Tuesday, June 2, 2020
June 2, 2020

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Allen: Why faith seems to be growing with churches empty

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Of all the activities that help organize human life, the communal practice of religion is one of the most unifying.

But like public gatherings of almost every kind, religious services of every denomination and creed have all but disappeared, thanks to the coronavirus.

And while the “virtual” service has been sustaining people of faith during these difficult times, plenty of people feel spiritually isolated without the fellowship, foundation and accountability that group worship provides.

There’s reason to wonder whether, when churches and other houses of worship reopen (some already are), if many of the faithful decide not to return — at first for safety, but eventually because they’ve simply lost the habit.

Add to that the almost universal suffering and despair created by the pandemic, and the circumstances seem ripe for a great falling away from faithfulness altogether. Yet the opposite appears to be true. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that one-quarter of U.S. adults (24 percent) say their faith has become stronger because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Notably, that’s 24 percent of U.S. adults overall — not just those who identified as being very religious before this all began.

That data is consistent with a Gallup survey which found that 19 percent of Americans said their faith or spirituality has gotten better as a result of the crisis.

In a separate survey conducted in March, Pew found that more than half of all U.S. adults have prayed for an end to the spread of coronavirus, including “some who say they seldom or never pray and people who say they do not belong to any religion (15 percent and 24 percent, respectively).”

And while about half of Americans say their faith hasn’t changed much in the face of the global pandemic, only 2 percent in the Pew study say it has become weaker. Gallup had a similar result, at 3 percent.

That’s an intriguing finding given that religion in America has been declining for decades, and the decline has accelerated in recent years.

There are complex and intertwined reasons for that — negative political associations, major church scandals, the decline of the family and the rise of secularism.

And whether causal or coincidental, the rise of the “nones” — people with no religious affiliation — has occurred concurrently with a breakdown of social cohesion.

Some of that can be attributed to younger generations who have not merely eschewed religious labels but filled the faith-shaped void with other (often rootless) endeavors to provide some sense of “meaning.”

The pandemic has abruptly stripped many of those things away — work, routines, the frivolities of life — leaving us all to contemplate our role in the world and the purpose of our existence.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why 11 percent of adults who seldom or never attend religious services have found their faith is increasing in the wake of COVD-19; and why 7 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans — included atheists and agnostics — now similarly find themselves drawn to faith.

There’s probably another important factor at play in people’s turn to faith: the failures of science.

While we will ultimately rely on medical treatment to manage the disease, there is no certainty that we will ever completely understand or effectively vaccinate against the coronavirus.

And the fluidity and ambiguity of seemingly every pandemic question (from whether masks can effectively prevent the spread to how the virus can be transmitted) has given pause to many people who have long insisted that science has all the answers all of the time.

Religion may not provide those answers, either. But it’s clearly filling a void of something lost in our current crisis.

Perhaps that something is hope.

If these are the times that try men’s souls, they may also be the times that restore them.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: cmallen@star-telegram.com.

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