The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the best and worst aspects of religion.
Faith has inspired countless acts of generosity and goodwill while helping believers get through an extraordinarily scary and difficult time.
But some believers, from Christians to Hasidic Jews, have flouted social-distancing guidelines, insisting that God will protect their congregation. And as in previous pandemics, some have gone looking for scapegoats to explain why God would allow such immense suffering.
Jeff Levin, an epidemiologist and observant Jew who comes from a long line of esteemed rabbis, has studied – and lived at – the intersection of medicine and religion for decades.
The Baylor University professor’s new book, “Religion and Medicine: A History of the Encounter Between Humanity’s Two Greatest Institutions,” is a comprehensive and fascinating look at the complex relationship between spirituality and healing.
CNN spoke to Levin this week about how religion can both heal and harm, and how we’re seeing both aspects play out during the pandemic.
CNN: The way you write about the relationship between religion and medicine – how close they were at first and how far apart they seem now – made me think of a bitter divorce.
Levin: That’s a really good analogy. You can’t really tell the history of medicine without the history of religion and vice versa. Concerns about the healing of people go back to the origins of religion, and religions have been involved in the training of healers of both body and mind. As this relationship has evolved, we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly.
How are we seeing that relationship play out during this pandemic?
Faith is a positive force when it motivates people to think outside of themselves and be of service. When it makes people strike out at others and look for demons to blame, it’s doing a great disservice. Honestly, we have seen both. There are terrible messages from the pulpit warning about Chinese immigrants and, on the other side, some people are acting incredibly compassionately and ethically.
You point out that Jews were scapegoated during the Black Plague in Europe. We’re seeing some of that happen now with Asian Americans. Why is this idea so persistent?
People need to lash out, to have someone to blame when they feel that God has abandoned them. They think it must be someone else’s fault. I’m disappointed that more clergy and pastors aren’t speaking out about what’s going on. Some are making statements, but this to me is a social-justice teaching moment for people of faith. In any community where this kind of bigotry is going on it’s incumbent on the pastors to say something. If some of their congregants don’t like it, tough sh*t. At a certain point, you have to be bold.
At the same time, surveys point to an uptick in people’s reliance on their religion. It seems like faith is playing some sort of therapeutic role for many of us right now.
Yes, people are shut in their homes and looking for something to do, to feel better and not be in a reactive state all the time. And religion, in the broadest sense, can help people attain positive states of well-being. Religion is having this applied function that maybe is not always at the forefront of how people engage spirituality. The usual way is to think about it once a week and try to be a good person. Now it seems more vital, more personal, more urgent.
I wonder how long that will last. With past pandemics, did people’s reliance on religion wane as the contagion was contained?
I’ve read stuff saying that this pandemic will lead to a religious renaissance or another great awakening. On the other hand, I am cynical that there will be some scandal or a naked selfie and people will leave all this behind and be back to the same old mindlessness. Looking at past pandemics, like the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918, once it was over it was really out of sight, out of mind. It wasn’t really talked about. And 100 million people lost their lives!
How did religious people respond to the Spanish Flu? Was there a surge in spirituality?
Absolutely. I think you could draw a direct line between that outbreak, combined with World War I, and the rebirth of modern millennialism. That is, an obsession with the Tribulation and Rapture that was not very visible before that. The beginning of End Times ministries came out of that outbreak and has remained in the public consciousness.
Some governors have labeled houses of worship essential services, others have not. Are they essential, in your opinion?
Well, on the one hand, I do believe that religious services are “essential,” in an existential sense. But this is an exceptional time that we are in and there are life-and-death considerations involved. So it seems prudent to be extra careful, lest our religious gatherings become vectors to propagate transmission of a pathogenic and virulent virus. Zoom and other platforms can work just fine for now in keeping communities of faith linked together virtually. Pastors who are violating restriction orders are possibly endangering the most vulnerable of their congregants. Do they really think that a loving God wants them to do something so foolish?
You write about Jesus’ healing ministry in your book. I wonder if some of the conservative resistance to medicine might be rooted in the idea that Jesus will heal them, too, so they don’t need vaccinations or doctors?
It’s fascinating to me that people would think that seeking medical care is somehow disobedient to God. Almost like it’s blasphemous. It’s bizarre. For Jews, one of the ways that God heals is by providing men and women of science who can help keep us well. I don’t think there’s anything implicit within Christianity to not seek medical care because of Jesus. I have heard during this outbreak some people say, “Jesus is my vaccine.” Well, OK, I can be respectful of that, but at the same time you need to not congregate with hundreds of people in a room.
What do you make of the Pew Center study that showed pretty wide gaps between Christians and atheists/agnostics in their approach to triage – specifically, who should get ventilators?
The Pew findings are provocative and ring true to me. I find them unsurprising, but as a religious believer I also find them troubling. (In the study, most religious people said ventilators in short supply should go to patients who need them most in the moment; while most non-religious people said they should go to patients with the highest chance of recovery.)
In my opinion, utilitarian calculus doesn’t have a place in this kind of decision-making. We are morally beholden to respond to people in need when they present themselves to us, without attempting to parse which life is more or less valuable or worthy. There’s a very slippery slope from there to the totalitarian impulse to value some lives over others for reasons of political calculation.
Who has a bigger role determining morality in the medical field right now, religion or science?
I think it’s the goal of many secular scientists and organizations to push religious considerations completely out of the picture when it comes to determining what is or isn’t morally acceptable. This is a dangerous gambit. Without a gold standard of behavior, in the end anything goes. Sanctity of life can give way to political expediency or some other fashion.
This isn’t a right-vs.-left thing; it’s about how we go about deciding what we should do and why and whether there are any eternal values that should govern these decisions. This conflict especially presents itself to us now in bioethics, where harsh and impersonal technological advances are driving the bus and leaving humanity and compassion out of the doctor-patient relationship.
Religion can heal, as the studies in your book show. It seems equally evident, though, that religion can kill, too.
Of course. Throughout history, personal faith and religious institutions have been a great force for good, motivating selfless behavior and compassion and magnificent works of service to others. At the same time, religious institutions and leaders have been sources of divisiveness and hate, and religious movements have existed throughout history which have targeted outsiders for destruction. Thousands of studies by now have shown that expressions of religious faith or spirituality are associated, on average, with all kinds of benefits for our well-being — less depression, less anxiety, even longevity in some studies. And sociologists and psychologists and economists and political scientists have documented the other ways that religion or faith has impacted humanity for the good.
But at the same time, so many people have been harmed by religion. Emotionally abused, disfellowshipped or rejected, unfairly judged, left feeling diminished rather than uplifted. It’s hard to convince some people that religion is intrinsically a positive force when they experience themselves or their loved ones being abused or tortured or even killed in the name of religion. Honestly, religion isn’t a single unitary thing, and it’s not all good or all bad. It’s better thought of as a domain or dimension of life – a vessel that can be filled up with goodness that can nurture and comfort and even heal but can also be filled with sludge and sickness that can do vile things to people and ruin lives.