Religion can give families strength and bolster morale, but so too can other types of communities
I was considering various topics to write about this week and was asking my family for their thoughts. My 16-year-old son appeared at the door of the kitchen, and my first question was, “What will I write about this week?” Usually, I get an incredulous look (as if to say, why are you asking me?) and a shrug of the shoulders, but that morning, with impeccable timing and delivery he said, “Ask Jesus” and then put his earbuds in, signalling the end of the conversation.
He may have been facetious in his reply, because we are not a religious family, but his response got me thinking in a whole new direction. I wondered what role religion and faith had for families in the lockdown and did it make a difference in how families coped with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
As a microcosm of families in Ireland, some of the folks who follow me on Facebook took the time to comment on this theme and there was a real mix of opinion, from those who felt that religion and faith had no place in their coping, to those who have found real comfort in some of the structures of organised religion (like weekly mass, even online) and those who feel they have cultivated a personal sense of faith, independently of organised religion.
For example, the experience of stopping to celebrate mass, marking Sunday, has stopped the days and weeks bleeding into one and another for some families. Following religious practices has also increased the “togetherness” for some families. I thought it was interesting that some noted the benefit of community and solidarity more than, perhaps, shared religious beliefs.
Perhaps that is why religions are helpful, because they do deliver that idea of a single path. Moreover, you are sharing that path with like-minded individuals giving a strong feeling of community. Like I mentioned, I am not religious and yet, when things are a struggle, I find that community and social support are critical to my wellbeing. I think that is why I took heart from the overwhelming positive sharing about what is giving people meaning in the pandemic, that I wrote about last week.
Indeed, I really struggled to comprehend the anti-lockdown protest in Dublin at the weekend. I noted a profound sense of disconnect that I felt with those who protested. The concept of us being one nation pulling together to deal with the impact of Covid-19 has been supportive for me, and protests like the one on Saturday are a real indication of the fact that we are not all pulling in the one direction. Social cohesion, to my mind, is critical to surviving both the virus, and the impact that it is having. Maybe there was a time, in Ireland, when faith and religion could be the key to that, but I really don’t feel that is the case anymore.
Looking more broadly, I didn’t find any research on the impact of religion and faith on family coping in pandemics, but I did come across a range of research that has looked at how faith and religion impact families generally. I think I had expected the literature to suggest that religion had an almost universally positive effect on family life, but actually it was a bit more mixed.
The majority of literature does show that being part of an organised religion does increase family cohesion. It may, for example, give a clearer sense of community, as well as guiding parents on their role and responsibilities, both within their own relationship and as parents. Often it can support the emotional stability of a family unit, especially in difficult or distressing times. Generally, the studies found that parents who are religious report stronger relationships with their children.
The sense of morality that underpins most religions can sometimes be a negative. Where those moral principles are stronger than the family bond, they can lead families to ostracise or reject members who don’t conform to those moral standards. One US study found that conservative Christian families are more likely to use corporal punishment. Another found that the sense of religious obedience expected within families may also reduce children’s autonomy.
In truth, then, we can’t conclude anything in particular about faith and religion and their relative importance in helping us to cope with the pandemic. Ultimately it comes down to each family to find the thing that gives strength and bolsters the morale of all the family members.
Finding meaning in life requires us to focus on higher ideals, something other and greater than ourselves. I think I hoped, as part of my own search for meaning in the “stuckness” of our current lives, that the something other and greater, might be more clearly evident in religious faith. It seems I will have to keep searching. I like to think I amn’t on my own with that search. There are plenty of families out there who are also trying to work it all out. That is also a community and that will do.