Some Report Stronger Faith Through COVID-19
Pew Research Center (PRC) recently released the results of a survey asking religious people about how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted their faith: whether it has become stronger, weaker, or stayed about the same. With everyone being separated and unable to congregate in person, this is a real concern and it is useful to have this data. The survey showed that 2% of Christian respondents felt that their faith has been weakened by the pandemic, 35% felt their faith has been strengthened, and for 58% the strength of their faith has not changed much. While of course it would be better if the “strengthened” category was more heavily populated, and any weakening of faith is a concern, it is encouraging to see that such a sizable proportion of Christians report that they feel closer to God through this time of crisis. Of course, this is self-reported so we do not know what “stronger faith” means for each surveyed person, but at the very least this means people who identify as Christians have not felt their faith seriously shaken by the pandemic.
The Pew survey was conducted from April 20 to April 26, during which time they surveyed over 10,000 US adults (not all answered). Participants were asked three questions: 1. Whether the congregation or house of worship they most frequently attend has ceased services due to COVID-19; 2. Whether the congregation or house of worship from the first question is streaming or recording services so congregants can watch at home; and 3. “As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, has your own religious faith become… Stronger, Weaker, Hasn’t changed much, Not applicable, No answer.” PRC used the same group of survey participants (the American Trends Panel) as another survey which asked how frequently they attend religious services, so the two sets of data were combined.
Respondents were Christian, Jewish, or non-religious. I’ll say a few things about the latter two groups before turning to the Christian response.
The non-religious respondents were broken down into three groups: atheist, agnostic, and “nothing in particular.” For atheists, 96% of participants said they remain non-religious and 2% said their faith hasn’t changed much. It’s hard to say what this second part means, since it could be that they misunderstood the question and should be counted with the majority who remain non-religious, or it could be that they are now closer to believing in God, or it could mean that their faith in a non-theistic religion (such as Buddhism or non-traditional spirituality) has not changed much. The agnostic response is a bit different, with 78% saying that they remain non-religious and 20% saying their faith hasn’t changed much. So for more agnostics, their faith did change, but not by much. I would say the same possibilities exist as for atheists in this category. The third group in the non-religious category is the one which has changed the most as a result of COVID-19. Among the “nothing in particular”s, 52% said they remained non-religious, 35% said their faith hasn’t changed much, and 11% said their faith was now stronger. This makes sense, since this latter group has a theistic, religious tendency despite not being affiliated with a formal religion. For example, in a different study 34% of those in the “nothing in particular” group said they are absolutely certain that God exists, and 17% said that religion was very important in their life, even if their religion doesn’t necessarily fit into the familiar categories.
While it is disappointing that the religiously unaffiliated have not, for the most part, turned to Yeshua during this time, it is not entirely surprising. Although this is a unique and stressful time, for the non-religious the pandemic and its consequences are explainable within a framework of nature that does not force them to invoke the supernatural or abandon their notions of spirituality. There is an old saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” which means that times of extreme distress or close contact with death tend to cause even atheists to reach out to God. Apparently either our situation is not acute enough to cause this kind of response or the aphorism isn’t always applicable.
Turning to Judaism, we see some interesting points. Only 7% feel their faith has been strengthened in response to COVID-19, but 69% said that their faith has stayed basically the same. The data also reflects the way that some understand Judaism non-religiously: 22% of Jewish respondents said that they remain non-religious, just as they were prior to the pandemic.
The Pew data breaks down Christian responses into some basic groups. First it naturally divides the responses of Catholics and Protestants. Then, Protestant responses are split into three categories: Evangelical, mainline, and historically black. Of the Christian respondents, mainline Protestants were the least likely to say that their faith has grown stronger as a result of coronavirus at 22%, followed by Catholics at 27%, Evangelicals at 42%, and with the highest total of any surveyed group, historically black churches at 56%.
In each of the Christian groups, there was no more than 2% of respondents who said their faith has been weakened as a result of the virus.
It is also interesting to note the number of non-religious respondents among Christian groups. The group with the highest number of people who responded “I am not a religious person and this hasn’t changed” is the Catholics, with 7%. Compare this to Evangelicals, of whom 2% responded the same way. I suppose this would consist of those who are only culturally Christian and openly admit to this being the case.
There is a correlation between attending religious services and feelings of stronger faith through this crisis, despite the fact that services are no longer physical. (Note that the following figures are for all respondents, not just Christans, although Christians were far more likely to respond that their faith was strengthened than other respondent groups) Those who, prior to the coronavirus, attended religious services at least weekly, 48% said their faith has been strengthened as a result of the virus. For those who attend 1-2 times per month, this drops to 41%. This further descends to 26% for those who attend only a few times per year, and 15% for those who attend less than a few times per year. This makes sense, because stronger faith takes commitment, and attending church services more frequently means that one has at least made the commitment to carve some time out of their schedule to attend services more often. Simply attending services more often is not enough, of course. People attend church for numerous reasons which are not motivated by faith. But those who are motivated by a desire to grow closer to God and the local body of believers will probably be more likely to attend services more frequently.
In all the Christian groups except the historically black churches, the majority of respondents said their faith hasn’t changed much. This is kind of a vague category, and I can think of a few different ways that respondents could have interpreted it. It could mean that their faith has weakened but only marginally. It could mean their faith has grown stronger but only marginally. It could mean that their faith hasn’t changed at all, meaning they kept to their current trajectory of growth as prior to the pandemic. Or it could mean their faith has remained stagnant or almost nonexistent. Another possibility rests on the interpretation of the question that was asked and its somewhat ambiguous language. The question asks how their faith has changed “As a result of the coronavirus outbreak”. If someone interpreted this strictly, then they might have answered “no change” even if they felt their faith had been strengthened, but not as a direct result of the coronavirus. That’s why interpreting surveys like this can be tricky. Different people may read the question differently and respond accordingly. Since we don’t have more detailed information from the respondents, we don’t know exactly how they interpreted the question or how well their response actually fits into the answer which they chose.
Another tricky aspect of the survey is that it asks people how they perceive their own faith. Again, to different people this will mean something different. Some may feel their faith is being strengthened while they are in fact straying further from God: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
Nevertheless, it does seem that there is a sizable proportion of Christians who are trying to make the best of their situation during this pandemic. Churches have been streaming services and staying in touch with their congregations via email. Ministries have directed their focus to meeting people’s needs during this time, with many articles coming out about how to deal with fear and anxiety and learning how to trust God through every situation. This pandemic might be forcing people to take more initiative in their faith. It has broken routines, and for those whose faith has been somewhat passive, this means they must either take a more active role in reading the Bible and praying or face serious spiritual decline.
In conclusion, this is an interesting survey, but due to the nature of surveys it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Nevertheless, while it is interesting to observe trends, what really matters is the faith of the individual. If your faith is feeling strained during this time, I would encourage you to spend time in the Bible and in prayer. Further, you can read some of our articles: “Lord, Don’t You Care That We Perish?”—Thoughts on the Coronavirus, Spiritual War, and Peace of Messiah might be good places to start.