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Most intensely religious coped best with Covid-19 lockdowns, says study

01 March 2024

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RELIGIOUS people in the UK coped better with the coronavirus lockdowns than non-believers, new research from the University of Cambridge suggests.

A co-author of the report, Professor Shaun Larcom, said: “The study suggests that it is not just being religious, but the intensity of religiosity that is important when coping with a crisis.”

The research, published last month, analysed data from a “balanced panel” of 3884 people in the UK during the first two national lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, and compared this with three waves of data before the pandemic. This was taken from the Understanding Society dataset, which is the UK’s main household longitudinal survey, administered by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex.

The results across the UK’s three largest religions — Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism — were broadly similar.

Almost one third (29 per cent) of the people of faith reported lower levels of unhappiness than the average “more miserable” response.

The main barrier to religious groups’ surviving and thriving well related to the closure of places of worship, specifically churches and mosques. Well-being among some people of faith appeared to suffer more than others during the first lockdown — specifically, those for whom weekly attendance was important.

Those most affected were Muslims and the more Catholic-minded Christians, the study found. Church leaders were strongly criticised at the time for widespread closures (News, 15 January 2021). A University of York report in 2021 said that “75 per cent of non-church members wanted access to churches as places of quiet reflection and comfort.”

The authors of the Cambridge report, published on 30 January, were clear about “policy implications for future pandemics in terms of what to do about closures of places of worship during a pandemic”. Denominationally, it emerged that the “Christian Other” category (“those belonging to mainly Protestant churches other than the Church of England”) coped the least well among faith groups.

Another survey from Cambridge, published in November in the European Economic Review, found that the effect of the coronavirus on mental health was significantly smaller for religious people. The international research revealed that participation in online and other religious activities helped them to maintain their mental health.

Professor Larcom concluded: “These studies show a relationship between religion and lower levels of distress during a global crisis. It may be that religious faith builds resilience, and helps people cope with adversity by providing hope, consolation, and meaning in tumultuous times.”

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