Meaning & Hope – do people turn to God at a time like this?

Since Covid 19 hit our shores, most of us have existed in a state of shock, not quite believing that this is our new reality. Now we’re becoming strangely accustomed to the horrors in the news and the weirdness of the situation.

And all the while we’re trying to make sense of it all.

Why has this happened? Could something have been done something differently? What does our future look like now?

There’s also anger – why weren’t we more prepared? What did we do wrong? Whose fault is it?

We all have a need to at least try to understand why things happen so we can put them into context. And there’s a sense that if we can answer these questions then we’ll find some meaning and learn from it, rather than it just being a random happening after which we will all go back to ‘business as usual’.

Many people find a sense of meaning through religion and spirituality. But what does something like Covid 19 do to people’s belief (or non-belief) in God? Could this pandemic cause people to turn towards God? Or will people reject such ideas given all the hardship?

monk holding prayer beads across mountain
Photo by THÁI NHÀN on Pexels.com

Religious feeling and disasters

History offers us clues as to how people respond in the wake of such catastrophes. An annual study of over 12,000 people in Canada between 1995 and 2012[1] found that natural disasters do increase religious feeling in those who already have some sort of belief.  82% of those interviewed already had a pre-existing belief (mostly some form of Christianity) and they indicated that such beliefs became stronger after disasters (such as wildfires, blizzards and avalanches) injuring a significant number of people. Attendance at religious services also tended to increase in the aftermath.

What’s interesting is that the study’s findings suggested that people react differently to serious economic crises/catastrophes. There appeared to be a drop in religious service attendance after such events (by 26% for every 1% increase in such disasters). The author put this down to there often being practical action one can take in response to economic crises (claiming assistance from the government, insurance etc) whereas a death/natural disaster is the ultimate indication of our powerlessness as human beings – there is nothing we can do. And it’s this feeling of powerlessness that makes it more likely that a person will turn to God.

Jeanet Sinding Bentzen also conducted a global study comparing individual’s religiosity with data on natural disasters[2]. Again, she found that people tended to become more religious if an earthquake had recently hit close by. This correlation appeared to have some longevity to it as well; continuing through generations.

What about disasters that aren’t ‘natural’ as such? Following the most memorable terrorist attack of our lifetime; 9/11, a study of 560 Americans found that 90% had ‘turned to religion’ as a way of coping[3]. The answers ranged from ‘a little bit’ to ‘a lot’, presumably ranging from the saying of a quiet prayer to actually participating in religious rituals or services.  The most likely people to turn to their faith were those who had suffered a ‘substantial stress reaction’ to it all, rather than those who had a milder reaction.

Meaning and Covid 19

The term ‘religious coping’ describes the tendency in some people to turn to religion to deal with unpredictable life events that could otherwise seem to be unbearable. Holding a belief that there is something bigger ‘in charge’, some reason for it all can help people to feel safe and find the meaning and purpose in a terrible situation.

The impact of Covid 19 combines both mass illness and death and dire economic consequences for many. We know that there are some practical steps people can take; applying for financial assistance from the government, using food banks and the like. But will people also turn to religion and spirituality?

While Covid 19 isn’t a naturally-occurring event, its sheer scale and the extent of the impact on how many of us have been living our lives has led some to attribute a higher meaning to it already, particularly given the context in which it came along; in a world that was already struggling with many man-made problems. Some believe it is God or Mother Nature or the universe’s way of taking back control (forgive the Brexit-ism) of showing us we’re not the boss and that we need to heed the warnings to respect the environment and slow down our lives.

In her recent speech the Queen also referred to prayer and meditation, indicating that religious rituals play a large part in her the way she copes with such events.  Given that many of those watching had suffered bereavements already her closing words of comfort “we will meet again” were particularly poignant, possibly suggesting a belief in the afterlife as well as to the reunions of living relatives once lockdown is over.

Of course, finding meaning in events like this is not limited to those who have religious beliefs. Many people are taking heart from the reduction in pollution, the slowing down of life and the re-assessment of values that are happy by-products of this pandemic. The community spirit shown by people volunteering to help the most vulnerable, the gratitude shown for the NHS and the number of those volunteering to help have also given people a sense of togetherness, direction and usefulness. This echoes the 9/11 study’s findings that the most popular way of coping, above turning to religion, was talking to other people (98%) while 36% had donated to an organisation to try to help and 60% had participated in some sort of group activity or vigil. It’s that feeling part of a group with shared values that seems to really help people, whether that group is a religious one or not.

Hope

So people find hope through faith, whether that’s faith in a God or faith in the people around them, in kindness and the power of good. Hope for positive changes in the way we live in the future and hope that, ultimately, we will be OK.

But at a time like this, when death is around us in a way most of us haven’t seen in our lifetime, I think many of us will also be saying a quiet prayer or two, for the people we love, for those in our communities, for the world. After all, what have we got to lose?

[1] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180605172518.htm

https://www.technology.org/2018/06/29/disasters-do-make-people-more-religious-but-only-when-people-are-injured/

[2] https://blog.oup.com/2019/10/natural-disasters-make-people-more-religious/

https://academic.oup.com/ej/article-abstract/129/622/2295/5490325?redirectedFrom=fulltext#supplementary-data

[3] https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejm200111153452024

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