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Keynes Fund


Summary of Project Results


This project aims to understand how religious gatherings and religious networks spread infectious diseases such as Covid-19. Second, we aim to understand how Covid-19 induced restrictions and the inability to attend in-person religious congregations have affected mental health. Our study is based on the United States, a country characterized by enormous religious diversity and variations in socioeconomic status.

In our original proposal, we aimed to test the above hypothesis by collecting data across the globe to look at areas with large and small congregations and how this correlates with the incidence of Covid-19. We are currently using a web crawler to gather all reports that could be about any form of gatherings in the US from January 2018 to December 2021. We will then use machine learning algorithms to sift through them and create a dataset of relevant gatherings. We would then check if these are correlated with spikes in Covid infections and if so, what kinds of gatherings were more likely to lead to an increase in Covid cases. We are currently sifting through approximately 740,000 “gathering type” news articles in the US between 2018 and 2022, and an illustration of the main keywords used across the news articles is shown in the graph below.


Frequency of Keywords - graph


Once this data has been assembled, the study will explore the differences in the effects of small frequent gatherings (as mandated in Christianity and Islam) versus larger, infrequent gatherings (such as those that happen during religious festivals) to study how the infection spreads. The findings will have important implications for managing religion and public health in multi-religious societies, especially in a pandemic.

The second part of our project examines the interaction of religion and Covid-19 induced restrictions on mental and physical health. While religious gatherings themselves have been purported to fuel the rate at which the infection has spread across the globe, it is important to study the effect that consequent lockdowns and social distancing measures have had on religiosity and mental health. As public health measures restricted gatherings of all kinds, it significantly affected followers of religions that mandate regular communal gatherings at places of worship. This has significant consequences for the way people practice their religion, not least because being physically present at a place of worship cannot be substituted easily with electronic means of team communication.

To test the second hypothesis, between January 2020 and December 2020 we conducted online surveys among 5178 participants which elicited responses on how the Covid-19 restrictions affected: i) the way people practice their religion, ii) whether religious congregations had moved online and how iii) how disruptions in practicing one’s faith have affected mental health.

The survey was designed using the Qualtrics Research Services platform. The survey questionnaire is accessible online here:

The final survey collected data from 5178 individuals, in all states of the US between February-March 2021, after trialling the questionnaire in the two states of West Virginia and Maryland. We measured strictness of lockdown implementation using data on the decrease in time spent outside the home as collated by using anonymised location data released by Google.

In the survey, we found a high incidence of depression. More than 62% of the respondents can be classified as depressed based on the CES-D scale (one of the leading indicators used in clinical studies of depression). A little less than 49% of the sample reported themselves or a member of their immediate social network as having tested positive for Covid-19. We also found a range of different methods of accessing religious activities during the lockdown, including online services.

We then analysed the data and have a working paper that we are currently writing up for publication.

Some of the main results of the paper are in the tables and graphs below:


Table 3: Determinants of Mental Health, Interaction Effects



Table 6: Determinants of Mental Health, Religiosity Disaggregated


In Table 3 above we see that the negative correlation of Covid with mental health (seen here as a positive association with CES-D scores) is countered to some extent by the past religiosity of the individual seen as the negative coefficient on the interaction term. Table 6 shows that this effect is primarily driven through religious attendance.


Impact and outputs

We have presented the research findings at different places and have some published output from the project as well.

Professor Iyer has presented this in the St Catharine’s Research Seminar on 5 May 2021, and a preliminary version which discussed the key ideas in the Faculty’s alumni webinar series in June 2020. She also presented these results in her Plenary Speech on ‘Religion and Mental Health’ at the Global Labor Organization, and Eurasia Business and Economics Society 37th Annual Conference on 7 October 2021. Her plenary speech was communicated on social media by the Global Labour Organisation and EBES, as well as on the Cambridge Economics Twitter feed.

In addition to the working paper, Professor Iyer is also now working on a related new book manuscript preliminarily titled ‘Is Religion Good For You?’, in which some of these results may also be discussed in a more accessible manner in one of the chapters.

Professor Iyer co-authored a Handbook Chapter with a former Cambridge student Giovanni Rosso on ‘Religion and Mental Health’ which was published in February 2022. On the back of this paper, Giovanni has obtained admission and a full scholarship to study for a PhD in Economics at the Oxford Economics Department, which he will begin in September 2022. The citation to this co-authored paper is below:

S. Iyer and G. Rosso. 2022. ‘Religion and Mental Health’. Springer Nature Handbook on Labor, Human Resources and Population Economics. Edited by Professor Klaus F. Zimmermann.

Dr. Bahal has presented the survey design and its preliminary results in the University of Western Australia Business School Covid-19 seminar series.

Other publications related to Covid research and connected to the project are:

C. Velu and S. Iyer. 2021. ‘Learning from Near Misses from Covid 19’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. PNAS October 5, 2021 118 (40) e2108269118.

Bahal, G., Iyer, S., Shastry, K., and Shrivastava, A. 2023. ‘Religion, Covid-19 and Mental Health’. European Economic Review, volume 160.

Iyer, S., Larcom, S., and She, Po-Wen. ‘Do Religious People Cope Better in a Crisis? Evidence from the UK Pandemic Lockdowns’. (2024) CWPE2403

The University of Cambridge also published an article about the Covid research on January 30th 2024:, as well as the Faculty of Economics news story:


Prof Sriya Iyer, Dr Girish Bahal and Dr Anand Shrivastava


Sriya Iyer is Professor of Economics at the Faculty of Economics and a Fellow of St. Catharine's College, University of Cambridge. Her research interests are in Development Economics, Religion, Demography and Education.


Dr Girish Bahal is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Western Australia Business School. His key areas of research are Networks in Economics and Labour Economics.


Dr Anand Shrivastava is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India. His areas of research are Economics of Conflict, Labour Economics, and Economics of Networks.





Chapter in Book



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