Prayer search intensity on Google rose around March 11, the date when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 a pandemic. In Northern Europe, few people searched for prayer before COVID-19. There were smaller increases in Northern Africa are due to the high initial levels of prayer searches. The largest absolute increases occur in South America and Africa, some of the most religious regions of the world.
The rise in prayer shares after March 11 (Declaration of Pandemic Day) is larger in countries that also had their first registered case or death, although not significantly larger.
The tendency for people to pray, even when the COVID-19 had not arrived in their countries is also evident in the global spread of Google searches on “pray for Italy”, one of the top search terms within the topic “prayer” Italy was one of the first countries outside China that was severely hit by the COVID-19. While Italy was among those who searched most intensely for “pray for Italy”, the searches for prayer were even larger in Ethiopia, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Albania, and Georgia, which were not yet infected by the COVID-19 at the time.
The increase in prayer searches was 2-3 times larger for the 40% most religious countries (including e.g. Morocco, Cameroon, Columbia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago). Using alternative measures of religiosity based on questions asked in global surveys conducted well before the COVID-19 documents that the rise in prayer searches is larger in countries where a larger share of the population reply that they prayed more, went more to church, or answered that God is important in their lives.
The 20% least religious countries do not experience significant increases in prayer searches. The largest group of these least religious countries are Northern European countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Austria, and Germany.
Prayer search intensity rose for Christians, particularly Catholics, and Muslims, but not for Hindus or Buddhists. Hindus and Buddhists are most likely in possession of more internal security due spiritual discipline and meditation practices affording more security and self-confidence. The only country defined as Hindu in the sample is India, countries defined as Buddhist are Japan, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. The denominations are defined based on there being at least 25% adherents of the particular denomination in a country.
Global Google searches for God, Allah, Jesus, Mohammad, Bible, Qu’ran, Buddha, Vishnu, and Shiva also rose in March 2020. For the latter three search terms, though, the rise in March is not larger than other holy events during the year, such as Buddha’s birthday or Hindu holy days for Lord Shiva or Lord Vishnu. Thus, while Hindu and Buddhist traditions also use religion for coping, these traditions seem more focused on practice and celebration than coping.
Academic research argues that religion provides a sense of existential security, which is most needed among vulnerable populations, especially those living in poorer nations, facing personal survival-threatening risks . One could therefore have expected that religion is used more extensively to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic in poorer, more unequal, and more insecure states. This is not the case. Prayer searches rise more in poorer, more unequal, and more insecure countries, and that this is exclusively due to the higher religiosity in these countries.
Google searches for prayer may rise for a reason unrelated to religious coping. Since churches closed down to prevent the disease from spreading, part of the intensified prayer searches may be replacing physical church attendance. Instead, the main type of religiosity used for coping is intrinsic religiosity, which includes private prayer. It was felt that the pandemic would most likely have resulted in more churchgoers had the churches been open, just as experienced in the USA after the 9/11 attacks. The theory on religious coping suggests, though, that the rise in private prayer would be larger.
It was found that searches for prayer were due to religious coping and not merely a shift from physical church to online church. First, data on the specific contents of the internet searches reveal that searches for topics related to “internet church” also rose, but compared to the rise in prayer searches, the increase is negligible. Second, the searches on prayer continue to rise long after church closures. Third, the rise in prayer searches does not only occur on Sundays, where most services are held. While the rise on Sundays is higher than other days, the search shares rise on all days of the week, except Fridays. Fourth, prayer searches rise more in countries with higher economic and political uncertainty, which is reconcilable with the religious coping literature.
Google searches on prayer indicate the need for intensity of prayer in real time. In March 2020 – when the pandemic was declared – Google searches for prayer rose to the highest level ever recorded. The rise amounted to a quarter of the fall in Google searches for flights, which dropped dramatically as air traffic was shut down in an effort to enforce social distancing. 80% of the countries in the sample experienced rising prayer intensity. The remaining 20% were less religious countries, such as the Northern European countries.
The rising prayer intensity is a result of religious coping: When faced with uncertainty and adversity, humans have a tendency to use religion for comfort and explanation. The results showl that many people from across the globe experience emotional distress in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they use religion to cope. The use of religion for coping is independent of whether countries are rich or poor, enjoy high or low government consumption, or are more or less unequal. But in general, prayer intensity rose more in more religious countries.
Previous levels of religiosity
The analysis includes the following measures of religiosity before COVID-19. These are used
Prayer 2019: Average Google searches for prayer as a share of total Google searches from January 1 2019 to December 31 2019.
The remaining measures of religiosity are based on answers to questions asked by the World Values Survey and European Values Study. These are surveys distributed to a total of 505,000 individuals across the globe over the period 1981-2014. The two surveys ask the same questions and the responses are therefore comparable.
Moments of prayer: The share of respondents in a country who answered yes to the question “Do you take some moments of prayer, meditation or contemplation or something like that?”.
Ever prayed: This variable is based on the question “Apart from weddings and funerals, about how often do you pray these days?” Respondents can answer “More than once a week”, “Once a week”, “Once a month”, “Only on special holy days”, “Once a year”, “Less often”, or “Never, practically never”. The variable “Ever prayed” measures the share of respondents in a country who answered anything but “Never, practically never”. This variable was only asked in Muslim countries.
Weekly pray: The share of respondents in a country who answered “More than once a week” or “Once a week” to the above question.
God: This variable is based on the question “How important is God in your life? Please use this scale to indicate. 10 means \very important” and 1 means \not at all important”. The variable “God” measures the share of respondents in a country who answered anything but “not at all important”.
Very God: The share of respondents in a country who answered \very important” to the above question.
Ever church: This variable is based on the question “Apart from weddings and funerals, about how often do you attend religious services these days?” Respondents can answer “More than once a week”, “Once a week”, “Once a month”, “Only on special holy days”, “Once a year”, “Less often”, or “Never, practically never”. The variable “Ever church” measures the share of respondents in a country who answered anything but “Never, practically never”.
Weekly church: The share of respondents in a country who answered “More than once a week” or “Once a week” to the above question.
This article is second part of a truncated summary of an article titled, In Crisis, We Pray:Religiosity and the COVID-19 Pandemic authored by Jeanet Sinding Bentzen, University of Copenhagen, CEPR, CAGE, April 2020. Full article may be found on Dropbox.
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