Argument

Thou Shalt Practice Social Distancing

The world’s major faiths face a test, and some religious leaders are failing by endangering human lives in the name of adhering to tradition—and ushering in a new age of secularism in the process.

Pope Francis prays in front of a crucifix that in 1552 was carried in a procession around Rome to stop the Great Plague, at the San Marcello al Corso church in Rome on March 15.
Pope Francis prays in front of a crucifix that in 1552 was carried in a procession around Rome to stop the Great Plague, at the San Marcello al Corso church in Rome on March 15. VATICAN MEDIA/AFP via Getty Images
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The coronavirus pandemic is likely to be a watershed event in world history, with a deep impact on society, politics, and religions. One can expect the rise of new messianic movements, for example, with some claiming that the pandemic is a sign that the apocalypse is coming, as some already believe. Conversely, some believers may lose their faith, because they struggle with the age-old “problem of evil”—why God would allow all this to happen—and find no good answer to it, as some frankly admit.

Many religious people will also see the pandemic as a test. They are absolutely right: The coronavirus pandemic is a major test for all religions. But it is a test of not merely their faith, as many believers typically think. It is also a test of their reason—whether they act rationally or irrationally, whether they help save lives or put them at grave risk.

At the heart of this test is a conflict between the rational requirements of health and the traditional requirements of religion. Rational health-conscious behavior, as advised by virtually all medical experts, requires social distancing—namely, that people stay away from each other, preferably at home. Most religious traditions, however, require social gathering—especially bringing the faithful to churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples. So, which of these principles should come first?

The right answer should not be too difficult to find, as many religious leaders and communities have done since the emergence of the pandemic in late February. The Catholic Church, for example, responded to the deadly outbreak in Italy in early March by suspending all communal church services, “in coordination with the measures launched by the Italian authorities.” Soon after, Pope Francis prayed to a stunningly empty St. Peter’s Square, which is typically filled by huge crowds. He also called on the governments of the world to put “people first” and to take all the measures against a “viral genocide.”

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Similarly, Saudi authorities, whose responses to disasters have at times been irrationally fatalistic, took the right step in early March by closing the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, which are always swarmed by worshippers. Seeing the stunning photos of the empty Kaaba convinced many Muslims around the world that something really unprecedented was going on. In many Muslim-majority nations, one after another, communal prayers were called off. Even the call to prayer issued from mosque loudspeakers, which includes the line, “come to prayer, come to salvation,” was reworded in Kuwait to say, “pray in your homes.”

In Orthodox Jewish circles, many rabbis also did the right thing by calling off synagogue services and reminding their communities, the “Torah obligation to protect the sanctity of life transcends all other considerations,” as Britain’s chief rabbi reminded the country’s Jews. Many Hindu temples were closed down in India. In Thailand, one of the worst-hit countries in Southeast Asia, some Buddhist monks began producing face masks from recycled plastic.

However, not all religious leaders and communities have taken such rational precautions against the pandemic. Some even rejected them in the name of faith.

One was Rodney Howard-Browne, the pastor of a large evangelical church in Florida, who defied the state’s public orders for social distancing, claiming that his church was “the safest place.” (Soon, he got arrested for doing so.) Another one was Jerry Falwell Jr., who dismissed the nationwide response to the pandemic as an “overreaction” and reopened his Liberty University after the spring break. (Soon after, many students tested positive for the coronavirus.) Another reckless Christian leader was Majdi Allawi of the Maronite Catholic Church in Lebanon, who reportedly dismissed protective measures such as wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. “Jesus is my protection,” he said, “He is my sanitizer.”

Some ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities have also been dangerously reckless. In the New York borough of Brooklyn, many members of the Hasidic community disregarded social distancing and gathered for Purim celebrations and religious weddings and funerals as the virus shut down the city in March. Several of those communities soon showed high rates of coronavirus infection. In Israel, some ultra-Orthodox leaders resisted the government’s calls for closing of yeshivas, where students study religious texts, insisting, “canceling Torah study is more dangerous than corona.” Consequently, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 10 percent of the national population, have accounted for half of all Israelis hospitalized for coronavirus infection.

In the Muslim world, too, there have been disastrously naive reactions to the pandemic. One of the most dramatic cases was that of the Tablighi Jamaat, an India-based Sunni missionary movement with as many as 80 million members around the world. Despite all the warnings, they held huge dayslong gatherings, first in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and then in New Delhi, soon proving to be a “super-spreader” of the virus in South and Southeast Asia. (The incident led some Hindu nationalists to spew religious hatred and blame Muslims for a #coronajihad, which became a trending hashtag on Twitter. But it was not a malicious conspiracy—just like the case of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus of South Korea, which also acted as super spreader, it was simply catastrophic carelessness.)

In the mainstream Sunni and Shiite world, rational precautions have been taken by most governments, but often belatedly, and despite resistance from the most dogmatic believers. In Iran, one of the worst-affected countries, when authorities finally banned people from Shiite shrines, angry crowds stormed them. In Pakistan, where most clerics refused to limit mosque gatherings, police officers who tried to disperse crowds from Friday prayers were stoned by furious worshippers.

And in the United Kingdom, some conservative Muslim scholars also resisted the closure of mosques. A March 17 fatwa signed by three of them made the case by reminding “the Prophet’s practice of rushing to the Masjid [mosque] during calamities,” with a total disregard for the specific kind of a calamity that coronavirus is. They also made a grim argument: “The protection of faith supersedes the protection of one’s self.” Luckily, other scholars gave counter-fatwas, reminding that Islam never commands that people “place their lives in danger” just for the sake of prayer—but some damage may have already been done.

The religious figures who are failing the coronavirus test come from diverse traditions, but they have something in common: They prioritize their subjective interpretation of faith over the objective requirements of science and reason. They believe that, even if there is really something dangerous happening, God will somehow protect them thanks to their piety. A typical line of thought is that “praying to God is our only way out of this ordeal,” as one Arabic teacher in Egypt said. Or they believe God “is our shield,” as an ultra-Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn asserted. This is akin to jumping from a flying plane, without a parachute, saying, “God is our parachute.” It is the kind of blind faith that prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris have long been criticizing.

Blind faith gets even uglier when it begins embracing divine conspiracy theories—the idea that God is using this pandemic to punish a certain group of people, which are typically the people the divine conspiracy theorists don’t like: gay people and environmentalists, according to an American evangelical minister; those who pursue “adultery and anal sex,” according to a Turkish conservative; the Chinese, as some Muslim clerics initially suggested; the Jews, as an anti-Semitic Florida pastor claimed, or Western countries, as an imam in Gaza asserted. The very fact some of these bigoted figures themselves catch the virus hints that there is not a divine conspiracy—but perhaps a divine irony.

If such irrational and ugly attitudes keep clouding the religious scene, the coronavirus pandemic may usher in a secular moment, as the Turkish academic Gokhan Bacik already foresees in the Muslim world. The closest historical analogy would be Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which killed as many as 50,000 people and shattered the supernaturalist Catholic narratives of the era.

To avoid what will appear to many as a catastrophic failure of their worldview, religious leaders  must get their act together. 

Despite the clerics’ tendency to tie natural disasters to sins, the earthquake happened on All Saints’ Day, exactly when churches were filled with worshippers, many of whom perished. The drama inspired Enlightenment thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, who argued for scientific explanations to natural phenomena, and Voltaire, who took the secular lesson to an anti-religious passion.

To avoid what will appear to many as another catastrophic failure of their worldview, religious leaders around the world must get their act together today in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. That means following all the rational requirements of science, while offering faith as a source of hope and inspiration—not as a substitute, but a supplement to reason.

For Muslims—and other believers of all faiths—a simple story from the life of the Prophet Mohammed may help. The prophet was once supposedly asked by a man, “O Messenger of God, should I tie my camel and trust in God, or should I leave her untied and trust in God?”

“Tie her,” the prophet reportedly replied, “and trust in God.”

Today, tying the camel means wearing masks, washing your hands often with soap, keeping your distance from others, and giving up on communal worship to protect human life as the God of all monotheistic religions commands. It means being attentive to all the natural laws and biological facts of the complex world that God has created. Doing anything less would be disastrous not only for human lives, but also for the future of religion.

Mustafa Akyol is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, where he focuses on the intersection of public policy, Islam, and modernity. Twitter: @AkyolinEnglish

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