The Digitalization of Religion

In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), a global pandemic. Life stopped as people knew it. Work, school, play, and even religious and spiritual gatherings were impacted. The Ministry of Health of Israel, one of the first to close its country’s borders and give out  vaccines, restricted day-to-day activities. At the height of the pandemic, shops, malls, and restaurants had to close. Additionally, social distancing was enforced, and students and employees shifted their learning and work to online. Similar patterns emerged in the United States, though more gradually. Though, mandates for shelter-in-place and mask wearing differed from state to state. Residents exposed to COVID-19 were advised to isolate, sometimes even isolating themselves from family members in the same household. In both countries, daily life changed and face-to-face contact outside of the home greatly decreased. This included religious and spiritual activities. The strain on people of wearing masks and being cautious about going out of the house resulted in a decline in subjective well-being. This is a measure of happiness and life satisfaction, and it declined even as religious devotion increased globally.

As COVID-19 spread, many people across the world have turned to smartphones to stay connected and seek well-being. Religious and spiritual beliefs have been found to promote health-related behaviors and positively impact our mental well-being. However, previous findings indicate that smartphone use can decrease well-being and can negatively impact religious or spiritual goals. However, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that smartphones can be more positive and useful. Smartphones have helped many people and offer a variety of benefits. Users can “virtually” spend time with family and friends (i.e., social use). They can also order groceries, read the news, attend to religious and spiritual needs, and entertain themselves (i.e., process or practical use) without going out. We wanted to know how smartphone use impacted subjective well-being. Our research specifically looked at the well-being of Jews and Christians in countries with the highest smartphone use: Israel and the United States. 

Religiosity and spirituality are closely connected. Religiosity is the amount a person identifies or is involved with a religion. Spirituality is when a person has a goal of pursuing fulfillment and purpose without adopting a particular set of religious beliefs. Previous studies have found both religiosity and spirituality to enhance well-being and quality of life. With the onset of the pandemic, people were turning to religion and spirituality to make sense of the world around them. For instance, being unable to attend church in person was addressed through different religious phone apps. This helped  to restore, maintain, or increase religious observance.

Recent studies have suggested that U.S. Christians continue to believe in God and heaven and maintain their commitment to prayer and attending services. This indicates that religiosity carries more weight than spirituality among those already involved with a religion. At the same time, Israeli Jews have seen a strong sense of independence growth due to digital access. Here, spirituality has gained widespread acceptance. Furthermore, a majority of Israeli Jews (74%) are less religious and do not regularly follow religious Jewish laws. This led us to think that religiosity might be more important to U.S. Christians and that spirituality might be more important to Israeli Jews.

During the height of the pandemic, smartphone use would not likely be enough to enhance subjective well-being. Instead, meaningful smartphone use that aligns with religious or spiritual beliefs might be more effective. Ultimately, this could increase subjective well-being. We believed that religiosity would indirectly impact the impact of smartphone use on the subjective well-being of U.S. Christians, while spirituality will indirectly impact smartphone use on the subjective well-being of Israeli Jews.

To test this, U.S. Christians and Israeli Jews were surveyed between September 12 and October 17, 2020. They answered questions regarding their smartphone use, religiosity, spirituality, and subjective well-being. The final sample consisted of 242 smartphone owners: 104 U.S. Christians and 138 Israel Jews. 

We found that the connection between smartphone use and religiosity improved  subjective well-being among U.S. Christians. We did not see a significant impact from spirituality. For practical use, smartphone apps that help with prayer, reading the Bible, or memorizing scripture are a welcome distraction from difficult situations and can help one relax. For social use, connecting with others in a social network can help provide closeness with God. Smartphone features (e.g., chat, e-mail, call) and video-conferencing apps (e.g., WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom) can help users form prayer groups and connect with family and friends.

For Israeli Jews, spirituality was valued more than religion. Using a smartphone for practical purposes (e.g., relaxation, entertainment) that lacks spiritual significance can diminish subjective well-being. Instead, Israeli Jews looked for ways to overcome pandemic restrictions on routine activities through a spiritual focus. For example, Hebrew-Jewish apps (e.g., My Medi, Music Zen) that strengthen spiritual beliefs through meditation and music can increase feelings of certainty. This can generate a positive outlook on life and bring a certain measure of inner peace.

In summary, our findings show the importance of religiosity and spirituality in the context of smartphone use and subjective well-being. Smartphone use (both process and social use) alone is not sufficient to enhance well-being during a global health crisis. Instead, smartphone use that satisfied religious (for U.S. Christians) or spiritual (for Israeli Jews) needs can improve well-being.    


Written By: Dr. Sidharth Muralidharan

Academic Editor: Physicist

Non-Academic A Grandmother 

Original Paper

• Title: The Digitalization of Religion: Smartphone Use and Subjective Well-Being during COVID-19

• Journal: Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

• Date Published: 09 February 2023

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