Author: Dr. Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, United States. Her work focuses on religious experience and ritual practice in South Asia. Her current research addresses issues of political practice and ritual mobility in the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal among Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams. Holly is a regular contributor to TFS. Find more about Dr. Walters’ work on Shaligrams and especially her latest book release on her blog, Peregrination.
Letters from Pestilence
The last door-to-door evangelists who appeared on my porch prior to the COVID-19 pandemic were Seventh-Day Adventists. And, as is relatively standard for their mission, I was left with a question-and-answer pamphlet called “Our Day in the Light: Certainty for the Future” that was designed for me to fill out prior to our next meeting, when they would be returning to talk about my answers to a series of interestingly-framed Biblical questions. Normally, this is the kind of religious literature that most people simply throw away, but I, being an anthropologist, have kept a library of it!
In this case, I even went so far as to actually write in my answers (though I am willing to bet it’s not what they’re looking for). Then the coronavirus struck, and I haven’t seen them since.
The pandemic was not the end of my experiences with evangelism, however. And, if I’m being honest, it appears that the efforts to save my soul have only increased as of late. Just prior to the visit by the Seventh-Day Adventists, a lovely Jehovah’s Witnesses couple also arrived to help me through my presumed existential crises, and before them, the Mormons. Three times, in fact.
But just as soon as the latest lock-down was announced, I received a hand-written letter from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Dear Mrs. Walters.
I hope that this letter finds you and your family doing well in these trying times. In light of current events, I am unable to visit you personally, so I am writing to share with you a positive message from the Bible. Through His word, God provides the certainty we are lacking and promises that soon He ‘will wipe all the tears from our eyes, and there will be no more death, suffering, crying, or pain.’ Revelation 21: 3,4.”
I am almost loath to respond that, just a few verses later, Revelation 21 goes on to say that “…but the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur…” Then one of the angels of the seven plagues shows up and they head off to talk about the end of the world.
Not exactly a message of hope, I don’t think. Or, who knows, maybe it is.
Then, a few weeks ago, another letter arrived in my mailbox, this time from the Church of Scientology. It read,
We’ve missed you! I am writing to you again as I urge you to take the opportunity to meet with me. Were you able to read the book that was sent to you? How has the process been? …At last, some certainty in uncertain times!”
While I can’t speak to the “missing me” part (I have never set foot in a Church of Scientology), I have actually read the book in question. Here again, I don’t think my answers to their proselytizing are precisely what they have in mind but I am also not especially keen on discussing Dianetics or having my E-meter done. Though, just a few days later, an exact copy of the letter appeared again in my mail. But this time it was addressed to the previous owner of our house, who’s been dead for years. Ah well, so much for the Sisters of St. Template.
Certainty in Uncertain Times Indeed!
Unsurprisingly, organized religious faiths tend to have several things in common. Boiling these characteristics down to a few basic statements looks something like this:
- The existence of a cosmological power or creative force
- Man’s nature or physical constraints are the source of his troubles
- A spiritual authority (such as a shaman or priest)
- A recognized sacred realm and a worldview which supplies context for relating to the physical world and other people
- A minimal code of morality
- Community and/or identity defining rituals
- A perspective of the significance of human life
But as someone who has spent a lifetime questioning faith and what it means to have it, it occurs to me that there is one other distinct commonality we do not often address. Religion explains what suffering means. And somewhere along the line, it’s supposed to tell us how to overcome it, even if only metaphorically.
Phillipa Foot, a British philosopher who remarked extensively on issues of ethics, once argued that moral reasoning could direct you to the right thing to do, but it didn’t necessarily motivate you to do it. So, while I agree that some of the appeal of religion may lie in its worldview, its “stable context within which each person can relate to the world” (quoted from Markus Carpenter’s What Religions Have in Common), I would argue that its tenacity lies in its use as a weapon against uncertainty. In other words, rather than action based on the fear of an angry deity’s surveillance and judgement, this is an escape from the unease within.
The core selling point for every evangelist I have met in recent years and one of the obviously key features of the letters I continue to receive is one of an appeal to “certainty.” Even before COVID, I had discussed religion and religious views with people of faith from all over the world. Sometimes these discussions were well-reasoned and passionate, other times the expressed views belied little more than fear, anger, or an overwhelming need to belong; but in all cases thus far, none became so heated as when a challenge to a religious worldview threatened to result in real uncertainty. The idea, to wit, that not only do we not really know what is going on, but that such knowing is fundamentally beyond us. And it is this that makes religion the driving social and cultural force that it is, not just broadly, but right now, in these uncertain times.
It seems that most people would rather settle for a truth they know to be flawed than for no truth at all. This tendency cements the identity of the practitioner and often fortifies the power of religious ministry. It also, as more and more scholars are noting, fuels conspiracy theory communities (such as QAnon), many of whom rely on evangelical “end times” theologies in order to circumvent inconvenient facts for the sake of maintaining an organization of believers.
Religion, as such, is therefore no “opiate of the masses.” Rich and poor, educated and ignorant alike flock to the call of certainty. Even New Atheism, for all its problems, tends to appeal to a kind of negative certainty, where one can be sure that no deity is actually at the helm. Now, of course, I do not advocate analyzing religion from the singular approach of “fear-based response,” but the implications for social power and identity are multi-fold as is its role in the current epidemic crisis. I’ve only mused on the possibilities for the last few days, but my thinking generally returns to a few particular points:
- Certainty is a kind of social power. It indicates authority. (Particularly in “belief centric” religious contexts like Christianity.)
- Certainty reinforces identity through the use of prescribed language (i.e., “I know” instead of “I believe,” something “is” as opposed to “might be”).
- Certainty is not a part of reason. It requires no direct or physical evidence. It functions as the motivator, rather than the indicator, for the individual to act against personal desire.
- Certainty is a component of religious identity in a Positivist scientific world (Also a notable characteristic of science denial).
- Certainty is a foundational part of action. Without certainty in the truth of one’s assumptions as a frame of reference, little can be accomplished.
This is not to say that we do not occasionally challenge our own certainty. Hundreds of philosophical methods and theories have repeatedly re-conceptualized the basic fundamentals of what we believe to be true about the world and ourselves, but phenomenology, existentialism, solipsism, metaphysical objectivism and so on are not really in my scope here. As such, I am less concerned about the actual properties of reality as I am about how humans are responding (socially and culturally) to them.
As a result, today’s pandemic religion is about something you can be sure of. It’s about a bid for authority seen as stolen by science, by government, by secularism, and by technology. It’s an appeal to fear just short of calling COVID-19 a Biblical plague against Egypt while recasting the mildly afflicted and temporarily inconvenienced as Israel rising up out of slavery. In the same way that ‘thoughts and prayers’ are more of a dismissive platitude than an actual step towards healing, it’s “Amen” at a distance without much in the way of getting directly in the trenches to rescue the drowning.
I’m not saying, however, that religious groups haven’t been helping. Some churches have opened food pantries in their basements. Others, like the National Cathedral of the United States (Episcopalian) have donated thousands of surgical masks and other supplies. Some denominations are now even offering free COVID testing in their parking lots or have promised that their pastors and chaplains will provide 24-hour ministry for isolated patients.
Rather, what I am referring to here is a trajectory of theological framing as people both turn back to religion as a result of terrifying circumstances and seek to reorient faith among competing narratives of political unrest, “fake news,” and the death of expertise. And within that conflict, the thread of certainty arises. Not fact, but confidence. Not truth, but conviction.
And the assurance that if you just believe hard enough, God will save you.
So, open the door and let us tell you how!
(Lastly, if, like me, you want to view or document some of the more fascinating responses to pandemic religion, check out: https://pandemicreligion.org/s/contributions/page/welcome)