Religion, Spirituality and the Search for Meaning during the Covid-19 Pandemic

According to many accounts, there has been a modest resurgence of religious practice in Ireland and the UK during the covid-19 pandemic. Nationally representative surveys commissioned by the Iona Institute and Tearfund found that surprisingly high numbers of people were accessing religion virtually, and that people were praying more.

My own survey of faith leaders on the island of Ireland confirmed these trends, as have further polls by Christian Aid, Catholic Voices/York St John University, Dublin City University, and Durham University.

But last week, media outlets described the finding that nearly one in five practising Catholics in the Republic of Ireland are ‘unsure’ if they will return to mass after the pandemic as ‘a wake up call’ (Belfast Telegraph, Irish Catholic).

In light of these seemingly contradictory results, we might ask: is the pandemic prompting people to turn to religion, or is it accelerating a loss of faith?

The Iona Institute/Amarach poll that produced the ‘wake up call’ returned other results, which taken together indicate that substantial numbers of people in the Republic of Ireland (hereafter, Ireland) have engaged in spiritual practices or actively searched for meaning during the pandemic.

But they also confirm that the Catholic Church is not the first port of call for most of those people.

In addition, the poll provided evidence that despite its apparent popularity, online religion will not replace in-person worship. When practising Catholics who had not returned to mass after lockdown restrictions were lifted were asked why, just 6% said it was because they were ‘happy to watch online’. This is in line with the Dublin City University survey, which found that less than 1% of people intended to only or mainly worship online once churches reopened. [Unsurprisingly, the main reasons people have not yet returned to mass were fear of covid-19 (45%) and limits on numbers in church buildings (22%). A further 20% said they didn’t know why or ‘other’, while 7% said they had lost the habit.]

All this points towards a scenario in which there is sustained and even increased interest in what might loosely be called spirituality. At the same time, people who are practising religion online prefer for their religiosity to extend beyond cyberspace. Taking these findings together, we might conclude that when lockdowns ease, for many people the spiritual space that they find beyond cyberspace might not be (and is perhaps unlikely to be?) a church building.

‘Spirituality’ trumps ‘religion’

Some questions on the Iona Institute’s poll were inspired by a Theos/YouGov survey conducted in the UK in May/June.[i] The Theos findings also cast doubt on previous research indicating a renewed interest in religion in UK.

(The Theos poll was nationally representative and included Northern Ireland. I have not included separate results from Northern Ireland because given a baseline of just 54, it would be questionable to generalise from such a small sample size. However, previous research indicates Northern Ireland has higher levels of religiosity than England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland.)

Both Iona and Theos found that when asked what matters most when trying to live a fulfilling life, people in Ireland and the UK did not value ‘growing your spirituality or religion or faith’ very much. In both countries, this choice ranked 13 out of 16 options. 11% in Ireland and 10% in the UK chose it. The top three choices in both countries were ‘being with family’, ‘being content with what you have’, and ‘being financially comfortable’.

Yet at the same time, both surveys confirmed an increased search for meaning in life and an increased concern about death (which is, of course, unsurprising during a pandemic). In Ireland, people searched for meaning and worried about death more than in the UK, which likely reflects Ireland’s higher baseline levels of religiosity and belief in life after death (including hell). Some polls report that a majority of people in the UK identify has having ‘no religion’, while that figure is less than 10% in Ireland.

The surveys asked what practices people had engaged in during the pandemic outside of formal religious services. In Ireland and the UK, people were equally unlikely to be reading other religious or spiritual writings (only 5% in both countries) or learning more about religion or spirituality (5% in both). In the UK, 58% said they did not engage in any of the ten practices provided on the list, while in Ireland 37% had not engaged in any practices.

But substantial minorities were engaging in practices that could be described as spiritual, such as ‘spending time in quiet reflection’ (40% Ireland, 26% UK); ‘feeling a deep connection with nature/the earth’ (26% Ireland, 18% UK); prayer (26% Ireland, 14% UK), and meditation (21% Ireland, 12% UK).

Pondering the Meaning of Life

People also were thinking about what makes life meaningful more than before (45% Ireland, 31% UK); talking to other people about what makes life meaningful more than before (33% Ireland, 20% UK); and feeling a need for wisdom or guidance more than before (30% Ireland, 14% UK).

Pondering the meaning of life was even more pronounced among young people. In Ireland, 55% of those 18-24 and 51% of those 25-34 were thinking about what makes life meaningful more than before. In the UK, the figures are 43% of those 18-24 and 37% of those 25-34. They also were talking to others about what makes life meaningful more than before (49% in Ireland and 30% in the UK of those 18-24; 37% in Ireland and 24% in the UK of those 25-34). It is unclear whether this reflects a greater interest in ‘meaning’ that will be maintained among people in these cohorts as they age; or whether younger people are simply more prone to search for meaning, due to having had comparatively fewer life experiences than older age cohorts.

In Ireland, 45% believed that there is life after death (heaven, hell, reincarnation), compared to just 29% in the UK. When asked how the pandemic had changed their personal attitudes towards death, 48% in Ireland and 30% in the UK said they have become more worried about the death of their loved ones; while 52% in the UK and 46% in Ireland said the pandemic has not changed how they think about death.

Can Ireland’s ‘Traditional’ Religions Provide Meaning?

While current research indicates interesting religious changes are underway, it is far too early to draw firm conclusions about how religion in Ireland (and the UK) will alter as the pandemic unfolds. But the preliminary results are moving me away from a question that asks whether the pandemic is prompting people to turn to religion, or is it accelerating a loss of faith?

Rather, the new shape of religion on this island hinges on the question of whether or not our centuries-old Christian churches can communicate in ways that help people create meaning in their lives.

[i] With thanks to the Iona Institute for providing me with access to the survey results.

(Image: Belfast’s Clonard Monastery Church, with social distancing signs. Sourced on Clonard’s Twitter feed.)