Why the COVID-19 pandemic made some Australians ditch religion and others turn towards it – ABC News

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COVID-19 has changed the way we connect to the world around us. It's impacted our relationships with family and friends, with our workplaces, and just about every other aspect of our lives.
The pandemic has also impacted our relationship with religion.
It's turned some people towards faith or deepened their connection with the one they already had.
But for others, COVID was the catalyst for turning away from their religion altogether.
Sydney student Satara Uthayakumaranm says she went through an "existential crisis" during the first years of the pandemic.
The 20-year-old, a devout Anglican who grew up attending church, suddenly began to question her faith and the existence of God.
She says prior to the pandemic, she was comfortable "just believing and going along with the traditions of the church" without questioning anything.
But not connecting face-to-face with her church community during pandemic closures triggered her doubts.
"It was the fact that a lot of people's lives [were] being lost. [I thought], 'How could a God have allowed something like that?'" she says.
Spending time away from congregations also gave her more time to read spiritual texts beyond the Bible, which sparked questions about the Anglican Church.
Satara, who has Tamil heritage, started to think about how she and her family were frequently the only parishioners of colour, even though the current archbishop of the Anglican Church in Sydney is Sri Lankan.
She says they would often "look like the odd ones out" within congregations.
She also didn't appreciate the lack of women in leadership roles.
"The Anglican Church in Sydney rejects the ordination of women as priests and bishops, which struck me as misogynistic, backwards and frankly unchristian," she says.
"It did come to a point where I was very seriously considering perhaps not identifying with anything and giving up or cutting ties [with Christianity]."
These days she doesn't describe herself as a Christian, but says there's something "bigger than us" out there.
Satara is one of the many Australians who, in the last decade, has decided against calling themselves Christian.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2021 people who identified as Christian dropped below 50 per cent — to 43.9 per cent — for the first time.
The ABC's Religion & Ethics portal is home to reporting on religion, ethical discussion and inspiring stories of faith and belief.
In 2016, the figure was 52 per cent.
The number of people identifying as non-religious also rose in 2021, to 39 per cent, or 10 million people, up from 30 per cent in 2016.
For Satara, leaving her traditional beliefs behind has allowed her to be "open to anything".
She says she now sees "God through a different lens" and not through the traditional Christian view.
"I came to realise that it was OK to not see God in such clear-cut terms anymore. I think that is something that's actually quite beautiful."
While many Australians have stopped identifying with one religion, they have adopted a new openness to other people's beliefs.
In 2021, McCrindle study found almost half of all Australians are extremely or very open to being in a spiritual conversation about views that differ from their own. 
Satara experienced this openness firsthand.
Amid declining Christianity and growing atheism, these minority religions are rising faster than ever.
In a search for answers, she wrote letters to two top Christian figures – the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the head of the Episcopalian Church, Bishop Michael Curry.
Much to her surprise, both replied, and in a way that made her feel she wasn't being judged about her questioning.
"Getting responses from them [helped me] come back to something similar [to believing in God] but in a different form," she says.
While her faith in Christianity wasn't restored, she now describes herself as a "hopeful agnostic".
Unlike Satara, other Australians drew closer to their faith during the pandemic.
According to the McCrindle study, one third of Australians have begun to think more about God since COVID began, and three in 10 say they've been praying more.
Almost half have thought more about the meaning of life and their own mortality.
This was the case for motivational coach Alana Mai Mitchell, who found a new sense of spirituality during the pandemic.
During the most difficult times during the outbreak, the 36-year-old says she found herself looking "inward".
In the thick of it, she would feel anxious travelling to work because of the high infection rate. It was taking a toll on her mental health.
She decided to try meditating and practising yoga online in her living room. It worked.
Alana says not only did it help her to manage her health, it also set her on a new course: a "spiritual journey".
"I handed my life to a higher power… My ego is not in charge anymore," she says.
Since setting out on her journey, she's come to the new conclusion that "there is a greater power, a higher power".
"Some may call it God, some may call it unity consciousness. [It's] a divine power that is expressing itself in the universe and we are vehicles of that expression."
For Egyptian-American poet and writer Yahia Lababidi, the pandemic has provided time to reflect on his religion, Islam.
In COVID's early days, he found solace in reading the Qu'ran, and deepening his understanding of the significance of the pandemic.
"[It helped me] to accept that whatever was happening was destined. All I could do was be in a state to receive it," Yahia tells ABC RN's Soul Search.
He says pausing and seeing the world as if humanity had reached the end of times helped him refocus.
"I found myself, as though … pretending that this were the last hour … and paying closer attention," he says.
Yahia believes the early experience of the pandemic put everyone into a "collective state of inwardness [and] contemplation", while also testing people through the "real fear of losing loved ones".
He says many people also had to learn new ways of being, "almost like we're being reborn, and we have to start from the very beginning".
"How interesting that we find ourselves having to learn to wash our hands again," he says.
And, he says, with a fresh start comes new opportunity. 
"What better time to put your affairs in order, and care for your soul and see to your relationship with your creator."
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