Contemplating the Religious Future After the Crisis

Contemplating the Religious Future After the Crisis April 24, 2020

Like many of us, I am thinking a great deal right now about the impact of our current virus crisis on religion and faith. Will our current constraints and limitations prove just a passing thing to be remembered grimly, or has the crisis massively accelerated a series of trends that were under way anyway? Are we already seeing a new normal? There are so many aspects to think about, obviously, so here are a couple of ideas that arise. Throughout, I am referring to conditions in the United States rather than the world at large, or within the larger scope of Christianity.

Everything I say here is controversial – I’m really hoping to start a discussion. I should just add that academics over the coming years should have a field day observing and testing the trends we are seeing here. The research questions write themselves.

1.Further Decline of Institutional Faith

Historically, pandemics and diseases have often played a major role in shaping religion, in undermining older religious establishments, and boosting new and more energetic faiths. The oft-quoted example is that of the Christian response to the plagues in the third century Roman Empire, which laid a mighty foundation for later Christian growth. Generally, these events don’t create new trends or movements, but (as I suggested) rather they accelerate them, sometimes at a rocket-sled pace.

In my view (and some will certainly dispute this) the 2007-2008 economic crisis dealt a very severe blow to organized faith in the US, and moved it decisively toward more secular European patterns. We see that for instance in the sharp decline of fertility rates in the US, which are an excellent indicator of current or incipient secularization. US rates presently look very West European, or Scandinavian. This is closely connected with the economic blow following 2008, which had such a devastating effect on family formation.

Do recall that secularization does not necessarily mean a decline or destruction of faith or belief as such. Rather it means a decline of religious institutions, and a decisive shift in religious practice to individual and privatized forms. It means the loss of belonging, not necessarily believing – although in the long run, it is very difficult to maintain the one in the absence of the other.

That secular trend is illustrated by the celebrated growth of the Nones, those rejecting any religious affiliation, regardless of what they actually believe about spiritual matters. At last count, America’s Nones were roughly equal in number to self-identified evangelicals, and a bit ahead of Catholics. Yes, I know that this trend is open to much debate, but there is a real phenomenon here. Significantly, those recent secular trends had a massive effects on groups like Latinos, who had always been predicted to retain their faith.

In my forthcoming book Fertility and Faith (due out shortly from Baylor University Press), I argued that the US in the 2020s would witness a rapid secular trend comparable to Western Europe in the 1960s. I now wonder whether what I thought of as a decade-long trend might actually be a matter of a year or two? The scale of the present crisis, which is 2008 on steroids, certainly raises that prospect.

When we write the history of American churches and institutional faith, I think 2008 will mark one clear dividing point, one caesura, but 2020 will prove even more so. People will remember the lost religious world BC, Before Coronavirus.

2.So No New Great Revival of Faith?

A month ago, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by Robert Nicholson suggesting that the crisis might stimulate faith, and even spawn a new Great Awakening (paywalled). I have huge respect for the author and his arguments, but my own view of recent affairs leads me in very different directions. The same comment applies to the more nuanced analysis by Filip Mazurczak in First Things.

Mr. Nicholson asks,

Could a rogue virus lead to a grand creative moment in America’s history? Will Americans, shaken by the reality of a risky universe, rediscover the God who proclaimed himself sovereign over every catastrophe?

My own answer would be: almost certainly not. But if even they do, changes in individual faith or spirituality will not carry over into the realm of institutional religion, for reasons I will go on to elaborate.

3.An Economic Crisis for Religious Institutions

Much depends on if, when, and whether there is a significant post-virus economic recovery. It’s useful to recall that the only thing that pulled the US out of the Great Depression of the 1930s was rearmament for the Second World War, and the present crash is shaping up to be much worse than the 1930s. Few expect a significant recovery for five years at best. In Great Britain, they are currently projecting the worst economic contraction not since 1931, but since 1709.

There is no way that such changes cannot have overwhelming consequences for religion at every level. Just think through the direct consequences of the economic crash for contributions to churches and every other religious institution, for funding church operations, and paying clergy and church staffs. How many smaller churches can survive? How many older mainline congregations that don’t have solid endowments? Welcome to a new age of church closures and mergers.

Again, think of this in terms of longer term trends. Many Catholic dioceses and churches were savagely hit by legal claims over clerical abuse, and quite a few were driven into bankruptcy. In the boom years at the start of the century, lots of urban megachurches dabbled in foolish investments that came badly unstuck in 2008. Many sane and sober mainline churches were already recording steep declines in giving over the past decade. Take all those factors together, and lots of churches were seriously weakened anyway even before our latest plague.

By way of analogy, historians of rural religion commonly mark the Depression of the 1930s as a fatal blow for many smaller churches, and a serious weakening for the ones that survived.

One problem here is that we don’t know how this script works out. If someone asked an expert in 1942 what the effects of the war would be, the obvious answer would be “Well, it would help a lot if we knew which side is actually going to win.” We have no idea of the length or outcome of this crisis, so we are to that extent flying blind. But if finances are not the only thing in giving a foundation to institutional religion, nor are they nothing.

4.Praying Alone: The Accelerating Collapse of Social Capital

Robert Putnam’s famous book Bowling Alone stressed the vital significance of social capital, as expressed through collective activities. That certainly has its religious impact through encouraging people to belong and participate in clubs, societies or religious institutions. Basically all such activities are presently impossible or prohibited. For how long? Another month? Through mid-2022? Longer? So here’s the point. The more we lose the habits of sociability and joining, the more our social intercourse occurs through a computer screen or a cellphone, can those older ways ever be regained or reconstructed?

People are still joining and participating of course, but it’s just a very different situation online. Physically attending meetings or rallies is one thing. Shrieking anonymously on Twitter is quite different.

Even before this, people were complaining about the great many who spent their lives interacting only with a screen. That situation just became enormously more common. We also think about children being raised in these locked-in settings. What will be the long term effects for them?

Those social capital issues seems critical for institutions of all kind, including religion. The present crisis will so shake up so many of our remaining social ties and communities that I honestly wonder when or how faith communities can regroup and restore themselves.

Bowling Alone was published back in 2000. Perhaps it is time for a sequel, Praying Alone.

5.A Slow And Uphill Struggle To Regain Essential Functions Of Organized Faith

It’s possible to imagine a calamity in which religion could play a critical role in preserving social cohesion and solidarity, and later benefiting mightily from those contributions. Contrary to myth, the First World War did not result in any great revolt against religion, not least became many front-line soldiers were deeply impressed by the heroic work of priests in comforting the dead. Imagine a modern crisis of a kind very different from what we actually have. Clergy are devotedly at the bedsides of the afflicted, they aid and comfort the dying, and at the same time they are beacons of social continuity as they hold baptisms and marriages. People flock to churches, and clergy hold special prayer services. Depending on the faith tradition, there might be an explosion of pilgrimages. Congregations swell to bursting point. The community long remembers those contributions.

Now contrast the current situation, where the most devoted and heroic thing a cleric can do is to avoid physical contact or proximity with the faithful, throughout the worst of their sickness and bereavement. Patients die alone, or at least not surrounded by family and faith. Even when churches can reopen for regular services in the future, Lord knows when people will resume the habit of organizing large gatherings for weddings or funerals. People are going to be phobic about large and crowded gatherings for years to come. How soon can matters possibly return to normal? Can lost habits be regained?

Nobody is going to curse or condemn clergy for failing to perform those essential functions: they recognize the unique situation. But it’s a powerful lesson, isn’t it? At least in any recognizable sense, it will be said, organized religion is something we can simply leave on the shelf as needed, and it is irrelevant to social needs and pressures.

To all of which, you might object that religion survived other past crises, such as the influenza pandemic of 1918. Very true – but that was not in a setting where levels of belief and participation were already in free fall even before the crisis began.

In the current setting, it will be a slow and uphill struggle to regain the essential functions of organized faith.

6.Revolutionary New Concepts of Place, Presence, Participation, and Physicality

So what about reshaping how organized religion actually works? This might be the most significant aspect of all the changes that have been under way a while, and which are now approaching at breakneck pace. You hear that rocket sled in the background?

Like many people, I have been “attending” church services electronically and remotely, including (and traumatically) over Easter. When the crisis eases or ends – in five weeks or five years – will that remote system be dismissed as an ugly relic, or will it be what people have come to expect as essential? Are we seeing the new normal in religious services? Will actual physical attendance at church be left to the old and the grumpily reactionary? (Why is everyone looking at me?)

Also, what does all this mean for such basic concepts of such basic realities as place, presence, participation and physicality – what I sometimes call P4. I “attended” communion service at Easter, but was not physically in the church. I “visited with” a person at an online Bible study. Someone else “dropped in” to visit. And all these events took place electronically, viewed on a screen.

Here is an interesting distinction. In normal times, I might have said “Let’s go to the church service.” Now I say “Let’s watch the church service.” Big difference. In one scenario, I am a participant and I am actually there. Now, I am watching what is happening there. That distinction is inconceivably vast for liturgical and sacramental churches where what matters above all things is the Eucharist. You can make spiritual communion, but it’s just not the same thing, at least not if that is going to be the situation for the indefinite future. (See Thomas Reese’s thoughtful piece on “How social distancing may change the way we do church.”

As we accustom ourselves to these realities, how might we add physical reality to remote and online church services, for instance by building home altars next to the computer screen? To use a standard media concept, we might break the fourth wall to extend holy places into the home, in a way that hitherto was the specialty of weird cult-like organizations that promised to bless holy oils over the airwaves. Luther and his early followers favored the sacralization of the household, and the secularization of the parish. That collapse of dividing lines is proceeding apace.

See the recent post by Tommy Kidd on “tactile religion in a time of pandemic.”

In earlier eras, a collapse of physical churches might have meant a new emphasis on families or extended families, as people gathered in their homes in a return to house churches. But of course families can’t gather either, especially if that means including the old, sick, or otherwise medically vulnerable. It was heart-breaking seeing Jewish families forced to “gather” electronically for their seder this year. Even if the crisis does force religion back into the home and household, in a new era of house churches, that means a renewed emphasis on the immediate nuclear family.

Here is an interesting scenario that I just offer as a mental exercise. Suppose governments allow churches reopen for physical services, but with the proviso that the most vulnerable will continue to be excluded, including especially the over-60s? That would take out most congregations for many churches. Those excluded would have no option but to pursue and practice faith online.

Over the past couple of decades, a solid literature has emerged on themes of digital and online religion, of religion and new media, of online ritual. However mainstream your church, however oriented to bricks and mortar at present, you need to explore that literature quite urgently. The books of Heidi Campbell are a great place to start.

7.Healing Cults? Probably Not

In earlier years, we might well have expected a threat of grave diseases to lead to an upsurge in New Age-oriented movements, healing sects or even cults . Such an outcome may yet occur in the Global North, although new and fringe religious movements have done quite poorly in recent decades, and are far smaller and less obvious a part of the cultural mainstream than they were, say, in the 1970s. Matters might change rapidly under the influence of events, but there are no signs presently.

I would expect very different outcomes in the Global South, but that is another story.

8.Seminaries and Colleges

This is not exactly a megatrend, but it is important. Many smaller colleges and universities were already finding it difficult to survive financially, and the present crisis could threaten the existence of a great many. Some say as many of 20 percent of institutions might founder and vanish. Among the most battered and potentially endangered of such institutions are seminaries, many of which were already facing merger or closure before 2020, and those problems now become acute. How many can conceivably survive?

Religious colleges, like their secular counterparts, face similar issues, but to varying degrees of severity. Everything depends on when, or if, regular face to face teaching might re-emerge. If those colleges lose the tuition for Fall semester, not to mention athletic programs, many of them are in deep trouble. At that point, a decisive shift to online teaching as the norm in higher education becomes essential. For the effects on campuses, and on student life – see “Place, Presence, Participation, and Physicality” above; and likewise my remarks on social capital.

Although this is the least of our worries, I wonder if academic conferences will ever come back? Over the coming year we will start doing everything online wherever possible, and we might choose never to return to those old Before Coronavirus days of face to face meetings and book exhibits. Environmental concerns about flying will reinforce that trend. Have we seen our last AAR/SBL meetings of the old model?


I have not here listed the effects of the crisis on issues of theology or approaches to scripture, which are very significant, and I will talk about one aspect of this in my next post. But I think we already have plenty to think about here. And probably, to argue about. Am I being too pessimistic about all this? Boy, I hope so.

The Wall Street Journal did a thoughtful report recently on some of the religious impacts of the present crisis, and it quotes me (paywalled).


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