Religious believers are spreading coronavirus through the same mechanisms that spread religion itself.
What is it about religion and COVID-19? Across the U.S., conservative Christian leaders have fought to be exempted from public health limits on social gatherings. In state after state, governors faced with First Amendment threats have caved, re-defining religion as “an essential business.”
In late March, to cite one example, 1800 Louisiana Pentecostals showed up Sunday morning after pastor Tony Spell promised that he would heal any ill congregants through God. Over 1000 returned in person on Easter. While most mainline and moderate churches have moved to virtual meetings, the self-proclaimed “pro-life” crowd has shown less enthusiasm for protecting the lives of vulnerable neighbors and elders.
If this were just an American phenomenon, one might attribute Christian coronavirus denialism to bad information flow. Many who get their information from Trump still think of the pandemic response as some progressive plot to take down the president, and weak compliance with social distancing correlates with conservative political leanings. But consider:
- In Bangladesh, after the first death was reported, 10,000 Muslim men bowed side by side to pray healing verses from the Quran to protect the country against the virus.
- In Israel, hundreds of orthodox Jews gathered at the Wailing Wall to pray for victims of Coronavirus.
- In India, a Muslim missionary movement became the country’s worst disease vector.
- In France, a church leader belatedly apologized to God for the 2500 people infected via a weeklong prayer conference at Christian Open Door Church—and for the 17 who have since died.
- In New York, Hasidic Jews defied authorities with bullhorns, holding large weddings and crowding the streets for religious funerals, including one for a rabbi who died of coronavirus.
- Religious congregations got identified as COVID hubs in Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, France and India, as well as California, Illinois, Arkansas, Georgia, and Kansas.
In the context of a global pandemic, religion has become a global disease vector. Why? The answer lies in both the good and the bad of religion.
As evolved cultural practices, religions appear to benefit some people under some circumstances, largely via the social support and community they provide. The truth or falsehood of dogmas aside, many religious practices probably aided survival in their original context in part by creating cohesive groups that expanded the idea of kinship.
But it is not unusual for beliefs or behaviors that are adaptive under one set of circumstances to become maladaptive when conditions change. Hence the variously-attributed quote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.”
Right now, social scripts that bring together large groups of people are maladaptive, even lethal. People around the world are changing their behavior, often at great personal cost, but religions have evolved to resist change—and especially to resist change driven by external information and authorities.
They also evolved to spread from person to person, through vertical transmission across generations and horizontal transmission within generations. Religions can be thought of as viral self-replicators (some call them memeplexes), and I have written about how understanding the spread of bacteria might help us better understand religion.
The same qualities that help religions survive and spread—namely an infectious sense of superiority and a mandate to defend or spread religious thinking—are now causing conservative religion to become a physical disease vector. Here are some of the probable mechanisms:
- Religions encourage adherents to trust the sect leaders and texts, sometimes to the exclusion of secular knowledge—especially when this contradicts religion’s claims.
- Because science contradicts many religious claims, religious authorities have launched a long-term, well-funded campaign to discredit scientists and the scientific method.
- Religions foster superstitious thinking about health that is often at odds with evidence-based healthcare. (Biblical mandrakes and doves’ blood, anyone?)
- Religions can create a sense of invulnerability by teaching that their god will protect his own and by promising immortality for believers.
- Religions often feed exceptionalism—the idea that general rules shouldn’t apply to religious leaders, believers, or their businesses.
- Religions encourage people to congregate. Many instill guilt and anxiety in people who fail to participate in worship services and outreach.
- Religions make martyrs and heroes out of people who take risks to advance the religion—especially missionaries.
- Christianity in particular teaches that this world is hopelessly tainted. The most extreme believers greet war, ecological devastation, and plagues as signs of the prophesied and welcome apocalypse.
To summarize the messages: Trust God and the faithful. Join together with likeminded believers. Thanks to your religion, you are special. You can escape the fate of the wicked. Spread the good news. Don’t be fooled by outsiders; they have ulterior motives, so stand your ground if they challenge your thinking.
Notions like these help religions to propagate. They also help pathogens to propagate.
In February, after the prayer conference hosted in France by Samuel Peterschmitt’s Christian Open Door Church; the faithful dispersed, buoyed in Evangelical belief and evangelical spirit. They carried coronavirus with them across continents–to Switzerland, Corsica , Guyana, and Burkina Faso. One attendee who carried the virus to Ouagadougou was Mamadou Karambiri, who leads a mega-church of his own. Karambiri also co-founded the International Evangelism Center—Africa Interior Mission.
Peterschmitt’s gathering and Karambiri’s evangelism center were designed to spread a viral contagion—Christianity—especially where poverty and limited access to education leave populations of people with little resistance to such infectious ideas. In a sense, their effort worked exactly as intended. It just spread the wrong virus.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.