In a period of crisis, issuing bold prognoses about the future can be a compelling pastime. Caught in the midst of a pandemic, our accounts of normality have been fractured and reshaped; our behaviours altered and reformed. Boosted by the depletion of social contact, it is through this radical shift that some have anointed 2021 as doomsday for religion’s longevity. Yet such a diagnosis would be a jejune misreading of the ways in which religious institutions have altered their community services, even if patchy video conferences scarcely compensate for the irreplaceable ambiance of physical gatherings.
It is on this purely foundational level, then, that the easiest defense of religion’s prominence can be charted. Much like every other organisation, local religious centres – be it churches, mosques, or synagogues – have taken to the digital transition with relative ease, rolling out weekly programmes of events and gatherings accessible through the simple click of a button. Although the usual hubs of religious practice have been boarded up, the synchronisation of service with rapid connectivity has, somewhat paradoxically, reopened the world of spirituality and religious commitment to local communities.
In many cases across the world, online religious practice has stitched together a coalition of disenchanted followers and regular worshippers, reversing the trends of falling local interaction and attendance registered over the last decade. Although perhaps too quaint to be an internet renaissance, the resurgence of religious activity during the pandemic reaffirms its influence in a time of deepening preoccupation, often acting as an outlet for quashing arresting anxieties.
This trend should hardly be thought of as a staggering development, though. As has been well documented, there appears to be an especially strong correspondence between the ramifications of interpersonal crises and uptake of spirituality, an assessment that is all too recognisable in chronically insecure areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example. This may help to explain the contemporary patterns of religious engagement in the West, where, as current circumstances dictate, widely-felt problems proliferate as a result of aggravated asymmetries.
The interaction between spirituality and personal religious practice should only be expected to grow. More people will face economic and social hardship, and, depending on the level of governmental assistance, many will become reliant on the charitable arms of religious groups in their immediate communities. This dynamic underpins the multifaceted role religion plays in society, and, by virtue, contradicts any suggestion that it is becoming more spurious in the wake of the pandemic era.
There remains, however, a fundamental need for society to push for greater understanding and cooperation amongst different groups and religions, particularly once the pandemic finally draws to a close. This is the biggest societal challenge for religious coexistence, and, in the British case, is one aggravated by tensions in increasingly diverse urban areas. Reported religious hate crimes increased year-on-year between 2016 and 2019 (to 9,000), highlighting the importance of improved cross-community dialogue in sustaining healthy collaborative relationships. This is a core requirement to avoid splintering social fragmentation and division in the reshaped normalcy of a post-pandemic age. The recent polemic at Batley Grammar School, where a teacher was alleged to have shown an image of the Prophet Muhammad, accentuates this urgency to reframe approaches to religious discourse in a multicultural country like ours.
The point I am getting at here, then, is to urge readers to move away from conspicuous predictions about religious declinism and instead focus on easing social divisions exasperated by the pandemic. Religion plays a fundamental role in British life and, following consistent projections, is set to play a far larger role around the world by 2050. With this growth will come inevitable differences, requiring steadfast solutions to ensure successful and fruitful cohabitation for all. The coming years will greatly accelerate these changes, imploring us to be active in meeting them. The social fabric of our communities depends on it.
Photograph: Rod Long via Unsplash.