Rising religiosity as a global response to COVID-19 fear
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought sizeable costs for societies across the globe. A pandemic of this size potentially changes our societies for years to come, especially if it impacts our ingrained values and beliefs. It may have impacted values such as populism, nationalism (Morelli 2020, Baldwin and Weder di Mauro 2020), and economic anxiety (Fetzer et al. 2020). In a new paper (Bentzen 2020), I document the manner in which the COVID-19 crisis has influenced one of the most deeply rooted human behaviours: Religion. People pray in order to cope with uncertainty and adversity.
This rising religiosity may have implications for the economy in various ways. First, a large part of the economic downturn in the face of COVID-19 is due to economic anxiety (Andersen et al. 2020, Fetzer et al. 2020). If religion dampens anxiety, religious societies may experience smaller reductions in consumption. It is evident that religion worked as such a buffer during previous large macroeconomic downturns caused by the Spanish flu and WWI (Bentzen and Dalgaard 2020).
Second, COVID-19 may increase religiosity permanently, which in turn could impact the wider economy. Likewise, it should be noted that earthquakes increase religiosity permanently across generations (Bentzen 2019). Previous research has documented a multitude of correlations between religiosity and socio-economic factors: from peoples’ ability to cope with stress and uncertainty, to reductions in criminal behavior (Guiso et al. 2003, Miller et al. 2014), to lower GDP growth and more traditional gender roles (McCleary and Barro 2006, Inglehart and Norris 2003).
Third, rising ‘prayer intensity’ reveals that people from across the globe experience emotional distress in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they use religion in order to cope. The economic consequences of these emotional effects may be large (Andersen et al. 2020), with the main part of the economic downturn being due to the perceived risk of the virus, rather than government mandated lockdowns.
The rise in prayer intensity
In my recent paper, I identify empirically the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic has induced people across the globe to pray, whether the phenomenon is global, and who prays in times of crisis. Google searches for religious terms, as a share of all Google searches, provides a signal of peoples’ interest in religion in real time. Various research suggests that our behaviour on the internet reflects our personal interests and the actions we take in the real world (Moat et al. 2016, Olivola et al. 2019, Ginsberg et al. 2009). Likewise, whether or not we search for religious terms on the internet reflects our religious preferences (Yeung 2019, Stephens-Davidowich 2015).
The main analysis focuses on searches for the topic ‘prayer’, including all topics related to prayer in all languages. Searches for other religious terms also rise, such as God, Allah, Muhammad, Quran, Bible, and Jesus, and, to a lesser extent, searches for Buddha, Vishnu, and Shiva (the latter two being Hindu gods).
Events that instigate intensified prayer are clearly visible in the data. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ramadan contributed to the largest yearly increase in the global search intensity for prayer (Panel A of Figure 1). Also, prayer search shares spike upwards on Sundays everywhere. Searches for prayer surged in Iran on 07 January 2020, coinciding with the funeral of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian major general killed by US troops. Similar spikes were seen in Australia on 05 January 2020, when the movement “Prayer for Australia” swept across the world in the midst of the unprecedented bushfires, and in Albania on 26 November 2019 when the country was hit by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake.
In March 2020, the share of Google searches for prayer surged to the highest level ever recorded, surpassing all other major events that otherwise call for prayer, such as Christmas, Easter, and Ramadan (Figure 1). The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020. The level of prayer search shares in March 2020 was more than 50% higher than the average during February 2020. For comparison, the surge in Google searches for prayer was 1.3 times larger than the rise in searches for takeaways, and amounted to 12% of the rise in Netflix searches or 26% of the fall in searches for flights, which all saw massive changes globally (since most countries were in lockdown and air traffic was shut down).1
Figure 1 Worldwide Google searches for “prayer” during the past 4 years
(a) Jan 1 2016 – Apr 11 2020
(b) Feb 1 – Apr 1 2020
Notes: Google searches for prayer relative to the total number of Google searches. The maximum shares were set to 100. The searches encompass all topics related to prayer, including alternative spellings and languages. The vertical stippled lines in panel (a) represent the first week of the Ramadan. The period in panel (a) is the longest period for which comparable data was available at the time of writing. The period in panel (b) is the period used in the main analysis (starting before COVID-19 became a pandemic and ending before the onset of Easter and the Ramadan).
Google search results for ‘prayer’ usually provide prayer texts to use when praying. Prayers may be recited from memory or read from a book. In modern times, these books or verses of prayer can be found on the internet. One of the most searched for prayer categories in March 2020 was “Coronavirus prayer”, which are prayers that ask God for protection against the coronavirus, prayers to stay strong, and prayers to thank nurses for their efforts. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, more than half of Americans had prayed to end the coronavirus (Pew 2020b).
Using daily data on Google searches for prayer for 95 countries across the globe, I find that the rise visible in Figure 1 occurs around 11 March 2020 for most countries, and increasingly so after their own populations had been infected. The rise in prayer is a global phenomenon, with all countries (except the 10% least religious) seeing significant rises in prayer search shares. Figure 2 illustrates which countries saw the largest rise in searches for prayer, indicated by darker shades of green. Regionally, the largest increases occur in South America, Africa, and Indonesia, some of the most religious areas of the world. In general, the more religious societies searched more for prayer on the internet. Prayer searches rose for all major religious denominations, but only significantly for Christians and Muslims. The rise was more modest for Hindus and Buddhists.
Figure 2 The rise in prayer search shares across the globe in March 2020
Notes: Darker green indicates larger rises in prayer search shares. Missing data is indicated with grey.
Prayer search shares rose more in poorer, more insecure, and more unequal countries. However, this impact is exclusively due to these countries being more religious. This indicates that the availability of religion may be more important for its’ use in coping, rather than the potential need for religion.
Using these results (and the Pew (2020b) survey documenting that more than half of the Americans had prayed to end the coronavirus), a back of the envelope calculation shows that more than half of the global population had prayed to end the coronavirus by the end of March 2020.
The main reason for the rising interest in prayer on the internet is religious coping, where people use their religion to cope with adversity (Pargament 2001). They pray for relief, understanding, and comfort. Research has documented that people struggling with cancer, death within their close family, or severe illness are more religious. Recent research shows that adversity in the form of natural disasters causes people to use their religion more intensively (Bentzen 2019, Sibley and Bulbulia 2012).
People may use Google to search for prayer for a reason unrelated to religious coping. They may be searching for online forums to replace their physical churches that closed down in an attempt to enforce social distancing. Theoretically, we would not expect this to be the main explanation for the rising search shares for prayer. People tend to use mainly their intrinsic religiosity (such as private prayer) rather than their extrinsic religiosity (such as churchgoing) to cope with adversity (Pargament 2001 and Bentzen 2019). In addition, a recent survey reveals that 95% of Americans who pray, pray alone, while only 2% pray collectively in a church (Barna 2017). Thus, even if the churches had been open, we would expect prayer to rise more than churchgoing. Another survey shows that 24% of Americans respond that their faith has strengthened since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, which we would not have predicted if people were simply replacing their physical churchgoing with online church (Pew 2020a). They must be doing something that strengthens their faith. The empirical results support the claim that replacement of physical churches is not the main reason for the rise in Google searches for prayer. For instance, searches for the topic “internet church” also rise but follow a distinctly different pattern than the prayer searches (and the change is of a much smaller magnitude). Also, the search shares for prayer continue to rise long after the church closures. Further, the rise in prayer searches is not limited to Sundays, where most masses are held, but occur on all days of the week, except Fridays. These theories and results are consistent with people praying to cope with their fear of the virus.
There are reasons to believe that the true rise in prayer is potentially much larger than what is visible from Figure 1. First, most prayers are performed without the use of the internet and are instead recited from memory or read from physical books. Second, among those who use the internet to find prayers, the data encompasses only those who use Google to search for prayer, while those who enter the prayer websites directly are not included. Third, the elderly, who were most severely affected by the pandemic, are not the most active internet users meaning their prayer intensity will not show in up in Google data.
Fourth, the month of March 2020 saw an even larger rise in internet searches on topics related to COVID-19 (and other topics) since people across the globe were at home due to lockdown measures. This mechanically reduces the search shares for other search categories, including prayer. Fifth, the data includes only countries with enough internet users. The poorest countries or countries with restricted internet access (such as China) are not included. Poorer countries are on average more religious and are thus more prone to engage in religious coping.
At this point in time, we can only guess whether religiosity and the role of religion will rise more permanently and whether religion has dampened the economic shock due to coronavirus. Previous research found that natural disasters leave a long-lasting impact on religiosity, which is passed on through generations (Bentzen 2019). Whether the COVID-19 pandemic will have similar long-term effects is yet to be seen.
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1 In an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19, most countries implemented lock downs and most air traffic was shut down. As a result, many people were at home ordering takeaway and watching Netflix much more than usual.