Social scientists focus on pandemic’s broader religious impact beyond congregations

It came as no surprise that many of the sessions and papers presented at the November meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Baltimore were devoted to the pandemic. Yet even the scholars making the presentations were unsure about Covid’s effect on religious institutions, beliefs, and practices in the long term. The prevailing concern about the pandemic for religious institutions remains whether they can draw back members and attendees to pre-pandemic levels. Although research findings are still coming in on this question, most scholars at the conference agreed there has been significant loss so far, though the rates of such attrition are different for different religious groups and movements, which several articles in this issue document. An informal group of congregational researchers who gathered at the conference, which RW attended, reflected on how to study congregations in their new hybridized formats (through online participation) and diminished presence in their communities. They swapped stories about how even small congregations have enacted ceremonies and practices to permanently close their doors. But other social scientists at the conference looked at the religious changes surrounding the pandemic in terms of how the crisis may have shaped the beliefs and attitudes of both secular and religious people.

A study by political scientists David Campbell, Geoffrey Layman, and John C. Green combined the themes of secular growth and changed attitudes about public health. They found that the “secular surge” they have studied in American politics and society may have deepened since the pandemic. The researchers analyzed panel data between 2017 and 2021 and found that the increases in secular attitudes were steepest among those supporting public health measures, such as vaccination and wearing masks. They also conducted an experiment that primed a debate about public health measures during the pandemic, asking participants to react to news stories relating to public health restrictions clashing with religious groups. Democrats or liberals in the experimental group who read the news story with the religious element showed increased rates of secularism (or negative attitudes toward religion) compared to those in a control group who did not read the article with the religious angle. But at the conference Layman reported also finding that Republicans experienced a decrease in secularism, especially when they read the religious treatment in the article. He argued that public health measures may have created a backlash against secularism among conservative Americans.

Source: Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.

The whole issue of religious confidence in science and public health came under scrutiny in another session at the conference. Timothy O’Brien of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee presented a paper on religious believers’ moral perceptions of scientists based on a National Opinion Research Center (NORC) survey of 1,515 respondents. He found that religious respondents, including Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelicals, showed less appreciation for science and scientists than the non-religious. Evangelicals and Catholics in particular perceived scientists as less virtuous than did the other respondents. O’Brien concluded that efforts to increase trust in scientific information and research should focus on the moral culture of science. Another paper by Christopher Scheitle and Katie Corcoran of West Virginia University delved deeper into how issues of trust and truth may be what lead to science-religion conflicts. In analyzing a NORC survey conducted from 2020 to 2021 among 2,003 U.S. adults, they found that religiosity was related to greater questioning of the truth of science. But religiosity did not have an effect on trust issues. On the other hand, among respondents considered “Christian nationalists” (referring to conservative Christians seeking a Christian America), the truthfulness of science and scientists was less important than their trustworthiness. Political conservatism was meanwhile correlated with both truth and trust issues.