Luke Coppen

Will coronavirus hasten the demise of religion – or herald its revival?

The lockdown is testing believers of all stripes

On Saturday evening, Christians will prepare for an Easter unlike any other. With every church closed, from St Paul’s Cathedral to the meanest country chapel, Anglican worshippers will be directed to a website where lay leaders, priests and bishops will hold a ‘virtual vigil’ ending at dawn on Easter Sunday. In Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of Catholics in England and Wales, a deacon will sing the great Easter proclamation known as the Exsultet. But this year, when the final syllable dies away, he will look out into the nave and see row upon row of vacant seats. It’s faith, but without the faithful.

It’s happening the world over. This week Jewish families were forced to celebrate the Passover Seder without guests for the first time. Regent’s Park mosque has cancelled all major events and advised Muslims to pray at home. For those who think it’s difficult enough to keep faith in a secular country like Britain, the fear isn’t so much the lockdown as what comes after. Will people get out of the habit of worship? Might faith — already fast declining in Britain — enter a downhill slump?

Christian thinkers are split into two broad camps: those who believe the crisis will lead to a religious revival and those who think it will hasten the demise of organised religion. Resurgence or ruination, which one will it be?

The case for resurgence could be summed up by the phrase ‘There are no atheists in foxholes’. No one’s sure who said it first, but it could date back to a sermon by a chaplain during the Battle of Bataan in 1942. That would be fitting, because the second world war is central to the reasoning of those who foresee a Christian renaissance. The Covid-19 outbreak, they say, is the western world’s first experience of mass death since 1945.

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