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The Pandemic May Increase Faith but Not Religious Participation

As the Social Capital Project recently described, religion can provide strength and support individual wellbeing during periods of crisis. Some have even theorized that the current COVID-19 crisis could precipitate a religious revival as people recognize the value of religion in their lives. While it’s too early to say for sure, recent history and current circumstances suggest we should not anticipate the next Great Awakening occurring anytime soon.

To begin with, the state of U.S. religious participation looks different today than it did decades ago. In a recent paper, The Space Between: Renewing the American Tradition of Civil Society, the Social Capital Project documented the decline in active church participation, including the rapid rise of the religiously unaffiliated. Against this backdrop, it’s arguable that baseline conditions are not as ripe for a large-scale, sustained return to houses of worship as they once were; it’s difficult to drastically increase religious engagement when a significant percentage of the population is not connected to a religious community.

Consider what happened to religious participation during the Great Recession, the most recent major crisis. Unlike the current crisis, people could attend in-person church services, and many hypothesized that economic and personal hardship would drive people to the pews. Yet while research found religiosity increased among certain subgroups—those who worked in housing-related industries, for example—survey data found no change in overall church attendance during the economic downturn.

Though very different from the current crisis, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 produced a short-term spike in church attendance. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, 78 percent of Americans believed religion’s influence to be growing. However, the increase was short-lived, and today 78 percent of Americans say religion is losing influence in American life.

The pandemic has created unique obstacles to religious participation, making religious participation more difficult than in recent crises. In-person religious gatherings are heavily restricted, with more than 90 percent of Americans reporting that their house of worship has closed religious services to the public.

Additionally, congregations struggled with the transition to online services at first; roughly one-third of religious Americans reported that their place of worship was not offering such services, according to an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) survey conducted in late March. Virtual access seems to have improved since then—more than 80 percent of actively religious Americans said their services had moved online in a late-April Pew survey. But religious institutions still likely constitute a smaller part of congregants’ lives today than they did nine weeks ago.

While there is scant data on engagement in online worship services, the data that is available do not suggest particularly strong participation. In the AEI survey from late March, only 28 percent of respondents said they had participated in an online service that week. This Easter, usually a high-water mark for church attendance, the vast majority of Americans stayed home as a result of statewide restrictions on in-person gatherings. Many congregations had transitioned to online services, but survey data indicate that a sizeable share—32 percent—of those who typically attend at least a few times per year had no plans to participate online.

In The Space Between, the Project noted that “the decline in religious attendance has been concentrated among those with only a nominal attachment to organized religion.” It’s possible that the lack of formalized worship and short-term erosion of accompanying social relationships will accelerate the trend toward non-participation among these marginal adherents.

Though a resurgence in American religious participation looks unlikely in the near term, there is evidence that trends in personal faith differ from trends in religious participation. In the United States and worldwide, Google searches for “prayer” have surged in recent weeks as people cope with the adversity they face during the pandemic. The Pew survey conducted in late April found that 24 percent of adults said their faith had grown stronger during the pandemic, while just 2 percent said their faith had declined. Similarly, one recent survey of young adults found that their faith had largely stayed the same or increased during the pandemic, with over one-third saying it had increased. While this data does not constitute dispositive evidence, it does suggest individuals may be turning inwards to their religious faith even as formal participation is waning.

This provides a silver lining for those concerned with the state of American religion: although the pandemic may not have a seismic, long-term impact on U.S. religious participation, it’s possible personal religious faith will continue to grow in subsequent weeks.

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