Once COVID-19 is under control and we return to normalcy, many dissertations in sociology will analyze the pandemic’s effect on religious belief and practice. Both history and recent events give us reason to hope that many will turn to God in this time of duress. However, such a trend could be short-lived. And it is possible that the pandemic, rather than leading to uniform religious revival, will increase the piety of some but weaken that of others.
Throughout history, periods of mass trauma have often sparked religious revivals. The global pandemic coincides with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II. That traumatic, bloody conflict led many to turn to God. This also happened in the United States in the weeks following September 11, 2001, arguably the greatest tragedy in American history. Immediately after the terrorist attacks, growing numbers of Americans prayed more, and nearly eight in ten claimed that religion was increasingly important in American public life (much more so than in March 2001, for instance).
In Poland, where I live, society has often flocked to religion in difficult times. That was the case during World War II and when Poland was under martial law from 1981 to 1983. According to one survey, when the first coronavirus infections were recorded in Poland at the beginning of March, 57 percent of Poles viewed the Catholic Church positively, while 32 percent had a negative view (an increase of five percent and a decrease of six percent, respectively, compared to September 2019).
Apart from mass trauma, however, there are a couple more reasons why the pandemic could bring some people closer to religion. As Joni Mitchell puts it in “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone?” In my conversations with friends around the world, I keep hearing that they miss living contact with their church or synagogue. One Canadian friend told me that his wife cried when she learned that she could not go to church for Palm Sunday this year. Many Catholic friends tell me they missed attending Easter confession and celebrations of the Easter Triduum in their parishes.
In many Eastern European countries where religion was persecuted, there have been religious revivals after the fall of Soviet hegemony. In Albania, where religion was oppressed more violently than anywhere else (under dictator Enver Hoxha, who remained an orthodox Stalinist for decades after Stalin’s death and who made Albania the first officially atheist state), both the Muslim majority and Christian minority are enjoying revivals. That is also the case in post-Soviet Ukraine, where the Orthodox Church and the Greek-Catholic Church, driven to the Gulags and the underground by Stalin, are increasingly strong. (On the other hand, religious revival is not uniform in post-communist societies; the Czech Republic and the eastern lands of Germany, for instance, remain among the world’s least religious places.) Today’s North Americans and Europeans may not experience totalitarian persecution for practicing religion, but they have been denied full access to it during the pandemic. In many cases, this has bolstered their appreciation for it.
Another cause for optimism: In the mainstream media, there has been more positive coverage of men of the cloth than usual. World media outlets in recent weeks have offered many stories of priests who have made generous financial contributions to the struggle against the pandemic or encouraged their parishioners to give more to charity. (Of course, media have not always been kind to those clergymen attempting to care for their flocks by celebrating drive-in Masses or keeping their churches open.) In Italy, a certain Laura Eugeni, a lifelong agnostic, was so moved by the sight of Pope Francis blessing an empty St. Peter’s Square and praying for an end to the epidemic that she converted. When all is back to normal, the mainstream media will once again disproportionately focus attention on the minority of evil clerics and willfully ignore the many virtuous ones. However, perhaps the acts of religiously-motivated selflessness that occur during this time will make a lasting impression on some hearts.
Trauma-induced religious revivals, however, are often ephemeral. That was the case with the religious revival in post-9/11 America. It could not stop the rise of the “nones,” for example. Moreover, because of lockdown measures, church services in much of the world are closed off to larger congregations, which may lead many to lose the habit of regular worship. This lack of continuity could be the death knell for the religious practice of some: those who spend all their time in church thinking about Sunday brunch or that evening’s football game and do not recall the Scripture readings or the sermon even immediately after walking out of church.
On the other hand, the enormous interest in religious services broadcast on TV or online suggests that many believers’ thirst for God has not been quenched. In Poland, millions of people have been watching televised Sunday Mass (with a slight upward trend) ever since lockdown measures limited the number of people who could attend services in a physical church. Curiously, even liberal media networks, such as the news station TVN24 (something like the Polish MSNBC), have been broadcasting Mass every Sunday. And millions of Poles recently watched Lenten retreats online with the country’s most popular priests, like the Dominican Adam Szustak. According to Portugal’s Expresso, the number of Portuguese watching online Masses increased by an average of 1,000 percent in late March (and the number watching broadcasts of Masses from Fatima has soared by 2,000 percent). Meanwhile, Father Guilherme Peixoto, a Lisbon priest and DJ, has become an online sensation in his country for bringing people joy by livestreaming both dance parties and Masses.
At the moment, the main evidence we have about the pandemic’s effect on religion is anecdotal, which in sociology is the weakest kind of evidence. However, there are some preliminary reasons to hope that this trying time will cause more people to reflect on their relationship with God, even if that religious revival is limited and uneven.
Filip Mazurczak is a translator and journalist whose work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Crisis Magazine, European Conservative, and Tygodnik Powszechny.