Coronavirus outbreak brings into focus elements of blind faith, bigotry in society — and the need to bridge gap between science and faith

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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The coronavirus pandemic was bad enough. It is being worsened by the unchecked rise of other viruses that existed long before the novel coronavirus disease struck – the viruses of blind faith and its companion, bigotry. The immediate provocation for some of the bigotry currently on view in India is over the role of a religious gathering organised by a Muslim group, the Tablighi Jamaat, which contributed significantly to the spread of the coronavirus in this country. The Union health ministry has reported that the Tablighi gathering in Delhi’s Nizamuddin held in March resulted in 1,023 COVID-19 positive cases in 17 states, accounting for 30 percent of total cases in the country as of 4 April.

India is not the only country where the Tablighis held that gathering. Similar events took place in Pakistan and Malaysia, with similar results. There was a big Tablighi gathering in Lahore attended by more than 1,00,000 people which has left that country’s authorities scrambling to isolate and quarantine the attendees. More than 20,000 people who attended the event had been quarantined by Monday, with the Pakistan government looking for the rest. In Malaysia, the Tablighi gathering resulted in hundreds of cases and spread the disease to neighbouring countries. Reuters reported the country’s health minister saying on 17 March that of Malaysia’s 673 confirmed cases at the time, nearly two-thirds were linked to the four-day Tablighi meet.

The Tablighis were not the only religious sect that put faith over reason. South Korea faced the same problem of a religious gathering leading to the disease numbers exploding. There, the group responsible was the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which at one point accounted for half of all cases in South Korea. That was in early March, before the World Health Organisation declared it a pandemic. However, the global spread since then, and the rising number of deaths, has still not convinced Christian evangelicals in America that there is such a thing as a coronavirus threat. Influential evangelical preachers have been calling on followers to attend church gatherings and dismissing concerns over the need for social distancing. One of them, Rodney Howard-Browne, was finally arrested last week for continuing to host large church services despite government orders to residents to stay home.

In India, apart from the Tablighis, there was a case of a man, Baldev Singh, in Punjab, who attended a large Sikh religious gathering called Hola Mohalla before dying of coronavirus disease. After that, around 40,000 people in Punjab had to be quarantined. In Kerala, police arrested 28 people including temple trust office-bearers after a crowd of Hindus gathered for the Arattu procession at the Malayinkeezhu Sree Krishnaswami Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. Both these events took place in March, with the Kerala event coming after the WHO had warned that the world was facing a global pandemic.

 Coronavirus outbreak brings into focus elements of blind faith, bigotry in society — and the need to bridge gap between science and faith

A volunteer sprays disinfectant on a masked man as he leaves the Nizamuddin area, where several people showed symptoms of infection from coronavirus after taking part in a religious gathering. PTI

Organisers of all these events, of different faiths from different corners of the earth, chose to go ahead with holding large gatherings at a time when the world was already grappling with the spread of the coronavirus. The people who got sick after contracting the disease at some of these gatherings in various countries are the believers who attended the gatherings. By putting faith over reason, they endangered themselves, their near and dear ones, and their societies and countries. Everyone, most of all those who have been infected, is now paying the price for that.

The tendency of religious people to put their trust in blind faith over reason is a liability even in normal times. It leads to ridiculous and often unintentionally funny statements and actions, such as those relating to the magical powers of cow urine or the sexual habits of peacocks here in India. However, it also creates more serious issues, for instance relating to contraception and abortion in Catholic countries, or female genital mutilation in certain Muslim communities.

Apart from issues within communities, the tribalism and irrationality of religion also lead to often-violent tensions between communities. Yet, it is possible that these very characteristics – and the related congregational nature of religious practice that is impelling people of varied faiths to risk their lives by defying social distancing orders around the world – may be foundational to the idea of religion, and perhaps to human civilisation itself.

Intriguing hints of such a possibility exist in a place called Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey, not far from that country’s border with Syria, where massive stone pillars carved with figures of animals have stood for around 11,600 years. They were built seven millennia before the pyramids, and are more than twice as old as the Indus Valley site of Mohenjo Daro. They date from before the invention of agriculture. Klaus Schmidt, the German archaeologist who led excavations at the site, suspected that the social organisation required to build them may have led to not just agriculture but to civilisation itself. His view on this, and the story of Gobekli Tepe, can be found in a wonderful report in the June 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine on The Birth of Religion.

The spiritual, philosophical, mystical and even revelatory aspects of modern religions are however far removed from such social, congregational roots. Interestingly, those other aspects are the ones that led to the birth of several of the currently dominant faiths. Social distancing of a sort was of critical importance in their genesis.

Buddhism emerged from belief in the enlightenment achieved by the Buddha through his practice of solitary and silent meditation for 49 days. Islam was born from the revelations believed to have been received by the Prophet Muhammad when he was alone in a mountaintop cave near Mecca. A critical event in Judaism and Christianity was the moment when Moses, in solitude, is believed to have received the ten commandments on Mount Sinai. Hinduism is replete with stories of sages meditating in their retreats, or on remote mountaintops, for years.

The supernatural is obviously a very big part of most of those stories. It is possible that they serve a deep need of the human psyche.

The hunger for the supernatural may come as Ramayana and Mahabharata or as Harry Potter and the X-Men. It is unreasonable and probably undesirable to expect that belief in magic will vanish from the minds of humans. However, it is reasonable to hope that even those who believe in the supernatural will respect the natural, heed the scientific consensus on social distancing, and shun congregational gatherings.

Nothing prevents anyone from meditating in whatever solitude and silence they are able to find in their homes under lockdown in this pandemic-afflicted world. There is nothing whatsoever that prevents anyone of any faith from reading the Upanishads, Bible, Quran or Guru Granth Sahib. No virus is stopping anyone anywhere from spiritual practice or study. In other words, there need not be any conflict between the advice of science and needs of faith.
Blind faith, tribalism and bigotry are no longer necessary aspects of religious or spiritual practice.

Updated Date: Apr 20, 2020 20:35:42 IST



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