Academics ask: how did Covid change religion in society?

Image credit: Project Recov-19

By Lianne Kolirin

Academics from around the world are investigating the impact of the pandemic on religion.

The three-year project, Religion in Societies Emerging from Covid-19, seeks to question whether or to what extent the role of religion has changed during the pandemic in four different locations: the island of Ireland, Canada, Germany, and Poland.

Principal investigators from each of the four regions met in Belfast on Tuesday to launch the “Recov-19” project, which also seeks to study how religious bodies contributed to the handling of Covid around the world. Researchers will use surveys, interviews, and content from faith groups to reach their conclusions.

Funded by the Trans-Atlantic Platform for the Social Sciences and Humanities, which draws on the support of national research councils, the project is also supported by the Religion Media Centre and the Irish Council of Churches.

The team will focus on three core areas: the discourse around health, illness and science; the relationship between religious organisations and governments and policymakers; and the concept of digital innovation within religion. Researchers in the four regions will seek to explore and compare the key similarities and differences in their findings and what factors brought about change in the various societies.

Professor Gladys Ganiel, the team’s principal investigator, launched the research at a meeting of the academics at Queen’s University Belfast, where she is based. She introduced fellow principal investigators — Professor Solange Lefebvre of the University of Montreal, Professor Kerstin Radde-Antweiler of Bremen University, and Professor Slawomir Mandes of Warsaw University — as well as other team members.

Professor Lefebvre told the RMC that the research “will be interesting to show differences and similarities between countries, and will ask questions about the vulnerability of individuals that were deprived of online resources”. It would also seek to examine “how religious minorities were treated and got through all this,” she said, and how faith groups engaged with members to show solidarity.

At the launch, Professor Ganiel said: “This project has its origins in research interests that we all had before the pandemic. But in some ways the catalyst was research I conducted during the pandemic: a survey and interviews with clergy on the island of Ireland.”

She found that “across all faith communities, provision of online services had increased from 56 per cent to 87 per cent during the first two months of the 2020 lockdown, and that 70 per cent of religious leaders intended to retain some aspects of online ministries even when restrictions eased”.

She added: “At the same time, faith leaders described the stresses and difficulties of comforting the sick and bereaved during this uncertain and dangerous time. Others worried that once lockdown restrictions eased, people would not come back to church.” She went on to collaborate with other lead investigators on a publication and conference on a similar theme. “From these connections our collaboration grew and our application for Trans-Atlantic Platform funding was successful,” she said.

Regarding health, illness and science, she explained: “Our research will look more deeply at the role of faith leaders in promoting the observance of public health measures. We will ask whether or to what extent their discourses are related to their position as majority or minority religions, as well as by pre-pandemic theological ideas about health, healing, science, and the relationship between religion and the state.”

Of the relationship between policymakers and religion, Professor Ganiel said preliminary investigations had led them to “hypothesise” that restrictions on public worship motivated faith leaders to work together to influence the powers-that-be. She added: “In some contexts, inter-religious co-operation may have increased, and this may affect how religious leaders engage with emerging issues like inequalities, poverty, and mental health issues.

“At the same time, it is possible that minority religious groups may be more marginalised than before the pandemic.”

Digital religion has become a “vibrant sub-field of study”, Prof Ganiel believes. She said her team expected to find that “some religious groups will retain at least some aspects of their online communication as the lockdown restrictions ease, opening new and innovative avenues for faith practice”. However, she added: “At the same time, religious groups may struggle to bridge ‘digital divides’ between urban and rural faith communities; and older people who may not have been included and benefited from digital innovations.”


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