In times of crisis, humans have a tendency to turn to religion for comfort and explanation. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Daily data on Google searches for 95 countries demonstrates that the COVID 19 crisis has increased Google searches for prayer (relative to all Google searches) to the highest level ever recorded. This rise amounts to 50% of the previous level of prayer searches or a quarter of the fall in Google searches for flights, which dropped dramatically due to the closure of most international air transport. Prayer searches rose at all levels of economic status, inequality, and insecurity, but not for the 20% least religious countries. The increase is not merely a substitute for services in the physical churches that closed down to limit the spread of the virus. Instead, the rise is due to an intensified demand for religion: We pray to cope with adversity.
Google searches for prayer, as a share of all other Google searches, provides a signal of peoples’ interest in prayer at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research documents that our behaviour on the internet reflects our personal interests and the actions we take in the real world. Likewise, our searches for religious terms reflect our religious preferences.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ramadan contributed to the largest increase in the global search intensity for prayer over the year. Also, prayer search shares spike up on Sundays everywhere. Searches for prayer:
* surged in Iran on January 7 2020, coinciding with the funeral of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian major general killed by US troops,
* in Australia on January 5 2020, when the movement “Prayer for Australia” swept across Australia in the midst of the unprecedented bush fires,
* in Albania on November 26 2019 when a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck the country.
* the countries that search more for prayer on the internet are also ranked in surveys as being more religious.
In March 2020, the share of Google searches for prayer surged to the highest level ever recorded, surpassing all other major events that otherwise instigate an intensified demand for prayer, such as Christmas, Easter, and Ramadan. The level of prayer search shares in March 2020 was more than 50% higher than the average during February 2020. For comparison, the surge in Google searches for prayer was 1.3 times larger than the rise in searches for takeaway and amounted to 12% of the rise in Netflix searches or 26% the fall in searches for flights, which all saw massive changes, since most countries were in lock down and air traffic was shut down. In an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19, most countries implemented lock downs and most air traffic was shut down. As a result, many people were at home ordering takeaway and watching Netflix much more than usual.
Prayer is an act directed towards a deity or a deified ancestor, an act of thanksgiving or praise, or an act associated with meditation, charms and spells. Prayers may be recited from memory, read from a book of prayers, or composed spontaneously as they are prayed. In modern times, these books of prayer or verses of prayer can be found on the internet. The most common form of prayer in Christianity is to directly appeal to a deity to grant one’s requests. One of the most searched for prayers in March 2020 was “Coronavirus prayer”, which are prayers that ask God for protection against the coronavirus, prayers to stay strong, and some prayer to thank nurses for their efforts. A Pew Research Centre survey from March 2020 found that more than half of Americans had prayed to end the coronavirus.
The rising interest Google searches for prayer started around mid-March, coinciding with the spread of the COVID-19. The World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Searches for topics related to God, Allah, Muhammad, Quran, Bible, Jesus, Buddha, and Vishnu also increased.
The tendency for people to use religion to deal with crisis can be understood within the religious coping terminology. The theory states that people use religion as a means to cope with adversity and uncertainty. They pray, seek a closer relation to God, or explain the tragedy by reference to an Act of God. Research has documented that people who experienced adverse life events, such as cancer, heart problems, death in close family, divorce, or injury are more religious than others. Adversity, caused by natural disasters, instigates people across the globe to use their religion more intensively. They are more likely to rank themselves as a religious person, find comfort in God, and to state that God is important in their lives when hit by earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. This surge in average religiosity occurs on all continents, for people belonging to all major religions, income groups, and from all educational backgrounds.
Religiosity increases more in response to unpredictable natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions compared to more predictable ones, such as storms and in response to earthquakes in areas that are otherwise rarely hit compared to frequently hit areas. On the other hand, when we face perceived negative, but predictable events, such as an approaching job interview, we are more likely to engage in problem-focused coping, where we aim to directly tackle the problem that is causing the stress. Being a negative and highly unpredictable event, the COVID-19 crisis certainly fits the criteria for being an event that could instigate religious coping. As of April 20 2020, the COVID-19 had affected 210 countries and territories, infected more than 2.4 million. individuals worldwide and taken more than 165,000 lives.
People are more likely to use their intrinsic religiosity to cope with adversity rather than their extrinsic religiosity. Intrinsic religiosity involves private prayer and one’s personal relation to God, while an example of extrinsic religiosity is going to church for social needs or other more ultimate ends than beliefs per se. When faced with adversity, people are thus more likely to use their private beliefs to cope rather than to go to church. Likewise, natural disasters increase private religious beliefs and affect churchgoing much less. We would therefore expect the COVID-19 pandemic to impact private prayer more than churchgoing, had the churches been open (in an effort to enforce social distancing, most churches closed down as the virus went global).
The intensified use of religion may translate into a permanently larger role of religion, even after the disaster has passed. While the main surge in religiosity occurred during the few years immediately following earthquakes, a residual of elevated religiosity remained and was passed on to future generations. This results in significant differences in religiosity depending on natural disaster risk in parents’ country of origin, even for children of migrants who never lived in the disaster-prone countries. Thus, natural disasters have strengthened the role of religion across the globe permanently. Only time will show whether the same is true for the COVID-19 crisis.
Examples abound of people using prayer as a way of dealing emotionally with the uncertainty and fear surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak. While the title of a sermon at an Evangelical Christian megachurch in Dallas asks “Is the Coronavirus a Judgement from God?”, political leaders from Mr. Akufo-Addo of Ghana to Mr. Morrison of Australia urge their population’s to pray as the coronavirus finds its’ way into their economies. Even in Denmark, one of the most secular countries, some people get together in online groups to pray.
The rise in prayer intensity
To identify which countries experienced an increased interest in prayer and whether some are more likely to use religion for coping, four types of databases were constructed.
First, a database on Google searches for topics related to prayer as a share of total Google searches for the 95 countries in the world with enough internet users was assembled.
These searches include all topics related to prayer, including alternative spellings and searches for prayer in other languages.
The data encompasses only those who Google prayer, while those who do not use the internet for finding prayers or those who enter their preferred prayer websites directly are not included.
Second, the elderly, who were most severely affected by the pandemic, are not the most active internet users and thus, their prayer intensity will not show up in Google.
Third, the month of March 2020 saw an even larger rise in internet searches on topics related to COVID-19 and many other topics since many people were at home due to lock downs.
Fourth, the data includes only the countries with enough internet users and thus the poorest countries or countries with restricted internet access, such as China, are not included.
Poorer countries are on average more religious and more prone to engage in religious coping.
The use of internet searches may also overestimate the actual extent of prayer, since some of the rise in Google searches for prayer may be people searching for online forums to replace their physical churches that closed down in an attempt to enforce social distancing.
Apart from searches for prayer in different languages, the four search queries that contribute the most to the rise in search shares for prayer are “prayer for coronavirus“, “pray for the world“, “spiritual communion prayer“, and “pray for Italy“.
When googling “prayer for coronavirus”, various websites offer prayers related to the coronavirus. These include mainly prayers to prevent the virus from spreading, but also prayers to thank nurses and other care-takers for their work in relation to the pandemic.
This article is the first part of a truncated summary of an article titled, In Crisis, We Pray:Religiosity and the COVID-19 Pandemic authored by Jeanet Sinding Bentzen, University of Copenhagen, CEPR, CAGE, April 2020. Full article may be found on Dropbox.
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