Judd Birdsall: Reflections upon the Completion of the Covid-19 & FoRB Webinar Series

Judd Birdsall is Director of the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies at the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University

Dramatic moments and extreme cases often help to clarify issues, expose boundaries, and create opportunities for fresh thinking. The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of those moments for a whole range of issues, including issues related to religion.

As I reflect on the past several months of the pandemic and on the 14 weeks of our webinar series exploring the religious dimensions and religious freedom implications of the lockdown, I am struck by three main observations.

First, the lockdown has provided a civics lesson on the permissible limitations on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). Second, the varied religious responses to the pandemic have reminded us of the “ambivalence of the sacred.” Third, the lockdown has had significant—and divergent—impacts on levels of religiosity. Let’s explore each of these observations in turn.

A Civics Lesson on FoRB

The COVID-19 lockdown has led to the most severe, widespread, and instantaneous restriction on communal religious practice, perhaps in world history. Governments all over the world have, at roughly the same time, closed religious sites and banned religious gatherings. This is unprecedented.

Of course, these restrictions have been put in place to protect public health and are therefore legitimate in principle. But there have been vigorous debates about these restrictions and even been calls for civil disobedience from some religious voices.

Many organizations have contributed to the debate with helpful statements and reports clarifying when limitations on FoRB are permissible and when they are not. One of panelists from our third episode (dealing with religion, COVID-19, and civil society), was a representative from the Conference of European Churches. Very early in the lockdown period his organization released a statement accepting temporary restrictions on religion as necessary to fight the virus while also calling for ongoing scrutiny of state mandates.

In June the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom published an excellent legislative factsheet outlining the international legal norms that govern limitations on FoRB. The factsheet reminded us that public health is indeed a permissible ground for restricting FoRB. But all public health limitations of FoRB must be clearly written in law, necessary for achieving a public health goal, and non-discriminatory in intent and application.

Ambivalence of the Sacred

In addition to its civics lesson on FoRB, the pandemic has also reminded us of “the ambivalence of the sacred”, to use the phrase coined by Scott Appleby in his eponymous 1999 book. Appleby’s primary scholarly focus in the book was violence and peace—why certain religious groups justify using violence while others, often from the very same spiritual tradition, eschew violence and promote peace. During the months of COVID-19 we’ve seen the sacred ambivalence at play as religious groups and individuals have responded in constructive and less than constructive ways.

Most religious and belief groups have responded to the crisis by amplifying messages around personal hygiene and social distancing as ethical imperatives. They have accepted the closure of their facilities and ban on gatherings for the greater good. They have respected science and science-based policy. They have shown great creativity in finding virtual ways to hold services and address the needs of their adherents.

Sadly, but predictably, some groups have not been so commendable. They have been focused on their own liberties, dismissive of risks, distrustful of expertise, and have amplified disinformation and conspiracy theories.

The attitudes and behaviors of unhelpful groups are worrisome for FoRB and religious tolerance. A society’s support for FoRB and its tolerance of religion is linked to perceptions of whether religion play a constructive or destructive role.

The Pandemic’s Impact on Religiosity

In our very first webinar in the series I focused my comments on how the virus and lockdown might impact religiosity around the world. I noted that disasters tend to heighten religiosity. People flock to religious sites and gatherings for spiritual comfort, material aid, a sense of community, and to make sense of the tragedy. But because of the lockdown—and the leading role of scientists and medics rather than theologians and clerics—I speculated that COVID-19 might not have a typical impact on religiosity.

In light of research and reflection published since the start of the pandemic, I would want to update and nuance my initial reflection. We are seeing different impacts on religious institutions and religious individuals.

In April our website, Religion & Diplomacy, published an article by the American economist Brian Hollar, asking Will COVID-19 Cause a Religious Recession? Hollar suggested that,

social distancing may rapidly translate into rapid reduction in the social benefit of being involved in church. If this pandemic lasts more than a few weeks, some very critical social capital might be lost which may impact churches long-term after they attempt to re-gather once the social restrictions from the pandemic lessen.

Hollar also noted that with COVID-related economic downturn, tithing will inevitably decrease. Large churches with significant overheads will be severely impacted. So will smaller churches with older congregants who are more likely to suffer the worst of the coronavirus and less likely to engage in online services. Hollar’s article has become our most read article in our site’s history, receiving more views than all of our other articles combined. That suggests his thesis has resonated with the observations of others—and the fears of religious institutions.

But we have also published the findings and analysis of Danish economist Jeanet Bretzen showing that there has been a massive surge of interest in private devotion during the lockdown. Bretzen found that Google searches related to prayer have risen to highest levels ever recorded. She argues that this use of the Internet is an example of religious coping—turning to religion to cope with adversity.

So, it appears that the coronavirus has brought about divergent trends in communal and personal religiosity. It will be interesting to track how these trend lines evolve and impact each other in the months and even years ahead. Only when the pandemic is truly over and all social distancing measures have been dropped will we be able to more fully assess the longer-term impact of the virus on religiosity.

And the same goes for religious freedom. The creativity and energy with which most religious groups have provided spiritual and practical support, even in the midst of a deadly pandemic and unprecedent restrictions, is a reminder of how important it is to protect the freedom of religious and belief groups to serve their communities.

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