By Mark DeWolf

A glaring omission in the flood of news reports and opinion pieces concerning the spread and deadliness of the COVID-19 virus is a probing examination of how religion plays into the current worldwide crisis. When such an important topic is nowhere discussed, one cannot help but wonder if such a discussion would make some people very uncomfortable indeed.

There are two aspects of the religious question that cry out for such an examination, one of them being the way deeply held religious beliefs in God and His goodness are being tested by the current pandemic. Certainly such beliefs must have been severely tested during the plagues that killed so many human beings in the past. Why, our ancestors must have asked, would a loving, caring God send such an affliction on His people?

And to that question, Jewish and Christian leaders historically gave two answers: Either God is punishing us for our many sins, or, like Job in the Bible, we are having our faith tested, with God’s favour bestowed on us if we continue to believe in Him and His ultimate mercy. Today, a priest or minister might also say that, when God created the natural world of which we are a part and from which we receive so many blessings, it was also necessary to include aspects of it — like ravening beasts or violent tornadoes — that human beings would find dangerous and harmful. Otherwise, we would still be living in a Garden of Eden, and that was ruled out a very long time ago.

To the devout believer, such explanations might still hold water, and there’s nothing this writer can say that would clearly disprove any of those beliefs. But beliefs they are, and human beings have a long history of believing all sorts of things that seem to explain the world in which they live. A bolt of lightning strikes the forest and the resulting fire threatens your settlement? Jove has obviously hurled a thunderbolt out of extreme displeasure. The chanting and dance of a Sioux medicine man over a sick child is followed by the child’s recovery? Clearly that religious ritual has made the sickness vanish.

When you stop to think about it, just about anything at all that occurs in our universe can be explained by an appeal to a spiritual power of some sort. Atheists have long pointed out that explanations such as “God moves in mysterious ways” are conveniently easy, as there is no possible way to disprove them. But millions and millions of people around the world seem content with that easy explanation. Especially when things are going very well.

But leaving the question of spiritual agency aside, there is another aspect of the COVID-19 outbreak that involves religion, and that is the question of the pandemic’s effect on religious services and other observances that normally bring multitudes of the faithful together. Over the Easter season, there were news reports and commentaries on how social distancing and quarantines were affecting communion services normally attended by hundreds of the faithful, and photographs of those traditional services being held in virtually empty cathedrals brought home to many how great have been the changes to religious obligations.

In Islamic countries, the season of Ramadan has begun, the holy month in which Muslims crowd into mosques and fast during the day, holding feasts with loved ones after sundown. Hardline imams in Pakistan have effectively overruled that country’s nationwide lockdown and some have “called upon worshipers to attend Friday prayers in even greater numbers.” The festival of Eid al-Fitr that marks the end of Ramadan consists in part of two “rakats” which are “generally performed in an open field or large hall,” and “may only be performed in congregation.” What, I wonder, are the feelings of devout Muslims who are told by scientists and their government to avoid large gatherings and put aside their deeply-held religious beliefs?

There have also been media reports of conflict between state authorities in the U.S. and evangelical Christians, the former banning gatherings over a certain number, the latter protesting that their freedom to gather and worship is being taken from them. In the state of Washington, the Governor is being sued for his order “prohibiting in-person spiritual meetings,” and a lawsuit on behalf of three churches has been launched against the California government for its ban on public gatherings of any size.

But as religious groups and lovers of individual liberty press governments to allow large gatherings, the best medical advice — some of it coming from doctors and scientists with firmly held religious beliefs — urges us to prohibit them. And by and large, even the most faithful have listened to that advice. Churches stand empty on Sunday mornings, large funeral gatherings around a grave are a definite no-no, and a good many engaged couples are doubtless postponing their splendid wedding ceremony (and the subsequent party) until the virus has been successfully eliminated. There was a recent online report that Canada’s Indigenous people are being urged to avoid the sweat lodge, traditionally a place that offered both physical and religious succour.

Not too surprisingly, ingenious alternatives to group worship and ceremony have been found. The Internet, often excoriated for allowing misinformation to be spread widely, has made virtual gatherings possible, and devout Christians (or Muslims or Jews) can pray and worship together using apps like Zoom and WhatsApp.

But a good proportion of the world’s people don’t have access to the Internet, and it is doubtful that any app will be able to duplicate the warm feeling of community that Sunday mass provides. Consequently, even among those who can go online, group worship — long one of the positive aspects of religious belief, offering as it does an opportunity to communicate and bond with members of a shared community — is important enough to risk spreading COVID-19 among that community.

And it isn’t just large gatherings that are affected. What, one wonders, will be the effect of social distancing on hospital patients and those who live in long-term care homes when they no longer receive visits from the men and women who once provided comfort, shared prayers, and offered Holy Communion? The very word “communion” now seems… well… disturbing.

Whatever one thinks of all this, what intrigues me is the lack of thoughtful discussion about the deeper significance of this shakeup in religious practice. If religious leaders are meeting to talk this over — or priests, ministers, rabbis, or imams talk among themselves — sharing ideas and feelings about what this all means to their religion, those discussions aren’t making it into the media. Even the Vatican, which has reported at least one confirmed case of COVID-19 within its walls, has limited its comment largely to messages urging Catholics to support each other with kindness and love, and thanking the many healthcare workers who put themselves at risk as they try to help others. The Pope says he is praying to God to end the outbreak which he sees as “a test of solidarity and a reminder of basic values.”

Almost predictably, what discussion there is of the connection between religious beliefs and the current situation involves the political. A March 27 New York Times piece, with the subheading “Trump’s response to the pandemic has been haunted by the science denialism of his ultraconservative religious allies,” examines the connection between Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. and the Trump government’s slow movement on the pandemic threat. The opinion piece states that “hostility to science has characterized the more extreme forms of religious nationalism in the United States. Today, the hard core of climate deniers is concentrated among people who identify as religiously conservative Republicans.”

But the absence of serious discussion about the significant way in which COVID-19 may be shaking the foundations of the world’s major religions suggests to me that religious leaders and just plain ordinary religious folks are reluctant to admit that religion is under siege. That, or they don’t know what to think as their beliefs — their faith in God and a spiritual world — are tested by today’s reality in a way that must surely add to any emotional distress and existing mental health concerns.

When we see oodles of media coverage about every movement of the stock market and every shift in American public opinion, wouldn’t it be a good idea to see a thoughtful examination of religious response to this worldwide calamity? I’d be very interested in reading it.

Mark is a retired teacher of English living in Halifax.

This article appears in the May 2020 version of Critical Links.