The first “postsecular pandemic”?
The London School of Economics (or LSE) hosted an online event in June 2020 called “Religious Communities under COVID-19: the first pandemic of the postsecular age?” Post-secular is ambiguous: It can mean either (1) after secularism has established itself as the norm or (2) after secularism's hegemony has ended. (This ambiguity plays into Luke Bretherton’s distinction of “secularism” and “secularity,” which more or less map on the first and second definition, respectively.)Is secularism representative of this global pandemic in the twenty-first century, particularly in light of the rise in the United States of the “nones” who represent 25% of the population. Put another way, have we entered a new, fully secular way of engaging with the pandemic? There are vast differences between 2020-21 and the 1919 influenza pandemic or the 1832 cholera epidemic. I have not witnessed governmental calls for repentance, for example.
It would seem that a secular, or non-religious, or naturalistic approach is what is demanded. “Let the data speak” echoes what I hear from our California Governor, Gavin Newsome.
And yet, I sense a growing dissatisfaction with the secular what Charles Taylor calls the “imminent frame” in A Secular Age. As two countervailing examples, there are books on theodicy with booming sales from N.T. Wright Wright, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath (Zondervan, 2021) and Lennox, Where is God in a Coronavirus World? (The Good Book, 2020), pondering God’s work in this challenging time. (For my part, I don’t find the questions of God's justice in light of the prevalence of evil and pain more poignant now than on almost any day on this planet, but their reflections intrigue me nonetheless.) In addition, searches on prayer via Google have spiked in the past year (as James Walter’s commented at the June 2020 LSE event).
Perhaps formally, we are less religious than in past pandemics, but it’s hard to argue that religious sensibilities are entirely absent. At times like this, human beings feel a sense of something bigger than us.
Enduring disparities of race and economics
One of the lessons from my research in writing Negotiating Science and Religion in America is the endemic and enduring racism in America and the central role science and religion have played. The current pandemic has intensified the disparities of race and economics.
Quoting from Vox, “Black Americans have fared worst of all, with about 1 in 1000 Black Americans dying from Covid-19 since February.”
“For their share of the US population, Black people are dying in the pandemic at twice the rate of white Americans, of whom about 1 in every 2,150 people has died.”
And why? The disparities of economics and the many issues are related to poverty among Blacks and LatinX and native Americans play a central role. In addition, as many have noted, the ongoing suspicion of science—e.g., the 1932-72 Tuskegee Syphilis experiments—raise challenges to fighting inequalities in this COVID-19 time. To be sure, Black churches, as one example, represent centers of community empowerment. Still, because religious communities are often racially segregated in the United States, inequalities of care are mapped onto communities of worship.
We could frame these two more generally as (1) the question of religion’s significance today in the face of death and suffering, and (2) as the enduring role that religion has played in the United States to reinforce oppression.
And however we frame these two, COVID-19 has intensified how we negotiate the relationship of science and religion in America.