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The Fraught Relationship Between Religion and Epidemiology

(Official White House photo by D. Myles Cullen)

“Recently, renowned essayist Thomas Chatterton Williams has taken some heat for mocking a prayer session headed by Vice President Mike Pence in the White House amid the coronavirus outbreak.”

The world is angry at China. And with good reason. The current pandemic began as a result of China’s gross mismanagement of public hygiene and information flow. But, it seems that the anger towards China, at times, goes beyond the coronavirus outbreak. Some people are angry, not just at the Chinese government—but also with the Chinese people, as a whole. Judging, for instance, by the responses to my earlier piece on China and the coronavirus, many are very bothered by the fact that the Chinese eat dogs. When the coronavirus outbreak began, social media was replete with people who—if not precisely happy—at least felt vindicated. As is usually the case with major catastrophes, some social media users went beyond the search for natural causes (the pandemic began with someone eating a bat in Wuhan) and, instead, invoked supernatural or metaphysical causes: Coronavirus is karma (or perhaps divine punishment) for certain cultural practices. What goes around comes around.

China now seems to be controlling the outbreak; however, the virus is causing havoc in Europe. So, what now? Is it also karma for certain actions on the part of Europeans? Europeans do not eat dogs. What metaphysical explanation will these judgmental people come up with now? So far nobody has said anything, but I suspect that—sooner or later—those eager to seek metaphysical or supernatural causes will find some fault among Europeans. Perhaps some on the Right will speculate that the coronavirus is punishment for so many European countries embracing socially liberal policies; maybe a few on the Left will say it is punishment for letting refugees die on European shores. 

As it happens, throughout humanity’s long history of struggle with epidemics and pandemics, supernatural and metaphysical explanations have been readily available. There may be variations as to who sends the plague, but the themes are consistent. Oriental religions might argue that populations hit hard by plagues bring it upon themselves based on past actions, and the universe has a way of getting back to you. Western religions might suggest that the gods are unhappy for whatever reason and, thus, have chosen to strike people with pestilence. Either way, one thing is clear: Suffering is deserved.

In fact, this may be the whole reason why man created God in the first place. It would naturally be depressing to see a four-year-old child hideously disfigured by smallpox or dying painfully from any number of diseases. So, what might one do? Try to cheer everyone up by somehow thinking that this suffering was deserved. Some impertinent (yet wholly sensible) person will ask: What could a four-year-old possibly have done to deserve such a fate? Yet, one can always come up with a range of spurious rationalizations. Perhaps that child was an evildoer in a past life. As such, one invents the doctrine of reincarnation. Perhaps his nation worshipped an idol, so one invents monotheism. Maybe everyone deserves to suffer from the moment they are born, so one creates the doctrine of original sin.

In fact, in the context of epidemics, the religious quest for meaning is the actual simplistic approach.

There is good reason to believe that this way of thinking is hardwired into our brains. The psychologist Melvin Lerner called it the “Just World Hypothesis.” We love to blame the victim. It is probably a defense mechanism seeking to bring some degree of order into the world. You can sleep comfortably thinking that those in Wuhan got what they deserved for eating bats, and you have nothing to worry about because “Hey, you are a hip vegetarian in Portland.”

Yet, it doesn’t add up. Sometimes (actually, most of the time), victims are at no fault whatsoever, and the rationalizations for their suffering are nonsense. Even if people should not be eating bats, surely, there were some Chinese people who never ate a bat yet still died from the coronavirus. How is it their fault that their neighbor was in the bat-eating business? The Bible can be quite a nasty book (and indeed, Yahweh frequently decimated populations with plagues, sometimes over silly little offenses, sometimes simply for the heck of it). However, in fairness, some Biblical authors were not buying into the blame-the-victim ruse, and they spoke out against it. 

Take the book of Job, for example. Job is a “Mr. Nice Guy” type, and everyone loves him. But then, his children die, he goes broke, and, finally, he gets the plague. Naturally, he is angry and is, thus, no longer a Mr. Nice Guy. Shortly thereafter, some of his friends seek to persuade him that he was never so nice in the first place and that he deserved what he received. But Job is not buying it. He was always a pious person, and, as far as he is concerned, this was all very unfair. 

One might be tempted to think that God, the same being that sends plagues over seemingly-trivial things, would side with Job’s friends and be eager to point a judgmental finger at Job. But, no. This God is not happy with Job’s friends and lets them know that Job has always been righteous. Why, then, does God allow the righteous to suffer? He doesn’t say. But one thing is clear: You can suffer a great deal in life and still not have committed many sins.

So, if God never explains to Job why the righteous suffer, what other answers might there be? In Oriental religions, they are fond of saying that—even if in this life you seem to be exceptionally moral—perhaps, in some past lives, you were a thug. And now is the time to pay for that. To which I say: baloney. How can you deserve punishment now, for something that—even if you allegedly did it—you have no memory of it? Furthermore, according to this karma nonsense, everything that happens is deserved. So, what is the point of building hospitals to take care of coronavirus patients? If the doctrine of karma is true, then helping those patients is actually a way of obstructing cosmic justice. In fact, you should never help anyone in need—because that is their way of paying for their past sins. It is not difficult to see where this psychopathic way of thinking leads to.

When the book of Job was written, the Israelites did not believe in an afterlife. But, the impact of the book was so enormous that eventually other Biblical authors had to come up with some explanation as to why bad things happen to good people. And so, while admitting that people like Job did not deserve what they got, they offered comfort by saying that God will settle the scores in heaven and hell. Again, this is nonsensical. Why wait until the afterlife to make things right? Besides, even if God tries to settle the score in heaven and hell, how can he make sure that the Hitler being fried in the infernal pan is the same person who ordered the Final Solution? Most philosophers will tell you that any notion of the afterlife must face the extremely difficult question of how to preserve personal identity in the hereafter.

Of late, Jordan Peterson is all the rage. He frequently likes to say that—regardless of whether or not there is actually a God—religions are necessary because they give meaning in a world of chaos. Perhaps. But, too much meaning is also a problem. Sometimes, unfortunate things happen, and that is that. Too much religious meaning may ultimately serve to justify the unfairness of the status quo. Marx (Peterson’s bête noir, it seems) was definitely onto something when he wrote that “Religion is the opium of the people.” Sure, that Marxist formula is overly simplistic. However, to the coronavirus patient being told that he should not worry about the failures of his country’s healthcare system because soon we will all sing “Kumbaya” while sitting on a cloud, Marx no longer sounds so simplistic.

In fact, in the context of epidemics, the religious quest for meaning is the actual simplistic approach. Instead of taking meaningful steps towards improved hygiene during the Bubonic Plague, flagellants would whip their backs thinking that if they took God’s punishments, others might be spared. How many people did that delusion save? 

In trying to find religious meaning, one might even search for scapegoats hoping for the plague to end. If Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is to be believed, Thebans were convinced that their plague was due to some man killing his father and marrying his mother, as this aroused the gods’ anger. So, what did Thebans do? They scapegoated their king for having done precisely that. During the Bubonic Plague, scapegoats included Jews because—apart from poisoning wells—they, the argument goes, had killed Christ. 

Recently, renowned essayist Thomas Chatterton Williams has taken some heat for mocking a prayer session headed by Vice President Mike Pence in the White House amid the coronavirus outbreak. Sure, perhaps Williams was a bit too insensitive. In times like these, faith can be a nice uplift to actually get things done. But given the objectionable way the Trump administration has handled the outbreak, one does wonder if perhaps Williams was actually onto something. An excessive search for religious meaning can get in the way of effective action.

I am not in the business of militantly scolding and mocking people for their religious beliefs. I am not Richard Dawkins. All I ask is that—in the mist of this coronavirus crisis—one uses religion or prayer for good purposes. Stop blaming victims. Say your prayers if you want, but take active steps in stopping this catastrophe: Stay home, wash your hands, support others if need be, and, in the future vote for politicians who are serious about competently handling pandemics. With or without the gods, that is our only hope.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80

2 thoughts on “The Fraught Relationship Between Religion and Epidemiology

  1. As a long-time RN, I applaud the way the Trump administration has handled the pandemic. I did not vote for President Trump but I am grateful every day that he is in charge and not some pandering politico. As for faith versus science, that is a ridiculous non-argument. I follow science in my career, and God inhabits my every molecule in my entire life.

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