In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we are being inundated by analyses and speculation about its effects on the world economy, political campaigning, democratic norms, civil liberties, social solidarity, the viability of regimes of fragile states, ongoing armed conflicts, camps of refugees and displaced persons, business practices, income inequality, provision of safety nets, the financing and management of public health, the activities of criminal groups and illicit economic activity, and more. Worst-case scenarios have been painted that envisage cataclysmic consequences, especially for poorer, ill-equipped countries.
The pandemic is also causing religious institutions around the world to adjust their practices to reduce physical contact. Houses of worship have canceled group devotions, offering online services as a substitute. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem closed indefinitely, the first time that has occurred since the Black Death in 1349. Ceremonies such as baptism, confirmation, and circumcision have been postponed. Large attendance at funerals and weddings has been discouraged or banned. Faith-based educational institutions, along with their secular counterparts, have cancelled classes and moved courses online. Pope Francis prayed to an empty Vatican plaza, which is normally packed with worshippers. In Saudi Arabia, the Muslim holy sites in Mecca and Medina have been closed to pilgrims. Of course, there have been exceptions and deniers of any need for caution, newsworthy because of the dangers they have posed to the general public and their own followers.
On the positive side, leaders of different faiths have come together to issue joint expressions of concern and solidarity. The pandemic has also led some warring parties, and some mutually hostile governments, to recognize the common interests suddenly created by the health crisis and cooperate to face it. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for a cease-fire in all the world’s ongoing conflicts so governments can focus all their energy on combating the coronavirus. Several governments and warring parties have since announced cease-fires. One striking example has been the close coordination adopted between Israel and the Palestine Authority.
It is no surprise that the coronavirus pandemic has also spawned religious conspiracy theories. Social media in Muslim countries have carried a report that Allah inflicted the virus on China as punishment for its ill treatment of the Uighur minority. A follow-up theory explained the outbreak in Iran as punishment for that country’s treatment of Sunni Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere. A minister who leads White House Bible study sessions has attributed the outbreak in the United States to God’s wrath over the influence of Americans who promote environmentalism and have “proclivity” toward homosexuality.
While “explanations” such as these may be accepted by some followers as credible, they are actually opportunistic and do not merit serious consideration. What we have yet to see, however, is a discussion from serious theologians. Massive epidemics and natural disasters in the past have triggered religious reexamination by both religious leaders and their flocks. In an era when secularism and scientific understanding have become widespread, it would be surprising if this pandemic did not also engender a wave of religious debate, including both rationalizations and new doubts and skepticism.
A brief reminder of such effects from history can illustrate the challenges these disasters can pose to long-standing beliefs.
In 542 CE, the bubonic plague swept through Europe carrying off 20 percent of the population. The plague burst out again in many places over the next century and a half, killing over half the population in some areas before it abated around 700 CE. Europeans attributed the plague to God, believing that disease and suffering were divine punishments justly inflicted upon man for his sins.
Knowledge about epidemic disease had not advanced when, in 1349, the plague again engulfed Europe. Groups of penitents roamed the continent, flagellating themselves in the belief that God’s fury could be mollified by self-inflicted punishment. In some places, the pestilence was blamed on the Jews, who were persecuted and murdered accordingly.
Compare these episodes with the famous description of the plague of Athens written by historian Thucydides in the fifth century BCE. Writing around 1,000 years before the bubonic plague of 542 CE, Thucydides acknowledged that the cause was a total mystery.
A pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth, were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster put a stop to them altogether. … [The Athenians] judged it to be the same whether they worshiped [the gods] or not, as they saw all alike perishing.
Thucydides did not look for supernatural explanation. The entire Athenian population stopped trying to influence or placate divine forces when it realized that such efforts were pointless. Although the concept of sacrificing animals, or even one or two individuals as scapegoats, had been introduced into Greek culture by the rites of the “mystery religions,” the Greeks did not resort to sacrifice or scapegoating individuals or any social group as a way of dealing with this calamity.
In 1755, a great earthquake devastated Lisbon. The destruction was compounded by fire and a tsunami that hit many other Atlantic coastal cities. The death toll in Lisbon was estimated at 40,000–100,000. The impact on European thinking was heightened because the quake struck while the churches were filled with worshippers celebrating All-Saints Day; many were crushed as churches collapsed. The Lisbon quake proved a tipping point. In the search for causes, the disaster spurred the emergence of the science of seismology.
Europeans were not alone in attributing natural disasters to supernatural powers. As in ancient Greece, China had rare empirical thinkers, centuries ahead of their time, who were also unable to unseat deep-rooted beliefs in unseen powers. People attributed lightning and thunder to supernatural purpose. When people were struck by lightning, the victims were believed to have been punished by heaven for evil behavior.
Analogous to questions of logic and moral credibility that arose in Western thought, some Chinese wrestled with the awkward implications of these notions. If lightning and thunder were a divine instrument against evil persons, not a random natural happening, why did it often strike trees and stones? A popular answer was that evil dragons were hiding inside the struck objects. But why were good persons sometimes struck? Answer: Such persons had done evil in a previous incarnation.
Some Chinese scholars viewed natural phenomena as having nothing to do with gods. In the fourteenth century CE, Liu Ji insisted lightning was a natural phenomenon lacking any moral intent; people who were struck were just victims of accident. The clash between natural and supernatural explanations lasted for centuries, unresolvable because Chinese scholars were not drawn to empirical investigation. Commonsense reasoning made little headway against popular delusions.
These were not peculiarly Chinese misconceptions. Some British writers in the seventeenth century still thought thunder a sign of divine wrath. And a century later, a critic of Ben Franklin’s famous experiment with a lightning rod warned that it was “impious to ward off Heaven’s lightnings as for a child to ward off the chastening rod of its father.” Franklin responded: “Surely the Thunder of Heaven is no more supernatural than the Rain, Hail, or Sunshine of Heaven, against the Inconvenience of which we guard by Roofs & Shades without Scruple.”
Singular catastrophes aside, it was weather on which man’s survival normally depended and where people and priests long believed the most critical and regular actions of the divine took place. In the Book of Job, God scoffs at Job’s rationalizing and his effort to probe divine logic that has punished a righteous man. God gives the classic answer to the conundrum of why bad things happen to good people: My ways are beyond human understanding. God cites the weather—clouds, rain, lightning, and thunder—as divine acts beyond man’s understanding. Zeus and many of the chief pagan gods of antiquity were also masters of the weather.
The gradual deconstruction of weather myths can serve as a metaphor for modern natural knowledge displacing old supernatural beliefs. We can see this process at work even today, for example in Northeast Thailand. Every year as the rainy season approaches, Northeasterners celebrate a festival that has elements of carnival, sexual license, mockery of authorities, and rituals to ensure good rains. The highlight is the launching of village-made skyrockets intended to energize the rain deities. Villagers continue to hold the festival and shoot rockets, despite knowing that rain results from natural processes. The festival still serves to promote communal solidarity and just plain fun. Some older villagers do not want to disregard the ritual, just in case the rain gods do exist after all.
Two and a half millennia after Athens, and two and a half centuries after Lisbon, there are still those in the United States who see divine causation in natural disasters or seek divine amelioration. Early in the twenty-first century, during droughts in a few southern states of the United States, governors called for days of prayer for divine action to bring about rainfall. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans’s mayor, C. Ray Nagin, explained that “God is mad at America.” By March 2020, more than half of Americans were reported to have prayed for an end to the coronavirus epidemic. Evangelical preachers have told us the pandemic is a precursor of the final apocalypse.
In recent centuries, secular culture and scientific knowledge have undermined the credibility of such supernatural worldviews. They have reduced religion in many minds (but obviously not all) to a social and political force, no longer an explanation of natural phenomena. The Japanese people, for example, saw the devastating 2011 tsunami as a completely natural event. They turned to religion for neither explanation nor solace.
But like the elderly Thai villagers who gamble that the old ideas might be right after all, there are still large numbers of people around the world who, bolstered by the sanctity of scripture or by their respect for religious authorities, believe divinity may be, or still is, a player, perhaps a player who intervenes only on occasions of great moment or will only reemerge as the great player at the end of time.
Meanwhile, the world is preoccupied with coping with the pandemic and its immediate ramifications. Once we are beyond the crisis and past the propagandistic and off-the-cuff soundbites, we are likely to see the start of serious stocktaking, theologians included. Whether or not this extraordinary universal shock causes another surge of the undermining of faith remains to be seen.