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Love of Neighbor During the Pandemic

The suspension of religious services and its alternatives.

This present pandemic has restricted our capacity to meet and be with others. Social distancing makes social relationships, and social connection, much more difficult. Indeed, it restricts communal gatherings.

There is a large research literature that positively connects community, social relationships, and social gatherings to important health and well-being outcomes. Much of our own work at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard has considered the potential effects of participating in a religious community on health and well-being. Our research, along with that of others, has provided evidence that religious service attendance has substantial protective effects on longevity, depression, suicide, psychological well-being and health behaviors, and, most recently, on preventing “deaths of despair."

There is thus evidence that religious community contributes substantially to human flourishing. However, the present COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the suspension of religious services in many places throughout the world. This has generally been necessary to prevent the spread of the infection.

Love of Neighbor and the Suspension of Religious Services

Some of those who participate in religious communities have argued that the spiritual good that comes out of religious services is in fact more important than the risk to physical health and that religious services ought to therefore proceed regardless of the risks. The problem with this argument is that coronavirus (COVID-19) is not just a disease but an infectious disease. Attending religious services, with their close person-to-person contact and their extended time of meeting, puts not only one’s own physical health at risk, but also that of one’s community, nation, and world.

Adobe Spark
Love your neighbor is an important theological principle that may be especially relevant in this pandemic.
Source: Adobe Spark

With this in view, an important theological principle in such cases is arguably love of neighbor: not putting one’s neighbor (and especially the elderly and vulnerable) at excessive risk by one’s actions. In most Christian understandings of this principle, love of God and love of neighbor are not to be pitted against one another. Rather the former entails the latter. We’ve recently developed these ideas further in a paper just published in Journal of Religion and Health to argue that, even from the perspective of the values and ends that religious communities and churches hold, the right course of action, when the epidemic is at its peak, has indeed been the suspension of religious services. In some places, the peak is now indeed past and some restrictions have been relaxed. Yet, it is the principle of love of neighbor that arguably ought to guide decisions and actions.

Navigating the Suspension

When meetings are suspended, this of course leaves open the difficult question of how religious people may cope with the loss of important spiritual resources that religious services provide and which, as our research has shown, contribute considerably to health and well-being. There is a real loss here. However, many religious communities have found ways to at least partially offset these losses. Many have moved to virtual services and webcasting. Others have established online discussion groups or studies of Scripture. Many others have encouraged increased personal and family devotion, prayer, and ritual. Some have even established “drive-through” prayer and confession. Each of these contributes, though none is likely to be a fully adequate replacement to the in-person meetings and community.

To what extent do these alternatives truly provide a substitute? It is of course difficult to assess the effects on spiritual well-being of online versus in-person service. Moreover, we also do not yet know enough about the mechanisms by which religious services seem to exert such powerful effects on health. Some of the effects are inevitably social, but some are almost certainly also related to the specific content: a common purpose, vision, hope, and encouragement to love. It is likely the coming together of the social, and the distinctively religious values, that allows these communities to contribute so much to health and well-being.

It is thus not entirely clear the extent to which the health, well-being, and spiritual benefits of such services will extend to these new forms of practice that have recently developed. Probably some will; and some will not. When the present pandemic has passed, it will be important to re-establish face-to-face meetings and services, rather than relying entirely on technological alternatives. Religious communities will also need to reflect on preparations for being able to meet again while navigating the social distancing measures that may still be in place.

However, in many places, the virtual alternatives may, at least for some time, continue to be helpful partial substitutes. Indeed, a recent survey from Gallup has indicated that within the United States, because of the availability of these online alternatives, levels of weekly religious service attendance (of some form) at present is not in fact very different than it was a year ago, down from 32% to just 31%. Clearly, there is a strong interest in preserving some form of the religious life of these communities, even when face-to-face meetings are not possible.

Promoting Love of Neighbor

Very likely one of the means by which churches and religious communities improve health and well-being is by trying to live out the command to love one’s neighbor and seek the good of others. There have inevitably been failures, even abuse, in this regard within churches, and these failures need to be acknowledged and addressed, but ultimately it is that principle of love of neighbor that is to guide the interactions of the community members.

This principle of love is more challenging at the present time with the social distancing measures in place. However, as we have discussed in a previous post, there are numerous possibilities to carry this out as well, including connecting with family and friends via phone or video-conferencing; helping out neighbors in need with practicalities and grocery deliveries; donating to charities that are seeking to provide help and relief; volunteering one’s time to medical practices providing care; seeking to restore relationships that may be broken and in need of forgiveness; investing more deeply in a spouse, child or housemate. All of these things can still be done at the present time.

Assessing Love and the Promotion of Flourishing

Much of our work at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard has been devoted to the rigorous empirical analysis of pathways to well-being other than the consumption of material goods. Financial and material stability and safety are unquestionably an essential cornerstone for health and well-being. The present pandemic has made this clear in countless ways. However, people also care about more than physical and financial health. Our program is thus also trying to understand what gives rise to a sense of meaning and purpose, what brings true happiness, and what helps shape character, improve relationships, and contribute to spiritual well-being. These other aspects of flourishing are critical if we are to empower the flourishing of individuals and of societies.

Based on the research that we and others have conducted, we are sufficiently convinced that love itself is a very important pathway to flourishing that we have recently decided to invest considerable effort in the years ahead on the difficult, indeed perhaps well-nigh impossible, task of trying to develop approaches to its quantitative assessment. While such quantitative assessment may seem far-fetched, the seeds of this idea were planted decades ago, even within public health and medicine. In 1955, Philip Solomon published a piece in the New England Journal of Medicine, entitled simply, “Love: A Clinical Definition.” He argued for the relevance of the concept of love within medicine. In 2000, Jeff Levin published a paper on the “epidemiology of love,” laying out what might be possible if the concept were better studied and employed within epidemiology and public health. Yet more recently, just last year, a relatively new health-care start-up, Devoted Health, declared its primary principle of market differentiation to be… love. Surely, the concept indeed deserves a more prominent role in our attempts to promote health and well-being, and it deserves more rigorous empirical study as well.

Prior attempts at scale development for the construct of love have been made. But these have arguably been inadequate in their conceptual coverage of the construct. Our own past research has examined the importance of various aspects of love, including forgiveness and parental love, in shaping health and well-being. We hope to develop a more comprehensive assessment of love: one that considers both the giving and receiving of love and uses classifications and distinctions that have appeared repeatedly in much theological and philosophical literature. For example, we want to include both what one might call “contributory love”—seeking to contribute good for the beloved, and “unitive love”—seeking to be present with or united to the beloved. We also want to consider the various aspects of love across different types of interpersonal relationships, including parent-child, spouse, friend, God, neighbor, stranger, and even enemy.

We anticipate this undertaking occupying several years of our research. As with our prior work on the measurement of meaning, we would first intend to compile a list of all previously proposed items for assessment and then categorize them according to distinctions from the philosophical and theological literature, employ those items that were most conceptually adequate, and supplement them with newly developed assessment items to help fill the remaining conceptual space. Further work would then be needed to evaluate the psychometric properties of the proposed measures.

Though difficult, we think that this undertaking will ultimately prove worthwhile. It will help us better understand how the giving and receiving of love contributes to the health and well-being of individuals and communities. It will help us see how love shapes health, meaning, happiness, and relationships, as well as other aspects of character and spiritual life. We will be able to connect this to our other measurement assessment work on suffering, on spiritual well-being, on communities, on meaning, and on flourishing. It will help us understand how love can be encouraged and how it might contribute to a vast range of physical, psychological, social and spiritual ends. Understanding this will be important in general, and perhaps especially so during such difficult times as we now face.

The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science aims to study and promote human flourishing, and to develop systematic approaches to the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. You can sign up here for a monthly research e-mail from the Human Flourishing Program, or click here to follow us on Twitter. For past posts, please see our Psychology Today Human Flourishing blog.


VanderWeele, T. J. (2020). Love of neighbor during a pandemic: navigating the competing goods of religious gatherings and physical health. Journal of Religion and Health, in press. Online ahead of print: May 13, 2020; doi: 10.1007/s10943-020-01031-6.