Sinwan Basharat – Canada
It’s been nearly two years since COVID-19 began to overwhelm the entire world and many people are trying to envision what life will be like post-pandemic. Will the changes caused by the pandemic continue? What will the new ‘normal’ be? From an expansion of virtual services, changes in travel patterns, to flexible work schedules, many aspects of life have been disrupted and are unlikely to return to the way they were before. One change, as emerging research is beginning to show, is a change in religious attitudes across the world.
Prior to the pandemic, it was well-known that over time people’s affiliation with religion in many advanced countries had been declining. In the United States, the national General Social Survey reported in 2018 that 23% of the US population said they were unaffiliated with religion. This was an increase from 1990, when 8% of people said the same. Across many other countries, people’s involvement with religion has been waning for decades.
Changes in religious faith during the pandemic
However, with the onset of COVID-19 religious affiliations, like many aspects of life, changed notably. In March 2020, Google searches for prayer reached the highest levels ever recorded in history.  The increase in searches was higher than what is typically recorded at the time of major religious events like Christmas, Ramadan, or Easter.  Moreover, the increase in searches was not limited only to a handful of countries; evidence from 95 countries suggested it was a global occurrence. 
Beyond online searches, emerging evidence suggests that people’s attitudes towards religion have also shifted. In the summer of 2020, the Pew Research Center conducted a Global Attitudes Survey to gather information about different aspects of people’s lives and experiences during the pandemic. More than 14,000 adults across 14 advanced countries participated in the general population survey.
The results, published earlier in 2021, showed that a substantial proportion of people in 11 of the 14 countries surveyed, reported that during the pandemic, their religious faith had grown stronger. The effect was most prominent in the US where nearly 3 in 10 people (28%) reported their faith had been strengthened. People from Spain (16%), Canada (13%), and the UK (10%) reported that their religious faith was stronger during the pandemic than before. Across all 14 countries surveyed, the proportion of people who reported an increase in their faith was overwhelmingly greater than the proportion of people who said their religious faith had weakened. The survey also found that people who had lower incomes and people who considered faith to be an important aspect of their life reported the greatest increases in stating that their faith was strengthened during the pandemic.
Social scientists consider that the rise in religiousness during the pandemic is a common phenomenon that occurs when people face challenging circumstances and adversity. In the past, a rise in greater religious affiliation has similarly been reported to occur after people experienced natural disasters.
For example, following a severe earthquake in February 2011 in Christchurch, New Zealand – the deadliest earthquake in New Zealand in 80 years – a longitudinal study examined people’s religious beliefs in the affected area and across the whole country.  The study showed that people who lived in Christchurch and experienced the earthquake, reported a net increase in religious faith (beginning to associate with some form of religious belief) of 3.4% compared to the rest of New Zealand where people reported a 0.9% decrease in religious faith.  Other examples from historical contexts also suggest that people affected by a disaster in a specific area can observe an increase in religious faith across different countries and contexts.
Finding solace in faith
Over the course of the pandemic, these studies reveal that some people’s attitudes towards religion are changing. Particularly young people, who were less likely to be affiliated with any religious belief, are anecdotally reported to be connecting with different religious communities that they may have previously ignored. Whether the pandemic reverses the decades-long trend of people turning away from religion is yet to be determined. However, for those people who have connected with a religious community or belief, it has become a source of comfort and created a sense of belonging in a time when the pandemic has created significant uncertainties in society.
About the author: Sinwan Basharat is a researcher with a background in molecular genetics and epidemiology. He works for a research agency in Ottawa, Canada. He also serves as a Deputy Editor for the Science Section in The Review of Religions.
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4. Sibley, C. G. & Bulbulia, J. Faith after an Earthquake: A Longitudinal Study of Religion and Perceived Health before and after the 2011 Christchurch New Zealand Earthquake. PLoS One 7, (2012).