Father Hien Vu, the parish priest at Flemington and Kensington, began noticing something this year that surprised him at St Brendan’s and Holy Rosary churches: new faces. Not only new faces, but young new faces. Father Hien estimates many were aged between 20 and 30.
Across the globe, researchers have been fascinated by whether the pandemic has caused people to turn to religion or draw more on spiritual practices such as prayer or spending more time in nature.
One in 10 Australians said COVID-19 had made their religious faith stronger, a proportion that corresponds to the median across 14 developed countries, according to a report by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre in January.
The proportion was significantly higher in the United States – where religion continues to play a stronger role in life – with 28 per cent reporting stronger personal faith. Father Hien doesn’t hear the word faith much.
“Maybe they don’t use that word but they express that by the way they communicate. They want to be together. I have a feeling that in the past we took things for granted. And people now actually seem more generous with their time. That’s the blessing.”
Dr Ruth Powell, an adjunct professor in the school of theology at Charles Sturt University, said she had heard many stories about people seeking connection from churches during the pandemic. She says pre-pandemic research she had conducted also showed that newcomers to churches tend to be younger adults who often belong before they believe. “It takes a crisis sometimes to get someone to say ‘I’m not happy with how things are in my life’ and often that’s a time when you consider faith.”
Dr Powell has observed two pandemic trends. “One is people who haven’t been connected into community see that their local faith community is an option for them,” she says. The other is rusted-on church-goers, who have found new options online. “Using the Christian example, you can go to church anywhere in the world, you can visit the cathedral, you can visit the Pentecostal big mega church. It’s been a disruption from that point of view as well.”
Dr Powell is the director of NCLS research, which surveyed 1300 Australians in December and found 45 per cent had drawn on spiritual practices during 2020. Of these, 15 per cent had drawn more on spiritual practices in 2020 compared to 2019, 24 per cent about the same and 6 per cent less.
In March 2020 – when the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic – Jeanet Bentzen, an associate professor of economics at the University of Copenhagen, analysed daily data on Google searches in 95 countries. She found searches for prayer (relative to all Google searches) were at the highest level ever recorded. “We pray to cope with adversity,” Bentzen writes in the abstract of In Crisis, We Pray.
Social researcher Mark McCrindle also surveyed more than 1000 Australians last year and found 35 per cent said they were praying more and 41 per cent were thinking about God more.
Adel Salman, from the Islamic Council of Victoria, believes the pandemic has highlighted the importance of the mosque in the lives of Muslims. He says the number of people attending Friday prayers the week before lockdown had bounced back to pre-pandemic levels at the mosque he attends in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. Mr Salman said some mosques were running multiple sessions to comply with COVID-19 restrictions. “There’s a spiritual void if you are not able to go to the mosque for Friday prayers or significant events – it leaves a really big gap in people’s lives.”
Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann, from the ARK Centre in East Hawthorn, noticed a big difference between the first two and the second two lockdowns. After the first two, there were waiting lists to attend the synagogue. He would love to say they had found God or were there for his sermons, he quips, but “they were coming for the camaraderie”.
But the second two lockdowns took their toll. “The third and fourth lockdowns were detrimental to people’s morale, I am not going to say beliefs, because Jewish people are intrinsically believers.” Rabbi Gabi says after each lockdown he has to start again to instil confidence in his congregation that it is safe to return to the synagogue.
The Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement – “the Grand Final of Jewish participation in synagogue services” – are coming up in September. “I am excited because we will see a huge up-tick in participation and hopefully will rebuild people’s morale and confidence and participation in synagogue life.”
One thing that strikes Australian Catholic University’s Professor Bryan Turner, one of the world’s leading sociologists of religion, is that churches haven’t really offered a theological account for COVID-19. “What is the meaning of 1000 deaths in England in one day in April 2020? German sociologist Max Weber argued that science was unequal to the task of meaning-making,” he wrote in Is COVID-19 part of History’s Danse Macabre?”
Professor Turner told The Age he was still waiting for churches to come up with something that provides meaning to people. “I think it’s difficult for the church to come up with something that’s encouraging about what we are seeing but the Christian message is ultimately a message of hope.”