Religion may have helped prevent Americans from experiencing mental distress during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak but, according to new research, it also appears to be linked to undercutting efforts to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
The study has recently been published in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
“A lot of people were experiencing heightened distress during the pandemic. Religion is a compensatory resource people draw on generally and especially in hard times,” said study author Landon Schnabel, the Robert and Ann Rosenthal Assistant Professor of Sociology at Cornell University.
“I suspected religious people might not have been experiencing as much distress during the pandemic both because of how they were drawing on religion as a resource and because some religious people didn’t seem to be taking the pandemic as seriously.”
For their study, the researchers analyzed data from 11,537 individuals who participated in the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel. The survey was conducted from March 19 to 24, 2020, shortly after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health pandemic.
The researchers found that people who attended religious services more frequently reported feeling substantially less anxious, depressed, and lonely and had less trouble sleeping amid the pandemic. Additionally, 57 percent of Americans indicated that they had prayed for an end to the coronavirus, and those who did reported significantly less mental distress.
But people who attended religious services more frequently were also less likely to see the pandemic as a threat to themselves and the nation, and were more comfortable breaking social distancing protocols. Evangelicals in particular were less likely to support public health restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“More religious people and especially evangelicals experienced less distress at the beginning of the pandemic. But in what may have been a feature rather than a bug of American religion, they were also less likely to see the threat as real and less supportive of public health responses to address it,” Schnabel told PsyPost.
“People often see religion as a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s often a double-edged sword and that’s the case again here: it was helpful for people’s mental health but was less than helpful for physical health and addressing the root cause of why people’s mental health was suffering—the existence of a real threat that needed to be addressed in real, material ways.”
But this appeared to be entirely explained by the overlap between religiosity and political ideology. More religious people, especially evangelicals, tended to be Republican and conservative, and Republicans and conservatives were less likely to see COVID-19 as a threat regardless of their religion.
“The study examined the impact of religious involvement in the United States,” Schnabel said. ”In the United States, most religious people are Christian and religion has become particularly politicized. The patterns may vary in the context of other religions or even just other less-politicized approaches to Christianity, where being more religious might not be so tightly linked with a commitment to one political party who had one particular response to the pandemic.”
The new findings are in line with another study published in The Journal of Religion and Health, which found that stay-at-home orders tended to have a weaker impact in more religious states.
But the new study – like all research – includes some caveats.
“It’s important to note that these data were from early in the pandemic,” Schnabel said. “It’s not unlikely that as the pandemic continued it was no longer possible for highly religious people to ignore the threat. What some people shrugged off at first likely became an unavoidable stressor for them as time wore on. If so, the mental health of highly religious people and evangelicals who didn’t see it as a threat early on might have become more impacted over time.”
The study, “Religion Protected Mental Health but Constrained Crisis Response During Crucial Early Days of the COVID-19 Pandemic“, was authored by Landon Schnabel and Scott Schieman.