The Covid-19 pandemic is a tragedy of epic proportions. As the situation appears to go from bad to worse, many, including myself, have started receiving video links, poems, and other pieces of writing, all religious in nature, from friends, neighbours or prayer groups. All these were very well intended. They saw distress and thought that we might want to turn to God and religion for comfort.
Making sens of Covid-19 with religion
This is not surprising. After all, this is why humanity has created God and religions. Lives of early humans were plagued with dangers, either diseases or wars and, for most of human history, there has been no let up in these two fronts. Against the fear of death and diseases, and the agony of wars, self-protection mechanisms were needed, and religion was one of them. Religion offers a convenient way to provide comfort for the tragedy humans have had to go through, to put a lid on some of our more “uncivilised” behaviours, and to provide some sense to our human existence. However, as the world became more peaceful, notably after world war two, as progress in medicine and science provided a cure to many diseases, we thought we could turn our back on religion. Indeed, in most of the developed world, attendance in church decreased rapidly, and religion there lost most of the societal arguments. Divorce, abortion, gay rights, women rights, minority rights: religion no longer holds the sway it used to on any of these issues.
Religion is however coming back. The Covid-19 pandemic has revived it. In our distress and fear of the virus, we have started to invoke God and religion again. In hard times, this is where we turn to. Somehow, we find it comforting to go back to the meaning that religion makes of hardship. Some attempt to make sense of the fate that threatens us by invoking and looking for forgiveness for sins we might have surely committed. The sins that are most commonly invoked vary enormously in nature and content, depending on where one locates on the political, moral and social spectrum. Some blame gays, liberals, and the sin of cohabiting before marriage or not marrying at all. Others blame crime, inequality, greed, and pornography. Some think religion might make us more “moral”, more generous, less inclined to the pursuits of self-interest, money or sex, elevate us out of our basic human conditions to adopt more civilized and convivial behaviours.
What difference ?
The only problem here is that there is no evidence that religion actually does any of this. It certainly does not make us more moral, more generous, more civilized. If it did, it would be known by now. Instead, centuries of religious dominance in our societal affairs have not changed humanity one iota. For times immemorial, wars have been declared, nations have been built on the back of military campaigns against the enemy, holocausts have cleansed nations of so-called “contaminating” cultures, greed has reigned on Wall Street and elsewhere, and CEOs have grown rich earning many times the salaries of their own employees. In the meantime, wild life is being trashed and our climate is reaching a point of no return.
Did religions make any difference? None at all. It is remarkable how little power religion has to change humanity and its course. There is a simple reason for that: humanity is driven by genes, not by religion. To put it in a more pedantic way, the single most important driver in humanity is our species’ evolutionary history. Religion is just a by-product of it. Human psychology has unravelled many of the levers of our behaviour. Most of them arise from genetically-encoded basic instincts: fear, sex, pleasure, violence, etc…; and from innate tribal ones: dominance, subservience, cooperation, aggressivity, attraction, repulsion, etc… A look at a very recent article (click here) proves the point: all behaviours described in this story are primordial in nature. We have evolved as a social animal species organised to form competing groups and to function along hierarchical lines. In turn, these instincts define the societal and individual behavioural norms and rules that tell us what is acceptable and what is not, with slight variations and rough-edge-smoothing due to upbringing and culture.
No divine design behind Covid-19
So Covid-19 is not an act of God set upon us because of our sins! It has a simple scientific reason: it is the result of a virus jumping from bats to humans, as viruses sometimes do. The fact that it temporarily overwhelmed us is not that our “sins” were calling for punishment. It got out of hand because, except for East Asian countries that took the lessons of SARS and MERS seriously, we, Europeans and Americans didn’t. Our woeful unpreparedness and inadequate decision-making are the reason why we are now experiencing a tragedy.
Fears of disease and ultimately of death are potent motivators for religion. Through religious beliefs, humans have attempted since time immemorial to provide sense to what we are. Religions have been good at offering a number of after-death narratives from paradise for a few to resurrection for the many. But science is quite definite on this: there is no after-life. We, humans, just as all living organisms, are made of complex chemical molecules such as proteins, lipids, polysaccharides, and nucleic acids, and more simple ones as well, such as secondary metabolites. These molecules of life are produced in vast assembly lines, the ribosome for instance, that makes the long polymers of amino acids we call proteins. Replication machineries reproduce our genes, while large RNA factories called RNA polymerases transcribe our genes into messages to be translated into proteins. Powering these wonderfully tuned machines is the molecule that energises life, Adenosine Tri-Phosphate or ATP. Living cells are giant factories where millions of ATP-powered biochemical reactions take place. Highly regulated circuits and networks coordinate cells activity within organs, while complex molecular communication lines coordinate organ activity within our body. The brain is no exception. It is an organ of extraordinary capacity, but an organ all the same, subjected to the same laws of biochemistry and physics, burning the fuel of life, ATP, to make you think, love and … believe in God and religion.
Comfort in religion until Science takes back control ?
Religion is a necessary feature of our humanity precisely because religion is one way to cope with hostile environments. In good times, we “move away” from it; in tough times, we “grow closer” to it. While the Covid-19 pandemic rages, we are in the “grow closer” mode of embracing religion. But as the pandemic peaks and recedes, we will return to our “move away” mode of rejecting it. Researchers in biomedicine and in the science of aging dare to envisage a world where all diseases will have a cure, even death! Indeed, they see death the same way they see diseases, a result of biochemical processes gone wrong but that can be counteracted once elucidated. This might be a plausible view of the future, but, for now, the Covid-19 pandemic reminds us how little control we still have. Thus, for the time being and probably for quite a while, humanity will find comfort in religion. As for myself, I will stick to my biochemical self, my coping mechanism consisting of finding myself at one with the world around me, my fellow plants, trees and animals, and my fellow humans too, that owe their lives and survival to ATP.
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