What role will religion play in a post-pandemic world?

Image credit: Insight Film Festival

Comment by Michael Wakelin

Crises often have unintended and unforeseen consequences. In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, one of these consequences involves the rediscovery of the importance of religion. Over the last few months, many of us have become more religious and we have all been reminded of the importance of faith in bringing society together in times of distress.

This is not what everyone would have predicted when the pandemic arrived on our shores four months ago. Traumatic times can often drive people away from, not towards, faith. In many countries, the post-War society laid the foundations for the secularisation of life; more recently, some Syrians affected by their country’s seemingly endless war have turned to atheism, rather than God.

But just as often, the opposite happens. During the Gulf War in 1991, church attendance in the United States skyrocketed as soon as fighting began. The same happened after 9/11. And the same, it appears, in happening during the pandemic. A third of young adults in Britain attended a virtual religious service in the weeks after lockdown began — a figure that is significantly higher than the norm.

This should not be entirely surprising. It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes. And we have all been in the pandemic’s psychological foxhole (if not actually being treated for the disease) in recent months. Religion has become more important for many, and even indispensable for some who would not be particularly religious under normal circumstances.

84 per cent of the world’s population declare an adherence to a religious faith — a figure set to rise according to Pew Research. With 86 per cent of people living in a country which has an official religion and is therefore a significant part of their lives, faith has been a key part of the global response to the insecurity, anxiety, and alienation caused by the virus. Because of lockdown and social distancing restrictions, this has often necessitated that online services replace physical gathering. Even the Hajj, the world’s largest annual pilgrimage, has become largely virtual this year, because the vast majority of the two million pilgrims find themselves unable to travel to Saudi Arabia.

This online shift and take up of technology for religious purposes has been accelerated, rather than initiated, by the pandemic. In 2017 a German church unveiled a “Robo Pastor,” and the Church of England has had an Alexa skill — including offering prayers — since 2018.

Technology may be changing religion, but it is certainly not (as some would have predicted) eliminating it or making it obsolete. As before, reports of the death of God are greatly exaggerated. Recall that in 1999, on the eve of the millennium, The Economist famously published an obituary for the former deity. A decade later, it declared on its front page that “God is back.” Changing circumstances can make us feel, for a fleeting moment, that all the old ways — including timeless faith traditions — are disappearing. This is often not the case, especially not when we are facing the first deadly global pandemic in a century.

At a time when many will be focusing on their own well being, religion is likely to become a bigger part of the self-prescribed treatment. The connection between physical health (particularly the immune system) and mental health is well-known. Religion can help reduce the alcoholism, rates of suicide and depression that we have already seen rise due to the stress associated with Covid-19. Earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics found that religion significantly improves one’s self of wellbeing. It is easier to get through difficult times if you have faith in a better time. Faith can also act as part of the social glue that keeps societies together and help provide the support networks that can be the difference between life and death. A broad range of evidence demonstrates that spirituality has a positive effect on many mental health conditions.

This is not always the story we hear from parts of the media when it comes to religion. Whether we think religion is good or bad, we should all be able to agree that it matters. And things that matter must be reported on fairly and prominently. Religion, not least because of its sensitivities, deserves the highest editorial standards. In the UK we have developed the Religion Media Centre, an independent, impartial body to help journalists and other media professionals cover world religions and beliefs, with the aim of shifting the conversation about religion to more informed discussion and more accurate reporting.

The Global South, overall, appears to see the importance of religion in social transformation more than the developed world. Next month, experts from the fields of politics, media, tech, and religion will be taking part in the virtual Dhaka Forum to work on solutions for developing countries in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. The event — dubbed the “Davos of the Global South” — will explore solutions that emerge from religious belief and practice, or that are themselves faith-based services. Many of these solutions are mediated by technology — and technological innovation is something to which the event’s organiser, Ashfaq Zaman of Bangladesh’s Leadership Council for Policy and Research, has long been committed.

Societal resilience is even more important during crises, and religious literacy and communication are important facilitators of that. A former head of MI6 once told me that there will never be world peace until religious leaders are gathered around the negotiating table. The negotiating table may now be a Zoom call, and the prayer group may be replaced with a WhatsApp group — which is to say, societies that embrace tech may also be better placed to preserve and understand faith, and all the benefits that come with that.

As ‘techno-religion’ spreads across the world almost as fast as the virus, it may have some important lessons for us all.

Michael Wakelin is a former head of religion and ethics at the BBC, and executive chair of the Religion Media Centre. He will be speaking at the Dhaka Forum on 8 and 9 August 2020.