These days it’s pretty clear that if you want to listen to anyone for advice it shouldn’t be the government. I suppose that’s why I spend so much time on the World Health Organization’s page. I’m no medical person and I certainly don’t understand epidemiology. Contagion I get, because religion operates that way. So WHO has been making somewhat frequent references to faith. A recent status report noted that 84% of the world’s population reckons itself as religious and that many coronavirus outbreaks have taken place because of continued religious gatherings. To that I suspect they’ll need to add political rallies supporting governments you shouldn’t trust, but what is such blind faith in leaders who don’t know what they’re doing if not religion? People want to believe.
Religious gatherings also provide crucial support. The community with which I associate has been using Zoom gatherings since mid-March. It’s not perfect, of course, but during our virtual coffee hour I’ve been put in breakout rooms with people I don’t know. I’m starting to get to know people I might be too shy to speak with in “real life.” More than that, I’m asking myself what real life really is. Technology has been pushing us in this direction for some time. We relate virtually rather than physically. I’ve never met many of the people with whom I have some of my most significant exchanges. The internet, in other words, has an ecclesiastical element to it. The words “church” and “synagogue” both go back to roots meaning “to gather.” Faith, despite the stylites, is not lived alone.
WHO suggests that since religious leaders influence millions of people, if they would turn their message to prevention it could have a tremendous human benefit. Consider how one man’s personal crusade in the mid-nineteenth century led to elections being decided on the basis of abortion alone. If faith leaders were to take the good of humankind to heart and spread that message, it could well outstrip the virus. Alas, but politics interferes. Many religions also want to determine how people live. There’s power in that. We’ve seen it time and again with televangelists. WHO has faith that these leaders might set aside their scriptures for a moment and read situation reports based in science and rationality. WHO apparently has faith as well. Until someone smarter than politicians sorts all of this out we’re probably safest meeting virtually. Who knows—perhaps there are hidden benefits to that as well?