How religious faith can be a cure for our covid crisis

History and the present are littered with those who would treat religion as an evil virus, writes George Pitcher. But a dose of it may be just what we need

It is an axiom of the current pandemic that none of us is safe until all of us are safe. So we’re all called to do our bit for the world. But while the old slogan to “think globally and act locally” may work for business and eco-campaigning, as a response to covid it’s inadequate.

From next Monday, those arriving from a “red list” of countries (McCarthyist witch hunt anyone?), on pain of a £10,000 fine and/or 10-year prison sentence, will have to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days – which, one supposes, is one way to regenerate the domestic hospitality industry.

This latest restriction of liberty means our freedom of movement has been far more effectively curtailed by a virus than by anything that was signed away in the Brexit deal. The comic spectacle of outrage from those who campaigned for Brexit, such as Sir John Redwood, at the consequent restriction of free movement of goods is matched only by the tragedy of those who can’t leave their homes – or hotels – to be with those they love because of covid.

Free movement has a long and noble history. The Roman Emperor Augustus – he of the officious census that required a certain young family to return home to Bethlehem – tried to relieve pressure on food supply by granting freedom of movement in the sixth year of the Common Era. Our own Magna Carta secured the popular right to travel in 1215.

The Tsarist emancipation of the serfs in Russia in 1861 did the same. And the United Nations Declaration of human rights after the Second World War enshrined our entitlement to leave and return to our own countries.

The history of human ideas has depended on free movement too. The art and literature of the Renaissance travelled with its merchants. The Reformation was enabled not just through the publication of radical pamphlets, but through the free movement of those who distributed them.

“Going viral”

And it might be there, in the spread of religion and the response to it, that we should explore the nature of free movement and what we call in the argot of social media “going viral”. Some of the precedents for doing so are troublesome - bands of travelling monks during the Reformation, for instance, spread the Great Plague very efficiently. Others are beyond hideous.

Of the three main Abrahamic faiths, Judaism has the darkest association with so-called viral growth. Being a Jew is (usually) genealogical, dependent upon parental descent rather than conversion. Being strictly literal, one should be allowed to say it is congenital, in that it is principally a birth trait and consequently as racial as it is religious. But that way madness lies as it proximates to the ultimate abomination of the Holocaust and the Nazi-owned language of disease - of a “bacillus” that needs to be “cut out”.

The truly diseased, of course, are those who would express such a worldview. And the slogans of some of those who attacked the Capitol in Washington DC last month tell us we’re far from inoculated against this particular virus of antisemitism.

There are, fearfully, resonances of the language of viral contamination in contemporary treatments of Islam - the idea that Europe, by failing to keep fit and healthy in its inherent culture, has rendered itself liable to Muslim “disease” and “infection”. It’s as well not to give those who struggle to breathe this idea into western society any ventilation with the oxygen of publicity, but one who argues that conditions for Muslims should be “harder across the board” and that they are not “owed mosques” in Europe is on the same parade as ex-President Trump’s ideas for banning immigration by creed. These are the Proud Boys of Europe.

The third of the Semitic religions, Christianity, has had a relatively free ride on being a viral phenomenon – in the West, at least – in recent centuries. But as a way of living that spreads by word of mouth and by human touch it is probably unmatched in the virulence of its initial contagion.

Books such as Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians and Robert Knapp’s The Dawn of Christianity record magisterially how a nascent, tiny sect from a backwater of the Roman empire spread around and through the old polytheistic religions and paganism of the Mediterranean basin – and, contrary to widespread belief, as an urban rather than rural condition – until it became the imperial religion under Constantine. The miracle is not that it grew to be so big, but that it grew at all from its inception in death and defeat.

Religious pandemic

Indeed, it truly went viral. There were attempts, to put it mildly, to stamp it out, but it became the religious pandemic that we know today, by some margin the world’s largest religion, with about double the number of adherents worldwide as those who would count themselves as non-religious or atheist (32 per cent against 16 per cent).

We can overdo this viral analogy. Let’s not go near both covid and the Christ being born in unhygienic conditions among animals. And while the jury may be out on whether the Christian faith has been a force for good in the world, we can assume that the consensus holds that covid isn’t.

But we should perhaps resolve not to allow the virus to destroy human qualities developed in good religion. Covid locks people up, isolates them, socially distances us, makes us shield. It creates barriers and devalues internationalism. It makes us fearful of others and requires us to raise our personal and national drawbridges.

The three world religions to which I refer - and many others besides - at their best do the opposite of all these things. It may be as well, in a time of plague, not to squander these qualities but to allow them, as it were, to infect people more widely.

It’s all too easy to take a nationalistic view of well being - a reworking of the old and probably apocryphal British newspaper headline might today be: “Continent cut off by covid.” We truly are all in this together - and we need to come out of it together.

The resolution has to be this: Let’s not, in every sense, lose faith. Because, if we do, we could emerge from this physically healthier but immeasurably spiritually diminished, which in its way could be just as fatal as the virus. To paraphrase where this started, none of us is saved until all of us are saved.

George Pitcher is a visiting fellow at the LSE and an Anglican priest.