Opinion: Hope and religion in a time of crisis: evidence from Colombia and South Africa

The following opinion piece co-authored by Adjunct Fellow Victor Counted, School of Social Sciences, was first published with full links on The Conversation (opens in a new window).

Strict lock-down regulations, that have been implemented during the COVID-19, pandemic have broad implications for well-being. In many countries, businesses and other kinds of operations had to adjust or close. Unemployment rates rose and economic activity slowed dramatically.

Alongside concerns about financial security, stay-at-home orders have disrupted daily routines and physically isolated citizens from people and places that were part of their everyday lives. These conditions have led to much psychological distress around the world. However, people who live in countries where conditions were already challenging before the pandemic could be particularly hard hit.

Social and behavioural science research into people’s experiences and behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic has mostly been done in settings where resources are more widely available to support the well-being of local residents. Less is known about how the public health crisis has affected people living in vulnerable contexts where the negative effects of the pandemic could be magnified.

We conducted studies in Colombia and South Africa to identify mechanisms that might help buffer the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on well-being. Specifically, we looked at the roles of hope and religious coping in supporting well-being for people observing stringent lockdown regulations.

What we found could be useful to providers of psychological services who are supporting people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hope and religion

In the field of positive psychology, hope is a character strength that refers to a person’s capacity to find ways to reach their goals. It includes the belief or confidence that one has about his or her ability to achieve those goals. Hope may be a trait – a tendency of an individual to be hopeful – and a state – a current feeling of hopefulness.

Research with over 12,000 participants has shown that hope can have positive effects on multiple areas of human flourishing. It is related to better psychological well-being, physical health, life satisfaction, and purpose in life, as well as lower risk of cancer, fewer sleep problems, and reduced risk of all-cause mortality.

Another key concept we used in our study was religious coping. This refers to a way in which people respond to stress by drawing from religious resources. Positive religious coping has been associated with improved well-being and personal growth amid life stressors.

But not all forms of religious coping are positive. Negative religious coping (spiritual struggles) reflects a less secure relation to the sacred, an ominous view of the world, and struggles with the self and others. It is associated with negative aspects of well-being among people facing stressful situations.

In our study (opens in a new window), we found consistent evidence that higher levels of hope (both trait and state variants) and positive religious coping were linked with higher levels of well-being. Higher levels of negative religious coping were associated with worse well-being. Although well-being was highest when levels of hope were high, the association between hope and well-being was contingent on levels of religious coping.

We found (opens in a new window) that when hope was in short supply, well-being tended to be higher when:

  • people dealt with stressors during the COVID-19 pandemic by drawing on their relationship with the sacred, and
  • they experienced less tension, conflict, and struggles in their religious faith.

As discussed in another study, religious tensions or struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic could come from various sources. For example, the lockdown in South Africa deprived people of access to places of worship and their broader religious communities and social environments. This disruption to people’s lives may have strained spiritual connection with the divine. It also thwarted opportunities for people to engage in faith-based activities in places that typically served to promote well-being.

What should be done

Clinicians and providers of psychological services should be alert to how religion can be a potential resource – as well as a source of potential struggle – for people.

More generally, we should consider research findings on hope – and the role of religion – when discussing how to flourish amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These resources could also be used to promote well-being in the aftermath of the public health crisis.


20 November 2020

Media Unit

The Conversation