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27 April 2020

How coronavirus is leading to a religious revival

As Covid-19 reminds us of life’s fragility, an increasing number of people are turning to faith and spirituality.

By Miriam Partington and Sebastian Shehadi

Corinna Camilleri was five years old when she began attending church in her hometown of Mdina, Malta. She remembers learning to recite prayers word for word from the Bible, many of which she still remembers today. “I always believed in a God,” says the London-based artist. “But looking at the coronavirus situation, I’m questioning his agenda. What kind of twisted entity would allow such suffering?”

While Corinna may be experiencing a crisis of faith, recent data shows that others may be engaging more with religion since lockdown. The fact that Bible app downloads shot up in March globally is one indication of this. The top English-language Bible on Google Play and App Store was installed almost two million times, the highest amount ever recorded for March, according to Appfigures. Similarly, one of the UK’s largest online Christian bookstores, Eden, has seen physical Bible sales rise by 55 per cent in April, while Google searches for “prayer” and “Christianity” have skyrocketed.

The pandemic has triggered a “historic spiritual moment”, says Dr Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, who is unsurprised by the growth in Bible-reading. He notes that engagement with online church services is also booming, and that it is a response to feelings of disorientation, fragility and fear caused by the crisis.

“Online, one can preserve a measure of anonymity. You can tune into something without committing yourself, and expose yourself to something fresh,” he adds.

Since lockdown began, one of the UK’s largest churches, Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), has seen turnout double for its online Alpha course, a space for non-believers to ask questions about faith and Christianity. 

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“I’ve never known a time in my life when people are more open to [God’s word] than they are now,” said HTB’s vicar, Nicky Gumbel, in an online Easter conference. “There are no other distractions. There’s no football, there’s no sport. There’s no entertainment. People have time to hear the Gospel.” Indeed, never in modern history have so many people been sanctioned to their homes, in what the Dean of Gloucester Cathedral, Stephen Lake, calls “an enforced period of reflection.” 

Islam has also seen increased engagement. Google Play’s most popular Quran app saw record high downloads in March, doubling February’s numbers, according to Appfigures.

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“People are reaching out for help. All holy books talk about suffering, and that it leads people back to faith,” says Sayyid Fadhil Bahrululoom, an Islamic scholar at London’s Alridha Foundation.

During his time in war-torn Iraq, Bahrululoom saw many people turn to God – a reaction to crises that he says is “instinctive in human beings”. 

The world’s major religions are not the only ones witnessing increased engagement. Reiki, an alternative medicine involving energy healing, has become more sought after than ever since the lockdown. The UK’s largest reiki group on Facebook – home to thousands of members – has seen rising demand for online healing and reiki-teaching since lockdown began, as well as a spike in fraudsters offering scam services and “spells”, according to the group’s admin. 

Reiki practitioner Hilary Kingston says that people are looking to a “higher source” for comfort and explanation during the crisis – much in the same way as an ill person prays for their return to health. For others, reiki carries political significance. Katrina Kiritharan is an energy healer and intuitive life coach and says that it symbolises an “inclusive and [alternative] beacon of hope” for marginalised people who feel that their governments have failed to support them during the crisis.

With healthcare being so unaffordable in many countries, and psychotherapy carrying a stigma in certain communities, spiritual healing presents a cheaper and safer option, Katrina explains. Inexpensive self-help is growing in the form of meditation too, with popular apps such as Calm and Headspace booming since global lockdown began. 

Rowan Williams says the pandemic highlights other important issues in our world, describing it as a “remarkable moment of truth.”

“It occurs at a time when the international global economy was more overheated and feverish than ever before. Covid-19 shows us that we live in a world with limitations, [something] we so badly need to remember in respect to the environment,” he explains.

Others spy a wholly different meaning behind the pandemic. Bahrululoom says that in Islamic communities in Iran, Iraq and the Gulf most scholars believe the coronavirus to be caused by mankind’s sin, which is why many leaders are urging people to be “closer to God”. A small minority of Muslims and Christians believe that Covid-19 heralds the apocalypse.

Equating suffering with God’s will is nothing new. From Noah’s flood to the Aids outbreak, some individuals see nothing but divine punishment. Others, such as Williams, see free will. Coronavirus was caused by human actions, or lack thereof, he argues. Meanwhile, the Dean of Gloucester Cathedral says suffering is part of human life: Jesus suffered pain on the cross, as we suffer pain.

It is easy to forget, however, the extent of worldwide suffering. “The limitations of human empathy are profoundly sad. We need a face on the statistics of suffering to speak to us directly,” says Williams. “I remember when asked about the horrors of 9/11. It was dreadful, yes of course, but it’s a dreadfulness that quite a lot people live with almost routinely, and we’ve simply just not noticed,” he adds. 

Indeed, approximately 3.1 million children die from malnutrition each year, a tragedy without a global lockdown that is, therefore, more easily forgotten or ignored.

“We are pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding animals. Today, we’ve crafted a world in which we can tune out when things get hard. With the coronavirus, this discomfort is omnipresent. We turn on our devices and it’s there,” says Katrina. The universe will keep bringing the lesson until we wake up, she adds. 

Lessons are already being learnt. For example, many people do not want a full return to pre-lockdown life, due to cleaner air and a stronger sense of community, highlights one YouGov poll. “We need a real rediscovery of a moral and spiritual politics – one that has a sense of public good, accountability and service. One that creates trust,” concludes Williams. Will politicians and business leaders hear these prayers? 

Sebastian Shehadi and Miriam Partington are freelance journalists