Times of strain often lead to explosions of religiosity, as people turn to faith as a balm against misfortune. The coronavirus pandemic, with more than 2.8 million lives lost to date, certainly qualifies as one of the most cataclysmic events in recent memory. Faced with the major disruptions of the past year, did people turn to faith, or do we instead see evidence of a “religious recession”?
To find out, we conducted a unique study on the effects of the pandemic in the Muslim world. Our data reinforces the assumption that religion does indeed serve an important function in times of hardship. Those experiencing psychological distress from pandemic-related income loss turned to religion more than those whose livelihoods were secure. Moreover, we found that higher levels of religiosity seem to be correlated with significantly lower levels of distress among the Muslims we surveyed.
How did the pandemic affect mental health?
Our survey, conducted online in November and December, sampled more than 9,000 adults in Egypt (2,018), Saudi Arabia (2,041), Turkey (2,043), Pakistan (1,213) and Indonesia (2,011). The sample, recruited by the global survey firm YouGov, was evenly split between women and men, and the average age of our respondents was 31.2 years (females 29.9; males 32.6).
We measured the pandemic’s effects in several ways. First, following the U.S. Census Bureau’s coronavirus household pulse survey, we asked questions about respondents’ mental health — specifically, how often they felt nervousness, apathy or depression, or an inability to stop worrying during the seven days before being surveyed. The results show that, on average, respondents experienced each of these emotions on at least several days during the week leading up to the survey.
We also asked about material sources of insecurity. Many of the participants in our survey said they experienced or expected to experience income and employment precarity. Almost 58 percent of the survey respondents said they or someone in their household had lost employment income since March 2020. And about half — 50.7 percent of respondents — said they expected to lose employment income because of the coronavirus pandemic within the next four weeks. Furthermore, about 41 percent of respondents answered “yes” to both questions.
The pattern of responses to the questions about mental health and income suggests a strong correlation between income loss and psychological distress. Respondents who reported having lost employment income since the start of the pandemic were significantly more likely to report feeling nervous, worried, apathetic and depressed more frequently than those who reported no income loss as a result of the pandemic.
Feelings of faith increased in Muslim societies
So what do our data tell us about religiosity during this health crisis? In line with findings in other religious contexts, our survey reveals that the pandemic had a sizable effect on religiosity in Muslim societies. On average, survey respondents reported that they were performing daily prayers, reading or listening to the Koran, reading religious books and consuming religious programs more than they had before the pandemic.
Respondents did report attending mosque and religious study circles less frequently now than they had before — although this is very likely a reflection of government-mandated lockdowns, curfews and restrictions on gatherings rather than an indication of declining interest in religious practice.
The aggregate results across the five countries in our study largely hold within each of those countries as well. To examine cross-country variation, we created an index of religiosity: daily prayers, Koran reading/listening, reading religious books, and listening to or watching religious programs. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia, survey respondents have, on average, become more religious during the pandemic.
That wasn’t the case in Turkey, however, where the average level of religiosity remains about the same as in pre-pandemic days. Turkey’s relative secularism, and the relatively low importance of religion in Turks’ lives might be one explanation: 75 percent of Turkish respondents indicated that religion is “somewhat” or “very important” in their lives, whereas more than 90 percent of respondents in other countries view religion that way.
Religion as a coping mechanism
Is the reported increase in religious practice a function of people’s desire for a source of comfort in a world made more stressful by the coronavirus pandemic? Our data suggest that it is. We found that those who lost or expected to lose employment income tended to report engaging in more religious ritual and practice — such as praying or reading the Koran — than those who reported no income loss.
Moreover, we found that those who professed greater religious practice since the pandemic also reported significantly lower levels of emotional distress. To put it plainly: The people who said they prayed and performed other religious rituals more since the pandemic also reported feeling less anxiety, worry, depression and apathy.
While we still have much to learn about the long-term social impacts of the pandemic, our data from several large Muslim majority countries — along with early snapshots from other regional and religious contexts — suggest that covid-19 is having a discernible impact on religious life. It remains to be seen whether the indicators of increased religiosity we observe are a temporary response to the health crisis or if they represent a more enduring trend.
The political ramifications of these developments could be far-reaching. Recent years have seen the waning of so-called Islamist political parties and groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood or Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami — driven in the Arab world at least by regime crackdowns and by what some researchers have identified as increasing secularism, particularly among young people. As the pandemic renders citizens both more religious and more critical of governments that have failed to respond effectively to it, we could see the pendulum swing decisively in the other direction.
A.Kadir Yildirim is a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Tarek Masoud is Professor of Public Policy and Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman Professor of International Relations at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Peter Mandaville is professor of international affairs at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the Henry Luce Foundation.