By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
“Faith over fear” is a common saying in Christian circles. It’s becoming a mantra in recent days, as pastors, denominational leaders, and theologians try to navigate what it means to be religious during an unprecedented and unrelenting pandemic. But is that really true? Are religious people less likely to be fearful than the religiously unaffiliated? Does frequent church attendance serve as an antidote to panic and uncertainty? As is often the case in social sciences, the answer is a qualified maybe.
The Chapman Survey of American Fears was published recently on the Association of Religion Data Archives. It was a survey of just over a thousand people per year from 2014 to 2018. It’s unique because it asks about fear in a staggering number of scenarios. For instance, in the 2018 wave, it asks how fearful respondents are of fifty-three different things. This battery included threats like nuclear attack, needles, flying, an economic collapse, and yes – even a pandemic. It also included a host of quests about religious belief, behavior, and belonging that helps us understand how religion mitigates or exacerbates feelings of fear.
Because the sample is relatively small, I have to look at broad religious categories – Protestants, Catholics, and the religiously unaffiliated. I calculated the share of each who say that they were “afraid” or “very afraid” of each of the 53 items in the battery.
What do Americans fear the most? The clear outliers are cyber-terrorism and a financial collpase. Biological warfare and a terrorist attack are next in line, then a concern about personal data being tracked by the government or private business. It’s notable that all of these problems are decidedly political. In comparison, natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes are fifteen to twenty points lower than these political fears.
Where is there a large gap between the religious and the non-religious? Clearly, spiritual matters are not a source of fear for many “nones.” The largest gaps appear on items like “Hell” and “Satan.” It’s notable that the overall fear for the nones really doesn’t shift on spiritual items – they are just as afraid of God as they are of demons. It does look like Christians are not that concerned with armageddon, though.
Beyond this, the data paint a clear picture – Catholics are more afraid in almost every scenario compared to Protestants or the religiously unaffiliated. I cannot find a single instance when Catholics are significantly less afraid of something than a “none.” And there are many instances where Catholics show a much higher level of fear than Protestants (Hell, Satan, Technology). For reasons I can’t fully explain, Catholics are a concerned bunch.
But, does being in the pews on a regular basis alter fear perception? Consistently hearing the biblical admonition to “not be afraid” might actually have a psychological effect on the overall level of fear being expressed. The sample was divided into those who said that they never attended and those who attended at least once a week.
The results here are clearly mixed. There are lots of instances in which the overall level of fear among the two attendance groups is small or non-existent. There are areas, however, where regular attendance does seem to allay some fears. Specifically, weekly attenders are less worried about a financial collapse, the United States getting involved in a world war, civil unrest, and a pandemic.
But, what areas are weekly church attenders more afraid than those who never attend? It should come as no surprise that in spiritual matters, the religiously devoted seem to be more afraid. However, there are other topics where the weekly attenders are far more concerned than those who never come to church – many seem to be partisan in nature. For instance, a weekly attender is nearly twice as afraid of illegal immigration as a never attender. And, while nearly zero never attenders are afraid of using a bathroom with a transgender person, it’s sixteen percent of those who go to church weekly.
To take a broader, more systematic view of faith and fear, I put together a simple model. The dependent variable is the total number of fears that each individual had. I interacted religious tradition with church attendance (along with some basic controls) to see if going to church more often does lead to lower overall levels of fear.
For Catholics, the answer is unequivocally no. The model predicts that a Catholic who never attends Mass has a total of sixteen fears. That’s not statistically different from a Catholic who attends Mass more than once a week. However, the same is not true for Protestants. Among Protestants who never attend church, their total number of fears is no different than Catholics at just about sixteen. However, as a Protestant increases their frequency of worship attendance their total number of fears begins to decline. Among Protestants who attend more than once a week, the model predicts just 11.5 fears – which is statistically significant from both low attending Protestants and all Catholics.
In some ways, the rise of COVID-19 has made me think carefully about partisan polarization and some of its causes. I think that people vote differently, at least in part, because they just don’t live in the same world. While liberals are often deeply concerned with the lack of regulations surroundings guns, conservatives would be more afraid if guns were regulated. Does being religious make someone afraid of different things? Or does a specific psychological disposition toward a fearful worldview also drive people to become members of a specific faith community? This data cannot answer that question. But, what it has made clear to me is this: two people can see the same thing happen and one can be paralyzed with anxiety, while the other can shrug their shoulders and go about their day. And, the data cannot tell us what people do with that feeling of uncertainty – some may lick the floor, while others may hoard toilet paper.