In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, we are seeing worrisome examples of religious people holding extreme views and engaging in religious practices which could make this situation worse.
OTTAWA, CANADA — I have spent the last two decades of my life trying to understand a particular form of violence known as terrorism. More narrowly, I have focused on religious terrorism. Even more narrowly, I have zeroed in on Islamist terrorism (although my latest book, When Religion Kills, does look at other forms of faith-based violence).
Over this time I have engaged in many, many discussions with people, usually Canadian Muslims, who maintained that the acts of terrorism meted out by groups such as Al Qaeda (AQ) and Islamic State (ISIS), among others, have nothing to do with Islam. As a natural consequence, they have nothing to do with religion. This is all nonsense of course: you cannot get two lines into AQ or ISIS propaganda without seeing a reference to a verse of the Quran or a hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad).
You can be extreme and not violent: and yes this applies to those who are ‘religious’.
Thus, this is clearly religious violent extremism. If you disagree with me, please send me your arguments. I’d love to see them.
On the other hand there is also religious extremism which is NOT violent, at least not overtly so (not yet?). This is where a bunch of people who see themselves as faithful go to extremes in their beliefs, often labeling others reputably of the same creed as infidels. Every religion has its examples.
COVID: Christ Over Viruses & Infectious Diseases
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis we are seeing some worrisome examples of religious people holding extreme views and engaging in religious practices which are, at a minimum, unhelpful and which could make this situation worse. Here are a few examples:
- In South Korea, the government has asked for a murder investigation into leaders of a Christian sect at the centre of the country’s deadly coronavirus outbreak, saying the church was liable for its refusal to co-operate with efforts to stop the disease. The group in question is the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive movement that reveres founder Lee Man-hee. The ‘illustrious leader’ was behind secrecy, the banning of health masks, and praying in close proximity, all of which are said to have helped spread the disease among congregants.
- A senior Israeli official has reportedly warned that the country could end up with rampant coronavirus-related deaths if members of the ultra-Orthodox community who have ignored government directives to remain at home do not fall in line. The haredim (those who ‘tremble’) continue to encourage large gatherings, stating that their schools and yeshivas would remain open.
- A mosque in northeast Calgary has opted to keep its doors open despite many having closed theirs temporarily amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Close proximity, like that found in communal Friday prayers, is key to the spread of the virus.
- A pastor in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, says he will defy government orders intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, adding that he ‘knows’ the virus is politically motivated. “We hold our religious rights dear, and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.” Other fundamentalist Christians now say that COVID stands for “Christ Over Viruses & Infectious Diseases” .
Sham cures for COVID-19
It gets worse. You think that sham ‘cures’ for COVID are limited to morons like Alex Jones? Nope, religious bigwigs have their dopey ideas too. Read on (all examples from this piece in the New York Times):
- In Myanmar, a prominent Buddhist monk announced that a dose of one lime and three palm seeds — no more, no less — would confer immunity.
- In Iran, a few pilgrims were filmed licking Shiite Muslim shrines to ward off infection.
- And in Texas, the preacher Kenneth Copeland braided televangelism with tele-medicine, broadcasting himself, one trembling hand outstretched, as he claimed he could cure believers through their screens.
This is irresponsible and should be banned, if not punished under the law. Innocent people are being preyed on (while being ‘prayed’ over) and taken advantage of. This is NOT religion.
A few weeks ago my wife and I went to a local Catholic church for mass. We noticed that the parking lot was unusually bare and when we got to the door we saw a notice that all services had been cancelled (this was March 14). While disappointed, we agreed it was the right move.
If you are one of those people and praying helps you get through this then great. I am happy for you.
But you have NO RIGHT to engage in activities that put me, my family, and others at risk. Go ahead and worship – on your own.
Look, I know that for many people religion is a solace and a necessary part of their lives. In this particular difficult time believing in, and relying on, something bigger is important. If you are one of those people and praying helps you get through this then great. I am happy for you.
But you have NO RIGHT to engage in activities that put me, my family, and others at risk. Go ahead and worship – on your own. Don’t gather in large numbers that increase the probability of community spread. Don’t be extreme. Don’t be a jerk.
PS I remember this from a long time ago and thought it relevant now:
There once was a man who lived in a two story house. The house was near a river and unfortunately the river began to flood. As the river rose, warnings were given via radio, TV and shortwave. Large jeeps drove through the area to evacuate people. As a jeep drove by the man’s house, he was told:
“You are in danger. Your life is at stake. You must evacuate. Get in the Jeep. Let us help you evacuate.”
“No,” the man replied from his doorstep. “I have faith. I will be ok. The flood won’t get me. God will take care of me.”
The water continued to rise. Soon the man was on the second floor. A boat was going through the area and arrived at the man’s house. Rescuers made every effort to convince the man to take action so that his life would be saved.
“You are in danger. Your life is at stake. You will drown in the flood.”
“No worries,” says the man. “I have faith. Everything is ok. Even though the flood is rising, I will be fine. God will take care of me.”
The flood continued to rise. The man went to the roof to avoid the rising water. A helicopter pilot sees him on top of the roof and hovers above the man. Using a megaphone, the pilot tries to convince the man to grab the rope ladder which was dangling above his head.
“You are in danger. The flood is still rising. You will drown if you do not grab the rope ladder. Let us help you.”
“No worries.” says the man. “I will be fine. Yes, the flood is higher but I have faith. God will take care of me.”
The flood rises. The man drowns. At the pearly gates, the man says to God: “I had faith. You let me die.”
To which God replies: “I sent you a jeep, a boat and a helicopter. What more could I have done for you?”
It is time for all of us to do things that help ourselves – and each other.