Covid and the Religious Impulse: An Essay in Seven Parts

28 October 2020. Updated 1 November 2020.

‘M. Pentadactyla’

On Friday nights in their Delhi sanctuary, Jains light candles to pay tribute to their 24 gods.

1. The original impulse

We know that the primary reason for the growth of religion is to satisfy the psychological need for people to come to terms with their mortality. The more death terrifies, the stronger the religious impulse. The essential feat religion must perform is to say that death is not something to fear. Indeed, with the promise of the afterlife, it is not just death’s sting that is removed: death itself is obliterated. “Death hath no more dominion over man”, wrote St Paul in his Epistle to the Romans. In modern times, higher life expectancy and seemingly miraculous life-preserving medical treatments have lessened our fear of death and thus obviated the crippling need for religious consolation. The gnawing anxiety is still there, of course, but it simmers behind the scenes of everyday consciousness, reduced to being, in Flann O’Brien’s words, “an insanitary abstraction in the backyard”. Cut to the beginning of 2020. Like a malevolent star rising in the East, disturbing news emerges from Central China. A potentially fatal novel virus is spreading with the ease of the common cold. There is no cure, no vaccine and no treatment. Modern medicine seems powerless in the face of this new threat. Fear spreads. But near simultaneous to that fear is the desperate need for that fear to be alleviated – for human solutions to the problem to be immediately devised and implemented. We hear that China has had to quarantine an entire city. That speaks to the seriousness of this virus but also to the possibility that man can control the outbreak. You see, we cannot live with our rampant fears. They must be moderated. And so they are, but at a price. We lose our inclination to calmly and rationally learn more about the disease. We no longer even care about the disease per se. The only thing important and necessary is our belief in the power that we now have over this new global malady. Only last year death was “an inferior phenomenon” (again O’Brien). This year death – in the form of COVID-19 (and only in the form of COVID-19) – must be exalted so that it can be categorised as something that hath no dominion over us. It is promoted in our fears only to be consoled in our beliefs. From the very beginning we had an innate religious reaction to SARS-CoV-2. But all religions need their foundational texts if they are truly to take hold …

2. Scripture

Lo it came to pass that in an office grotto high up in a faculty tower in the heart of Albertopolis, a tired, middle-aged, but sexually still adventurous epidemiologist named Neil received a divine revelation. Some said it was an epileptic attack, but Neil was certain. He had received enough false visions in the past (Foot and Mouth in 2001, Mad Cow Disease in 2002, Bird Flu in 2005 and Swine Flu in 2009) to know a genuine visitation when he saw it. As he furiously scribbled down the verses spewing forth from the Angel Gabriel that was his own boundless ego, he knew that the prophetic visions would this time prove true. For let it be understood, for all the talk of low-quality codebases and non-deterministic, stochastic methodologies, Report 9: Impact of non-pharmaceutical intervention [NPIs] to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand – primarily authored by Prof Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London and published on March 16 2020 – is a work of prognostication, divination, haruspicy and apocalyptic augury worthy of John the Apostle. It is a breathtakingly portentous piece of research. Hundreds of thousands of lives can be saved – disaster averted, evil defeated – but only if the computer modelling of the saviour-epidemiologists is 100% believed and their recommendations fully enacted. But what makes it truly scriptural – i.e. a foundational text for a global religion of Covid suppression – is what happened subsequently (or rather what didn’t happen subsequently). Although Ferguson’s “Report 9” makes arrogant claims as to the necessity and efficacy of human intervention, positing a host of sweeping and clearly dubious assumptions along the way, perhaps we should cut it some slack? It was written late February and very early March. Whatever we thought about it intuitively at the time, no one could absolutely prove that its conclusions were alarmist nonsense. Doubtless contemporary readers of the Torah, the Gospels and the Qur’an realised the absurdity of some of the statements they found there, but sufficient knowledge (or intellectual confidence) simply didn’t exist to debunk them. Plus those readers would have shared many of the cultural prejudices and preoccupations of the authors. You needed the perspective of several hundreds of years to adequately realise that these writings were not the word of God but rather man-made confections, the scribblings of public relations men jostling for attention at a particularly unsophisticated and flyblown time in our history. Ok, back to 2020 and fast forward half a year. We now know far more about the virology, pathology, epidemiology and immunology of SARS-CoV-2 than we did back in March. Crucially we know that a varying but sizeable proportion of every nation’s population has pre-existing T-cell immunity to this virus. We also know that far from everyone who has been infected produces antibodies, a vital piece of information that drastically influences any judgement as to the size of the remaining susceptible population. But did the spate of late summer Covid modelling (from Imperial and others) reflect these crucial changes? It did not. Did the pro-lockdown John Snow Memorandum reflect these developments in scientific fact? It did not. The Ferguson assumptions from March remain in place. They are set in stone, preserved for the ages, held up to be eternal – just like the ordinances of religious screeds that blatantly reflect the patriarchal, superstitious time in which they were written – because we want to know, we need to know, that “Report 9” was indeed the saviour document that its author and supporters claim it was. Try to deconstruct Ferguson and you threaten the very foundations of the “Covid-must-be-suppressed” belief system. And we can’t have that.

3. Rites and Symbols

It is inevitable that the NHS would figure centrally in any religious impulse based on a public health emergency. And not just because it is the dominant healthcare provider in the UK but because, to quote former Chancellor Nigel Lawson, “the NHS is the closest thing the English people have now to a religion”. Even before the emergence of COVID-19 the NHS underwent an annual passion play. Every winter the same anguished calls echoed over the Via Dolorosa: “The NHS is in danger of being overwhelmed”. Now with Covid, this familiar lament is so loud, so panicked and so peremptory that it forms the sole basis of our policy considerations. The NHS stands ready to sacrifice itself for our sins. Thus, as a people, united in devotion, we stand to commemorate, honour and cry bitter tears for its sacrifice. While troupes of hospital staff perform corybantic dances and upload them onto Tik Tok, and individual ladies of sorrow (a.k.a. nurses) sing the Lacrimosa into their car webcams at the end of long shifts, the ordinary men and women of the kingdom (goaded of course by mainstream and social media) reinvent applause as a weekly mass public rite. Just as the Roman citizens snapped their fingers and waved the flaps of their togas to give ceremonial gratitude to the Emperor, so we slap our hands, wipe our eyes and bang our pots and pans. Meanwhile, like a lit candle in every window, a multicoloured reliquary in every home, painted rainbows shine forth on every street. Move over ye pitiful ichthys (those Christian fish symbols stencilled on the back of caravans) – there’s a new symbol in town! But the most curious aspect of this phenomenon was how masochistically misdirected it was. Not only did the NHS not have to sacrifice itself, it wasn’t even asked to sacrifice itself. Never mind desperate palliative gestures such as soaking a sponge with vinegar and lifting it up to the mouth of the crucified. We went light years beyond such lip service caring. We full-on protected the protector. We threw a human shield around a 140 billion pound business (we ourselves funded). But like ancient people of the land who, after working themselves to the bone to bring in a difficult harvest, get down on their knees to give thanks to God for “His glorious bounty”, so we paid grovelling obeisance to the idol but utterly forgot that it was us who did the hard graft and it was us who put everything on the line. And by us, I don’t mean the mildly inconvenienced working-from-home schmuck, I mean the oncology patient waiting for the Tik Tok choreography to be perfected before she gets her chemo drip turned on. I mean the man with the shooting pain in his arm who doesn’t seek preventative treatment for his myocardial ischemia because he saw footage of a nurse blubbing into a webcam on the ITV news and would feel he would be a burden to his local hospital if he stepped forward. And I mean the small business owner, having kissed goodbye to his life’s work in order to prevent over-capacity (or even near-capacity) in the health service, clapping and cheering along with everyone else each Thursday evening. He is keenly aware of the cost to him of his oblation, but he pushes down the pain because his higher duty – the duty he is compelled to observe by this new cultural rite – is to publicly express undeviating gratitude to the angels and heroes of the NHS. No rainbows will shine over his own sacrifice. Such honour is reserved for the velvet sacrifice of far holier things. 

4. Heretics

Honest open debate, indeed the fierce collision of differing opinions, is a wonderful thing. If the lockdown lobby were interested in developing the greatest possible sophisticated understanding, they would cherish the contribution of the sceptics. They would glory in the contradictions of their own arguments being pointed out to them. Following Hegelian dialectics, thesis would create antithesis would create synthesis. But, sadly, sophistication is not high on their agenda. A crushing uniformity of message seems to be more up their street. So to hell with Hegel (and Plato too); the arguments must be structured, not as an eternally progressing dialectic of knowledge, but rather as a flat, stale, unprofitable split between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Rather than being painstakingly ground out in a crucible of trial and error, a corpus of infallible knowledge that we have come to know as “The Science” has simply been revealed. As many sceptics have noticed, the sole custodians of this knowledge, the keepers of the arcana, are the members of the scientific priesthood. They zealously claim all rights of interpretation, mediation and exegesis. Wielding their esoteric degrees as armour no factual nuance can penetrate, they have no trouble shouting down the citizen-scientists. Ah but those fellow priests, sometime quite high priests, who spout heterodox opinion are a thornier proposition. But the sacerdotal rite of peer review comes to their rescue, so that even the most bumptious of novices can denounce the most learned and venerable. With the help of giant online corporations richer and more influential than the Knights Templar, any inconvenient book, article, blog and petition is placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Contrarians are no-platformed, but not before that platform (or scaffold) has witnessed the last of the heretics’ ashes blown away on the wind. Before long these orthodox priest-scientists will have changed, through their dogmatism and intolerance, the very nature of medical science. In the rise of the public health professor, at the expense of the traditional clinician, we are seeing the emerging dominance of a new Augustinianism. For just as Augustine of Hippo hardwired the concept of original sin into the burgeoning cult of Christianity, so the goons of public health have got everyone thinking in terms of mass infection rates, reproduction numbers, and cases. Those who resist, those who retain an attachment to individualised clinical need, are attacked and dismissed as adherents of a twenty-first century Pelagian heresy. As Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying, quoting Fulke Greville, we are all of us now “objects in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well”.

5. The Unquestioned Why

For much of recorded history otherwise very educated people spent a sizeable part of their lives debating matters such as the slicing off of the foreskins of babies, the wetting of the heads of babies so they’re not punished for dying as babies, the sex lives of virtually everybody (apart from babies), the exact degree to which the flesh of a horribly flayed and executed man manifests itself in a hunk of bread, ditto blood and cheap plonk, the precise amount of bad that is involved in eating pork, menstruating in public, saying the name of your god, drawing an image of your god, reading Harry Potter or listening to Judas Priest. At no point during the interminable debates on these and likewise absurdities would any of these clever, educated people have said: “Oh come on! Really? WHY are we talking about ANY of this? What does ANY of this have to do with ANYTHING that matters??!!” They wouldn’t because, once the higher calling of religion is accepted, you are pretty much committing yourself to decades of dissecting the often nonsensical trivia that ensues from that overarching life decision. You will obsess over the ‘how’, never the ‘why’. You will never have to ask why, because the why, when you have belief, is obvious. Both obvious and beyond rational dispute. For 20 minutes during a recent Friday edition of PM on Radio 4, the why was most definitely never questioned. Everyone who wrote in to ask a couple of ‘experts’ about the do’s and don’ts of the new tripartite Tier system of local lockdown knew the why. They knew it only too well: to save lives. But they were much more unsure as to the how. So for 20 minutes we were treated to earnest questions about whether, if I live in Tier 3, I can still go to my Pilates class? Whether, if my cousin visits, I have to meet him in a local hotel as opposed to my house? Whether my wife and I, who live in Tier 3, can visit a pub in a nearby Tier 2 village, and if so whether we have to take our ploughman’s lunch outside in the beer garden? (all real queries by the way). I heard nary a giggle of disbelief and incredulity, no suggestion that any of the usually hyper-critical callers had even vaguely entertained the notion as to what ANY of this bullshit had to do with SAVING LIVES… and, as it was radio, I have no idea if even the faintest eyebrow was raised between the presenter Evan Davis and the two ‘experts’ – but I heartily doubt it. What only several days previously was jotted down on the back of a few Number 10 envelopes by a bunch of spads and civil servants was now being discussed with the sombreness and respect usually reserved for millennia-old stone tablets brought down from the upper slopes of Mount Sinai. Just last year these Radio 4 listeners would have ripped apart Boris’s election manifesto with a cynical relish. But that was because the ‘why’ behind each policy pronouncement back then was eminently questionable. Outside of the Rees-Mogg family, the election of a Conservative government is not something to build a religious impulse around. But saving lives in a world of ‘zero Covid’ most certainly is. So (and apologies to Strother Martin) you get what we had here last week, which is the way they want it… well, they get it: the very latest ruling on Pilates and a ploughman’s lunch.

6. The Book of Maureen

A continual refrain is that lockdown sceptics are a cadre of selfish libertarians bent on flexing their individual liberty at the expense of the needs of society. The right of a man to do (in Hobbes’s words) “anything he liketh” must never be infringed upon, pandemic or no. Depending on which side of the Atlantic you happen to be, this toxic individuality is detected in either the bolshy bleat of the Brexiteer or the snarl of the “don’t tread on me” Trump-supportin’, gun-totin’, mask-hatin’ redneck. In either case, figures of the utmost derision in smart educated circles. Someone like 83 year-old Maureen (“I don’t give a sod”) Eames is harder to discredit. After all, the Maureens of this world are what this whole suppression strategy has seemingly been about. When Maureen says we should all just live our lives without government interference you can’t simply say to her, like you can to the gammons and the rubes, “It’s all very well for you to say that, but you are not in the category of risk.” You can call her a batty old trout if you must (and I’m sure she has been called that and worse on Twitter) but you can’t call her selfish – for she is looking out for the interests, not of herself, but of other currently suffering sections of society – exactly the holy, indeed sacrificial attitude that Government and the media are asking others to take in respect of people like… well, like Maureen. So in one respect, she is fighting back against the religious impulse by denying both the ubiquitous terror of an unexceptional disease and the power of the state to prevent such a disease from holding even the smallest dominion of death over us. But in another respect, she is freely embracing another side of that religious impulse through her selfless Christian attitude. In that sense she doesn’t, perhaps, represent other 83 year-olds, nor indeed humanity more generally. For going back to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the fundamental law of human nature is not self-sacrifice but self-preservation. Derived directly from this is the equally natural (and rational) law that man lay down his right to do “anything he liketh”. The untrammelled personal freedom prevailing in the State of Nature imperils life, thus a thinking individual rationally concludes that he must enter into some form of communal agreement to prevent the anarchy that threatens to engulf him. But he doesn’t have the power to ensure that community agreement is obligatory upon everyone (including, crucially, himself), so he tacitly signs the Social Contract that grants this power to Hobbes’s Leviathan: a political state with its myriad laws, rules, regulations and sanctions. For it should never be forgotten that political organisation exists because of what is natural and rational in individuals. By contrast, religion appeals to the opposite tendency: the supernatural and the irrational instincts of man. The zero-Covid state, the Covid suppression state, is a form of political organisation that has, unilaterally and with lightning speed, re-written the terms of the Social Contract. It is no longer the arbiter and enforcer of agreements that individuals in society have rationally entered into (for their self-preservation). It has become instead the monstrous leviathanic expression of our collective irrational fears. The Social Contract might have been surreptitiously ripped up but we continue to give it our blessing because we apparently find it immensely comforting to give into our fears so long as we are assured that political masters (note: not necessarily ‘our’ political masters, but some idealised political masters somewhere) have the capacity to quell and destroy these fears. But what if we don’t share these fears to begin with? What then? Well, one option is that we can say that all bets are off. The state is no longer honouring our rational rights, only plundering our terrors, so we should now revert to doing “anything we liketh”. Community solidarity, mutual respect and agreement can all go to hell in a resurrected libertarian nightscape. Life will be back to being “nasty, brutish and short” – but, hey, at least it will be life. Or alternatively we can follow the Book of Maureen and fight religious fear with noble religious sacrifice. This second option would of course be much pleasanter for the great majority of us. But the Book of Maureen is, in truth, not so bittersweet. As the Yorkshire lady herself says, she’ll go out and do what she wants and may the chips fall where they may, but there is absolutely no requirement for her fellow octogenarians to take such risks. There is simply no necessity for any sacrificial acts. Those who desire focused protection should be entitled to receive it. Will that eradicate the risk of Covid for her age group? It will not. But Maureen knows, as other wise old birds know, that death in your 80s and 90s is not so much a risk as a Sword of Damocles suspended by the slenderest of horsehairs. Only a few will make it through these rewarding but difficult decades sunny side up, and only a few that do will be terribly thankful for the privilege. Sacrifice is optional but not necessary; and death, like it or not, will have its victory. Those are the real lessons of the Book of Maureen. They are, in the final analysis, profoundly irreligious themes and profoundly the better for that.  

7. The Lying Dutchman

In saying that Covid suppression reaction is quasi-religious in nature, I am only following where plenty of others have already trod. I have tried to add a unique spin here and there but mine is not a daring thesis and none of it should sound particularly revelatory to those who have been paying close attention. I wanted to end with some thoughts on the Second Wave as the Second Coming, but I could not improve on the anonymous philosopher who wrote a recent piece touching on this subject for Lockdown Sceptics. Belief in the imminence and deathly consequences of a Second Wave was argued, in that article, to be nothing less than a “blik”: a logically fallacious assertion which is impermeable to empirical evidence. It is a neat illustration of how almost every position of the pro-lockdown lobby is riddled with language that, while permissible in a debate on faith, is highly problematic when attached to a subject in which the data must be pre-eminent. The unnamed philosopher is surely right that we should focus on observable logical fallacies in the arguments of our foes rather than make sweeping claims as to the conscious ‘religious’ motives of those who, discursively and linguistically, treat the Second Wave like a Second Coming (among other absurdities). But the more emotional part of me is frankly sick and tired that our pro-lockdown opponents can utilise any manner of sloppy and infantile argumentation, while we – who after all are the ones not wishing to overturn the norms of society – must be held to the highest possible standards of rigour and maturity. So yes, let us be deliberately mischievous and go full-throttle with the notion that what we are seeing here is a religious impulse, long suppressed in the modern era, bursting forth among our supposedly enlightened fellow citizens. But that said, it would indeed be silly to suggest that the Second Wave equates to the Second Coming. The Second Coming is the Second Advent of the Messiah, and the Messiah to be worshipped in this situation is clearly not COVID-19 per se, it is the power of human agency to vanquish all death associated with COVID-19 (i.e. the Covid suppression state). And before you ask, there was a First Coming of this Saviour. True, He wasn’t around long, but long enough to whet the appetite of zealots for His inevitable return. Some said He performed some of his early miracles in Wuhan itself. He certainly accrued disciples as His ministry travelled through Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam. But it was in New Zealand where He stirred up His greatest messianic fervour. As for Europe, He was spotted now and again in Germany they say. But certainly not in Spain and Italy. And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green? Alas, no. And the sad, tragical reason for this can now be told. There once was a brash, blond sea captain by the name of Johansson. The foremost physicks and apothecaries of the land came to him one day and told him about a magnificent Redeemer, doing miraculous work abroad, who had the power to confront and defeat the Great Plague of the age. But Capt. Johansson preferred to make arrogant jokes about “squashing the sombrero” and “whack-a-mole” and even at one point flirted with the satanic notion of herd immunity. Just as Ahasuerus once mocked Christ on His way to the Crucifixion and was thereby condemned to wander the earth, deathless, until the Second Coming, so Capt. Johansson found himself at the sharp end of a terrible ‘Wandering Jew’ curse. He fell ghostly sick, he assumed a pale shaken demeanour and lost all his humour. He and his spectral crew were forced to take their ship of state out into the stormy seas of bankruptcy, drift and multi-tiered chaos. But an angel brought him news of a possible redemption: every few months the waves would cast him back upon the shore. If he could find a vaccine for the plague, the Second Coming of the ‘Covid suppression state’ would be at hand, and he and his fragile ship of state would be released from the curse. Thus every so often one sees, emerging out of the spooky mist (and leaking bucketloads of public cash), the wretched Johansson sail his battered vessel back towards land, in the increasingly desperate hope that his beloved AstraZeneca, sitting at her spinning wheel, has found the means by which he can ascend to heaven. But until that fateful day arrives, the Lying Dutchman will rest not, and neither will a single luckless sod on his ship find even the slightest bit of peace. Thanks Cap’n!

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