What Religion Can Offer in the Response to COVID-19

What Religion Can Offer in the Response to COVID-19
Sacristan Michael Seewar prepares the altar for a livestream Easter service at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, Washington, April 12, 2020 (AP photo by Elaine Thompson).

An article published earlier this month in the largest English-language newspaper in Bangladesh, the Daily Star, inadvertently revealed a lot about different perspectives on religion’s role in society, including during the coronavirus pandemic. The writer argued that religious actors play a “vital stabilizing role” during such global crises and can “offer a beacon of hope” amid “the ravages of this pandemic.” But in the comments, a reader took a starkly different stance with what he called “a rude question”—a few of them, in fact.

First, can faith and science go together? Second, how can faith actors help when they fight among themselves? Third, can faith actors think logically and rationally about the pandemic? The comment went on to say that having fixed beliefs “predetermined” by some higher power made one “irrational.” It concluded with a blunt suggestion that the article’s author “keep your religion to yourself and don’t mix it up with common-sense and science, especially in these difficult days and when the whole world is in turmoil with COVID-19.”

The exchange shed light on two diametrically opposed perspectives about what religious institutions and beliefs have to do with the current global pandemic, and how they matter for policy. On one side, the long history of pandemics demonstrates that religious factors are integral parts of the story every time, especially since religious traditions, beliefs and institutions play important roles in everyday life for the majority of people worldwide. On the other side are skeptics who see faith as opposed to science, religious worldviews as sharply separated from secular norms and “religious literacy” as a bias that distorts both data and anecdotes.

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