The survey data is still being collected, but from communion practices in South Korea to attitudes around vaccination in the heart of Ohio Amish Country, the intersection of faith and science in this time of COVID is being studied in a series of research efforts aiming to uncover how religious belief is shaping the response to the global pandemic.
The work, funded by the Templeton Religion Trust and the International Research Network for Science and Belief in Society that is at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., is already yielding insights according to scholars trying to untangle public perceptions surrounding the science relating to the pandemic as well as the response of faith communities looking to stay healthy and help others to do the same.
Denison University Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Shiri Noy has been examining how religious and secular Americans view kindness in the context of COVID-19. Her project is looking at how science and faith are mobilized as coping mechanisms with uncertainty and how views of kindness, compassion and helping are viewed in the context of the uncertainty within the pandemic.
“It builds on my substantive work on science and religion on one hand, and my methodological expertise in mixed methods, and the really unique and unusual context of COVID-19 to ask how uncertainty shapes the role of science and faith in thinking about kindness, human dignity, and social relationships,” said Noy in a public statement related to the project.
Working alongside Tim O’Brien who is a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Noy originally started out by looking at existing survey data about science and religion, but that previous research they reviewed didn’t really ask directly about either the pandemic or the perception of conflict between faith and science. The scholars are now working to collect their own data that capture the nuances that varies by type of faith community and even by country when it comes to science knowledge as well as views on religion, she said during a podcast conducted by the International Research Network for Science and Belief in Society.
In her previous research, 43% of Americans hold the traditional perspective in that they know least about science, but they report being more religious than average. A total of 36% hold what Noy calls a modern perspective in that they prefer science to religion and appreciate the use of science and are not religious. Then there is a 21% post-secular group that values science over religion but prefers religious perspectives on some topics.
Noy is currently collecting quantitative survey data and will continue to collect this data alongside in-depth interview data through this coming summer on the topic of kindness and COVID. The statistics will provide the basis for an analysis to advance empirical and theoretical understandings of how uncertainty shapes and mobilizes understandings of kindness and kindness behaviors across belief communities.
Related to the project, Noy will likely offer an upper-level course on kindness at Denison based on the research, where the course will draw on this exciting new source of data. The course “will allow us to consider how sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and theologians have thought about kindness, though focusing on contemporary understandings and sociological insights,” she said in a university announcement on her work.
Last year, Noy was awarded a Denison University Research Faculty grant that will allow her to make some ethnographic observations about kindness once in-person activities resume.
Another set of research dubbed, “Communion and Contagion in South Korea,” is being done by Heather Mellquist, who is a postdoctoral research fellow at Arizona State University and focuses on the critical social role Christianity has played in social and political responses to COVID-19 in Seoul, South Korea. Churches there have reportedly become COVID clusters as large church services were held despite the ongoing pandemic. For Mellquist, her focus is on the wide range of church responses to the pandemic. The goal is to capture the experience of Korea pastors and lay Christians during the pandemic.
Two other sociologists from West Virginia University are working with data from Amish and Mennonite settlements to understand the COVID-19 related believes and behaviors in their communities.
“We’re interested in how these Holmes County, Ohio, communities are or are not doing things like social distancing. We are examining what their religious services look like and whether or not they are following CDC guidelines,” said Rachel Stein, an associate professor of sociology at West Virginia University, who leads the research project, in a university announcement on the work. “We’re also interested in looking at how health misinformation gets into and spreads throughout the community and how other rituals, like weddings, funerals and visiting have been altered – or not. Visiting with neighbors and friends, in particular, is a ritual that holds Amish communities together. That face-to-face interaction is important in maintaining cohesive community connections.”
The research team is trying to pin down whether the settlements’ closed nature and cohesive organizational connections are associated with more health misinformation and less social distancing. They will use community newspapers, church directories, local health department data and public health policies from the local government to track pandemic-related behaviors, from mask-wearing to rumor-spreading.
It is still early days, but the team is said to have already seen some differences in practices of the Amish and Mennonite communities in relation to how technology is used for gatherings and communication. While Amish restrict the use of technology and are not relying on Zoom like some Mennonites, it will be interesting to see what other differences there are in how each group views the pandemic.
A fourth study underway is looking at the differences within the Jewish community and how religiosity plays a role in pandemic response — offering a new set of findings on the connection between religion and health. The team is led by Steven Pirutinsky, who is the director of research at the Center for Anxiety and associate professor of Clinical Social Work at Touro University. The goals are to understand the implications of religious and scientific beliefs on the social and psychological responses to the pandemic and public health measures.
In a separate study Pirutinsky published in The Journal of Religion and Health, he found that while stress related to the pandemic has been highly correlated with weight gain for many, the same is not true for deeply religious people such as those in the Orthodox Jewish community.
“Religion provides alternative avenues for coping with stress,” Dr. Pirutinsky told 5TJT, a local news website. He surveyed 983 Orthodox Jews between March and May of 2020. Among those surveyed, people who were more religious were less likely to report that they gained weight during the first months of the pandemic compared to those who were less religious. The findings suggest a mental health component to religion.
While the data are being tallied, the relationship between religious faith and adherence to public health protocols, and even mental health are multi-faceted. Despite this complexity, it still worth digging below the perceptions at the surface, according to sociologists, who have been trying to provide a more complete picture of how religion and science perceptions impact the world at large.