“But even among people who are not very religious, very few say their faith has weakened. Rather, most say that their level of faith hasn’t changed much or that the question isn’t applicable to them because they don’t consider themselves to be religious,” said Pew in its report.
Forty-seven percent of Americans said their faith hasn’t been affected by the virus, while 26 percent say “I am not a religious person and this hasn’t changed.” The results suggest not many Americans are newly finding religion during the pandemic.
Pew found a significant racial gap. Forty-one percent of African-American adults said their faith is stronger, compared with 20 percent of white adults and 30 percent of Hispanic adults who said that.
The poll begins to answer questions that are closely watched by many who follow religious trends: How will the virus and the challenges it brings -- including its radical impact on in-person communal worship -- affect people’s faith?Some religious leaders have worried people will become accustomed to being cut off from standard practices and never return. Others have predicted a revival.
“I think it will deepen religion because virtuality is making anyone into a convener, part of the democratizing trend – it’s a radical empowerment,” said Marc Gopin, an ordained rabbi who directs the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.
He said he’s heard from Catholics who feel closer than ever to Pope Francis because they are now watching him online in what can feel like an intimate, one-on-one service, after years of seeing him surrounded by layers of high-ranking clergy and security and crowds. Gopin described Christians moved by “attending” their first virtual Passover seders, and interfaith activists inspired by working together online for a common, global cause.
“Even enemies, let alone allies. There’s never been a simultaneous threat to human life across everywhere at once. There is no going back,” he said.
Chris Butler, pastor of the predominantly African American Pentecostal Embassy Church in Chicago, said the virus has been financially and logistically challenging to churches, but also refreshing. Butler has been trying for a few years to shift the congregation to see that “God is not confined to or defined by a building.” They’ve been trying to focus more on outreach and prayer.
“I feel like the disruption of the pandemic has made us live that in a deeper way. We’re having communion on the livestream, where everyone just gets their own element -- taco shells and grape soda or whatever, and let’s do it. It’s lifted us up into our mission."
Jessie Thompson, 67, who attends a black Baptist church outside Oxford, Miss., said she pines for the multiple days a week she normally spends at church, and misses the closeness of worshipping together. However, she said her big family has set up a system where every hour is taken by someone to pray. She and her husband do the 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. shift together.
“When life isn’t the way you expect it, you listen more attentively to what he’s saying,” she said of God. “It’s a different closeness. Even with my husband, we used to pray at different times.”
Those who know someone who has died of or been hospitalized for covid-19 are more likely than others to say their faith has been strengthened as a result of the outbreak, by a margin of 33 percent to 21 percent. There is also a gap depending on one’s religious identity. While 56 percent of black Protestants said their faith has grown stronger, 42 percent of evangelicals said that, compared to 27 percent of Catholics and 22 percent of Protestants.
Among Jews, 7 percent said their religious faith has become stronger, compared with 69 percent who said it hasn’t changed much and 22 percent who said the question isn’t applicable to them because they are not religious.
There is also a gender gap. Among men, 18 percent said their religious faith has grown, 48 percent said it hasn’t changed and 32 percent said they aren’t religious. Among women, the numbers are 30, 46 and 21 percent, respectively.
Among adults who normally attend worship services at least once or twice a month, 91 percent of the 10,000 people who responded to the survey said their house of worship has closed services to the public. The pandemic-related shutdowns have led to a lot of virtual spiritual experimentation, including huge celebrity-studded services, such as one with Joel Osteen and Kanye West. Some churches have seen their online attendance boom.
The Church of the Nativity Catholic parish in Timonium, Md., is drawing 6,800 to 13,000 online viewers for its Sunday services, compared to 700 or 800 before the virus.
But Terri Prokopik, a lay minister at the Church of the Nativity, said some of the initial enthusiasm may be waning.
"People thought we would be back. I’m seeing some people making comments: ‘I’m a bit spiritually wiped out, I’m not feeling well, I’m feeling a disconnect,’” she said. “For me, I miss the sacraments, I miss communion. That’s the hardest part.”