Religion is in transformation – as it should be. The task of religion is to lead the devotee, the worshipful participant to Kingdom Come – in whatever name and form the religious participant aspires for. After Coronavirus, with the shut-down of places of worship, organised assembly in religion will face many changes. This article explores this experience from the purview of worship in New Zealand.
Coronavirus will have profound and epoch-making implications for religion. Victoria University of Wellington’s Philip Fountain and Geoffrey Troughton explain.
Religion is always implicated in times of crisis in manifold ways. Although the present Covid-19 pandemic is still in its early stages, we already see significant religious responses from across New Zealand. But religion doesn’t merely respond to a crisis, it is also reconfigured in the process.
Beyond the familiar
To understand these reconfigurations, it is important to move beyond three popular tropes.
First, in times of crisis, religion can appear as a source of irrational non-conformity. From televangelists, megachurch pastors and others defying stay-at-home advice, to concerns about Orthodox Jews in Israel or the shrine lickers of Qom in Iran, recent media reports are full of colourful examples. But a focus on the illicit rarely captures most of what is going on.
Second, a popular view holds that religion thrives in times of crisis, and indeed studies of Christchurch showed a discernible lift in religiosity after the 2010-2011 earthquakes. There are signs of a similar surge of religious interest occurring today, internationally and here in New Zealand. But there are many variables and any effects are seldom uniform.
Third, it is tempting to assume that during this pandemic, religion is especially preoccupied with questions of theodicy – explaining why God allows bad things to happen. Some, including wrestling legend Hulk Hogan, have indeed pointed to the crisis as an act of God. But this is rarely the primary religious response.
Although each contains some truth, these three frames tend to distort. Beyond headline tales of reactionary, resurgent or repugnant religion, there is much to discover and understand.
This Easter, churches across the country lay empty as their congregations conformed to the distancing requirements of the Level 4 lockdown; instead, religion went cyber. Digitisation dramatically reshapes how religion is done across the country.
Digital religion displaces and reshapes congregational dynamics. It also reconfigures bodily participation, and therefore the emotional experience, of rituals. Observing a band performing onscreen is very different to standing among fellow worshippers singing at the top of their lungs.
But digital religion can be more accessible to the public. You can attend online rituals anonymously, without fear of clumsily botching ritual practices. You can check in on your own terms.
The digital landscape has been flooded with religious content, including from formal institutions, From Kiingitanga karakia to Pentecostal worship, religious communities of all sorts are live-streaming their weekly services. Many are offering daily prayers or devotions.
The style and quality of online services differs wildly. Some produce inspirational ‘main show’ events for invisible consumption while others seek to draw their community together through smaller meetings on interactive platforms. Some deliver their familiar services while others are more experimental.
The extent to which these services are satisfying may likewise vary considerably. It is also by no means clear that well-attended high-quality virtual productions necessarily translate into greater levels of piety. As the lockdown wears on, it will also be a test as to whether yet more screen time is a compelling thing for people forced to spend too much of their life behind screens.
A crisis offers new possibilities for those able to take them. Just as businesses jostle to take advantage of disasters, so too do religious organisations.
Some have seen new opportunities for community care and social services. Numerous faith groups have mobilised their members to support each other, as well as neighbours and friends as needed. Religious social welfare organisations have long been pivotal actors in the country’s welfare system, and their importance has only grown in recent weeks.
Others see the crisis as an opportunity to evangelise or offer spiritual care beyond their own flocks – responding in part to ways in which the crisis has thrown simmering existential questions about meaning and purpose into sharper relief.
Yet others see the disruption as a chance to mobilise greater levels of engagement and commitment among the faithful. The required changes are construed here as opportunities for believers to recommit to faith and plan for living more dedicated lives after the lockdown ends.
In the meantime, the question of opportunity is largely geographically constrained. Faith now has a profoundly domestic locus. Bubble religion, even when including online components, is enacted in close proximity to flatmates, partners and parents, or on our own.
After the lockdown
The collapse of communism in 1989 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were world-changing events, with profound implications for religion. This current crisis is similarly epoch-making.
Religion in this time of coronavirus is not business as usual. We are witnessing major changes in how religion is practised across the country, many of which will have long-term effects. After the lockdown, we will not return to normal but rather to a significantly reshaped landscape.
Some religious facilities will remain permanently closed while other communities will emerge energised. The determining questions not only concern what actions religious leaders take now, but also what New Zealanders want from religion at the other side.