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The duel: Is the pandemic killing God?

February 28, 2021

Yes—James Ball

The last 12 months have seen fear and upheaval on a scale most of us never imagined. A deadly virus has crossed continents and infected tens of millions. The economy has crashed on a scale to make 2008 look like small fry. And a government with libertarian tendencies has imposed lockdowns that would usually cause a public uprising.

There are endless examples from history of what to expect in such times: from the Black Death to the Spanish flu, both interpretation and response were coloured by faith. In our own time, the bleakest scenarios, involving the breakdown of society, thankfully remain confined to the movies. But for many of us these have nonetheless been the toughest months we’ve ever experienced.

Despite this, there hasn’t been any noticeable turn to faith. While it remains a source of fortitude for many—as evidenced by the controversies over closing places of worship during the first lockdown—there has been no widespread moment of spiritual reflection for society at large.

Coronavirus has given us an enforced pause from routine, and time on our hands from the loss of whatever social lives we previously had. It’s hard to imagine a better opportunity for people to turn to faith, reflect on their religiosity or ask questions about their secular existence. And yet there’s no public sign to suggest we have in any great number. If not now, when?

What’s perhaps even more telling is the lack of piety in the fringes and cults. Where once we might have seen preachers declaring the pandemic God’s judgment on a sinful society, almost all the movements on Covid-19’s margins have kept their villains strictly secular. Our ancestors looked for demons; today’s conspiracists are looking to Bill Gates and microchips. When even your demons are secular, that’s a sign that we’re in a new era, and one in which religion is much diminished.

No—Lucy Winkett

I’m not certain what kind of religion you’re suggesting has died, but if it’s one in which preachers loftily declare the pandemic God’s judgment on a sinful society, then I gladly agree. We moved on decades ago. 

Just because social media hasn’t registered a sudden surge in all things religious, to match the very public passion in some quarters for making sourdough, it doesn’t mean people haven’t turned to God quietly, locally, or online. It’s much harder to see matters of the heart.

Interest in the practice of religion can’t be measured by public pronouncements of dog-collared leaders. Good religion—accountable, thoughtful, practical—flourishes in local communities, and in this crisis, local is back. During the first lockdown, 89 per cent of churches continued to serve their localities, despite their buildings being forced to close for public worship. Church buildings filled with key workers providing, for example, food banks, the public value of which activity has recently been estimated at £2bn. 

“Anecdotally, our own church is being viewed on YouTube by more people than we can fit in the building”

It will be some time before any reliable social statistics are known beyond the figures on infections, hospitalisations and, tragically, deaths. But I suspect that in service to those in need—and in an increasingly technologically competent response to a curious population—churches have not just preached at their neighbours but sat with them in their grief as they quietly turned to see if God was there. They have also run countless online introduction sessions, discussions, panels and prayers, exploring the possibility that God isn’t a remote, omnipresent vivisectionist, experimenting on a helpless humanity, but someone who is with us. And, an idea that is still controversial and shocking, God suffers—God has skin in the game. Nietzsche suggested the death of God over a century ago. But to paraphrase Mark Twain: in the living, breathing religious communities of the UK, any such reports remain greatly exaggerated. 

Yes—I find it genuinely heartening to hear about the contribution churches have been making to their congregations and wider communities throughout the crisis, and it takes only a walk past my local mosque to know Christians aren’t alone in that—there are generously spirited contributions being made from people of all faiths.

But I find it striking that your diagnosis of God’s health lies squarely in that community spirit. Where once we turned to religion for answers, now we turn to it for support. I do it myself—despite my own atheism, I have been to church more than once through this difficult year, if nothing else for a sense of familiarity.

But those things do nothing to fundamentally challenge the rise of secularism. I share your rejection of outdated fire-and-brimstone preachers, but I do find their absence telling. Our search for answers used to be done in the name of faith—calamities were the result of witches or heathens. Our search for wrongdoers in the pandemic has been no kinder, but it has stayed grounded in the temporal—there is much discussion of Chinese plots, but nothing of the Satanic.

Neither of us bemoans that. More striking, though, is the absence of any return even of gentler faith. Statistics on religion in America show the same year-on-year declines they have for each year of the last decade—77 per cent of Americans identified as Christian a decade ago, 64 per cent today, while religiously unaffiliated Americans have risen from 17 per cent to 28 per cent. These patterns are mirrored across the western world and are often even more stark.

A generational crisis hasn’t shaken the faith of those who still have it, or brought it to those who don’t—it’s done nothing to change existing trends, which is perhaps the most telling result of all.

No—I think these reflections are premature. Only recently, screenwriter Russell T Davies commented that the effect of people not being able, for example, to be with dying relatives will be a generational one, not visible now but unfolding over decades. It is this generational perspective that is important in matters of faith. And as work, home and leisure have changed over time, the measurement of “turning to God” by the number of individuals who attend church physically has become less important. Measuring the unmeasurable has always been a challenge for the church. 

I would be foolish not to recognise the statistics you cite. We live in an age of “I’m spiritual but not religious.” And honestly, I’m not surprised that in a survey, many will not want to be associated with the appalling abuses of power by clergy in Christian denominations revealed in recent decades.

But the framing of Covid conspiracies outside the medieval construct of devils and angels simply means that dominant narratives have evolved. I claim this as a victory for a God who actually exists, rather than a God harnessed in service of human abuses of power. The trial of women as witches, and the burning of heretics, are elements of the toxic religiosity found in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, not something that anyone wants to return to.

“77 per cent of Americans identified as Christian a decade ago—64 per cent today”

Thank God, people find faith in other ways these days. I can only speak from the Church of England perspective in saying that medieval framings have been transformed into other teaching that is no less powerful, but perhaps less eye-catching. The radical nature of Christianity is found in the challenge to forgive, to love, to serve. We are not, as the current Archbishop of Canterbury once memorably said, “an NGO with a pointy roof.” The church has much to improve on, and I certainly wouldn’t defend everything its leaders say. But if we are playing the numbers game, on the ground, anecdotally, our own church services are being viewed on YouTube by more people than we could fit in the building. I’m not sure what we’re going to do if they all turn up at once.

Yes—I can’t help but feel the Archbishop has been caught in the classic trap of denials—never believe anything until it’s officially denied.

We have many more scientific answers to the mysteries of the world than we had in medieval times. The origins of the universe is hardly a solved problem—our scientific explanation is that there was nothing, which then exploded—so it’s not as if we no longer have a need for an understanding beyond the physical. It’s just that this understanding is found in organised religion for fewer of us each year.

The crisis has provoked serious thinking about how our lives might change. Everywhere we see reflections on what “back to normal” might look like: will we still shake hands? Is the business meeting dead? Will the role of government be bigger forever? Will a centuries-long trend towards urbanisation be reversed? But in this time of forced reflection and change, matters of faith barely get a look in. Those who had faith before may continue to take succour from it; but the growing ranks of those without still feel no need for it. Even if the pandemic has not quite killed God, it has certainly confirmed that the whole idea of God is much closer to the end of its useful life than its beginning.

No—For all the reasons you set out, and many more I know from the inside, the challenge to organised religion is profound. But the link between believing and belonging has long been identified as mysterious. The “success”—or not—of the church won’t ultimately be found in the very significant community work carried out in its name, nor in counting the number of people who rock up (in person or online) at a specific time on a Sunday. 

While resisting complacency with every fibre of my being, I still insist that when true to its character, the church centres around a divine presence in the world that is unmeasurable, transcending words or statistics. This means we will always struggle to answer the significant challenges that you raise, based on assessment of numbers and “noise” in the media, on their own terms. My contention is that the church’s presence in society, as a sign that this life is not all there is, is relevant in many more ways than just getting people to join some kind of spiritual club.

There is, to many eyes, something foolish about continuing to practise religion in the light of scientific discovery. But real church life takes account of all these advances, is in creative conversation with them, and doesn’t fall back on medieval doctrines to explain the world away.

The church is in trouble right now for all sorts of reasons, not least financial, and must change, as it has done in the past. It should resist the temptation of a competitive “my institution is bigger than your institution” approach. The best kind of church continues to point beyond itself, and embodies a truth that transcends institutional survival. It extends a provocative invitation to encounter a divine love that understands human suffering, and calls for a justice and peace that often seems far away—especially during a pandemic.