Although this is a science blog, I often address instances when belief clashes with science. I subscribe to the notion that religion and science have expertise over different areas and should be kept separate as per the concept of non-overlapping magisteria advocated by the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. But I recognize there will be cases where that separation becomes fuzzy or unworkable. I have made the point several times in my blog that science is the best method we have to discover the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us, and this is not an opinion. The success of science in discovering how the natural world works is plain for all but the most irrational skeptics to see. However, at the same time I accept that science cannot operate in a vacuum, and we have to contend with the reality of belief. In these trying times when we are in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, one of the crucial guidelines that scientists have issued to our population is the need for social distancing and avoiding crowds to reduce the spread of the virus. This guideline is derived from our knowledge of how the virus spreads.
Because of this I was shocked when I saw the video below.
This woman, who had just attended a church gathering where dozens of people hugged and assembled inside, has the firm conviction that the virus won’t infect her, and that she will not give it to others, because Jesus is protecting her.
Most people will criticize the belief of this woman and her congregation and view them intellectually in unflattering terms. However, I understand the need that people have for religion, especially during trying times such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact this is nothing new. For millennia, human beings have invoked the deity to help them overcome challenges. I also understand that for many individuals, psychological well-being is often as important as physical well-being. This is not to say that all religious congregations have responded in the way this one did. The majority are offering virtual religious services and other activities that follow social distancing guidelines. But there are a substantial number that are still refusing, and these can (and have) become hot beds of virus spread. However, I don’t think this is solely a religious issue.
In the United States, there is a distrust of government among many people. Any ordinance that in any way limits freedom is viewed with suspicion. If you include that there is the belief among some religious groups that a war is being waged on Christianity by atheists aligned with liberal organizations that wish to spread socialism and destroy the American way of life, you begin to get the idea of what may really be transpiring behind this opposition to common sense safety rules that interfere with regular worship. To this, of course, you must add the delegitimization of science that has taken place in our society, and the rise of antiscience movements such as those that advocate opposition to vaccination and climate change denial or the acceptance of conspiracy theories ranging from 911 and chemtrails to the flat Earth.
I believe, however, that there are ways to harmonize belief with science. If you look at the video of the woman again, you can see that she is wearing a seat belt. This makes sense, as science has generated evidence that seat belts along with air bags save lives during collisions. The woman probably doesn’t even think about this when she adjusts her seat belt upon entering the car. She also probably doesn’t even consider driving without a seat belt expecting Jesus to protect her in case of a crash. Additionally, the church she attends probably has lighting rods on top of the roof to protect the building and the people inside from lighting. It is likely that no one in the congregation has even considered removing the lightning rods and relying just on their faith in Jesus to protect the church. So there are clearly science-derived safety measures that these people accept. Why not then accept the safety measures against the coronavirus?
While it’s true that, unlike the acceptance of seat belts or lighting rods, the social distancing guidelines impose a serious restriction in their ability to worship, in essence the occurrence of a viral pandemic is not different from a lighting strike: they are both natural phenomena. Car crashes are a more artificial situation, but they can be rationalized in terms of collisions among moving bodies (a physical phenomenon). If these people have accepted, or at least don’t question, the science and the necessity behind seat belts lighting rods and other such safety measures in their daily lives, how can we convince them that the safety measures against the virus are no different?
As it turns out, many religious congregations, including some that share the same brand of Christianity as that of the woman in the video, have already taken care of this issue. They argue that God has responded to our prayers to keep us safe by giving us science, and through science we can understand how the world works and react accordingly. Viewed from this vantage point, applying our God-given science to come up with safety guidelines for the coronavirus is no different from applying it to come up with things like seat belts or lighting rods. No conspiracy. No attack on Christianity, No atheism or socialism. Science does not have an ideology. Science is a tool, and it the right hands it can be used for good.
Of course, the above argument that God has given us science is a religious argument and therefore outside the scope of science. But if it means having people accept safety measures that will save lives, I am all for it. Rather than condemn and berate these people for their beliefs, I am of the opinion that the best way to proceed is to search for individuals whom these religious denominations will trust, and have them deliver this argument. Then it can be worked out how to adapt the coronavirus safety guidelines to meet the needs of these religious congregations.
Image by geralt from pixabay is for public use.