Do People Really Become More Religious in Times of Crisis?

Organized religion has been on the decline for decades in the United States. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers found that online searches for the word “prayer” soared to their highest level ever in over 90 countries. And a 2020 Pew Research study showed that 24% of U.S. adults stated their faith had become stronger during the pandemic.

I am a theologian who studies trauma and this shift makes sense to me. I often teach that traumatic events are, at their heart, crises of meaning that cause people to question assumptions about their lives, including their spiritual beliefs. The years 2020 and 2021 certainly fit that bill: The global COVID-19 pandemic has indeed led to traumatic experiences for many people, due to the isolation, illness, fear and death that it created.

Questioning Beliefs

People who experience traumas tend to question some of the assumptions they might have had about their faith – what pastoral theologian Carrie Doehring calls “embedded beliefs.” These beliefs may include ideas about who God is, the purpose of life or why evil events happen to good people.

So, for instance, many Christians may inherit an embedded belief from the tradition that God is all good and that evil emerges when God “rightly” punishes people for their sins. In other words, an all-good God would not punish someone without a reason.

Christians raised with that assumption might ask what made them incur God’s wrath if they contracted COVID-19. In such an event, the embedded belief in a punishing God may become something called a negative coping strategy – a coping strategy that has negative effects on a person’s life.