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Do you have faith? How COVID has affected religion and other beliefs

Do you have faith? How COVID has affected religion and other beliefs
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With the arrival of Passover and Easter, especially this year, comes an inevitable reckoning with faith. In whom, in what, do we believe? 

The pandemic caused disruption to billions of people’s lives in 2020, challenging rituals, mourning, in-person worship and daily existence in every country on every continent. Disasters and crises have a way of making some question the existence of a greater force for good in the world and others to become more religious in the wake of tragedy.

And so you might be surprised to know the impact that the pandemic has had on religious beliefs. 

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Pew Research Center looked at 14 countries including Australia, England, Japan, Canada, South Korea and the United States during the summer months when all of those countries were under social distancing and/or national lockdown orders due to COVID-19.

Most of the nations reported little change in religious faith. For example, only 10 percent of British adults said their faith grew stronger as a result of the pandemic. In Japan, only 5 percent say religion came to play a stronger role in their lives.

But, perhaps surprisingly, more Americans than people in other economically developed countries say the outbreak has bolstered their religious faith and the faith of their compatriots. Nearly three-in-ten Americans (28 percent) report stronger personal faith because of the pandemic, and the same share think the religious faith of Americans overall has strengthened. Nearly three-in-ten U.S. adults say the outbreak has boosted their faith; about four-in-ten say it has tightened family bonds. 

There are some early lessons to glean from the data that may help us in the future.

The pandemic led to the cancellation of religious activities and in-person services around the world, but few people say their religious faith has weakened as a result of the outbreak. Could that mean that ZOOM funerals and online worship are here to stay? What will that mean for dues and tuition to religious school and membership in religious institutions? There could be a whole new future for internet-based religion.

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What is also interesting about the data is that it comes at a time of growing secularization in America. The United States recently has experienced some trends toward secularization, including a growing share of the population that does not identify with any religion and a shrinking share of people who say they regularly attend a church or other house of worship. Still, religion continues to play a stronger role in American life than in many other economically developed countries. For example, nearly half of Americans (49 percent) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 20 percent in Australia, 17 percent in South Korea and just 9 percent in Japan. 

Data is important to understanding human behavior. This data could be useful as the nation wrestles with how to convince people to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Local religious figures could become more engaged in the effort to drive herd immunity for America as we contend with the race between variants and the vaccine.  

At a minimum, the data should make us optimistic that despite dwindling faith in government and public institutions, we still have enough faith in religious organizations or personal faith to help us navigate the bumpy roads still ahead as we make our way to some form of “normalcy.”

Lastly, the report reveals another dimension of faith — a renewed faith in family. Family relationships have been affected by lockdowns, economic turmoil and the consequences of falling ill. Many in countries that were hit hard by initial waves of infections and deaths in the spring say their family relationships have strengthened. That is the case in Spain (42 percent), Italy, the United Kingdom and the U.S. (41 percent each). In the U.S. and in several other countries, younger adults are especially likely to say they feel a stronger bond with immediate family members since the start of the pandemic.

Silver linings are bright spots in an otherwise dark year — so have faith and march forth with optimism.

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.