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How do faithless people like me make sense of this past year of Covid? | John Harris


When my partner and I filled in our census form, we got to the section about faith, both ticked the “no religion” box, and seemed to think nothing of it. But for an hour or two afterwards, I felt a pang of envy that has occasionally surfaced in the past – this time to do with a year of lockdown, the sudden fear of serious illness and death, and the sense of all of it being wholly random and senseless. Was this, I wondered, how religious believers were feeling? Or were they able to give their recent experiences at least a semblance of coherence and meaning?

Like millions of other faithless people, I have not even the flimsiest of narratives to project on to what has happened, nor any real vocabulary with which to talk about the profundities of life and death. Beyond a handful of close friends and colleagues and my immediate family, there has been no community of like minds with whom I have talked about how I am feeling or ritualistically marked the passing of all these grinding weeks and months.

Even now, with restrictions soon to be lifted, the chance of any shared reflection on the last year’s events still seems slim. Secularised societies do not really work like that. And Britain is a perfect example, as proved by a prospect that somehow feels both exciting and absurd: a return to shops, pub gardens and “normality”, and people being encouraged to make merry as if nothing has happened.

In the first phase of the pandemic, there were clear signs that a lot of us needed much more. Across 95 countries, Googling the word “prayer” increased by 50%, surpassing the level associated with Christmas and Ramadan. In April 2020, a service led by the Archbishop of Canterbury from his kitchen table drew 5 million viewers, described by the Church of England as the largest congregation in its history. And since then, as churches, mosques, synagogues and temples have been at the heart of some communities’ Covid experiences, the symbols and rituals of religion have made very visible comebacks. They were seen again in last week’s doorstep vigil, complete with candles and massed silence, for the people lost to Covid.

A few days ago I had a long conversation with John Sabapathy, a medieval historian at University College London. We talked about how the Covid-19 era compares to the Black Death of the 14th century, and the ways that societies and communities collectively responded to the latter – from the “fraternities” in Italian cities dedicated to caring for and burying the dead to the processions in English towns and cities staged as both massed acts of penitence and a way of supposedly warding off the plague. Sabapathy pointed me in particular to the experiences of European Jews, who suffered death and were also blamed for the Black Death’s spread – but, according to one historian of the time, “did not cease thinking in terms of community and rebirth”.

Today, a mixture of individualism and collective denial leaves many of us without the ideas or language to conceive of Covid like that. And besides, even if we wanted, once rules allow us to try and make shared sense of our recent experiences in the company of others, where would we do it? “When it comes to mortality, we have relatively few social institutions that allow us to talk about it, and see each other through it,” Sabapathy said.

Rediscovering such things need not be a matter of finding God. As Sabapathy told me, perhaps the key contrast between the past and present – and between people who still belong to religious communities and those of us who don’t – lies in the 21st century’s lack of opportunities for people to simply come together. “You can’t just transpose the religious context, where everything is explained by some ultimate redemption,” he said. “But there’s also meaning in social solidarity.” Religion, after all, often comes down to “people doing things together, whatever the transcendental meaning attributed to it: they sing, they pray, they eat together”.

Long before Covid’s arrival, it was clear this was something too many people were losing touch with. Through decades of secularisation, cheered on by irreligious liberals, not nearly enough thought was ever given to what might take on the social roles of a church. The demise of the factory and the collectivised lives that went with it marked another loss. And now, long years of cuts have obliterated many of the shared spaces we had left, from libraries and Sure Starts to community centres.

The pandemic has shone unforgiving light on the consequences. A British Academy report on “the long-term societal impacts of Covid-19” found that the age group most likely to experience loneliness during the first lockdown was 16- to 24-year-olds. In the past decade, spending in England and Wales on youth services has been cut by 70%. As life after Covid unfolds, such choices will look not just reckless but downright cruel.

Three years ago, Anthony Costello – a former director of maternal and child health at the World Health Organization – published a book titled The Social Edge, focused on the so-called “sympathy groups” that sit between the state and the individual. “Religious or therapy groups have always offered solace and peace and relaxation and friendship,” he wrote. “They help us in our spiritual quest for meaning and wellbeing.” Church groups, choirs, sport and dance clubs, he went on, “bring harmony and relaxation to tired minds” and give people “a greater sense of being alive”.

Costello proposed using similar structures to tackle loneliness in old age, prisoner recidivism, “stress in motherhood” and much more. Now, in the context of Covid and its long-term social effects, this sounds like something millions of us might sooner or later need. Whatever our experiences, what we have all been through is huge. And as an act of post-pandemic healing, encouraging the growth of such initiatives would surely not be too hard. Fund and create public spaces – parks, halls, arts venues, meeting rooms – and revive the most grassroots aspects of local government, and you would create roughly the right conditions.

What is currently going wrong is clear. A recent poll commissioned by the Red Cross found that a third of Britons feel less connected to their community than they did before the pandemic, and just under 40% do not think their feelings of loneliness will go away once restrictions are lifted.

For many of us, life without God has turned out to be life without fellowship and shared meaning – and in the midst of the most disorientating, debilitating crisis most of us have ever known, that social tragedy now cries out for action.



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