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'Faith Matters' during Health Crises but Religious Sentiments May Lead to Blaming Others, Scholar Cautions

Tim Tune | Contributor | Wednesday, March 25, 2020
'Faith Matters' during Health Crises but Religious Sentiments May Lead to Blaming Others, Scholar Cautions

'Faith Matters' during Health Crises but Religious Sentiments May Lead to Blaming Others, Scholar Cautions

When illness threatens, “faith matters” because it can help strengthen our resistance to infection and disease, says Baylor University epidemiologist Jeff Levin. During this COVID-19 pandemic, Levin said, it’s important “to maintain continuity in our spiritual life.”

Despite this positive aspect of religious practice, Levin also cautions that the challenge of a widespread health crisis can also result in blaming and “scapegoating.”

Levin’s comments, reported in a Baylor news release, are from a Q&A with him about the COVID-19 outbreak and its religious dimensions. Levin holds a doctorate in Preventive Medicine and Community Health from the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

At Baylor, based in Waco, Texas, Levin is director of the Program on Religion and Population Health in the university’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He is also an adjunct professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine. 

Levin’s website, Religion and Health, describes him as a religious scholar and biomedical scientist who “in the 1980s pioneered the study of religion and health.”

When asked “What can we do to strengthen our resistance to the infection and the disease?” Levin replied, “One of the important things that we can do – and decades of research support this – is to maintain continuity in our spiritual life. Studies show that people with a strong ongoing faith commitment can marshal an ability to remain resilient and deal with stress and even have better medical outcomes.

He continued, “There is longstanding research literature on the physical and mental health benefits of hope and optimism and positive attitudes, including in the context of one’s spiritual life,” as well as due to “the tangible and emotional support that faith and being a part of faith communities give us. Faith matters.”

Despite the evidence of faith’s health benefits, Levin cautioned, “this isn’t a magic bullet, and I want to be careful about overstating things.”

He said that “being a diligent Christian or Jew, believing in God, going to religious services — in person or online — showing strong faith, studying Scriptures regularly” won’t prevent “a pathogenic agent” from entering a “body or won’t cause signs or symptoms of disease.”

He said of people who have such beliefs, “I think they’re laboring under some false expectations. They’re asking belief or faith to do things that are very difficult for me to envision. Maybe that’s just the scientist in me talking, although I too am a person of faith.” He said later in the Q&A that his family is Jewish.

Reiterating that while “our faith can indeed be part of keeping us strong and helping us to recover,” he recommended combining “expressions of faith with careful efforts to limit our exposure and contain the outbreak, and to wisely seek medical care if we start to not feel well.”

The Bible encourages us with verses like “put on the full armor of God [Ephesians 6:11],” but at the same time if you stand out in the pouring rain you can’t sanely expect not to get rained on.”

In his response to a question about whether the current pandemic could “lead to a resurgence of religious belief,” Levin acknowledged it could, but not necessarily in a positive way.”

He explained that “Times of crisis like this, especially when people feel powerless and are receiving conflicting information, can lead to a dangerous flare-up of unwholesome religious sentiments, including scapegoating.”

He mentioned the 14th century Black Plague when, he said, “From a third to over one half of Europe perished and the one constant in every country affected by the epidemic – besides the millions of bodies piling up – was a consistent and organized effort to massacre Jews, who were blamed for the disease.

Lest we think those days are behind us, he continued, “look at how we responded to the brief Ebola crisis in the U.S. in 2014, which ramped up hatred toward Mexican immigrants. Or consider the present outbreak, and the terrible animosity directed at Asian Americans.

“We aren’t immune to this kind of behavior,” Levin cautioned, “especially when we feel a sense of dread or hopelessness or a sense that our prayers to God have failed and that we are receiving a divine chastisement or punishment. It’s easy then to lash out and try to identify a ‘demonic’ source for our travail and try to seek vengeance.”

During such challenging crises, he said, “There is also precedent for waves of apocalypticism, fear that the end of the world is nigh. We saw this during the 1918 influenza pandemic, and it gave rise to much of the end-times thinking that persists to the present day.”

Levin concludes that while “faith can sustain us, even benefit us physiologically,” nevertheless, “it can also embitter us and make us do evil or drive us to become obsessed or crazy.”

In responding to the question, “Are there other more positive ways that faith or spirituality come into play here?” Levin said, “I can think of a few.”

“There’s a bioethical dimension. Our faith traditions remind us of our obligations to others, especially those in grave need who lack the requisite material or social resources to care for themselves.”

He described the current pandemic as “a social-justice teaching moment for us as a society, and along with the medical and public health dimensions there are profound lessons in moral theology to learn and act on.”

He asked, “Will we slip into a xenophobic fear-based response, self-absorbed with our own personal needs, or will we use this time – this enforced vacation for so many of us – to reach out to those in need?”

He said the current crisis offers choices “to be selfless and act lovingly toward others, to represent the best of what faith has to offer. Or we can choose to reinforce the most selfish and hateful and ungodly aspects of what humans are capable of. This is a choice facing every one of us.”

“There’s also a pastoral dimension here,” he continued. “Each of us, not just clergy or healthcare chaplains or pastoral counselors, has a role to play in offering consolation and reassurance to our fellow brothers and sisters. And also real, tangible assistance.”

“Our family is Jewish, and we’re reminded in Exodus that we’ve been called to be ‘a nation of priests.’ I think the same can be said for all of us, in our respective communities. We can also be thought of as a nation, or a community, of pastors. And in that role there is much for us to do.”

Levin mentioned providing services such as:

  • Organizing “neighbors and congregants to provide help to people and families who need it,”
  • “Help maintain study, prayer and worship activities while we are unable to attend church or synagogue” and
  • “Love and support those who are suffering and remind them of God’s love for us.”

“These messages matter,” he said, because “they can strengthen our ability to recover from this outbreak, both individually and as a community of people.”

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Arkira

Tim Tune is a freelance journalist based in Fort Worth, Texas. His work has been published by Baptist Press, as well as the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Business PressArlington Today magazine and other North Texas publications.