Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK
Madeleine Pennington and Nathan Mladin’s report examining emotional responses to death and dying in the UK. 27/11/2023
Following new YouGov polling Paul Bickley outlines how the pandemic is shifting spiritual sentiment and where might things go in the future. 11/08/20
In the early days of the pandemic, there was a burst of articles pondering the possibility of religious revival (see here and here). In a society which (with some notable exceptions) is becoming less religious, would the virus and the lockdown result in a religious re-awakening?
You can see why these questions are being asked. COVID-19 has introduced an element of universal risk that has been absent from the secularised west for decades. A pandemic means that we are all confronted not only with the abstract prospect of dying at some point in the distant future, but a comparatively high likelihood that we or someone close to us could die in the very near term. If there are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes, there should be no atheists in PPE.
Nor is it just about mortality, but about how we conduct our lives. What’s the future of our collective life after common struggle, albeit one that has been illuminated by acts of human kindness? On an individual level, are we satisfied with our lot? Are there things we want to change; existential questions that we have left unanswered? In the words of the Alpha course advertising (the course is said to have experienced a surge of interest), is there more to life than this?
While some think that the time is ripe for a new spirituality, other’s demur. Congregations have struggled to maintain their usual services and indeed some denominations could be accused of being culpably absent (many clerics within the Church of England, for example, were concerned that churches were too quick to close their doors precisely when people needed spaces for quiet reflection). If anything has provided a point of common meaning, isn’t it the NHS?
It’s barely half a year since we first heard of COVID-19; those on both polls of the argument should probably not call it too early. It’s hard to believe that such a global trauma would have no implications for religious sentiment, one way or the other. Most likely, it will move people in both directions – after all, some found faith in the trenches of World War I; others lost it. But these changes may take years or even decades to fully reveal themselves. The pandemic itself has taught us the difficulty of establishing even basic facts like how many people have already died. How much harder it is, then, to predict the future impact on our economy and culture – never mind on our inner lives?
That said, what can we glean from the data so far? In a phrase, something is happening. The team at British Religion in Numbers conducted an analysis of the religious affiliations given by 22,500 Britons in twelve Populus polls, six conducted before the start of the lockdown on 23 March 2020 and six afterwards. They found that pre-lockdown, 45.3 per cent affiliated with Christianity, 2.9 percent as Muslim, 3.9 per cent as other/non-Christian and 45.7 per cent as none. Post lock-down, this had shifted to 46.3 per cent Christian, 2.9 per cent Muslim, 4.0 per cent other/non-Christian and 44.9 per cent none. As BRIN points out, the data are derived from sample surveys and thus are subject to margin of error, and the shifts are certainly not large. Their interpretation was characteristically cautious: “The Covid-19 pandemic may have momentarily paused the relentless growth in the number of religious nones” (my emphasis).
So what is this ‘something’? How is the pandemic shifting spiritual sentiment, and where might things go in the future? To further investigate, we worked with YouGov to ask a range of questions around self-perception, sources of meaning, and engagement with religious or spiritual practices. The polling was conducted between the 26 May and 5 June, just as the early and most stringent lockdown measures were being loosened, so comes with the usual caveat that the data provides a snapshot and can only give us early indications of the long-term impact of COVID-19.
A search for meaning
There does seem to be an openness to questions around ‘life meaning’ – at least in a significant minority of the population. We asked to what extend respondents agreed with the statement “I’m searching for a sense of meaning in my life”. Across the population as a whole, nearly 1 in 3 (32%) agreed with this statement to some extent (although it is worth noting that a higher proportion - 37% - disagreed). More strikingly, the proportion of those agreeing rose to 54% among 18-24 year olds – the highest level of agreement of any single demographic. In fact, comparing all age categories, the younger the respondent, the more likely they were to agree. We also found higher than average agreement in London and Northern Ireland, and amongst the black and ethnic minority communities.
Interestingly, whether respondents believed in God did not make much of a difference to their responses here: 33%, 31%, and 31% of believers, non-believers and ‘unsures’ respectively agreed that they were searching for a sense of meaning. In other words, theists and non-theists alike did not necessarily connect the question of personal meaning with their beliefs about God. Metaphysical beliefs alone do not settle the matter and, as will be unsurprising to religious readers, a faith commitment does not put an end to the search for meaning.
When offered a slightly different statement – “my life feels meaningful’ – those who thought a God definitely or probably exists were significantly more likely to agree with the premise than those who thought one definitely or probably didn’t (60% vs. 45%). Taking the population as a whole, half of people agreed that their life felt meaningful, compared to just 19% who disagreed. On average, then, Brits seem to be feeling positive about life’s capacity for meaning. But again, there were differences depending on age: in answer to this statement, the 18-24 year olds were also the least likely category to agree that “my life feels meaningful” (45%), and most likely to disagree (26%).
So, it seems that many people are looking for meaning – whether they have found it or not – and that the most concerted search is happening in early adulthood.
Crucially, the search for meaning does also seem to have ramped up during lockdown, with nearly 1 in 3 (31%) respondents thinking about what makes life meaningful more than they were before the pandemic – and 1 in 5 (20%) respondents also claimed to be talking more to other people about what makes life meaningful since the start of the pandemic. This suggests that there is a significant minority of the population who are thinking more about meaning, but not sharing those thoughts with anyone else. Again, the highest proportion of searchers can be found in the youngest age categories: 43% of 18-24 year-olds said they had been thinking more about what makes life meaningful, compared to just 24% of those over 65.
Where are we searching?
If this seems like grist for the revival-is-on-the-way view, we should be cautious. As we’ve already said, the question of life meaning isn’t necessarily settled by resolved metaphysical beliefs or resolved through spiritual or philosophical searching. Most obviously, it could be resolved – again, particularly amongst younger cohorts – by work, caring relationships, winning social change or self-improvement.
To this end, we asked respondents, “For you personally, what things matter most when trying to live a fulfilling life?” and allowed them to pick five responses from a list of 14. The surprising thing is how little religion and spirituality figured in people’s responses at the time of polling. No less than twelve factors prove more popular choices than “growing your spirituality, religion or faith” (10%). Most popular was “being with family” (61%). Other popular answers included personal contentment (51%), being financially comfortable (51%), experiencing new things (33%), bringing positive change in society (20%), and succeeding at work (13%). In fact, only “leaving a mark on the world” (9%) featured less prominently as a choice in response to this question. Considering that 47% of respondents considered themselves to have a religious identity, this disconnect cannot be explained solely in terms of the rise of non-religion, but also reflects a disconnect among many of the religious too. Far from religious revival, perhaps the pandemic reveals the fragility of religious life in the United Kingdom.
What, then, of the oft-speculated online revolution, which has seen the religious turn to online platforms, and the irreligious see a new opportunity to join? Early in the pandemic, congregational leaders reported higher levels of online engagement than they were experiencing in physical gatherings, including amongst people who did not identify as having a religious faith. Perhaps those who didn’t feel able to attend services in person were happier to participate online? Reporting of the Savanta ComRes poll for Tearfund suggest that one quarter of British adults had attended a religious service online during lockdown, a significantly higher rate than physical attendance at church services.
We asked a series of questions around this, and again the results were not indicative of a surge toward faith. When asked whether people were accessing spiritual or religious content online (e.g. an online service, prayer or meditation, webinar etc.) just 9% of the population said that they had started or were doing so more often than they had in the past (3% said that they were doing this less often, or had stopped). This is consistent with the relatively small proportion of the population that is already observantly religious (for example, around 10% of the population attend a religious service once a week or more). Figures for some communities – e.g., black and minority ethnic at 14% – were higher, but amongst those who thought that there was probably/definitely no God (51% of the population), there was a net increase of just 2% of those accessing spiritual or religious content online. Figures for non-believers attending a religious service online were similarly small. On prayer, the simplest and most available religious practice, 33% of people in the UK said that they were praying before the pandemic, and 33% said that they were praying after the pandemic.
There is perhaps something to be said here about the limitations of quantitative research. On the one hand, the headline figures are indicative of no major shift in religious practice overall (that 2% increase noted above is within the margin of error and therefore may reflect absolutely no change at all). On the other hand, if we take 2% as read (that is, set aside the margin of error and assume the figure is accurate) that would still see around 700,000 people who either did not, or probably did not, believe in God accessing religious content online for the first time during the pandemic. If you were part of a congregation that saw even just a handful of people who explicitly said that they did not believe in God tune in to your service, this statistically small shift would feel like a remarkable change over the space of just a few weeks. But of course, we cannot take the figure as read, and must exercise caution when making judgements on the basis of such small numbers. The safest interpretation remains that most people had not, at the time of polling, turned to traditional religious practices as a way of resolving questions about meaning that have emerged through the pandemic crisis.
Rather, the biggest shifts indicate a more reflective and contemplative perspective, edging towards so-called holistic spiritual practices. While the figures for accessing online worship are shaky, a far sturdier 1 in 5 (18%) of the population said that they were spending more time in quiet reflection, including 12% of people who probably or did not believe in God, and 26% of 18-24 year olds (this was also a popular shift for believers – with 27% saying they spent more time in quiet reflection). The pandemic didn’t see people falling to their knees in prayer, but crossing their legs in a Yoga pose: 13% overall, and 22% of 25-34 year olds, said that they wanted to do more Yoga in future. And when we asked ‘which of the following sources of wisdom or guidance, if any, have you accessed since the pandemic started?’, self-help proved the most popular (12%), followed by psychological (10%) and philosophical resources (9%), followed by online lectures and then religious and spiritual content (8% each), followed by Holy Books (6%).
Those looking for meaning see this moment as one in which people should improve themselves, or fix society, but they are tending not to search for answers in the transcendent.
Why aren’t people turning to religion in large numbers?
The expectation that the crisis moment will provoke a return to faith rests in part on historical precedent (pandemics in the past really have prompted a rush to escape God’s wrath, allegedly being revealed in disease) and in part on the assumption that religion has no competitors – that if you are forced to push outside of the merely material into the world of meaning, purpose, and so on, then you have no other option than to ‘get religion’. Looming large is the view of social change which associates religious perspectives with ‘survival values’. In other words, that religion tends to flourish in environments of material insecurity, and that correspondingly secularity or non-religion is associated with security and comfort. If secularization is a manifestation of material progress, the regress is an opportunity for religion.
At some level, all of these assumptions are questionable. The pandemic remains, even at the time of writing when restrictions are relatively minimal, a chastening experience – a warning from nature that we can’t have it all our own way, that we can’t manage risk, fragility and finitude out of human existence. And this is the point – it is primarily understood as a warning from nature, rather than from God.
Or perhaps, more simply, we (in the largely secular United Kingdom at least) are experiencing the pandemic within what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls the ‘immanent frame’ – the disenchanted or ‘closed’ experience of reality, the ‘sloughing off’ of transcendence. It is still possible to interpret the world, including natural disasters and the like, in spiritual categories, but this does not come naturally, even to the religious. As our data show, even for many people who identify as having religious beliefs, life is substantially ordered around close family and dear friends, material and physical security, the living of life. Offered a list of spiritual (in the loosest sense) practices, from spending time in quiet reflection, to prayer, to meditation, to reading devotional works, 58 per cent of respondents overall participated in none.
Again, even for those who are more inclined to adopt a spiritual approach in their quest for meaning don’t automatically head to the church door. Of the 42 per cent that did one of these, the most popular were ‘spending time in quiet reflection’ (26 per cent) and ‘feeling a deep connection with nature/the earth’ (18 per cent). By contrast, 22 per cent said they had started ‘doing something creative’, or were doing more, in the period of lockdown (37 per cent in the 18-24 category). Especially as the search is happening most concertedly among the younger (and therefore, less religious) demographics, simply reflecting more on life’s meaning is not being translated into religious reappraisal or reengagement.
How will the pandemic affect religious feeling over the long term?
None of this means that deeper shifts won’t reveal themselves in the long term. Taylor, for instance, argues that religion is on a trajectory not of gradual disappearance but of repeated disruption: “The pattern of modern religious life under ‘secularization’ is one of destabilization and recomposition, a process which can be repeated many times”. This time is surely one when all our institutions and forms of life are destabilized. What will the recomposition look like?
Surely, much depends on what happens next. As we gradually emerge from lockdown, there are many who feel like ‘we are over the hump’, that life will gradually shift back to something like normal. Greek islands trip cancelled this year? Oh well, let’s book Provence for next: science will save us with an effective vaccine within months. That would affirm the sentiment that humanity really holds its future in its own hands. There will still be a case for a grand reset, but that reset will be a reset of the external world rather than our interior lives. Precisely because there is not ‘more to life than this’, so we should work harder to care for each other, and for the natural environment.
Ironically, religious leaders and institutions might unwittingly encourage this resolution. In a desire to address ‘real life’, to be relevant, to keep in step with public concern, they may focus on the immanent questions alone. At the risk of affirming false dichotomies between sacred and secular, it is not irrelevant that the bishops of the Church of England reserved their loudest pandemic commentary for political controversies while they have simultaneously struggled to narrate the moment in spiritual terms.
It is revealing that at this time of universal vulnerability, and while 30 per cent had become more worried about the death of loved ones and 21 per cent were thinking more about death in general, only 1 per cent of respondents said that they had changed their views on the afterlife because of the pandemic. Of course religion is not first or foremost a matter of what happens to you when you die, but if the religious traditions and leaders have nothing to say about that, then they have not addressed one of the biggest questions of the moment.
One possibility is that new religious forms emerge. While congregational social action has been one of the few religious success stories of recent years, it’s future is now uncertain, relying as it often does on face to face relational support. Yet there will be an even greater need, offering the possibility of a shift toward even greater significance within the public square. Will there be a shift away from large public gatherings – whether in a cathedral or a mega-church – toward smaller groups? Will the online revolution cement, such that church attendance will become an irrelevant measure of piety? These are the most tangible and obvious questions - there are surely others that we haven’t even imagined yet.
Religious leaders will be asking themselves Lenin’s famous question: what then is to be done? As with every other group in society, they must remain adaptable in a context where it is far from clear how many of their traditional practices of worship and community will remain possible in the medium term. As much as is changing, however, much remains the same. There is a search for meaning, but COVID-19 will not deliver a ready-made religious revival. The task is to continue to speak meaningfully from their traditions, without assuming that their hearers will know of or understand or have an appetite for their riches.
The words of St Paul come to mind: But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?
You can find the data tables for this research here.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.