By Tim Wyatt
The coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns could see increasing numbers of more nominal religious believers abandon their faith.
Although there was not yet any hard data to suggest large numbers of religious people have stopped attending services or even believing in some form of spirituality, the lengthy period separated from regular worship could lead to more “cultural” followers losing the habit.
That was the view of experts and faith leaders who took part in a Religion Media Centre panel discussion on the impact of Covid-19 on religious attendance and affiliation in Britain, marking one year since the virus first burst into the world’s consciousness.
Professor David Voas, a social scientist who studies trends in religion at University College London, said research had shown attendance at religious services was “largely a matter of habit” and therefore for some, having had their habits broken by a series of lockdowns and restrictions, they would never be restored even when churches, mosques, synagogues and temples were fully open again.
Despite many believing times of national crisis tended to prompt a resurgence of interest in religion, Professor Voas noted there was scarce evidence from history that this was the case.
“When you actually look at the data on the impact of, for example, the world wars or the Great Depression or the Great Recession following the financial crisis, it’s very, very difficult to find evidence of a lasting positive impact on religious activity. So I remain sceptical, despite the small-scale evidence about upticks in spirituality.”
Peter Lynas, the UK director of the Christian network the Evangelical Alliance, agreed and warned many “cultural Christians” might lose touch with the church for good during the Covid crisis.
“I do think nominalism will struggle in this season; the habits have been broken. That will be a challenge for churches and in particular the Church of England,” he said, suggesting the Anglican church would feel this blow the worst because of its unique cultural position in English society.
Those in the Muslim community had some similar concerns, said Qari Asim, who chairs the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board. Although many Muslims, and particularly the tech-literate young, have taken part in online worship during the first lockdown, many imams had noticed some of their younger flock had not returned in person when mosques reopened in the summer.
Some may have lost the habit of attending Friday prayers, having instead become used to expressing their faith only via the internet, Mr Asim speculated. “They found their spirituality and religiosity elsewhere than their local places of worship.”
The question of younger believers was a critical one, Mr Lynas agreed. Evangelical Alliance surveys of church leaders had revealed that 35 per cent of their churches were no longer doing any form of children’s ministry, online or in person, because it had proved too difficult.
As many people join the church while young, a year of failing to connect with teenagers and children could have a long impact with a whole generation never putting down roots in faith, he said.
Professor Voas agreed, noting that the research showed religious decline in the western world had been largely generational, with young people no longer replacing their parents or grandparents, rather than adults deciding they no longer believed.
“I think there’s been a real drop in youth participation in ordinary religious activities that I’m familiar with,” he added, noting the prospect of an hour on Zoom with a bunch of adults during a religious youth group meeting was a far less attractive prospect than the in-person events they replaced.
Tilak Parekh, a researcher into Hinduism, said he had seen signs this too was true of Britain’s Hindu community.
Those who were already quite religious had become even more so during the pandemic, with the ability to worship and take part in rituals now happening every day in the home. But those who were less fervent no longer had the physical trip to the temple each week to centre faith around and would be unlikely to want to tune into services at home via the internet or television.
He likened it to workers being placed on furlough and gradually disconnecting from their employers until finally being made redundant. “People are not going to temples now and feel like they are on furlough — then they realise they don’t need to go any more. It’s a big question when lockdown ends as to whether some will ever return to places of worship,” he argued.
Despite the gloomy picture, the experts agreed there was a flip side: some people had actually found faith or found it strengthened during the coronavirus crisis.
Mr Lynas cited a YouGov survey from November in which four per cent of people said the lockdowns had damaged their faith or destroyed it: a number offset, however, by the five per cent who said they had found faith since the pandemic began.
“The net effect might not be a huge change, but there are new people have definitely engaged,” he said.
Many places of worship have seen large jumps in attendance compared with in-person worship before the coronavirus, although it remained unclear if this was the result of a surge of new congregants, or simply people from elsewhere tuning in, some of whom may have previously worshipped elsewhere.
But Professor Voas remained sceptical that the long-term century-long trends in religious attendance or affiliation would shift significantly as a result of the past 12 months. He said that when the dust settled, it would become clear that Covid had neither brought many people back to God nor provoked them to abandon faith.
“I think religion is much more a social activity and the explanations behind involvement are generally to do with social factors. I don’t think there is a short-term impact in either searching for God or the problem of evil.”
Congregations rise as worship moves to the internet
Bible and Koran sales up: Spiritually grows during the Covid crisis
Factsheet: Is the church growing online?
ComRes poll from May on religious habits during the first lockdown
Review of the latest polling data and other research throughout 2020 into religious attendance and affiliation by British Religion in Numbers researcher Clive Field