by Tim Wyatt
There are increasing signs that the coronavirus pandemic may be causing a surge of interest in religion and spirituality.
A number of faith groups have reported that, even as their places of worship have been shut down, engagement has gone up.
Some churches have seen virtual congregations for livestreamed worship which are as much as 10 times larger than what would be expected before Covid-19, while Google searches for terms associated with faith has skyrocketed since the pandemic began.
In the UK, searches including the word “prayer” at their highest level since Google’s records began in 2004, and have risen by 61 per cent since February. Searches including the word “God” have also shot up 34 per cent in the same timeframe and are now at their second-highest level since 2004.
Sales of the Bible have also increased in recent months, with one industry analyst telling The Sunday Times: “One imagines this is a result of churches closing, but perhaps people are turning to scripture for comfort in these abnormal and melancholy times.”
A large American Christian publisher, LifeWay, has said its sales had increased 62 per cent compared with the same time last year and the British online Christian bookstore Eden said it sold 55 per cent more printed Bibles in April than expected.
This is not simply a Christian phenomenon: downloads in March of the most popular Koran app for Android smartphones were double those seen just one month earlier, according to Appfigures, which analyses app data.
Some are trying to take advantage of this unexpected surge of interest by offering resources and encouragement for those newly exploring faith to commit further. One vicar in Basingstoke, the Rev Tim Dennis, has set up his own website, lookforhope.org, which offers short blogs and videos addressing spiritual angles on the Covid-19 crisis. He said he was inspired to create the site by noticing on social media how many people were wrestling with trying to find spiritual succour during the pandemic.
The influential Alpha evangelistic course, designed to introduce people to the basics of Christianity, has also become more and more popular during the lockdown, according to the Rev Nicky Gumbel, whose church, Holy Trinity Brompton, created Alpha. He told the News Statesman: “I’ve never known a time in my life when people are more open to [God’s word] than they are now. There are no other distractions. There’s no football, there’s no sport. There’s no entertainment. People have time to hear the Gospel.”
Many sociologists of religion argue that times of crisis often prompt people to return to a faith they may have left behind, or even seek out a new framework of belief.
Jeanet Sinding Bentzen, a researcher from Copenhagen University, has already began producing a study suggesting that the Google search intensity for the term “prayer” roughly doubles for every 80,000 new registered cases of coronavirus in a particular country. She has previously studied correlations between natural disasters and religiosity.
“We humans have a tendency to use religion to cope with crisis,” she told Catholic News Service. “The Covid-19 has proven no exception.”
The Rev Sally Hitchiner, from St Martins-in-the-Fields Church in central London, whose live streams have seen thousands of new people log in compared with ordinary Sunday services, said:
“The people who have logged in are generally people who don’t normally go to church, which has really surprised us. I think at the moment everyone’s minds are being focused on what really matters and what is holding them together. For some people, they’re looking for opportunities or something that provides comfort and hope and kindness. People messaging in have been saying that they found it an anchor during a difficult time. They’re not normally religious, but they wanted to connect with something bigger than themselves. Someone this morning said that they felt they find a source of kindness in the midst of a cruel world at the moment.”
A preliminary draft of Jeanet Sinding Bentzen’s research can be read here.
Analysis of online worship stats Dr Peter Phillips here
Linda Woodhead, leading sociologist and professor of religion at Lancaster University.
Stephen Bullivant, professor of theology and the sociology of religion, St Mary’s University, Twickenham