This week a working paper in economics from the University of Cambridge* was released and it garnered a bit of publicity because its summary conclusion was that religious people coped better in the pandemic in comparison to non religious people. I didn’t understand the mathematical formulae involved and I appreciated the explanations of the processes and assumptions involved in the study – but the conclusions were clear to me. Here is the last paragraph …
If [one] we were to ask if religious people cope better in a crisis, an examination of the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic would suggest that the answer is yes, even in a society such as the United Kingdom that is not particularly religious, compared to many other parts of the globe. The findings of this study may then also have policy implications for future pandemics in terms of what to do about closures of places of worship during a pandemic.
The study isn’t proof per se but a contribution to our knowledge about ourselves. There is a long observance and numerous studies that would support the view that in a crisis, a religious faith is found to be beneficial to a person as opposed to no religious faith. Such views are generally found by religious and non religious studies even as everyone can point to individuals who do not ‘fit’ such general views. Karl Marx’s criticism of religion – the ‘opium of the people’ – was precisely at this point that religion is a metaphysical balm for the sufferings of this world – it does help – but religion is an illusion that then lessens human participation in this world – and our active remediation of the sufferings of this world. So yes, religion ‘works’ to help people cope but that doesn’t really help people deal with the real world but avoid the real world.
These lines of argument – religion helps people cope – it might but it’s an illusion – no it doesn’t help people cope but rather intensifies misery and suffering – religion helps people cope – are finally unresolvable. People will find what they want to find on this merry-go-round.
But when people encounter Jesus and discover that he is not a creation of human imagination – that in Christianity people encounter revelation – a message not originating in our brains but heard through our ears – then there is an entire world shift – and we are not at the centre of the universe! We discover there is a God who cares – who is gracious and merciful – who rescues in Jesus – people who always think that life and living is what they see, examine, think, and determine.
The world may observe religious people in a certain way – a utilitarian way – a what is good for society and the world way – and people who cope won’t drain resources as much as those who don’t cope. So societies often support religions – up to a point – as long as they promote and support social values and mores.
For Christians who trust Jesus to help them cope their goal is to grow in their relationship with Jesus while, at the same time, serving those around them as Jesus would have them do so. This twin focus – on Jesus – and on the neighbour leaves less time for looking at ourselves – because we know we are precious in God’s sight! That’s a message that keeps coming from outside to us – through words, water, bread and wine – and gives us the best way to live in the real world. And that’s something the pandemic has reminded us!
* ‘Do Religious People Cope Better in a Crisis? Evidence from the UK Pandemic Lockdowns’ by Sriya Iyer, Shaun Larcom, Po-Wen She, Cambridge University Working Paper in Economics, (January 30 2024).