Sages and knaves, titans and clowns, all now find themselves rummaging for meaning amid the wreckage wrought by the coronavirus. That longing for meaning, an ancient, insistent impulse to discern order in chaos—or invent one where none seems apparent—is apt to be set afrenzy by a plague. Of all misfortunes, few rival a plague’s charnel force, its capacity to serve as both prefigurer and vector of death, the savage stalker dragging all flesh, raging or not, into what Philip Larkin called “the total emptiness forever” above which there is “nothing more terrible.” And fewer still so adeptly moonlight as brewer of a cauldron in which public suffering inflames rather than softens private grief.
What torment it must be, then, to languish in sorrow, pining for a friend, father, or mother fallen to the virus and then hear “spiritual rat catchers” such as televangelist Pat Robertson regurgitate the claim that the virus, like 9/11, is God’s punishment for abortion and such sins as Ellen DeGeneres wedding Portia de Rossi. (Perhaps Robertson’s God would have stayed his vengeful hand had DeGeneres instead opted to become the fourth wife of Donald J. Trump.) Robertson’s fixation incarnates two cardinal impulses among the faithful: the instinct to probe events to extract God’s will and find God’s rage always hovering. Both instincts predate Robertson and his evangelical faction, as is clear in the introit Signum magnum apparuit in caelo (a great sign appeared in heaven) and that of the sequence Dies Irae (day of wrath).
Terrorized by the coronavirus and lurking behind glass windows, we glimpse and applaud brave medics as they rouse wailing ambulances across forlorn streets racing to save once-robust hearts now turned frail, stertorous, nearing death. Yet by Robertson’s warped, perfidious logic, these medics alchemize from the best among us into mere stumbling blocks, ignoble fighters against the cleansing swing of God’s lash. After the famous 1755 Lisbon earthquake burned, buried, and boiled thousands in that littoral city, Jesuit Gabriel Malagrida diagnosed the cause as “God’s wrath” and, for cure, hectored survivors with exhortations to cease such villainy as listening to music, dancing, and going to the theater. As anyone weaned on the Bible knows, the scroll itself ratifies Robertson’s and Malagrida’s fantasies, festooned as it is with scene after scene of an irascible god plying his creatures with floods, fire, and famines.
There’s now no reason to abide Robertson’s blather. Just over a century ago, German scientist Alfred Wegener stood on the shoulders of François Paget and Antonio Snider-Pellegrini to devise the theory of continental drift. From their toils arose the science of plate tectonics, which in turn showed earthquakes, tsunamis, and such to be the work not of some personage but of an indifferent universe. Hence most people, lettered and not, rightly ignore Robertson, leaving him to effuse his uninvited ramblings on his weird network.
Invited and feted, though, are his comrades. It’s strange, for they too drink from the same font of faith and arrogate to themselves the right to play wise men, to pontificate on life’s meaning, presumably on account of owning some superior or esoteric insight. At the peak of the carnage, NPR, the public radio network and a leading sculptor and curator of bien-pensant sensibilities in the United States, thought it fit to turn to “faith leaders” for wisdom and sedatives. A few august dailies joined the chin-stroking borefest, lending their imprimatur to charlatans hawking tripe much of the civilized world continues to discard as untrue, childish, and harmful. In the person of Jesuit James Martin, one finds the jaunty, erudite face of centrist Christianity. In a New York Times piece titled “Where Is God in a Pandemic?” he answered: “We don’t know.” But those tempted to laud Martin’s answer as candid and humble mustn’t forget its utter banality; theodicy typically involves someone muttering something about mystery. The imam, rabbi, and Anglican divine on NPR fared little better. Handed NPR’s precious airtime to play hierophant, each predictably burbled, recycling stale non-answers to theodicy, a 310-year-old word for the pseudo-question of why evil exists in a world ostensibly ruled by an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing god. As Job is the Abrahamic believer’s archetype for undeserved suffering, so does Epicurus’s elegant phrasing double as the infidel’s retort and a classical formulation of the question: “Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not all-powerful. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? And is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Carnage or not, though, we must ask: why should we endure sermons on life and pandemics and their meaning from religion’s votaries? Having no reason to credit the uncouth Robertson and his dreary quacks with special wisdom, we’re left with vetting the credentials of their respective clubs—they were, after all, each speaking (as scholastic Aristotelians would say) qua Muslim, Christian, and Jew. Each invokes a god who ordered ethnic cleansing and celebrated the massacre of men, women, and children; each prays from a holy book that could serve as an ur-manual for genocide. The imam comes from a tradition whose self-proclaimed vessel for truth as well as universal and permanent values found it proper, in his late forties, to marry a six-year-old and consummate the marriage barely four years later. Christians, by maligning Jews over millennia, tilled the ground for the Holocaust, the vilest man-made plague. And Martin’s church signed the first Concordat that embraced Adolf Hitler’s murderous regime long after the church had gone to extremes to undermine science and protect Rome’s market share by murdering scientists such as Giordano Bruno. The same church terrified common folk into submission with fear of perdition—“It is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff,” Pope Boniface VIII boasted. It’s now well known that its priapic, male-only prelacy coddled monsters who molested children. And still today, its dogmas vilify and marginalize women while employing near-Orwellian verbal subterfuge, as in the portentously named Mulieris Dignitatem, to assure them that a low status is indeed an elevated one.
There’s more. Take the pelvic issues about which religion is obsessed: the different clubs remain as confused as before, despite claiming divine guidance and, rather ludicrously, infallibility. Mormons embraced polygamy, a practice Catholic missionaries so abhorred that they commanded many African converts to renounce it or forfeit baptism. At the 1930 Lambeth Conference, Anglicans tired of tradition and took to contraceptives, prompting Rome to restate its hardline dogma in Casti Connubii (1930) and Humanae Vitae (1968), the latter slamming shut a vital door to widen the incipient realism of Vatican II’s aggiornamento. Petrified of the body and thus sworn to war against it, the Church deems nearly every pleasure—pre-marital sex, masturbation, same-sex love, etc.—a sin. Particularly in the so-called New Testament, sin translates from the Greek hamartia. The word, at birth a toxophilite term for missing a mark in archery, somehow ambled into tragic drama and then got imported into moral theology by sexless hermits who weaponized it to torment fellow mortals. What a joyless decline from play to pain.
“This World Is Not Conclusion,” Emily Dickinson titled her most poignant poem. Those wedded to that premise boast such a damning history, it’s no wonder priggish faith leaders now dash to hitch a ride on the toils and successes of scientists, at times furiously appending codicils to muddle faith’s history of cruelties. Meanwhile, “more than half of all U.S. adults (55 percent) say they have prayed for an end to the spread of coronavirus,” reports Pew. But this pandemic will abate or end, not due to prayers—supplications to fictional characters prove about as useful to ending pandemics as they are to making rain fall—but because science, an institution built by much human ingenuity, by trial and error, will devise abatement strategies and ultimately deliver a vaccine.
In all this, left out are the voices of those who profess no religion, the fastest-growing segment of the American population. These heirs to the Enlightenment stand for the truth, recently articulated by Steven Pinker, “that natural events,” of which an earthquake is a classic example, occur “with no regard to human welfare.” This indifference to atheists and agnostics, even if without malice, still subtly ratifies the contemptible slur that infidels cannot but lead inferior, shriveled lives—that of life’s mysteries, our minds, still hunkered in the cave, cannot but know less. So, too, our souls, callused and darkened as they are with conceit, shorn of divine light. Though all must see but through a glass darkly, our lot can’t but fare worse. And before the arresting glory and majesty and beauty of the universe, our hearts must stir less, lacking the requisite grace and spiritual polish. Against these smears, infidels old and new have stood resolute. “You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled,” retorts Richard Dawkins in his epochal The God Delusion. Nonbelievers “are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe,” adds the late Christopher Hitchens.
Beyond reaffirming the obvious, these secular thinkers should also remind us that a potent tradition stands ready, not to yawn about meanings, but to enrich the intensifying clamor for citizens and policymakers to forge a more humane, more equitable world. Its values—Pinker identifies reason, science, humanism, and progress in Enlightenment Now—invites us to rethink the contours of our obligations to nature and our fellow human beings, be they in Alaska, Wuhan, or Zambia. Perhaps this plague will prove an opening to broaden our hearts to those who live daily in a silent but no less deadly Oran, in lives wracked with war, disease, hunger, hate, squalor, and superstition.
Unbelieving Western Europe, Scandinavia above all, furnishes an appealing model of personal happiness and social solidarity, in pandemics and out. By contrast, religious nations offer a model to be avoided. “The most religious countries (which happen to be those in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa) are the unhappiest, while the most atheistic countries—those in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, as well as Australia and Canada—are the happiest.” And, suicides aside—lest we forget, not all suicides are created equal, nor are they all tragic—“countries marked by high rates of organic atheism are among the most societally healthy on earth, while societies characterized by non-existent rates of organic atheism are among the most unhealthy.”* So it is proving in the United States, where the GOP (or God’s Own Party—a loose translation of Hezbollah), goaded by a fervid evangelical base, schemes without rest to worsen unlucky Americans’ misery by denying them healthcare and other cushions to life’s ills. The party and its faith-based clientele cheerlead a ruthless capitalism that weakens the family, one that leaves parents little time to truly nurture their children. Their trickle-down platitudes elevate into a default position the arguably awful habit of shunting off aging parents—the very persons to whom we most owe our breath and love—to pass their sunset days among strangers in alien, doleful lodgings. And as soon as it became clear that victims were disproportionately Black and Brown people, they led the rush to reopen as if eager to revive the Right’s dormant eugenicist fantasies. As is often the case, cruelty against imagined foes at home segues into cruelty against imagined foes abroad, hence the exertions, in which the faithful feature strongly, to cast the Chinese—not merely the Standing Committee—as exotic, deceitful vectors of pathogens, misery, and death.
Tempting though it may be to yield to despair, there’s reason for hope. In the United States, the curtains are drawing down on faith. Just as more and more Americans turn their backs on the relic, those unaffiliated with any faith “have seen their numbers swell.” Minutes before the closing credits in The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s masterpiece, the protagonist Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) at last confronts Stasi apparatchik Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme): “To think that people like you once ruled a country.” The United States has yet to descend into East German dystopian stupor. Still, the Trump-led clownocracy misgoverning this nation, driving it to anomie by the day, deserves our contempt. Like Trump’s mob, religion, with its history of errors and terror, has nothing meaningful and original to teach about governance of the world and personal lives. We should stop treating its votaries as if it did.
*Phil Zuckerman, “Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns,” From The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Michael Martin, ed., University of Cambridge Press, 2007.