Religion, Non-Religion, and the Pandemic

Fresno Bee, May 17, 2020

The divide between religious and non-religious people is highlighted by the pandemic. At a recent “Freedom Rally” in Fresno, a woman said she was not afraid of the virus. If she gets sick or infects someone else, she said, it is “all part of God’s plan.”

This represents a dispiriting theology. It is not God’s will that people die from this disease. Scientists know how to stop its spread. It makes no sense to ignore science and blame God.

The conflict between faith and science rages on. Some turn to prayer. May 14 was an international day of prayer, celebrated by Pope Francis and Muslim leaders. Two months ago, President Trump declared March 15 as a national day to “pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.” May 7 was another National Day of Prayer. At the May 7 event at the White House, no one wore a mask, including the choir.

In response to all of this praying, the Freedom From Religion Foundation declared May 7 as a National Day of Reason. They claim the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. They argue, “irrationality, magical thinking, and superstition have undermined the national effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Pandemics have often prompted religious turmoil. In ancient Athens, a terrible plague turned people away from religion. The historian Thucydides reported that at first the Athenians asked the gods for help. But when prayer had no effect, the people saw the futility of religion.

As the disease spread, general lawlessness broke out. People expected to die soon, so they focused on enjoying themselves in the present moment. They gave up on honor and were not worried about punishment for crime. Thucydides explained that there was no longer any fear of the gods or of the laws.

Something similar occurred during the Black Death. The Italian poet Boccaccio recounts that people made merry and drank themselves silly, since death appeared inevitable. People generally disregarded “the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine.”

The good news is that our pandemic is less severe. The Athenian plague killed one-third of the population. The Black Death killed over half of Europe. Things are better today thanks to modern science. We know how to prevent and treat the bubonic plague. Scientists also know how to prevent COVID-19.

But will faith wane in this crisis as it did in Athens and Italy? When prayer proved ineffective, some people gave up on religion — but not all. Religion is resilient, as recent data show. The Pew Center reports that the COVID-crisis has strengthened the faith of people who were already religious.

But the pandemic has not driven the nonreligious back to religion. Indeed, a growing religious exodus is already well underway. A fourth of all Americans are not religious and a third of those under 40 are nonreligious.

Religion can’t compare to science when it comes to understanding disease. But a religious attitude may be useful for creating solidarity and compassion. History shows that in a pandemic people may selfishly focus on short-term pleasure. But the turn to selfish individualism undermines cooperation and helps the disease to spread.

If religion encourages people to cooperate, care for the suffering, and work to prevent disease, then science and religion can work together. A carefree attitude of partying like there is no tomorrow will undermine cooperation. But the same is true when religious people refuse to cooperate in the name of religious liberty.

In a free country, of course we have the right to pray or to party. But we should be smart about exercising our rights. We can party safely and with social distance. We can also pray, while loving our neighbors and wearing masks.

Thucydides once said that good sense is undermined by haste, passion, and a narrow mind. We do better when we broaden our perspective and think more carefully about science, history, and ethics. We also need a more sophisticated theology that does not blame God for human failure. We must think about the impact that our choices have on others. We should acknowledge that science actually works to save lives. And whether we pray or party, let’s do it wisely.

Don’t Panic

Fresno Bee, March 8, 2020

A virus spreads. The stock market tumbles. Store shelves clear. People are freaking out. The best advice for times like this is: don’t panic.

Panic undermines clear thinking and makes things worse. Luckily, the cure is well known. Get the facts. Seek a broader perspective. Focus on what is under your own control. Develop habits of calmness and self-control. And acknowledge that sickness and death are part of life.

The word “panic” comes from the name of the Greek god Pan, a feral god who haunted the wild places. Pan was the god of the nightmare and the uncanny. Pan would terrify and possess people, causing panic.

One solution is to stop believing in such superstitions. The wilderness is not haunted. Gods cannot possess us. Nor is the coronavirus sign of the Apocalypse, as some preachers have suggested. And while some Christians called for a global day of prayer to stop the coronavirus, what we really need is a vaccine, better hygiene, and a robust system of public health.

The ancient philosopher, Epicurus, offered a simple cure for panic. He told us not to worry about the gods. They are busy keeping the universe in motion. They have no interest in harming us.

But if we are going to pray, we might pray for wisdom and tranquility. This is what Socrates would have prayed for. In fact, at one point Socrates offered a prayer to Pan himself. He asked the god for integrity of soul. As Socrates put it, “grant me a beautiful soul in which the inner and outer self are united as one.”

A beautiful soul is stable and secure. It is at one with itself. It dwells in the company of truth. It is moderate and self-possessed. And it is resistant to panic.

The philosopher Seneca said the best way to prevent panic is to understand it. You need to understand that when “the habit of blind panic” takes over, the mind runs away with itself.

When we are not prepared for fear and hardship, panic strikes. Seneca explains, “the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things.” And when uncontrollable and “witless” panic arrives, things get worse. Seneca’s solution is to adopt a larger point of view that puts life, death, and panic itself in proper perspective.

It is uncertainty that keeps us on edge. The fear that occurs out in the wilderness is like the fear of the dark. We’re not sure what’s lurking out there. That’s why knowledge helps. There is nothing in the dark that is not also there in the light.

It also helps to understand that fear is natural and has a purpose. There is a tightness in the belly and shallow breathing. We scan the environment looking for threats. This is the flight or fight instinct ready to go. If a threat emerges, the body is ready to react.

But this can get out of control, especially when everyone else is on edge. Panic is contagious. We sense the anxiety of our neighbor. If even a minor spark lights the fuse of anxiety, the herd erupts into a frenzied stampede.

This is why solitude is helpful. Peace of mind is easier to find if you keep your distance from the crowd. One easy way to prevent panic is to turn off your television and stay off social media.

But for some people, solitude causes panic. There is the fear of missing out and the depressing dread of loneliness. True solitude is not lonely. It is peaceful and centered, a way of finding yourself at home in the world.

Finally, the philosophers teach that we must understand that death, loss, and injury are common. Tornadoes, earthquakes, and deadly diseases have always existed. They always will. Something will eventually kill each of us. No one gets out of this life alive.

When we come to terms with our own mortality, panic gives way to acceptance. To live well is not to fearfully cling to life. This moment will not last long. So why waste it on worry? Life is not measured in length but in depth. The shallow panting of panic prevents us from breathing deeply and living well.

Be thankful our country allows all beliefs on prayer

Fresno Bee

November 15, 2013

http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/15/3611459/ethics-this-thanksgiving-be-thankful.html

George Washington declared that a Thursday in November should be directed to “the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” President Obama reaffirmed this last year, declaring that Thanksgiving is a time for Americans to “be mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God.”

Where does that leave nonreligious Americans? The issue of nonreligious prayer came up recently as the U.S. Supreme Court considered a case where citizens protested the use of prayer in public meetings in a New York town. During the hearing, Justice Antonin Scalia asked, “What is the equivalent of prayer for somebody who is not religious?” That pregnant question was left unanswered by the court.

To pursue this matter, I contacted professor Daniel Dennett at Tufts University, a prominent defender of humanism. Dennett explained in an email, “In silent soliloquy or public pronouncement we can resolve to ourselves to do better, to suppress our bad habits and natures, and we can express, silently or aloud, our allegiance to some cause or institution or group. We can ask for forgiveness, make promises, declare love. All these highly important — maximally important or sacred — themes can be laundered of all religious overtones and remain as solemn, life-defining speech acts.”

Dennett is right. Nonreligious people can make public affirmations and engage in silent soliloquy. They can make solemn, life-defining pronouncements. But are these nonreligious speech acts really prayers?

A prayer is a petition to the deity, usually soliciting a blessing. To pray means literally to ask, beg, request or plead. Prayers can also express admiration, worshipful awe and thanksgiving. Prayers can be shared in public. They can also be unspoken and private.

Whether spoken or silent, religious prayer has an intended recipient. Prayerful words are directed toward a deity, who is presumably powerful enough to hear even our silent supplications. This divinity is supposed to respond to our entreaties and to appreciate adulation. Religious people from different faiths may disagree about who is being petitioned, thanked or worshiped. But they agree that there is someone out there to whom their prayers are addressed.

And that is where the nonreligious will shake their heads instead of bowing them. Atheists do not think there is a divine recipient of prayerful words. Although atheists can appreciate tacit reflection and benefit from public reminders of key values, atheists deny that a divinity can hear our prayers.

Humanistic atheists may be grateful to be alive. They may admire the complexity of the universe. They may have a sense of appreciation and awe. They may see the psychological benefit of guided meditation. They may even enjoy the poetic force of devotional words. But they won’t accept the metaphysics of prayer.

An atheist can whisper to herself before an exam, “I hope I do well on this test.” A team of atheists could affirm before a match, “Let’s work hard and do our best.” But it would be nonsensical for atheists to ask for God’s assistance in these endeavors.

There is a fundamental conflict here. This topic will inevitably offend somebody. There is no way to resolve a dispute in which one person’s deepest convictions are viewed by others as nonsense.

The best we can do is agree to disagree. Let’s admit that Scalia is right to suggest that nonreligious prayer is an oxymoron. But that’s exactly why, in our diverse society, we ought to be careful with public prayer.

On this issue, Thomas Jefferson may be a better guide than Washington or Obama. Jefferson refused to declare a public day of prayer when he was president. In a letter from 1808, he explained that the Constitution prevented him from meddling with religious exercises. He also explained that religious sects have an interest in this protection, since the right to decide about prayer should remain in the hands of citizens and not be foisted upon them by the government.

Thankfully, the First Amendment to the Constitution provides this protection to religious and nonreligious people. The government should not prohibit private prayer. Nor should it tell us when or how to pray (or not pray). Americans should be grateful for that protection, even though we will fundamentally disagree about the ultimate question of whom we ought to thank for the rest of our blessings.

 

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/15/3611459/ethics-this-thanksgiving-be-thankful.html#storylink=cpy