Essay by Sara Gettelfinger
Abstract: My final project answers the research question “What are the positive effects of practicing a religion and worshipping in community with others, especially during difficult time periods in history, and how has the recent COVID-19 pandemic impacted this?” The bulk of my research came from medical and scientific journals, supplemented with a few newspaper articles, blog posts, statistical reports, and proceedings from a Vatican pontifical council. I had hoped to use more firsthand accounts from history but was limited due to time constraints. I was able to interview one Purdue student about his religious experience during the pandemic. As I reflected on my experience and the experiences of others, I could not ignore the impression that for many the practice of religion has suffered during the lockdown. Multiple studies have shown that the communal practice of religion is correlated with improved mental, physical, and social health, all of which have already suffered due to lockdown measures. Particularly targeted by lockdown measures are religions built upon rituals which must be experienced in-person and are thus not conducive to virtual substitutes. Investigating the positive effects of religious practice during times of adversity is relevant given the nature of life and the challenges that ultimately arise. There is much research already indicating the positive effects of religion upon individuals, but this project will revisit the topic through the lens of the current COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented event that has presented some challenges unlike others in the past. The ultimate argument presented in this essay is that places of worship should not have closed during the COVID-19 pandemic despite the fear many had and have for the virus. For many individuals of various religious backgrounds, health of the body is important, but health of the soul is even more so.
The effects upon an individual of practicing a religion is a widely researched topic that has been covered in numerous scientific journals, newspaper articles, and blogs over the decades. According to a study performed in 2015 by the Pew Research Center, 84% of the Earth’s 7.3 billion people reported a religious affiliation (Hackman and McClendon, 2017). The sheer number of these 6.1 billion people alone suggests that religious practice plays a significant role in the lives of many, diverse populations. According to Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, religious and spiritual practices across diverse religious traditions are used to cope with the stressful events of life, though the manner in which the beliefs are practiced varies based on the tenants of each faith (Abu-Raiya and Pargament, 2015). This essay will explore a question I found myself wondering when reflecting on the social regulations of the COVID-19 pandemic: what are the positive effects of practicing a religion and worshipping in a community with others, especially during difficult time periods in history? What are the implications of this in the recent COVID-19 pandemic?
There are several studies indicating that positive physical health benefits are linked with the practice of a religion. A 2010 study from the Women’s Health Initiative, which examined more than 92,000 women aged 50 and older and which controlled for current health status (among other variables such as age and ethnicity), illustrated that these participants were 20% less likely to die if they participated in weekly religious services when compared to their counterparts who never attended religious services (Schnall et al. 2010). The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine published the results of a 2006 study which suggested that attending a weekly religious service is comparable to both regular physical exercise and the use of statin drugs in terms of improving cardiac health, and that it may also be more cost-effective (Hall 2006). A 16-year study comparing religious and secular kibbutzim in Israel found that “belonging to a religious collective” was strongly associated with decreased mortality (Kark et al. 1996). The journal of Psychosomatic Medicine published data in 1995 suggesting an increased risk for death following elective open-heart surgery in elderly patients who were unable to participate in social groups and find religious comfort (Oxman et al 1995). An article published by The Heritage Foundation in 1996 also described physical health benefits associated with religious practice, specifically listing reduced blood pressure and decreased incidence of cancer, stroke, colitis, emphysema, and cirrhosis of the liver (Fagan 1996). Finally, a study published last year in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality found negative correlations between religious coping and both glucose tolerance and obesity variables, which suggests that daily religious coping may delay the onset of diseases associated with obesity and metabolic disorders (Whitehead and Bergeman, 2019).
The positive effects on health of religious practice is not simply limited to physical health, but to emotional health as well. Current Opinion in Psychiatry published data in 2014 illustrating that religion and spirituality can promote mental health through the practice of positive coping and beliefs (Weber and Pargament, 2014). Particularly notable in the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic is the link between religious practice and how people manage or cope with stressors. A cross-sectional survey of more than 8,000 individuals aged 15-54 years found that the participants were most likely to seek help with a mental disorder from the clergy compared to psychiatrists and general medical doctors (Wang et al. 2003). Regularly attending church and having a religious affiliation have also been used by individuals as explanations for their happiness (Fagan 1996).
Religious practice has been positively associated with a third aspect of health that I expect most people (like myself) do not often consider: social or relational health. A collaborative study between three universities in 2020, which analyzed participants from multiple Christian denominations, Judaism, and Islam, found that personal experiences in which the participants believed they had encountered God improved the quality, meaning, and depth of the participants’ relationships with others, particularly in times of adversity (Dollahite et al., 2020). The Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Report on American Values in the 1980’s stated: “With striking consistency, the most religious among us [as Americans] place a greater importance on the full range of family and friendship activities” (Fagan 1996). According to a 2014 study out of Bowling Green State University, couples who considered their marriage as being “holy” or “reflecting God’s intentions” were more likely to maintain a perspective that allowed them to react in a “lighthearted and warm” manner during conflicts (Kusner et al. 2014). All these studies suggest that religious practice enables individuals the ability to better cope with stressors that can damage their relationships with others.
Having now discussed several examples of religion having a positive impact on various aspects of human health, I turn to examples in history of adverse events to search for evidence of religious practice helping individuals during difficult times. One of the first events that came to mind, which is fitting given the current pandemic, was the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918.
In Indiana, for instance, a statewide order was released on October 6, 1918 calling for the “immediate closure of all schools, churches, theaters, amusements of all kinds, and to put a ban on all public meetings and gatherings” (Pfeiffer 2020). As with the current COVID-19 pandemic, Hoosiers across the state were told to stay home and were encouraged to continue worshipping despite this setback. Local newspapers published sermons and hymns to guide readers through worship in isolation, but for others this wasn’t an adequate substitute. An article published in the Fort Wayne Journal on November 13, 1918 reported that nine Catholic parishes held open-air Masses with “excellent attendance,” stating that the cold weather, early hours, and brick and grass plots for kneelers “proved no deterrent to the many who assembled” (Pfeiffer 2020). As the pandemic progressed Indiana into December, holding services was “left to the option of the churches,” provided the houses of worship maintained a supply of extra masks by the door (Pfeiffer 2020).
Ironically, church services were also banned in Minnesota in October of 1918, yet Red Cross volunteers were permitted to congregate in those same churches (Klemond 2020). As with certain worshippers in Indiana, some were undeterred by the restrictions and determined to publicly practice their faith if given the opportunity. Just hours before the ban on public gatherings was enacted in Minneapolis, 150 individuals received the sacrament of Confirmation at St. Clement Catholic Church (Klemond 2020). Fortunately for the faithful in Twin Cities and Minneapolis, the church ban was lifted on November 15, 1918.
When it comes to the current COVID-19 pandemic, I personally find it difficult to accept the religious bans that have been and continue to be in place. From baptisms to bar mitzvahs, various rituals and forms of worship have been denied to believers of multiple different religions. The loss of traditional mourning rituals, such as funeral services, is particularly worrisome as it directly impacts an individual’s ability to cope with grief (Norton et al. 2020). Humans are social creatures, which is why communal rituals (e.g. weddings, quinceañeras) remain an integral part of every culture’s support system. A 2020 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that each COVID-19 death affects 9 survivors (Verdery et al. 2020). As if losing the ability to publicly mourn wasn’t hard enough, the recent loss of a loved one is associated with an increased risk for a decline in both mental and physical health. Sure enough, there is a growing concern for the increased risk of depression, suicide, and unintentional death among the more than 30,000 children in the United States who have lost a parent to the virus (Kidman et al. 2021).
An interesting study at two hospitals in the 1990s found that 77% of adult inpatients suggested medical physicians consider the spiritual needs of their patients (King and Bushwick, 1994). In a culture that is increasingly concerned with physical health, I find myself expressing the desire that others not forget their spiritual needs along the way and that individuals with power not make it harder for those wanting to seek comfort and strength from their religious practices to do so. Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University, summarized what my other research has thus far indicated when he said, “Religion has been helping people get through hard times for thousands of years… Just read the psalms and you will see that it is all about people turning to God during troubled times” (Goodman 2020).
In April of last year, the Belfast Telegraph published an article detailing interviews with four individuals of different religions (i.e. Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism) regarding the COVID-19 crisis. According to Shoshana Appleton, it was difficult to find kosher foods and to experience Passover without the “usual services” (Stewart 2020). Dr. Satyavir Singhal, a Hindu anesthetist working with the National Health Service, explained his religion’s belief that an individual’s health should be incorporated into every aspect of living and that “you do not outsource your health to the doctors.” Jonny Hanson reflected on his faith during difficult times, stating: “My faith is a sense of purpose and of hope in the midst of challenge and through all the seasons of the soul” (Stewart 2020). Lastly, Buddhist nun Chitta Gen shared that it has been challenging during lockdown having less social interaction with others, which makes her value it more.
Christian blogger Karl Vaters uploaded a post last April that expresses the spiritual frustration that many religious individuals have experienced during this pandemic. He notes the pain stemming from the “emptiness of absence,” concluding that “…going to church matters. A lot. Gathering as the church is as fundamental to my faith as it can possibly be” (Vaters 2020).
The loss of communal religious practices is upsetting for a variety of reasons, but there is another issue to consider during this time of altered worship: the phenomenon of “virtual church.” This is problematic for any religion centered around physical rituals. The Catholic Church, for instance, is built upon the practice of seven sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ, sacraments which must be received in person. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications: The Church and Internet, released by the Vatican in 2002, summarizes the physical nature of the Catholic faith: “Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith” (Foley 2002).
Given the physical nature of the Catholic faith and thus the dramatic way the COVID-19 lockdowns would impact this form of worship, I decided to interview a Catholic student from Purdue University about his/her experience. The student, a male senior in engineering, wished to remain anonymous and responded with the following:
Q: What limitations were set in place concerning your place of worship, and how have these limitations affected your religious practice?
A: I was not allowed to receive the sacraments nor allowed to visit our Lord and Savior in the Most Holy Eucharist for about 3 months. This caused me to do more devotions that I can do on my own as well as learn more about what one can do to continue to deepen my relationship with Christ when the sacraments are not available. However, these devotions in no way replace the sacraments.
Q: Do you believe your spiritual life has improved or declined during this pandemic? Please explain why.
A: It has improved despite the opposition from the armies of Satan. I have a renewed zeal for the one, holy, and apostolic Catholic faith, as well as a deeper relationship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The research presented in this essay indicates the numerous ways in which religious practice can benefit an individual. Statistics and personal testimony confirm time and again that actively practicing a religion provides a person with a sense of purpose and stability, especially when times are confusing and dark. The communal and in-person aspect of religious practice and rituals is almost as important as the religion itself, and for some religions, such as Catholicism, it is necessary if the individual wishes to receive the graces of sacraments. As my historical research noted, it was Catholics eager to celebrate Mass outside in November during the Spanish flu outbreak as soon as it was permitted, and it was 150 Catholics who spent their last few hours before the lockdown started receiving the sacrament of Confirmation, events which illustrate the importance of communal worship and in-person reception of the sacraments to believers of this particular religion.
I thus now present an argument against the mandated closure of churches and places of worship during pandemics and any other adverse effects which may call for this measure. It isn’t unreasonable to ask that worshippers practice good hygiene and common sense (i.e. don’t go if you don’t feel well), but it stops being reasonable when you ask presumably healthy individuals to shelter at home and sacrifice the communal worship that gives their very lives meaning.
Yes, some religious individuals have seemingly adapted well to the phenomenon of “virtual church,” but this remains an unacceptable substitute for those seeking in-person sacraments and rituals. Even those who identify as “non-religious” will suffer if a loved one dies and they are prevented from gathering as family and friends for a burial. Think of all those individuals who had to shelter at home during Ramadan, Passover, and Holy Week last year.
A last point to make is the fact that the lockdowns prevent ministers of various religions from ministering to their congregation during a difficult time when the believers need it most. For example, think of all the Catholics who died from the virus but were unable to receive Confession and Last Rites before death because a priest wasn’t permitted to visit them. Think of the believers of other religions who could not and cannot seek guidance from their rabbi or imam during this difficult time.
This essay is not meant to insist that physical health is unimportant, but to simply suggest that it is not the most important thing. For many individuals of various religious backgrounds, health of the body is important, but health of the soul is even more so. To quote Matthew 10:28 from the Christian Bible, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
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Dollahite, Marks, Witting, LeBaron, Young, and Joe M. Chelladurai. 2020. “How Relationship-Enhancing Transcendent Religious Experiences during Adversity Can Encourage Relational Meaning, Depth, Healing, and Action.” Religions 11 (10). DOI: 10.3390/rel11100519.
Fagan, Patrick. 1996. “Why Religion Matters: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability.” The Heritage Foundation, January 25. Accessed March 13, 2021. https://www.heritage.org/civil-society/report/why-religion-matters-the-impact-religious-practice-social-stability#16
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