Throughout much of human history, famine, pestilence, and war have sent people seeking the comforts of religion. From the religious processions of Europe during the fourteenth-century Black Plague to the sharp uptick in churchgoing in America during World War II, it’s often been the case that the more terrifying times are, the more prayerful communities become.
Covid-19 has turned that historical precedent on its head. The percentage of Americans joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated has increased during the pandemic, according to a new survey by Pew, thanks largely to a drop in those identifying as Christian. Nearly three in ten Americans now report no religious affiliation, up from 26 percent in 2019 and nearly double the number in a Pew survey in 2007. The share of Americans who say religion is very important in their lives has declined to 41 percent today, from 56 percent in 2007.
Absent Covid, those numbers might fit into the long-term pattern of secularization in Western societies. In countries like Canada, Germany, France, and even Israel, surveys show that religious belief continues to decline and plays even less of a role today than it does in the U.S. But even in the modern age, tragedy and crisis have been the exceptions to secularization. Recent studies show that people still turn back to religion amid catastrophe—even if only temporarily. After 9/11, Gallup surveys reported a sharp uptick in the number of Americans saying that religion was an important influence—71 percent in months after the terrorist attacks, up from less than 40 percent before 9/11. Today, that number stands at a mere 16 percent. While a core of ardent religious believers, amounting to about 28 percent of Americans, said in a survey earlier this year that the pandemic had boosted their faith, some 14 percent said that it had done the opposite.
Covid has had the opposite effect on religiosity for various reasons. One, certainly, is the absence for long periods of in-person religious observation, propelled in part by government shutdowns of churches by politicians who deemed them “nonessential” institutions—in contrast to pharmacies, supermarkets, and even liquor stores in many places. The substitute for churchgoing became “Zoom” Masses and other virtual celebrations. Despite attempts by prelates to convince us that these still constituted legitimate religious ceremonies—one church in my neighborhood even erected a lawn sign during the lockdowns saying, “God is everywhere, not only here”—the pandemic demonstrated just how important community and face-to-face contact are to religious practice. Their absence just accentuated what the pandemic had already created—isolation and a lack of community—resulting in soaring anxiety, depression, drug use, and suicide. Rather than comfort, religious observance sometimes became a reminder of how grim times had become. Even after the lockdowns ended, many religious leaders enforced rules for social distancing, mask use, and limits on attendance that have eroded the experience, disillusioning the faithful.
“If churches are darkened in the face of sickness and death, only TV talking heads, media pundits, and public health officials will speak to our anxieties and fears. This reinforces the secular proposition: life in this world is the only thing that matters,” wrote R. R. Reno, editor of the religious journal First Things early in the pandemic. “The docility of religious leaders to the cessation of public worship is stunning. It suggests that they more than half believe that secular proposition.”
Churchgoing over the past year and a half has often been a stark experience. I attended a Catholic confirmation ceremony in December 2020 in which just two pews in the church were filled—one each for the family of the only two confirmands. The vast space felt empty and desolate. I couldn’t help comparing the experience to my own confirmation, decades earlier, in which some 50 of us received the sacrament in a church overflowing with parents and friends. No wonder, then, that even after lockdowns ended, churchgoing is still down by an estimated 30 percent to 50 percent compared with pre-pandemic numbers.
Accompanying this spiritual decline is a genuine worldly diminishing. Covid has undermined the already-dwindling resources of many churches, adding a financial burden to their religious challenges. Even before the pandemic, churches were closing at an increasingly rapid rate because of financial strains caused by falling attendance. Now that trend is likely to accelerate. In the decade before Covid, churches in the United States shuttered at the rate of about 75 to 150 congregations every week. Vacant churches are increasingly repurposed as community centers and low-income housing, though many just sit empty. Thanks to the drain on resources caused by Covid, the tide of closings could turn into a flood, with as many as 100,000 of the nation’s nearly 400,000 active churches shuttering in the next decade.
Cultural trends exacerbated by Covid will likely contribute to the problem. America’s declining birth rate fell further during the pandemic, as economic uncertainty and the persistent nature of the virus took their toll on decisions by couples to bear children. That may pose a big problem for religious institutions, too—because around the world, religious observance correlates with fertility and family formation. Secularization is increasing in places where child-bearing and marriage are declining. Religious observance, meantime, is holding steady and even growing in places where couples are having children at greater rates than in the West.
Thanks to online shopping, Christmas retail sales are expected to be robust this holiday season. As a secular holiday, Christmas is making a big comeback. That’s good news for the economy. But man does not live by bread alone, especially in the time of Covid.
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