As we head into year 3 of this global pandemic (current death toll as of this recording is 5.57 million people worldwide), it’s worth pausing to ask this question: how are we all doing? You know, are you doing okay? How are you feeling? Have you lost faith?
I know I’ve lost faith – prior to this pandemic I understood that there was a significant portion of the population who believed fervently in bullshit, but I still had faith in humanity as a whole to band together in times of great trouble. That faith has been officially shaken, as I see many, many more people than even I expected behaving like selfish monsters when it comes to doing the bare minimum to protect the people around us.
But I’m an atheist and a critical thinker so faith was never really my forte anyway. So we turn to the Christians. How’s their faith doing?
According to a new study published this month in the Journal of Religion and Health, not so great! A team of psychologists surveyed nearly 5,000 Germans several times throughout the past two years to gauge their level of spirituality, trust in a higher power, frequency of prayer, trust in their local religious community, overall wellbeing, and stress levels due to COVID-19. They found that as the pandemic wore on, more and more people started losing their faith – not just on the “loss of faith” survey metric but also in regards to how many people identified as Catholic, and how many people prayed regularly. And trust in local religious communities went from “indifferent” at the start of the pandemic (the Germans being fairly secular compared to Americans, I suppose) to “actually they kind of suck” by the time the second wave hit.
And this result wasn’t just because older Germans (who tend to be more religious) were dying from COVID, leaving a more atheistic younger population, as they controlled for age and a slew of other demographics. It also can’t be explained by the fact that churches had to shut down during some waves – yes, a person may naturally become less religious once they stop going to church and realize they don’t really miss it, but this paper also found a drop in faith from people who weren’t affiliated with any church. The “spiritual but not religious” crowd, who already weren’t attending weekly services anywhere, also experienced an equivalent drop in faith in a higher power.
So! Is this surprising? Well, many researchers do tend to think of religious faith as a crutch that people use in times of trouble, when they may not have any other hope, or when they don’t fully understand what’s happening. So with that in mind you may expect people to become more religious during a plague (which some studies suggest did happen in the early months of 2020 when everything was still fresh and new).
But religion isn’t just one monolith, and what many researchers (particularly historians) have noticed is that religiosity depends on a number of factors, including how any one religious institution responds to troubling times.
Take the Black Death, for example: for seven years, from 1346 to 1353, the plague killed 75–200 million people in Europe and the Near East. The two dominant religions at the time were Catholic Christianity in Europe and Islam in the Near East, and each one held enough power to dictate how the general population responded to the plague. This was pre-germ theory, so at the time pretty much everybody just figured the plague was brought on by God, but for different reasons. Muslims generally thought of the plague as a hardship to be endured like a flood or famine, but also as a gift, because the believers who died were ushered into a better world.
Meanwhile, the Christians tended to think of the plague less as a gift and more of a just punishment for sinners. This led to some conflicting thoughts in the good, Godly people who were watching their children and loved ones brutally succumbing to a painful and inevitable death. Was their child evil? Would a “just” God really let that happen?
On a side note, there was also a strong belief amongst Christians that the plague was caused by Jews, who they already hated and regularly accused of murdering their children and poisoning their wells. So, the plague naturally led to a sharp uptick in the murder of innocent Jewish people.
But no amount of praying, repenting, murdering, or hitting oneself with a whip (yes, this is where the flagellants (not to be confused with flagellates) showed up) made the plague stop. So while in the Near East, Muslims saw people dropping dead and thought “yep, that’s Allah’s will, so it goes, nothing to be done about it but wait it out,” in Europe the Christians were throwing everything at the wall but nothing was sticking. Religious leaders told their adherents they could stop the plague by doing X, Y, and Z, but the plague just kept on going.
The Church’s response to the plague helped inspire thinkers like John Wycliffe, not to be confused with thinkers like Wyclef Jean. Wycliffe was a Christian priest who believed the Church doctrine was right that the plague was punishing evil, but wrong about who the evil were: he wrote a treatise saying it was, in fact, the Clergy, who were dying in particularly high numbers. Wycliffe’s thinking on the matter, along with other revolutionaries, led to Christianity effectively splitting at the seams, eventually resulting in the Protestant reformation. Islam, meanwhile, just sort of shrugged and continued to do its thing for a few more centuries.
It’s undeniable that the plague caused a significant drop in Christian faith, or at the very least a redistribution of faith away from established religious institutions. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garret wrote in a report for the Council on Foreign Relations, “Because the Church could neither explain the plague, nor stop it, its power eroded in the eyes of average Europeans, many of whom turned to mysticism, superstition, or blends of ancient paganism and Catholicism to fill their spiritual needs.”
People didn’t just blindly find comfort in the faith of their parents and grandparents – this great tragedy shook them up and made them reconsider what they truly believed about God and the religious institutions they had blindly followed up until then.
So it’s not shocking that a study would find a similar result today, though the conditions are quite different. During the Black Death, religion stood alone as the way for people to understand and thus deal with what was happening to them. By the 1919 influenza pandemic (which killed 50-100 million people), doctors understood germ theory and were able to offer an alternate explanation: while they may not have known exactly what was happening, they did know enough to offer advice to stop the spread, which meant asking people to wear masks and shutting down public gatherings, including church services.
Some clergy members agreed with the science, while others flagrantly kept their doors open because the problem was clearly an angry God who could only be sated with public prayer, and also because people needed “detachment from the present distress, … comfort and inspiration for further duty … [and] the need of breathing another atmosphere, if only for a brief space.” The result was that a huge number of deaths occurred due to religious services, like in the Spanish city of Zamora where church services not only continued but were amped up, leading the city to become the hardest hit in the country.
I can’t tell you if the 1919 influenza led to a loss of faith, as it coincided with the end of a World War and the beginning of a recession that would lead to the Great Depression. There’s a lot of different factors mixed up in this. But I do suspect that the sudden clash of science and religion during the influenza outbreak did lead in part to the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the US, as many church leaders became committed to putting science (and government “overreach” based on science) back in its place. The Scopes Monkey Trial came just a few years later, paving the way for a very long battle between science and religion.
I think that in this latest pandemic, we’re seeing some of the same things we’ve seen before: some theists feel their religion is in competition with science and with public health measures, leading them to attend services, discredit scientists, and inevitably get sick and die. Other theists see that happening and maybe take a moment to reconsider who they’ve been following and what they’ve been believing all these years, and asking themselves “Is this true?”
I know several people who claim to be Christian, went to church throughout the pandemic despite warnings, and even I as an atheist thought, “Wow, Jesus would hate you. You’re purposely putting people at risk!” And these were people who knew COVID was a real danger, but they were young and healthy and knew their own risk was small, so they went about their lives, despite the fact that Jesus was all about protecting the vulnerable.
If I had been a Christian still when I saw that happen, I would have a hard time figuring out how MY religion was the same as that of the people I was attending church with.
I don’t think this pandemic alone will somehow destroy religious faith – unfortunately I think that superstitious beliefs are just a fact of life for humanity, and therefore so is religion, at least for now and for the next few centuries. But I do hope more people are critically examining the claims made by the leaders of their religious institutions: are they acting in your best interests, or in the best interests of your community? Or are they still in the Middle Ages, whipping themselves and killing innocent people because they think a Jewish wizard is poisoning them?