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.
Well said. I am hoping the virus pandemic might convince some to leave religion.
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This is very clear and understandable. I fear the “likening religion to virus” will turn (some) people off to the message. The responsible sects, those which have no quarrel with science or the facts it has discovered – embraced the Easter “social distancing” advice. The sects which rejected the advice are those which cling tightly to the superstitions of answered prayers and divine intervention into secular affairs. Faith doesn’t have to be willfully ignorant, but we know that very often it is exactly that.
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well said. And thank you for reminding all of the moderate sects and believers who are responding to science and participating in physical distancing.
Thank you, Mark S. Faulknet, for that caveat. Many forms of neo-paganism peacefully coexist with science and humanism, as do many moderate Christian sects.
A high level of selfishness, distrust & people thinking “it won’t happen to them” has been exposed. Maybe this situation will reduce that, but I doubt it people are waiting to “go back to how it was” which includes every person for themselves physically, with corporate thinking in small and large pocket throughout the world.
On the bright side, those who live will contribute to herd immunity
I agree with everything you wrote and I am a retired Southern Baptist minister. In my 50’s and 60’s I finally became an adult.
I agree with everything you said and I am a retired Southern Baptist Minister. In my 50’s and 60’s I finally became an adult.
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With American churches, I wonder how many are defying health officials because of a drop in revenue. If they don’t “cram” folks into the building, how can they pass the plate?
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The fact that there is a perverse economic incentive for churches to stay open must be a contributor. Not that they would admit that. It just lays the foundation for a whole bunch of other more righteous-sounding justifications.
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With 6 ministers in my close family! I can say Amen! and Amen! It’s about the money!
Thanks Val. Did you see the nyt article today about the pastor who chose to continue holding services? Just died of covid 19….
I did see it. What a sad story. Decent people get sucked into these beliefs and sometimes end up getting hurt or hurting others.
In 2009 I was a runner-up in a blasphemy slogan contest held as part of The Center for Inquiry’s campaign for free expression in conjunction with Blasphemy Day International. I won a t-shirt with my winning slogan: “I Survived the God Virus”.
I’m sitting here reading the comments and I realize that you’re talking about Darrel Ray’s book! I just asked him about it. I’ve seen the shirt but never heard the story behind it. He’s just filled me in. Thanks for sharing!
I can’t remember where I first heard the phrase God virus. That book was published a couple months after I submitted that slogan to the contest, but it’s possible I heard about it before it came out. The meme “I survived the …” was fairly common so I just added the two together. I thought the t-shirt I won was a one-off, but I guess The Center for Inquiry made more to raise funds.
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Perry, Darrel wears that shirt once in a while. Lots of people have that shirt!
In response, this pandemic that encompasses all continents and corners, has violently and tragically changed life and living as we have known it. For many of us, our human consciousness is being commanded to change with it, layer by layer, illusion by delusion, unconscious habits and rituals, unexamined doctrines and old beliefs–simply because it is familiar and expected.
A higher humanity has come to understand that societies need the freedom to practice good religion as much as protection from the tyrannies of bad religion. History has shown us that all fundamentalism, whether church or state, promotes and perpetrates tyranny and contempt for the life of the mind, the spirit, the moral imagination, and creation itself. Bad religion is behaviorally addictive, exclusively cultish, grossly arrested in all development, insidiously deceptive in its self-righteousness.
We’ve known all this and so where do we go from here, from in the midst of and out of this pandemic? We need to listen for and create a POST-PANDEMIC LANGUAGE for the sake of our very humanity, a planetary-focused language that will heal and guide our way into a courageous new world, not a pseudo-brave one.
When I finally walked away from the unholy Roman church, I had long been searching for a living language that began with the power of just stopping, looking, listening, wondering. The language of creation has been here all along.
Bad religion and bad politics (two sides of the same bad coin) have denied, defiled and desecrated the goodness of a living language, one that awakens, illuminates and heals. In the midst of relentless planetary catastrophe, it is taking a global pandemic to tragically unfurl these creational truths.
This courageous pandemic language for us: Creator-Creation-Creatures. Begin here, begin again.
Maybe now people will get the message that going to church and saying your prayers don’t pay your bills, put food on the table, a roof over your head, clothes on your back, doesn’t provide medicine when you need, etc when a situation like the Great Depression of 1929, the Great Recession of 2008, and the COVID-19 hits the nation. What people need is real political, social, and economic reform so when disasters like I have mentioned, they don’t have to worry about their basic needs being met.
I live in Louisiana. And I cannot believe this nut continues to have services! It’s bad enough we had to be responsible for being the birthplace of Britney Spears, now this! I think it is all about the pastor’s ego. His members say they will continue services if he is arrested! So is it a cult or a church? We are also having churches who have drive up church! They stay in their cars, yet people come around and take up an offering? The Pentecostal pastor is trying to make a name for himself, and doesn’t seem to care about the people in his church or anyone else!
What an alarming read but such a compelling and well written article. One would hope the vast majority of religious people are more resposible and compliant along with the rest of society.