Science and Faith: Behavioral Insights for Religious Communities during COVID-19

By: Samir Gangolli, Dan Rosica, and Joseph Sherlock


This fall, the Center for Advanced Hindsight (CAH) at Duke University partnered with five North Carolina Counties–Cabarrus, Catawba, Gaston, Haywood, and Union–and the North Carolina State College of Design to integrate behavioral science solutions into COVID-19 response efforts.

After prioritizing the areas of risk for each county, the project team decided to pursue intervention opportunities within faith and religious communities around North Carolina, as one area of focus. First, we conducted a comprehensive literature review of religious participation during COVID-19. Afterwards, we engaged in qualitative interviews with faith leaders to better understand the barriers faced by congregations hoping to prevent further spread of the virus. 

Below, we list general recommendations for the integration of behavioral science into religious communities to promote safety during the ongoing pandemic. Implementing such practices presents considerable upside by encouraging COVID-19 preventative behavior while preserving the traditional role of religion in a community. 

Ways to Mitigate Risk Among Faith Groups

Emphasize safe substitutes for typical tradition, such as greeting someone.

The interaction that church provides is a form of socialization for many, and a crucial part of the community. However, continued engagement with traditional norms such as physical greetings, communion, and community meals, can increase the risk of infection among members. Many resort to traditional habits out of misinformation regarding the virus, or a lack of awareness for available substitutes – and habits tend to be automatic unless they are acted upon. Providing congregation members with clear and healthy alternatives can mitigate any ambiguity bias present, and promote safe behavior while maintaining the social atmosphere of religion. 

Create main modes of communicating safe practices (posters, flyers, vinyls, etc.) that relate directly to religious texts and scriptures.

For many, religion is an integral part of their identity. Likewise, those who dismiss wearing masks often do so citing limitations on their individual identity and liberties. Encouraging faith leaders to relate religious scriptures to preventative behaviors can encourage collectivism, a belief that is core to all religious worship. Promoting healthy measures in religious sermons holds significant substance and can build identity while preserving the role of worship to individuals.

Break COVID-19 related messages down by religious sect. Allow for individual congregations to customize their own messages in ways compliant with safe behavior. 

Despite ethics and morals being somewhat uniform across religious groups, values can change depending on each individual sect. Customizing messages at the group and congregation level can further establish the importance of safe behavior within specific religious identities. As humans often make choices based on their identity, publicizing messages in specific ways can create a framing effect that makes compliance with guidelines more appealing to individuals. 

Leverage the upcoming holidays by creating themed messaging campaigns.

Clearly, this holiday season will be unlike any witnessed before. Given the heavy foot traffic and close proximity of people that celebrations generally produce, leveraging the true themes of holidays (generosity, sacrifice, gratitude) can encourage those celebrating to do so safely. Moreover, labeling the risk level of alternative ways to celebrate the holidays based on criteria (size of group, location, age of participants) is a nudge effective in encouraging safe behavior while maintaining a sense of individual control.  

Encourage faith leaders to publicize why it is important to engage in preventative behavior and how it betters the entire community. 

Finally, humans tend to suffer from an authority bias which can strongly influence individual decisions. Faith leaders are oftentimes people of respect and stature in their respective communities. As such, having faith leaders promote preventative behavior for the sake of the community can have lasting effects on the mitigation of the virus.  


Faith groups are organizations vital to many communities around the world and now face significant barriers due to COVID-19. The role religion plays is critical to many people–especially during hard times–but safe worship is imperative to mitigate the risk for congregation members. The use of behavioral science in addressing safety and compliance can provide significant insights helpful in promoting healthy worship among faith communities this holiday season and beyond.