Will the Virus Make Us More or Less Religious?

Some are starting to speculate about whether the virus will affect American religiosity, which as we know, is abnormally high for a developed democratic country. Religious affiliation and practice in the US has been slowly declining for a few decades now. So we might think that pattern will intensify. In this post, I want to see if this is likely to be true.

Before I begin, let’s understand religiosity as adherence to some kind of religious belief, combined with a modest degree of religious observance corresponding to those beliefs. There are lots of ways to make these ideas more precise, but they won’t matter much for the purposes of this post.

The main way to predict the effects of the virus on religiosity is to ask how the virus affects the relative costs and benefits of religious belief and practice. I’ll assume that most churches have or will have services online, and that most of their adherents will be able to attend if they wish.

Factors Favoring Increased Religiosity:

  1. Increased Uncertainty and Poverty: according to a common secularization thesis, people become less religious as they become more secure in their possession of worldly goods. To the extent that the virus deprives people of security and prosperity, they are most likely to form religious beliefs and engage in religious practices that they feel provide them with a balm for their suffering.
  2. Decreased Costs of Attendance: it is much easier to “attend” church from home than to get up, get dressed, and drive to services.
  3. Decreased Opportunity Costs of Religious Practice: people are working less, if they’re working at all, and so they have more time to devote themselves to religious practices like worship, prayer, and study.

Factors Favoring Decreased Religiosity:

  1. Fewer Social Benefits: one of the advantages of religious observance is the ability to form close social bonds with members of one’s faith, and that is easier to sustain with personal contact in church and in church activities, like worship and charity work.
  2. Less Social Punishment: a lot of religious observance is driven by the fear that others will disapprove of us if we are not sufficiently observant. But without social contact, it is harder to monitor whether people are observant or not, and this leads to slacking off. I admit I’m more distracted when I worship from home than when I worship in church, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
  3. Less Religious Instruction: a lot of religious belief and practice comes from religious instruction, like Bible studies, that are much more easily carried out in person than over the internet, so the dissemination of religious knowledge and inspiration might be decreased.

These factors apply to existing religious belief and practice. But we should also not discount innovations in religiosity, both in the delivery of religious services (like drive-in worship) and in the nature of religion itself (a sufficiently bad global pandemic could lead to the creation of new religions or new variants on old religions).

My suspicion is that, on balance, a prolonged viral infection will favor a modest increase in religiosity among those who feel most negatively affected by the virus, and that religious observance will be partly facilitated by innovation in service delivery.

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