americans reported turning to religion after the September 11 attacks, but churchgoing since 2001 has continued to decline. After the New Zealand earthquake, as well, religious observance soon resumed its downward trajectory.
Another obstacle to a revival is that American congregations are facing a true economic catastrophe with no revival on the horizon. Despite the popular view of denominations as money-making enterprises with deep pockets, when it comes to its business model, religion in America is as vulnerable as the restaurant industry. Houses of worship have lots of overhead, few reserves, and are dependent on a regular influx of congregants to make their budgets. Today, no one is coming in person, not nearly enough are donating online, and congregations are laying off staff, trimming budgets, and struggling to minister online while maintaining their social services that are needed now more than ever. Even if there is a sudden demand for religious services, the supply may be insufficient. Like toilet paper, even if everyone wanted it, none could be found.
Yes, the federal government’s bailout package did, for the first time, provide for direct payments to churches and other religious groups as part of the Paycheck Protection Program administered by the Small Business Administration. But the federal funds are unlikely to be enough to save many houses of worship, certainly not in the black and Latino congregations that are most financially vulnerable. Compounding the threat is the likelihood that those congregants who do return to regular worship will have fewer dollars for the collection plate.
The worshipers who are the most reliable givers and attenders are also seniors who are most likely to stay away from services for health reasons. “Mounting evidence suggests houses of worship are probably among the riskiest places for older people,” as Yonat Shimron wrote in a recent story at Religion News Service. With the pandemic seemingly at a plateau rather than trending downward, the prospect of older congregants showing up for worship anytime soon is diminishing sharply.
Moreover, for all the hullaballoo about the move to online worship, the internet is no substitute for the power of gathering people together. Virtual communities do not forge sufficiently strong ties to pass on belief or spur the kind of social action that religions preach. Our best hope is that, as the Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith suggested—on Twitter, naturally—“this trying experience of being distant, separated, remote, could turn out to be a season of learning to be a more *in*carnate community of faith—an embodied, located *parish.* The digital could, paradoxically, be a way to renew the local.”
Much as I’d like Smith’s hope to be realized, I wouldn’t bet on it. Yes, a steady stream of disasters might alter our religious outlook, but in past upheavals, Americans have not sought long-lasting comfort in local communities of faith. And the bonds of faith are weaker than ever.
When my own Catholic diocese shuttered its churches to avoid spreading the coronavirus, a friend of mine quipped that our fellow believers “will never go back once they see how nice it is to sleep in on Sunday mornings.” The barb has the sting of truth. Ryan Burge, a political scientist who studies religious behavior, has shown that after a crisis the devout and the lax tend to maintain whatever level of observance they had before. The big muddled middle—those who have weaker ties to religion and attend monthly or yearly—“is where a lot of movement occurs,” according to Burge. When those people leave, they don’t return. That’s the current danger zone for religious congregations.
Well before the pandemic, the middle was shrinking and the overall number of regular worshipers was declining steadily. The percentage of Americans who say they belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque is down 20 points over the previous two decades, sitting at an all-time low of 50 percent as of 2018, according to Gallup. Actual church attendance is even lower, while Americans who profess no religious affiliation—the so-called nones—have become the single largest “denomination” in the U.S., according to Pew Research surveys, numbering more than both Catholics and evangelicals.
In the past, religion remained the context in which the vast majority of Americans worked out the meaning of life, and the afterlife. Not anymore.
Even the past is not what we thought. During this contemporary plague, many have harked back to the Black Death of the fourteenth century, noting that it was widely credited with sparking everything from the Reformation to the end of feudalism. Yet, according to Ben Gummer, author of The Scourging Angel, a 2009 history of the bubonic plague, the effect of the Black Death was not to launch a revolution in the medieval world but “at most to accelerate an evolution that was already taking place.”
That may well be the result of this pandemic. There have always been those “spiritual-but-not-religious” souls among Americans, who prefer to worship at home or in nature’s outdoor cathedrals. As Emily Dickinson, who would have reveled in a lockdown order, put it in 1864:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Our current evolution has meant there are many more religious “nones” among us—and the pandemic may well accelerate their numbers. Religion is good for religious people, as the saying goes, but everyone else prefers to walk their own spiritual path.
Whatever changes are in store, religious observance is one barometer for gauging social cohesion and resilience, and the fate of faith in a post-pandemic America may be an early indicator of the social contagions of the “new normal.” It all seems to point to a future in which religious distancing increases even as social distancing ends. That’s a dispiriting outcome for a society that will need all the solidarity it can get.
David Gibson, a journalist and author who writes about religion, is the director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture.