In times of trial and trouble, many Americans turn to the Bible for encouragement. And with good reason, according to a new study. In the middle of a global pandemic, a contentious election, and social unrest, the American Bible Society (ABS), with assistance from Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program, found a strong correlation between Scripture reading and hope.
Frequent Bible readers rated themselves 33 points more hopeful than irregular Scripture readers did in two surveys of more than 1,000 people done six months apart. The study also found that people are more hopeful when they read Scripture more frequently.
On a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the most hopeful, Americans who report reading the Bible three or four times per year scored 42; people who read monthly scored 59; weekly, 66; and multiple times per week, 75.
People who never read the Bible are slightly more hopeful than those who rarely read it, according to the study. But non-Bible-readers are about 5 points less hopeful than those who read Scripture on a monthly basis.
Bible reading—along with other forms of community and discipleship, such as going to church or participating in a small group—appear to contribute to people’s sense of well-being and happiness, said Tyler VanderWeele, director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
“The churches have an important and profound role in contributing to people’s well-being in general—and especially so during this time,” he said.
The findings are consistent with other studies on the impact of religious affiliation and human flourishing, according to VanderWeele. People who attend church and read their Bibles tend to be happier, are less likely to die by suicide, and have a greater sense of purpose in their lives.
This two-phase study is unique, though, because it assessed people before and after the coronavirus pandemic hit the US. The first survey was in January and the second was in June, when the total number of confirmed cases passed 2.5 million and the World Health Organization tallied more than 125,000 American deaths.
A survey highlighting the impact of COVID-19 wasn’t the original plan, said John Plake, director of ministry intelligence for ABS. But the researchers recognized that along with all the bad things brought by the pandemic, they were presented with an opportunity.
In January 2020, Plake and his colleagues at the American Bible Society decided to expand the number of questions they asked in their 10th annual State of the Bible study. They had been looking at a human flourishing measure developed at Harvard and decided to include some questions about security, happiness, and mental health in the study of Bible use.
They gathered information from more than 1,000 people and started to process that information, as they had in previous years.
Before they finished, COVID-19 cases started skyrocketing. The virus spread rapidly enough to be considered a pandemic, the National Basketball Association suspended its season, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged people not to meet in large groups.
The ABS researchers, poised to publish their study of Bible usage, had another thought: What if, instead of releasing their new data the week of Easter, they held on to it and did a second survey? They could gain critical insight into how a national crisis impacts the way people engage with the Bible—and how engaging with the Bible affects people in a time of crisis.
The researchers soon realized that since they used the human flourishing measures in the January study, they had inadvertently set a comparison point to measure how people were doing during COVID-19.
VanderWeele was on board. He said the study is important because it helps reveal the human toll of the COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns—something that can’t be measured by stock market data or gross domestic product. The Human Flourishing Program partnered with ABS for the second study in June.
The findings were published in October in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in a report co-authored by VanderWeele, Plake, Jeffery Fulks of ABS, and Matthew Lee of Harvard. “National Well-Being Measures Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Online Samples” shows that happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, feelings of meaning and purpose, and financial and material stability all declined sharply between January and June. The virus racked the country, and shutdowns took an economic toll and isolated people in their homes.
The study confirms what everyone knows, for the most part. Financial and material stability, as would be expected, took the heaviest blow for many people, falling by 16.7 percent. VanderWeele notes, though, that the data showed wide variance in economic impact. Some people didn’t lose their jobs and saved money by staying home, putting them in a better relative financial position, while others suffered greatly from the economic shutdown.
Happiness and life satisfaction dropped by 9.6 percent among respondents, and mental and physical health decreased by 7.4 percent.
The study also found that social connectedness didn’t decline as much as one might expect. This could be because, even though many people were in lockdown, they built closer relationships with those in their immediate circles.
VanderWeele’s own family spent more time together, and his kids started communicating with grandparents regularly over the internet.
“I think that this period has showed a period of reflection of what really matters in life,” VanderWeele said. “From a Christian perspective, one often has growth through suffering.”
But the most interesting data, from the viewpoint of ABS, was how the Bible, church, and Christian disciplines seemed to help people through this dark period. This data showed that the decline in the measures of human flourishing were less pronounced in people who were reading their Bibles regularly and participating in church, either in person or online.
Scripture engagement seems to have peaked right after COVID-19 started—the highest it’s been in years—but then it dropped significantly toward the end of June. This is a common trend when people go through trauma, according to Scott Ross, who works on trauma healing with churches at ABS. While many will turn to the Bible for answers in unsettling times, they often stop reading faithfully after a while. What’s happening now looks like society-wide response to trauma, in a way.
But the evidence shows that Americans who actively engage with the Bible and in corporate worship score higher on every measure of human flourishing, including better mental and physical health and a deeper sense of character and virtue. They even have a greater sense of financial and material stability compared to those who don’t attend church or engage with the Bible.
Christians are also measurably more hopeful. On the 1-to-100 scale, non-Christians scored about 50, non-practicing Christians scored 57, and Christians who regularly participate in the life of a local congregation scored 66.
The connection is only a correlation. The researchers have not shown that Bible reading or Christian worship causes human flourishing, only that the two things happen in related ways. Nevertheless, they think the data gives a better sense of what healthy society looks like and gives people practical and social reasons to encourage church and Bible study.
“I think the State of the Bible showed me empirically everything I knew intuitively and existentially,” Ross said.
He believes churches can use that information to make a difference in ministering to people.
“What we’re seeing is that as people are just given the opportunity to share and listen to each other and to process and to engage on Scripture in a group setting, we’re seeing those trauma symptoms come down.”
Adam MacInnis is a journalist based in Nova Scotia, Canada.
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COVID-19 Hurts. But the Bible Brings Hope.