My newly published research in the European Economic Review finds that the introduction of Covid-related restrictions on houses of worship led to a substantial decline in subjective well-being and an increase in social isolation among religious adherents relative to non-religious people.

Using a sample of 50,000 Americans surveyed between 2020 and 2021, I find that the adoption of these restrictions reduced current life satisfaction and made it more probable that religious people would isolate themselves. These effects remained after controlling for demographics, income, political affiliation, industry, and occupation—and they wiped away nearly half of the life-satisfaction advantage that religious people generally enjoy over the non-religious. Limits on exactly how many people can gather were associated with more harm than were percentage caps on occupancy.

Further, my research finds no public-health benefits to these restrictions—they did not limit the spread of Covid infections or deaths, on average. This finding joins a large body of empirical literature identifying adverse economic effects, no public-health benefits, and dreadful benefit–cost ratios for Covid restrictions. Some evidence showed an association between the restrictions and a reduction in Covid in the early months of the pandemic, but as sample sizes grew, these benefits disappeared.

A common criticism of such results is that confounding factors render it hard for researchers to isolate the effects of specific policies. (Of course, that has not stopped advocates of such measures from claiming that they work.) Fortunately, a large body of state-level data, compiled by Gallup, now lets researchers study individual outcomes before and after policy interventions. My research compares religious and non-religious individuals in the same state before and after the adoption of restrictions on houses of worship.

What explains these reductions in well-being? A major factor is the rise in self-isolation. Another seems to be social capital: the negative effects of restrictions are slightly larger in counties that rank higher in their level of social capital—that is, their degree of norms, trust, and networks. This is consistent with sociologist Rodney Stark’s theory of “moral communities,” which notes that people can help reinforce positive norms among their associates.

A mountain of empirical research demonstrates that religious attendance and participation benefits health and well-being. My research offers evidence that Covid restrictions on religious communities have had adverse effects.

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