The American motto “In God We Trust” can be read on all U.S. currency. Canada’s national motto, A Mari Usque Ad Mare (“From Sea to Sea”), has its own religious origins—Psalm 72:8: "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth". Religion and money seem to go hand-in-hand.
But for how long? During times of economic hardship, is religious faith what people turn to cope?
Articles from the Great Recession include headlines such as “No Rush for the Pews” and “No Boost in Church Attendance during Economic Crisis”. One Gallup poll taken in December 2008 found no difference in religious attendance between that year and prior ones, stating that there was “absolutely no change”.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. One’s religiosity, that is, religious activity, dedication, and belief, are subject to a slew of socio-psychological factors.Despite what the polls say, results can be varied.What is it about religion then that changes when things go bad?
Change in religiosity or in venue?
While it may be true that any perceived rises in religious attendance amid economic challenges do not reflect the ethos of a nation on average, fluctuation exists. In a study titled “Praying for Recession: The Business Cycle and Protestant Religiosity in the United States”, David Beckworth, assistant professor of economics at Texas State University, made an interesting finding.
His research showed that evangelical congregations grew while mainline churches experienced a decline in attendance during times of recession. Religious observers may change their place of worship to seek out sermons of comfort and faith in unstable times, but that does not mean evangelism is attracting wholly new attendees.
Religion is a still a business. Competition increases when the pot of donation cash is low. When demand for religious comfort rises, those with the more attractive product draw the larger crowds. Some aren’t convinced of this, however.
Nigel Farndale of the Telegraph reported in December 2008 that churches in the United Kingdom were seeing a steady rise in attendance as Christmas approached. He made the argument that, in recessionary times, values and priorities were changing: “Talk to bishops, priests and vicars and you get a sense that tectonic plates are shifting; that the national mood is changing; that we are turning our backs upon the hollow materialism of recent years and lifting our hearts to a higher, more spiritual plane…Churches are comforting places in troubling times”.
Even if this was true and bad times really did draw more people to churches, it could be attributed to the spirit of the season, not a prolonged shift in behaviour. Increased religiosity tends to be temporary, an attempt to buffer against negative life events.
Rise in attendance but for how long?
It’s not just financial hardship that can spur an increase in religion-seeking behaviour. Any large-scale crisis can cause a rush to the pews. The September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks saw a significant rise in church-goers. But even that spike in attendance was a blip on the radar resulting in only a short-term rise.While the terrorist attacks shattered the stability and comfort of American life, causing a surge in attendance and Bible sales, that was not to last.
George Barna, market researcher of religious beliefs, made the following observations through his research group: "After the attack, millions of nominally churched or generally irreligious Americans were desperately seeking something that would restore stability and a sense of meaning to life. Fortunately, many of them turned to the church. Unfortunately, few of them experienced anything that was sufficiently life-changing to capture their attention and their allegiance”.
A perusal of online religious forums revealed similar concerns. One church-goer observed the following during the Great Recession: “I have seen a significant drop in attendance in my circles and truly the bad economy has not helped. I have wondered at it all. I think we need to really examine Biblical Christianity and what it means to be a light in this world. I think most of all that we need to ask ourselves if we are preaching the 'good' news.”
Another was worried that churches weren’t able to bring consolation to those who sought it; “Could it be that all those people who crowded churches after 9/11 found that most churches didn't have any real answers for their questions? Maybe they remember that and are turning elsewhere this time.”
Religion is a staple institution to turn to in times of trouble where people want to be heard, comforted, and accompanied. Simply put, religion serves as a means to an end to those that aren’t regular practitioners. It works for some and not for others. But what makes some people go to church anyway?
Insecurity, not education, drives religiosity
Is it just the poor, uneducated seeking out God or is there more at play? It seems that uncertainty of the future, rather than success in life factor into religiosity.
A study by two Dutch sociologists, StijnRuiter, senior researcher at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, and Frank van Tubergen, a professor in Utrecht, made some very interesting connections between church attendance and socio-economic inequality.
They found that, while low-skilled people tended to be more religious, they are less active than their educated counterparts who are more politically oriented. In addition, economic uncertainty in capitalistic systems boosts churchgoing. “In countries with large socio-economic inequality, the rich often go to church because they too could lose everything tomorrow”. In welfare states, church attendance has been on the decline since the government provides a security blanket to its citizens.
Uncertainty encourages church-going when there is no safety net in place. In times of crisis, that effect gets amplified; religion is a reliable resource to fall back on as a means of coping, but mainly for those who are already religious. People don’t suddenly become more religious because bad things happen in their lives.
Religion as support
In terms of care-seeking, it’s best to view religion not as an institution, but as a system of support. Those faced with adverse life events may use religion as a substitute to buffer against, for example, a financial downturn. Church going and prayer display tempering effects.
One study reports that “the effect of unemployment on the religious is half the size of its effect on the non-religious”. Those that are religious already have built-in support to fall back on when times get hard. Communities of faith serve as beacons of hope and provide social warmth and consolation for those in need.
While people don’t become more religious in times of economic recession, the potential impact that religion can have on one’s ability to cope with hardship serves as a powerful lesson. No matter a person’s religious outlook on life, it’s important to have a support system in place to buffer against misfortune.
So what does this mean for the future? As we get into the thick of the 21st century, the world is predicted to fundamentally change as major technological breakthroughs are made. A new round of global financial crises is bound to happen. Who knows what disasters global climate change will bring? Depending on how the world’s economic realities shift as we move into the future, religion could decline further as more and more people become disillusioned by prolonged hardship or re-invent itself as an alternative to cope with crisis.
Religion as we know it will either no longer exist or be radically different than it is today. In general, research shows that religion is on the decline. However, it is unlikely that religion will ever truly disappear. Religious organizations will adapt to meet the needs of their constituents.
As previously noted, evangelical churches are more effective at attracting new parishioners than their conventional counterparts in times of crises. Religiosity spikes with disaster, even if less and less people believe in the long-term.
Let’s not forget, however, that at the core of religiosity is faith and community—characteristics found in all human subcultures. Even secular humanism is legally considered a religion and has been argued to share common elements with its theistic counterparts.
As Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies and author of Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, notes: “Humans need comfort in the face of pain and suffering, and many need to think that there’s something more after this life, that they’re loved by an invisible being.”
Whether or not this comfort will always be in the form of religion is anyone’s guess. By my count, religion has been around for millennia and will exist as long as humans walk the Earth. In the future, it may not be recognizable as what it is today, but (most likely) neither will anything else.