Tirupati's steep COVID-19 case numbers highlight how pandemic is sharpening conflict between science and faith

On 9 August, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams reported that a staggering 743 members of their staff had tested positive for COVID-19 since the temple reopened on 11 June.

Sarayu Pani August 15, 2020 14:54:57 IST
Tirupati's steep COVID-19 case numbers highlight how pandemic is sharpening conflict between science and faith

On 9 August, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) reported that a staggering 743 members of their staff had tested positive for COVID-19 since the temple reopened on 11 June. A representative also confirmed that approximately 2,38,000 devotees visited the temple in July alone. When reports of COVID-19 cases at the temple began to spread at the end of July, there was a temporary dip in the number of visitors but by 8 August, close to 8,000 visitors were visiting the temple every day again. By way of comparison, 4,500 members of Tablighi Jamaat attended the much maligned Markaz at Nizamuddin.

In the United States, churches emerged as a hotbed of new coronavirus infections in July. And in South Korea, a significant portion of the initial spread of the virus was linked to a super spreader, Patient 31, a congregant of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu who attended services. The Shincheonji church cluster is estimated to have led to the spread of the virus to approximately 5,000 people.

All of which begs the question, why do religious people across faiths and geographies continue to gather despite all the warnings from the scientific community?

Managing uncertainty

The human mind struggles with uncertainty. The stress caused by uncertainty often exceeds the stress caused by an actual adverse event. A 2016 University College of London study demonstrated that subjects who were told that there was small chance that they would be subjected to an electric shock measured stress levels that were far higher than subjects who were told that they would definitely be subjected to an electric shock.

So how do we deal with COVID-19; with what is perhaps the largest collective uncertainty we have known since World War II?

For some, the answer is obvious — science. Listen to the experts and do as you’re told. It’s simple. Science, in popular parlance, is clear, direct, unbiased and certain.

Unfortunately, there are limits to the certainty that can be provided by science. No knowledge in the universe is complete. Everything is only known to a degree of certainty. In most situations however, the results of medical research are presented with a degree of certainty that is so high that the uncertainty becomes irrelevant. We are shielded from having to process or react to any significant uncertainty by multiple layers and checks that occur before information is made public and retractions are rare.

With COVID-19 research, however, we have all had the dubious privilege of ringside seats to the research process and all of its attendant flip flops. We have heard changing answers on whether asymptomatic carriers exist, whether mask wearing helps, the appropriate distance to maintain, whether the virus is airborne, whether hydroxychloroquine is harmful, whether the BCG vaccine provides immunity and the existence of long-term immunity in recovered patients. While members of the scientific community affirm that this is par for the course in scientific research, to the layman, it hasn’t provided reassurance or dispelled uncertainty.

Substituting rationality with faith

When science and faith are positioned as an either/or choice in times of distress, it’s easy to see where the coin will land. Faith, by definition, provides comfort, security and most importantly, certainty. Things become “true” merely by believing in them. The words of the 15th century poet Kabir Das, "jako rakhein saiyan, mar sake na koi (if God protects you, nothing can harm you)” previously invoked to justify everything from helmetless motorbike riding to hanging precariously out of local trains, have now been co-opted into avoiding social distancing guidelines. In a straight one-on-one against faith, what chance can poor, rigid, science with its varying degrees of certainty have? Ultimately, medical science deals with probabilities and probabilities are cold comfort.

When faced with an immediate specific piece of information, like reports of new COVID-19 cases at the TTD, people might rethink their visits for a few days, but pretty soon, the doubts raised by science are silenced and the certainty of faith reasserts itself.

Further, according to Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning behavioural economist, human beings make a majority of their decisions by “thinking fast” or based on instinct, which is in turn disproportionately based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. He also reminds us that humans aren’t necessarily very good at deciding which decisions should be made by instinct. This can drive people to dismiss medical science using anecdotes (“My grandfather smoked like a chimney and lived to be a hundred and therefore research on lung cancer and smoking is wrong”). Further, when science is posited to the layman as infallible, a single anecdotal inconsistency or even a rumour of such inconsistency is seen as reason enough to reject it as entirely false.  For example, measles in the United States, which was close to being eradicated has had a resurgence with anti-vaxxers continuing to “have faith” in doubts raised with respect to the MMR vaccine in a 1998 study published by Andrew Wakefield despite the study being discredited and the doctor struck off the medical register in the UK.

The continuously evolving research and public health policies associated with COVID-19 have provided ample scope for their own dismissal or rejection.

The supposed incompatibility of science and faith

The last two decades have seen significant encroachment into the field of science by religion, especially in the US. Perhaps the most controversial has been the rising prominence of the challenge to the doctrine of evolution by creationist theory. As a result, there is a growing belief that science and religion are entirely incompatible and that one must choose between the two.

But scientists haven’t always viewed faith and science as incompatible. For Ada Lovelace, the mathematician collaborator of Charles Babbage (and daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron), the two were inextricably linked. “Religion to me is science, and science is religion,” she remarked in a letter to a fellow scientist.

For Albert Einstein, the universe was too complicated for the human brain to ever fully comprehend or adequately explain. Beyond what could be explained, where knowledge gave out, he believed in Spinoza’s understanding of God, “who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists”. Faith and science were complementary. “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” he remarked. For Einstein, any conflict between religion and science came from one or the other exceeding their allocated roles. This belief was important because it allowed him to clearly demarcate the fields in which he thought science should take the lead and where faith or religion or morality should.

Few scientists will assert that scientific knowledge is all encompassing or infallible or believe that science can adequately explain the entirety of the universe. There are always blanks to be filled and room for doubt in science. And in that place of doubt, there may be room for both faith and science to coexist, without forcing us to reject one or the other.

Perhaps if we begin to see things like that, we can stop looking for spiritual comfort in daily COVID-19 statistics or looking for a cure to an airborne pandemic in an overcrowded temple.

Sarayu Pani is a Mumbai based lawyer

— Featured image via Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams website

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