The deadly, highly contagious new coronavirus has become a global conflagration. As hard experience in China and the unfolding tragedy in Italy have shown, extreme restrictions on daily life are the only firebreak that can slow its spread. All around the world, bars and restaurants have closed, sporting events and concerts have been canceled, streets and parks are deserted. But there’s one vulnerability, one gap in the defenses that lets the contagion continue to flourish. Religion is that weakness.
To be clear, I’m not saying that all religions are equally guilty. There are many large, mainstream churches that are heeding the authority of science and doing the right thing. (I have to admit, even I was touched by the Italian priest who conducted Mass alone in an empty church while decorating the pews with photos of his parishioners.)
But there are religions that are playing an active role in spreading the contagion: especially the Trump-worshipping conservative churches which downplay the pandemic for political reasons, and the far-out-on-a-limb sects and cults which refuse to acknowledge any rules other than their own.
Let’s start with an example of the latter: the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which was almost singlehandedly responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak in South Korea:
Illness was never accepted as a valid reason to miss services at the Shincheonji religious group, says former member Duhyen Kim.
This is an organization that took roll call, he says, and everyone had to physically swipe in and out of services with a special card. Any absence was noted and followed up on.
“The culture was, even though you’re sick you come in on Sunday. If you’re so sick you can’t come Sunday, you have to come on Monday or Tuesday — you have to make up for the time,” Kim says.
…Kim, who still has friends within the group, and other former members have told CNN that attendees are not allowed to wear anything on their faces — even glasses — during prayer time.
“They were forced recently not to wear masks even though the whole corona (virus) outbreak was going on. They said, no, it’s disrespectful to God to have masks on,” Kim says. (source)
The sect’s founder, Lee Man-hee, proclaims himself to be the second coming of Jesus. As such, his followers are expected to be present at every sermon, no excuses, even if they’re sick. This cultish behavior, combined with wall-to-wall crowding in meeting halls during hours-long services, created perfect conditions for spreading the virus. And even when Korean authorities traced the outbreak to the church, it was difficult to track down everyone who had been exposed, due to their insular theology and suspicion of outsiders:
On the same day, Gyeonggi Provincial government said 210 Shincheonji members had agreed to call 33,000 fellow members to ask about symptoms, as Shincheonji members often don’t answer calls from nonmembers.
In the U.S., another insular sect is about to be ravaged by the coronavirus: the Hasidic Jewish communities of Brooklyn and upstate New York, which I’ve often written about on this blog. COVID-19 has spread like wildfire through Jewish synagogues and schools from an initial case in Westchester, but the Hasidim have shown little concern. As recently as last week, well after the scale of the problem had become clear, they were still holding large public gatherings:
As city and state officials warned on Tuesday about the danger of large gatherings amid the coronavirus outbreak, hundreds of revelers celebrated at a Hasidic wedding in Brooklyn and huddled together in the street after the Fire Department broke up the celebration.
“Everything was exactly how it would have been if there hadn’t been any kind of a pandemic,” said a musician who played at the event, which he said drew more than 200 people.
…Another guest, who gave only his first name, Chaim, said the wedding had to take place on Tuesday because it is “prohibited to postpone a wedding once it has been planned.”
And in the poor, densely populated upstate town of Kiryas Joel, coronavirus infections are skyrocketing. In a sign of how bad it already is, their spiritual leader, 72-year-old Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, tested positive after scoffing at the danger:
“They didn’t shut down those schools or synagogues until a day or so ago,” Steven Neuhaus, the executive of Orange County, which includes Kiryas Joel, told ABC7 on Friday [March 20]. “So that lead time has created chaos and is going to contribute to the number (of cases) we have here.”
Indeed, Teitelbaum had been reluctant to comply with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s social-distancing recommendations, including school closures. “They don’t understand what a Jewish family is,” Teitelbaum said in a recorded speech decrying the fact that large numbers of children would be stuck at home if schools were closed. “It’s crowded at home, there’s barely any room, beds are placed wherever there’s room, there’s no gentile entertainment and if the kids are sent home there’s no room at home so they’ll wander around in the streets and people will gather together anyway, so nothing would be accomplished anyway.”
Now, let’s talk about the American churches that are following Donald Trump’s initial propaganda line in denying that the coronavirus is a big deal, or proclaiming that God will protect the faithful so there’s no need to take precautions. Here’s an example from Baton Rouge:
In holding services for so many followers at his Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Spell defied an emergency order by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards banning public or private gatherings with more than 50 people to stop the spread of Covid-19.
“I feel the Covid-19 scare is politically motivated,” Spell told CNN.
…Spell said he is not opposed to doctors, but says members of his congregation have been healed of AIDS-HIV and even cancer.
“The Bible tells us to lay hands on the sick and they shall recover and will continue to do that without the fear of the spread of any virus,” Spell said.
He told CNN affiliate WAFB that his church hosted more than 1,100 people for services Sunday.
And likewise in Arkansas:
In Arkansas, the Rev. Josh King met with the pastors of five other churches on Thursday to decide whether to continue holding service. Their religious beliefs told them that meeting in person to worship each Sunday remained an essential part of their faith, and some of their members signed on to Trump’s claims that the media and Democrats were overblowing the danger posed by the virus.
“One pastor said half of his church is ready to lick the floor, to prove there’s no actual virus,” said King, lead pastor at Second Baptist church in Conway, Ark.
Yet another Christian leader is doing a disservice to the public during the coronavirus pandemic, this time by saying his church will “never close” because his brand of revivalist Christians are “not pansies.” Preacher Rodney Howard-Browne also spread the dangerous message that his church is “the safest place” because it’s a church.
Most hair-raising of all, in Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves has refused to close businesses or ban public gatherings, but he is encouraging residents of the state to pray.
All of these aren’t just anecdotal accounts, but instances of a larger pattern. According to political scientist Ryan Burge, conservative Protestants who attend church every week are markedly less likely to be worried than everyone else:
This graph isn't going to be in the final piece, but indicates what I'm talking about.
40% of conservative Protestants who never attend church were worried about an epidemic, compared to 25% of conservative Protestants who attend more than once a week. pic.twitter.com/AtYcCrm4cJ
— Ryan Burge ?? (@ryanburge) March 15, 2020
This is the deadly fallout of the right-wing media bubble. Because they’re so irrationally convinced that God is on their side, they believe that they’re immune from consequences, that the laws of nature don’t apply to them. This is especially true of the present political moment, when they’re riding high with their guy in the White House. As far as they’re concerned, everything is rosy; what could possibly go wrong?
But reality has a way of piercing all but the most ardently held misinformation bubbles. As the pandemic spreads, even some of the religious right are belatedly realizing how serious it is. However, that knowledge hasn’t awoken a sudden humanitarian impulse in them. Instead, they’re shifting seamlessly from “This is no big deal, nothing to be concerned about” to “We should do nothing and just accept that a lot of people will die, oh well.”
Such is an March 2020 article in First Things magazine by its executive director, R.R. Reno. (You may remember First Things for their 2018 editorial arguing in favor of kidnapping children from their parents to raise them in the “right” religion.)
Reno’s article is titled “Say No to Death’s Dominion“. In it, he argues that there are “many things more precious than life,” such as attending Mass or proselytizing to strangers. He says that suspending religious services to halt the contagion is tantamount to a “false god of ‘saving lives'” (scare quotes in original).
He contrasts us unfavorably to the generation that lived through the 1918 flu pandemic, who, allegedly, “continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives,” and marched courageously into the grave (fact check: false).
If I were trying to invent something to make religious conservatives look like unfeeling monsters, I doubt I could have improved on this:
There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.
…Just so, the mass shutdown of society to fight the spread of COVID-19 creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere. Governor Cuomo and other officials insist that death’s power must rule our actions. Religious leaders have accepted this decree, suspending the proclamation of the gospel and the distribution of the Bread of Life. They signal by their actions that they, too, accept death’s dominion.
…Were I to host a small dinner party tonight, wanting to resist the paranoia and hysteria, I would be denounced.
This is the poisonous result of another world creeping in to your moral reasoning.
One of religion’s chief functions is as a way to alleviate death anxiety, by telling believers that they won’t truly die but will be transported to a supernatural realm. But when people grow too certain of this, when they sink into the depths of fundamentalism, an insidious inversion occurs. They come to view that hoped-for other world as more important than this world, to the extent that wanting people to not die is “demonic”. As an atheist, I don’t believe in demons – but the nearest secular equivalent must be advocates of the horrifically upside-down morality that treats human survival as evil and mass death as a praiseworthy outcome!
Faith won’t shield us from the coronavirus, and miracles won’t cure it. When we defeat this epidemic, it will be through science and coordinated, collective action: humans coming together to help and protect each other. But when religion encourages its followers to disregard the danger, or to believe themselves above the rules, it prolongs the reign of the virus and ensures more sickness, more suffering and more death. And, as always, it’s those who proclaim their holiness and special understanding of God’s will the loudest who are the most guilty.