Falling Short – The Hugh Hewitt Show

Falling Short - The Hugh Hewitt Show

Thu, Dec 1, 2022  | 
By John Schroeder

Falling Short

The new Pew Study on religion and the pandemic is out.  It’s a disappointment.  Here are Pew’s self-described highlights:

  • Authorities in nearly a quarter of all the countries and territories studied (46 out of 198, or 23%) used physical means, such as arrests and prison sentences, to enforce coronavirus-related restrictions on worship services and other religious gatherings.
  • Religious groups filed lawsuits or spoke out against the public health measures in 54 of the 198 countries (27%). A common complaint was that some churches, mosques, synagogues and other houses of worship were treated unequally – either by comparison with secular gathering places, like shops and restaurants, or by comparison with other religious groups.
  • In 69 countries and territories (35%), one or more religious groups defied public health rules related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • In an even larger number of countries (94, or 47%), religious leaders or groups promoted public health measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus by encouraging followers to worship at home, observe social distancing or take other precautions, such as hand-washing and mask-wearing.
  • News articles and other information sources identified 55 countries (28%) where government officials and religious groups collaborated on efforts to stem the pandemic. In some countries, different religious groups both defied and promoted lockdowns or other public health restrictions.

To my mind, the most important question is not answered by this study.  How did the pandemic affect people’s attitudes about religion?  In my personal observation, in places where religion was regulatorily and forcibly “put out of business” the pace at which people generally are viewing religion as unimportant quickened.  Let me break that down a little bit.

In California where I watch several churches, and those churches were not permitted, absent civil disobedience, to meet the churches have come out of the pandemic with only 40-70% the regular attenders they had prior to the pandemic.  In Tennessee, where I also watch several churches, and churches were permitted to meet, though most shuttered voluntarily, church attendance quickly returned to pre-pandemic levels when the congregations returned to services.  Now, to be sure, church attendance was spotty in California to begin with, but the churches I watch there would normally have shed 2-5% of regular attenders during the pandemic period and instead shed 30-60%.  Granted these are anecdotal observations, but they do involve several congregations in both places.

From these observations, I conclude that government forced cessation of normal religious activity sends an overwhelming message to the populace that church is unimportant.

Every church has people in it that are exploring – they are not necessarily believers or adherents – they are simply people checking it out.  Every church has people that attend out of cultural expectation and not necessarily a matter of religious devotion.  Such people may never ever become true believers, but they are nonetheless affected by their attendance at church, generally for the better for both themselves personally and society generally.  In my experience, places where religious service attendance is greater are simply nicer places to be by virtue of simple, common civilities (“please,” “thank you,” the absence of line jockeying or barging, the absence of road rage…) than places where church attendance is not an expected part of life.  I have never seen statistics to verify this correlation, but I do wonder.  As best as I can tell, regardless of religious belief, adherence and devotion a prevalence of religion in a culture makes the culture better.

Thus, I would also conclude that if government forced cessation of normal religious activity sends an overwhelming message to the populace that church is unimportant, it also helps create a less civil society.

These are the questions that I would like to see explored by an operation like Pew.  It seems like they took the easy way out on this one, studying easily obtainable things measured only by hard data.  I am well aware that attitudes and behaviors are hard to quantify.  I also know that people don’t answer the phone anymore so getting people to interview to gather such difficult to quantify data is also quite difficult.  But even at that attendance bounce-back is an easily obtainable and quantifiable statistic.

If we do not look what went wrong with pandemic policy squarely in the eye, we are going to do it again – to our detriment.

ADDENDUM: Heck, it would be nice if there were data on simple disease outcomes in places where they forcibly closed churches versus places where they did not – some sort of outcome data by which we could begin to evaluate whether the policies adopted were a good or bad idea.

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