Some sociologists believe that Coronavirus is a dire threat to religions. They predict that the disease will speed up the already fast drop in churchgoing in the west. As donations fall, church schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, parishes and even cathedrals will struggle to survive.
Stephen Bullivant, whose book Mass Exodus studied Catholic attrition in Britain and America, offers three reasons why he believes churches will shrink after the pandemic. First, he says, churchgoers (both lay and clergy) tend to be elderly and therefore more likely to die of coronavirus. Second, many churches rely on a steady influx of immigrants. With the world in lockdown, that supply has, at least temporarily, dried up. Third, churchgoing is a habit, and once that habit is broken it is hard to take it up again.
For a ‘decent minority’ of people, Bullivant says, ‘a period of weeks or months when they can’t go to Mass, might easily be the “nudge” required to stop altogether. This will be especially true if, as seems likely, we will have a long period where people can go to church again, but when being part of a large gathering is still widely viewed, and possibly officially cautioned against, as an “unnecessary risk”.’
Many who have attended services dutifully their whole lives feel aggrieved by the speed with which bishops agreed first to prohibit public liturgies and then to shut churches. For Catholics, this is particularly wrenching, as the Church teaches that it’s a grave sin to miss Sunday Mass. Now, for the first time in living memory, the bishops have assured believers that it’s permissible — virtuous even — to spend the day at home. A cynic would argue that the Sunday Mass obligation has been a major retention tool for the Church. It may help explain why Catholicism is declining at a slower rate than Anglicanism in Britain. But after the coronavirus crisis, some Catholics may feel less bound by a requirement that was dispensed with so abruptly.
Livestreamed services, meanwhile, are proving a poor substitute for the real thing. They lack the vital communal dimension of worship and even the most pious Christian will admit they are, at times, excruciatingly dull. At church, you can fill the longueurs by gazing across the pews, but laggy live-streams only accentuate the tedium. Worst of all, believers are unable to receive the Eucharist.
The lockdown is testing believers of all stripes. Defiance of prevailing norms is, after all, a part of many religions. Consider Egypt’s Copts: in recent years they have risked their lives to attend services. Now, with a nighttime curfew imposed by the authorities, they struggled to attend any Easter celebrations. Or think of Orthodox Jews who wear skullcaps on the street despite the risk of attack. Now they are unable to recite cherished prayers because they cannot form a minyan: the quorum of ten men required for public worship in Judaism. Or spare a thought for Muslims in Sri Lanka, where Covid-19 victims are being cremated, in violation of Islamic tradition.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power with Evangelical support, designated last Sunday as a national day of prayer and fasting for an end to the pandemic. When state governors tried to ban religious gatherings, Bolsonaro overruled them and issued a decree exempting churches.
The virus’s impact on religious practice is overwhelmingly negative
New York Magazine columnist Ed Kilgore has said the coronavirus is testing organised religion, and that as a result people could begin to view crowded religious rituals with suspicion once the pandemic is over. This could lead religious people toward a more individualistic faith.
In India, the far-right wing administration and its feeder organizations are not protesting any closing down of any temples in the country. The months of this season is intensively dotted with dates of festivities and holy gatherings too, but all of them banned, even by the governments that wrenched power on the ride of religion-based campaigning
The much celebrated Thrissur Pooram postponed for the first time in its entire history. Kubh Melas are now just a question of when the government will ban it; no proposal for it being any near.
In countries like Turkey and Iran, the arguments triggered by the arrival of the virus have rocked the popular image of religion, particularly among younger generations. For example, the ideas of the popular cleric Abbas Tabrizian, who found fame preaching about faith-based treatments of illnesses, have become an object of mockery for young Iranians.
We can see that traditional religious commentators are at a loss on how to define their mission and what they can contribute to topics like the Coronavirus.
Some crafty men of faith have tried to sidestep the difficulty by taking the line that scientific advice is religious advice. But at heart, this amounts to the same slogans voiced by Christianity in the West when it threw in the towel in its conflicts with science.
Take Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, which finally announced that it was suspending congregational prayers in mosques. The decision saved Diyanet from the high degree of damage it could have suffered in the biggest challenge to its legitimacy of recent times.
Whichever religion they are from, events like the Pope’s self-isolation and the closure of Islam’s holiest site, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, closing down of thousands of temples and banning all the holy festivities of Hinduism will hold a much bigger place in young people’s memories.
There has been a great conceptual split between faith and religion in countries like Turkey and Iran. We are seeing the first signs of a generation that will keep their faith or unfaith, but remain distant from organised and institutionalised religion, doubting the core of the faith, the god itself.