Religion in Times of COVID-19

This article is an attempt to document the intersectionality of religion with COVID-19. Religion in a general sense is a reservoir of resources to which believers turn, especially in times of crisis. Religion offers explanations as to what is happening and also proposes means of mitigation. This article aims to look for highlights of these two responses from religion in different areas of the world, with a particular focus on India. 

 

Religion is the medium through which humans forge threads of connectedness in varying degrees. Different religious systems that have their origins in specific cultural locations render the connections between humans in culturally mediated patterns. The mandate of the World Health Organization (WHO) geared towards protecting humanity from the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic involves corporeal distance between people, which seems at first glance to be diagonally opposite of what religion stands for. However, the tension between the familiar and the mysterious, the proximate and the distant, is integral to intersubjectivity, particularly in the domain of religion. The manner in which religion performs the role of mitigating this tension gets amplified in times of a pandemic of a scale as that of COVID-19.

‘Do Not Touch’

The mandate of the WHO which hinges on physical distancing as a proven response to halt the spread of the coronavirus meant that for the religiously oriented people, life would not be normal for some time to come. Followers of religions have responded to these altered realities in different ways. While some have found religiously sanctioned instructions symmetrical to the guidelines given by WHO, others have discovered in the repository a mandate not just to accept the WHO guidelines on face value but to oppose them on religious grounds, as deliberate attempts to undermine the influence of religion in public life. 

The experiential dimension of religion is sustained by rites, rituals, pilgrimages and ceremonies. The performance and participation of the specialists and the non-specialists in these heightened moments of consciousness constitutes the experience of religion for its practitioners. The measures put in place by governments across the world to arrest the spread of COVID-19 resulted in alteration and disruption of these performative aspects of religion leaving the believers to improvise, interpret and explore new avenues and alternatives. The speed at which a distinction was marked between the offline and the online modes of some of the rituals and ceremonies bears testimony to the continuing value of religion and the tenacity of believers to adapt the rigid, formulaic and ritually binding performances of normal times to the fast-changing reality of the pandemic-infected world. Satsang, poojas, artis, religious discourses, ritual performances, and darshan have all metamorphosed in lightning speed to the online mode; something unthinkable in pre-pandemic times.

Explaining the Pandemic

For believers, religion constitutes an explanatory system par excellence. It assists the believers to make sense of what is happening around them and the world at large by positing a world view or cosmology1 (Geertz 1993: 87125). Believers have taken recourse to religion in general and religious leaders in particular for cogent explanations on the world in the times of COVID-19. The range of religiously couched explanations are galore and originate from various standpoints. One of the common explanations that religions offer for the pandemic is that it is a visible sign of human frailty and culpability. Since reports suggested that the origin of the virus was from wet animal markets in Wuhan, the human propensity to encroach on the animal world in disproportionate ways, even against the divine will, was touted as a necessary condition that resulted in the origin and initial spread of the virus (Carrington 2020; Ivereigh 2020).  

An explanation suggested by religious experts depicts the pandemic as an essential part of the human predicament. The only reasonable response to it is to be more humane and sensitive to the rest of humanity who are comparatively exposed more to misery and hardships than oneself. One of the prominent responses of the people of faith has been an outpouring of humanitarian aid and assistance to those at the receiving end of the scourge of the pandemic. Instances of such a response included, among others, the members of the Tablighi Jamaat who turned plasma donors, the members of the Sikh organisations who organised langar for the affected people, charitable trusts managed by religious organisations across the world, and particularly in India, which embarked on a massive outreach to the people affected by the virus as well as by the unprecedented lockdown (Ahmed 2020; Trivedi 2020; Art of Living 2020; Belur Math Media Gallery 2020; Gomes 2020). 

Some influential religious leaders have found a link between the coronavirus and the imageries of the apocalypse, end times and the time of retribution mentioned in their scriptures. The metaphor of the end of the world and the day of judgment is etched vividly on the pages of the holy book of the Semitic religions accompanied by descriptions of signs and portents. Similar themes with vivid portrayals of the end times and the day of judgment are plenty in cinematic representation mediated through Hollywood films. Consequently, leaders of Semitic religions have hitched on to the imageries of the end of times to explain COVID-19 and its after effects. One of the signs mentioned in the scriptures dealing with the end of time is a pestilence of a massive scale. Some religious leaders have turned themselves into doomsday prophets and invoked this imagery to make sense of the pandemic as a sign of the end of time, exhorting their followers to take note of the signs and portends and getting themselves ready for the end (Jeremy 2020).

Conspiracy theories constitute yet another mode of explanation for the pandemic among the believers of various religions. Such theories and explanations flourish in times of upheaval and uncertainty. Some of the theories point out to the virus as intentionally created by the atheistic Chinese and spread to the rest of the world in a calculated manner to wreak havoc on the believers. Some conservative Christians across the world, particularly in the United States (US) consider the virus to be a hoax, created and sustained in a mediatised world through deliberate propaganda to suit the ideologies of certain political parties (Romano 2020). Anchors of some television news channels in India portrayed the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in New Delhi in March 2020 as part of the conspiracy to spread the coronavirus in India (Jha 2020). 

Some have added conspiracy theories and explanations to the massive effort launched for a vaccine for the virus. There is a long-standing trend of religious leaders employing religious language to portray vaccination as part of a geo-political conspiracy. For some time now, there have been reports of the Taliban launching campaigns against polio vaccination in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. The anti-vaccination tenor of religious leaders has surfaced once again, this time referring to the efforts towards a vaccine for COVID-19. Interestingly, some of the reports coming from Latin American countries describe how some Christian pastors are denouncing Bill Gates as the kingpin of the vaccine conspiracies. For instance, a Colombian pastor couple with substantial following on Instagram talked about how the vaccine for the coronavirus would be embedded with a microchip called "ID2020," manufactured by Bill Gates and aimed at creating a database of all those who are inoculated, in order to employ that database for the spread of the messages of the Antichrist (Longoria et al 2020; Weiss and Greenstreet 2020). At the start of the outbreak in India, there was talk of “corona jihad” to portray a conspiracy that Muslims wanted to speed up the spread of the virus. Kapil Mishra, a local leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi had stated then that the members of the Tablighi Jamaat deliberately acted to spread the virus as widely as possible (Ellis-Peterson 2020). 

Conspiracy theories couched in religious language and peddled by religious leaders take on added legitimacy and urgency when they are simultaneously endorsed and propagated by entrenched political ideologies. The world has increasingly tilted towards isolationist nationalism, cultural nationalism, and majoritarianism, that along with the ascendance of right-wing ideologies have amplified the conspiracy theories about the pandemic. In spaces where majoritarianism and cultural nationalism have reached a crescendo, the interventions by the state as well as public opinion orchestrated by certain organisations and entities (particularly those in the media industry) have reinforced the anti-minority tenor of state-sponsored propaganda and politics. The tag of “super spreader” attributed to the congregation of Tablighi Jamaat in March 2020 in New Delhi, the subsequent onslaught of a media witch hunt, arrests and charge sheeting of the organisers and participants, including foreign nationals, and the subsequent acquittal of the latter in the courts of law exemplify the ways in which the pandemic has been an occasion for buttressing and reinforcing the entrenched majoritarian politics.2 

Rituals and Gatherings

The availability of an assorted number of ritual performances and online congregations opened up multiple possibilities for believers. It rendered the constriction of space redundant as one could choose to log on to a ritual performance, congregation, satsang or service that was happening anywhere in the world. One is no longer confined to the local temple, mosque, church or gurdwara for participation in religious performances. For instance, a Catholic believer would now have the possibility of watching an online mass conducted by the Pope himself. One could choose the time and the place where the rituals and performances are being conducted. The mediated nature of the virtual which supplants the real got extended to the domain of religion in more visible and emphatic ways than ever imagined before.

It also opened up the possibility of new players entering the arena of ritual performances and authorised religious practices. Robbed of the possibility of tapping into one's regular visits to the shrine in the neighbourhood for religious nourishment, the altered times offered the possibility for the religiously innovative to embark on breaking the boundaries of authorised performances and imagining new possibilities. For instance, the stranglehold of patriarchy over religious authority and ritual hierarchy gets diluted in a scenario where the entire gamut of rituals and ceremonies have gone online. This opens up the space for new performers and new forms of ritual performance. For those wanting to democratise the realm of ritual performance, the pandemic-induced world offers many pathways. With the cessation of regular pujas, services and other communal practices in religious shrines, the custodians of ritualised religion are apprehensive about the financial fallout as well as the possibility that the believer or devotee may get used to the altered circumstances and may not patronise the shrines as intensely as before once the situation becomes normal. However, even with the possibilities opened up by the virtual space, the entitled ritual specialists too sought unique ways of guarding their monopolistic hold on ritual and authorised practice. 

There have been voices of outrage among believers in the way states and governmental agencies are enforcing closure of communal worship and services. For many believers, communal worship is an essential part of their lives, especially in crisis situations. They lament the fact that while communal services stand banned in many places, supermarkets and commercial establishments which attract larger crowds are allowed to operate. In some places, believers discretely broke the law to sustain their commitment to congregational worship. A report in the Guardian from 22 November 2020 gave details of such attempts across the United Kingdom (Sherwood 2020). Deeming such practices as amounting to unavoidable acts of civil disobedience, the participants spoke of the need to be connected to the divine in communal worship now more than at any other time. A statement by a Christian pastor captures this sentiment the best: “I don’t believe the government has the authority to tell the church of Jesus Christ that it can’t gather for worship. They have provided no evidence, they just classed us as non-essential. But we believe worship is the most essential thing in life” (Sherwood 2020). 

The Therapeutic Dimension

For believers, one of the crucial functions of religion is in the realm of the therapeutic. They turn to religion in times of affliction and grief with marked intensity than at other times. Memories of divine intervention in times of large-scale affliction are etched in religious monuments and installations all across the globe.3 Epidemics and pandemics are times when the believers would turn to religion and religiously sanctioned practices for relief, protection and healing. It is no wonder then that it is in the realm of religion that many believers have endeavoured to find solace and cure for COVID-19 as well. The therapeutic and the cathartic aspects of religion coupled with the power and authority that believers bestow on religious leaders and faith healers have given rise to multiple claims of cures for the pandemic from across the globe. These cures include, among other things, cow urine, chlorine dioxide solution, magic beans, consecrated oil, and so on. 

Spirituality versus Ritualism

In certain circles, the pandemic-induced transformation and curtailment of religious rituals, pilgrimages, and ceremonies have triggered a debate on the very nature of religion wherein the older debate of spirituality versus ritualism is taking on newer dimensions of engagement. COVID-19 and the attendant problems that humans face is interpreted as a “spiritual struggle” that affects believers and non-believers alike, and religions are imagined as avenues for bringing solace to humanity in different ways. Those believers whose very understanding of religion is based on the ethical dimensions rather than the ceremonial have stressed on the opportunity that the coronavirus pandemic has allowed believers to free themselves of the ritualism that has crept in many aspects of religious belief and practice. On the other hand, believers whose approach to religion is more through rituals and ceremonies have either faced a crisis of sorts during the pandemic or have adapted themselves to the online mode. 

Science and Religion

The pandemic has also been an occasion for the reiteration of yet another debate between religion and science. Votaries of science and the scientific temper, with a corresponding disenchantment for religious beliefs and practices, have had a field day disparaging the various attempts of religiously inspired people across the globe touting cures and preventive therapies for the religiously enchanted. Results of preliminary studies on the status of belief and religious practices in the times of the pandemic suggest that at least in certain locations, there has been an enhanced value given to religiously sanctioned ways of explaining and responding to the present situation. This includes a spurt in religious beliefs and practices such as prayers, fasts, vows, and vicarious sacrifices. For instance, in a study conducted in Poland, the authors found a rise in religiosity and religious practice among the young and elderly people (Kowalczyk et al 2020). Similarly, a quarter of the respondents in the US to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre said that their faith has grown amidst the pandemic and only 2% suggested that their faith has weakened in the wake of the pandemic (Grecewicz 2020). 

Conclusions

As a domain of human enterprise that seeks to deal with questions of ultimate significance and connecting those questions to the mundane attitudes and activities of everyday life, an analysis of the role of religion in times of the public health crisis such as COVID-19 is crucial. A cursory mapping of some of the prominent trends reported from around the world provides a religious canvas of multiple responses which are often contradictory. No matter the response that believers have adopted in terms of explanation, mitigation, and coping strategies, religion has been a major moving force, particularly in the time of the pandemic. 

 

 

A version of this paper was first presented at the webinar series on Gender Equity and COVID-19 organised by the Women’s Development Cell, University of Mumbai in association with Ghanshyamdas Jalan College of Science, Commerce, and Arts on 12 June 2020. The webinar series was conceptualised by Gita Chadha and Meher Bhoot.

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