Perhaps there are two kinds of normal people…There are those who don’t believe in free will and thereby don’t have free will, and there are those who do believe in free will and thereby actually have free will. ” Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves.
I will be upfront about my definition of “bad theology” here: Bad theology is a belief system that makes it “okay” that many people die who would not have otherwise needed to die right now, chalked up to “God’s will” or “It was their time to go.” That theology, I assert, is the primary obstacle today in the United States to getting a handle on the coronavirus crisis. Why have Japan, Taiwan, New Zealand and other cultures been able to hold deaths from this virus down while America can’t? I assert that it is because a bad, deadly theology still runs rampant in American churches and related sub-cultures of a certain stripe.
That may sound like a harsh jab at religion. But, to put this itself in religious language, the statistical reality is that whatever God you believe in has been much more merciful to people in places practicing the most effective science-based mitigations against the coronavirus. Or expressed more in Old Testament terms, their God is much more powerful and merciful, by the coronavirus numbers, than yours.
I have told this morbid joke before: A jovial airplane passenger is sitting next to a very nervous seatmate. “I don’t know why you are afraid to fly,” says the happy guy. “I believe that God will take me home when it is my time to go.” The nervous flier responds, “That’s what I am afraid of. What if today is your time to go?”
We are all on a big airplane with that first guy and there are millions more like him. And they hear this message every week in their churches (or Zoom services these days if their pastor has any sense left), that God is protecting them even when they are reckless about this virus. But importantly, this message is not preached in all churches.
Applying cause-effect to religion versus culture can be a messy chicken-or-egg thing. Indeed, most sociologists would simply say that religion is just part of culture. However, many people in the pew dispute that. They see their religion as somehow separate, or above, culture.
Leaving the more complex Catholic theology about free will aside for now, Protestants had divided up by the 16th century into two critical theological camps that survive today. First was a Calvinist theological thread (from the French theologian John Calvin, 1509–1564) that basically believes in predestination, of “the salvation of the elect” and “God’s Will.” An all-knowing God knows, from the beginning, both the day and the form of your death, and where you will go thereafter. You have already been elected for salvation…or not.
The alternative is called Arminianism, from the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609), who asserted that, “If they will, they may believe or not believe, may be saved or not be saved.” Although there are a thousand variants, this thread of believers hopes the choices that they make in this life matter for something in the big scheme of things.
Non-Christian readers may see both positions as bunk. You may well be correct, but your American neighbor is likely in one of these camps, and that is the point of this post, so read on.
The Calvinist tradition came to the U.S. in the guise of the Presbyterian, Reformed and Baptist denominations, although there is a continuum in these denominations of how much predestination and “saved elect” theology you will hear from their pulpits. And how much anti-science coronavirus talk. Most mega-church Evangelical pastors and the most popular TV preachers are Calvinists by tradition and training. The key decision that you have to make is “accepting Jesus as your Savior,” and then everything will be okay. And at one end of this continuum, that decision was really made before your birth.
The lines blur between denominations in the messy American Christian culture today, but tradition of Arminianism is found more in the Methodist/Wesleyan denominations (from John Wesley, 1703–1791), the Disciples of Christ, and Mennonites. That influence has also touched other “works-oriented” religious traditions, such as the Latter-day Saint churches.
But “Trump culture” and the “God’s Will” position have both influenced much of this latter religious thread as well, even though their own theologians would most likely dispute their leaning. The “faith versus works” debate at the center of this argument goes all the way back to St. Paul versus other New Testament writers, if you want to do some serious theological arm-wrestling.
My point here is not one of “good churches” versus “bad churches.” Rather, I am saying that this particular theology is, in fact, killing people who otherwise would have had additional years on this Earth, including many of their own members.
So, here is their story
This is the story I hear from my “God’s Will” friends and relatives: God is in control. God decides when you live or die. God is stronger than the coronavirus. Put on “the whole armor of God” and you will be saved from this virus (unless God decides that it is your time to go).
That is a pretty comfortable rationalization if your hug winds up killing your elderly mother. You did not kill her. Rather, God has decided that it was her time to go. Except statistically, if you lived in a location that practiced better mitigation measures like masking, social distancing and limited gatherings, Mom might well still be alive. The average additional lifespan for a 70-year-old woman is another 16.6 years. (UPDATE FOR SEPTEMBER 2021: Add extremely effective vaccines to the proven mitigations.)
It is no surprise that this theology is often tied to the rejection of science in general. I like to note that millions of Christians have no problem with embracing modern science, despite a common media mis-portrayal. However, the Venn Diagram depicting the set of people who believe “God says who will die from Covid” and the set of believers in “Young Earth Creationism” shows two greatly overlapping circles. The Trump political base circle has a large overlap here as well.
“Alternative medicine” is also a heavy topic in these circles, represented by President Trump’s advocacy for “miracle cures” and “herd immunity.” I like the response question here from Dr. Steven Novella, founder of the blog Science-Based Medicine: “What do you call Alternative Medicine that has been proven to work? You call it Medicine.”
(Just a little secret among us: There are thousands of respected epidemiologists, pulmonologists, and other disease specialists, most with decades of relevant experience, desperately working on this disease. Despite what your friend on Facebook is saying, there are no “miracle cures,” like taking a particular food supplement or hydroxychloroquine. There are, however, some promising (and risky) therapeutics that are available to the President’s friends and a small proportion of dying people, but you likely will not get them at this time.)
The alternative thread
Non-predestination Christians may well still put “God language” into their discussions of life and death with Covid-19. Their focus is more likely, however, on the “shared suffering” that appears to go with the human condition, which they see represented in the life and death of Jesus. They do not have all of the theological answers nailed down, but they do feel the pain of fellow humans as they confront the illness, and sometimes death, of loved ones. For them, “God’s will” is an insufficient answer to their questions.
However, this thread of theology is more likely to assert a responsibility, a stewardship over the decisions of life here, that literally changes the odds of people contracting and dying from this virus. They wear a mask as much to protect you as to protect themselves. Religious believers in science are also more likely to believe in the math of probability. They need not be incompatible.
Let me suggest that the coronavirus has no theology. Or, if your theology is that the virus “was created by God,” then your theology must also be okay with an “avenging angel” who has killed over 300,000 Americans so far this year. (UPDATE FOR SEPTEMBER 2021: Now pushing 700,000 dead in the U.S.) You do not have to dig very far into social media to find surviving relatives, “good Christians” included, who will regret for the rest of their lives spreading the virus to a loved one who did not survive. Denial is a strong drug until reality hits home.
It is called Theodicy
There is a little-used word for the subset of theology that tries to explain why bad things (and good things) happen. Theodicy literally transcribes to “the justice of God,” a word coined by the German mathematician/philosopher/theologian Gottfried Liebniz (1646–1716). This co-inventor of calculus and possessor of incredible (likely fake) hair, Leibniz was the subject of one of my first posts on this blog. Theodicy is the title of his 1709 classic work that explored “good worlds” and “bad worlds,” not just in theological (“God language”) terms, but also in the language of his unique brand of philosophy and mathematics. This book was one of my introductions to the study of ethics almost thirty years ago (warning: it is not light reading).
But we all “do theodicy” on occasion, but usually at inopportune times during our lives. When someone close to us suffers, or even dies, theodicy hits us at the core of our being. “Why did this happen?” Or in more fundamentalist religious terms, “Why did an all-powerful, all-loving God let this happen?”
I generally try to tolerate a large swath of “God language” theologies that people express. As I have noted before, these are mostly our best-intentioned personal expressions of those things that we really, really hope for, or that we really, really, fear, using the limited words at our disposal. And the words mostly come from our religious heritage, especially as we have de-emphasized the teaching of non-religious classic literature. All I can say here is that I “really, really hope” that 2021 sees most of America accept an effective immunization against this coronavirus. And I “really, really fear” that some churches and politicians will continue to convince their followers to reject the science and the math of effective coronavirus mitigation, resulting in more needless death.