Millions of Americans joined in the year’s most important Christian service yesterday—in a wholly unprecedented way. The pews were empty this Easter Sunday, but the internet sizzled with sermons.
Yet, even as congregations grappled with the reality of a pandemic that has already killed more than 100,000 people worldwide, all too many priests, pastors, and ministers told their online congregations the same old set of myths: God loves you, God knows what’s going on, and God is in control.
When disasters happen, clerics invariably declare them the will of God. The nonreligious typically remain silent, not wanting to add to the pain or detract from the comfort that religion offers others. But this pandemic changes everything. I for one feel that in the current circumstances, truth is a higher value than comfort.
Here’s why: the moment this crisis is over, we have to prepare for the next outbreak. We can interpret what’s happening now either through magical thinking or scientific insight but not both. That’s not to say there’s no room for religion in this crisis, but we must reject a certain kind of religious stance.
God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful: taken together, these three claims amount to what’s known as theism. Theism is not the only way of being religious, but it is by far the most widespread and pernicious.
Is there a God? Sure.
At the very least, God is a powerful symbolic construct existing, one way and another, in the minds of billions of people. Could God be more than that? Possibly, though evidence and reason offer no support for the idea.
Yet Rev. Rick Warren, one of the nation’s most admired and followed ministers, put this in his Easter message: “While the current environment around the nation is one of fear, God is in control.”
Really? If so, God must be ignorant, callous, or both. To dodge this logical necessity, apologists cook up cock-and-bull stories about the Big Guy waxing wrathful over homosexuality, atheism, and even environmentalism. (Burn more coal, saith the Lord!) Among others, Pastor Ralph Drollinger, who leads weekly Bible study for White House cabinet members, posted such claims.
These are patently ridiculous slanders on an allegedly perfect supreme being. They are fit only for Bronze Age societies that had no idea how large and old the world, let alone the universe, really is.
Even granting the notion that a vengeful God could exist, a pandemic puts the lie to the claim that he is out to get certain people for their shortcomings. The thing about a pandemic is its pan-ness. It’s everywhere! COVID-19 kills without regard to piety, creed, or sexual orientation. The reason is simple, and it has nothing to do with God.
Evolution assures that every living thing tends to behave as if the spread of its genes were the most important thing in the world. Anything that deviates from this Darwinian dictate tends to take itself out of the running. Viruses are quasi-life, little bits of code wrapped in a shell, but they are very much Darwinian. They act to maximize their replication.
To do this, they “explore” many different strategies, always “seeking” the optimum spread in the current environment. Killing a host too quickly is a poor strategy, but failing to provoke a host to spread the virus is likewise a poor strategy.
Coronaviruses tend to favor flying hosts, such as birds and bats, to carry the virus far and wide. But the current environment also offers hosts who move around the world with unprecedented speed and frequency. That’s us, folks.
SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has found a combination close to the optimum—it provokes humans to spread viral particles widely, infects new hosts easily, and kills them slowly and infrequently enough that new victims remain within range.
By contrast, Ebola kills so many of its hosts so rapidly and gruesomely that people flee, snuffing out epidemics. COVID-19 has already infected a far greater number of people, and even though the proportion who die of it is relatively low, the ranks of the dead are already ten times deeper than those of the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
Prayer won’t stop a pandemic; quarantine will. Eventually, immunity among survivors, bolstered by vaccination, will assure that future outbreaks are isolated and small.
Once we understand this, there’s just no place for God in the pandemic—except, perhaps as a personal symbol of hope.
Consider: If God’s hand is guiding the coronavirus, why is the US, with just over 4 percent of the world’s population, leading all others in confirmed COVID-19 cases? We’re certainly more prayerful than the next three leading nations, Spain, Italy, and France, where belief in God ranges from 74 percent in Italy to a low of 27 percent in France. None of them has a Bible study for their chiefs of state. Yet, we have more COVID-19 cases than those three nations combined.
Even more intriguing are the per-capita rates of infection. In the No. 2 spot is the Vatican, along with Italy, Spain, and a mish-mash of other nation-states. Yet, the highly Catholic New Caledonia is near the bottom of the per-capita ranks, even though it has tested widely. This natural disaster, like all the others, presents no moral pattern of suffering.
Keep in mind: to reject theism is not to reject religion altogether. I’ve long maintained that the primary functions of mainstream religion are community, moral guidance, and the comforts of ritual in life’s great passages. It may come as a shock to many, but none of these requires belief in the supernatural.
To see that for yourself, have a look at the Easter Service of the First Unitarian Church of Lubbock, Texas. It’s led by Sara Reid, whose service contains not a single reference to God, heaven, or the hereafter and is deeply moving all the same.
Be well, stay strong, and hold onto hope.