Religious people 'coped better with COVID lockdowns'

People wearing protective face masks sitting with social distance and  attending religious mass at church. Group of people at church congregation.
Researchers found that religious people felt 29% less miserable than people without faith during COVID lockdowns. (Getty Images)

New research has shown that one set of people experienced lower levels of stress during COVID lockdowns – people with religious faith.

Researchers found that religious people felt 29% less miserable than people without faith during the lockdowns.

A previous Cambridge University study found that worsening mental health after experiencing COVID infection, either personally or in those close to you, was also made 60% easier by religious belief.

Experts say that the finding shows religion may help to protect against the fear and despair of times of crisis. The research also showed that people with very strong religious faith were even less likely to feel depressed.

How did the research work?

Professor Shaun Larcom, from Cambridge's Department of Land Economy, analysed survey data collected from 3,884 people in the UK during the first two national lockdowns, and compared it to three waves of data prior to the pandemic.

"Selection biases make the well-being effects of religion difficult to study," said Prof Larcom, co-author of the latest study. "People may become religious due to family backgrounds, innate traits, or to cope with new or existing struggles.

"However, the COVID-19 pandemic was an extraordinary event affecting everyone at around the same time, so we could gauge the impact of a negative shock to well-being right across society. This provided a unique opportunity to measure whether religion was important for how some people deal with a crisis."

What did they find?

They found that while lockdowns were associated with a universal uptick in unhappiness, the average increase in feeling miserable was 29% lower for people who described themselves as belonging to a religion.

The researchers also analysed the data by "religiosity" – the extent of an individual's commitment to religious beliefs, and how central it is to their life. Those for whom religion makes "some or a great difference" in their lives experienced around half the increase in unhappiness seen in those for whom religion makes little or no difference.

Caution tape blocks off church pews in regulation with social distancing guidelines due to Coronavirus.
The finding shows religion may help to protect against the fear and despair of times of crisis, experts believe. (Getty Images)

"The study suggests that it is not just being religious, but the intensity of religiosity that is important when coping with a crisis," said Prof Larcom.

The researchers also found that the probability of religious people having an increase in depression was around 20% lower than non-religious people.

How did it vary by faith?

There was little overall difference between Christians, Muslims and Hindus – followers of the three biggest religions in the UK.

But the team did find that wellbeing among some religious groups appeared to suffer more than others when places of worship were closed during the first lockdown.

"The denial of weekly communal attendance appears to have been particularly affecting for Catholics and Muslims," said Prof Larcom, whose research is published as a working paper by Cambridge's Faculty of Economics.

How did getting COVID affect people of faith?

For the earlier study, authored by Prof Sriya Iyer, researchers used online surveys to investigate COVID-19 infections among respondents or their immediate family and friends, as well as religious beliefs, and mental health. The 2021 study involved 5,178 people across the US.

Researchers found that almost half of those who reported a COVID-19 infection either in themselves or their immediate social network experienced an associated reduction in well-being.

Where mental health declined, it was around 60% worse on average for the non-religious compared to people of faith with typical levels of "religiosity".

Interestingly, the positive effects of religion were not found in areas with strictest lockdowns, suggesting access to places of worship might be even more important in a US context. The study also found significant uptake of online religious services, and a 40% lower association between COVID-19 and mental health for those who used them.

Prof Larcom added: "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."

Recommended reading