During the Black Death, which originated in Asia and terrorized Europe from 1347 to 1352, artists captured the macabre zeitgeist with depictions of mocking skeletons wielding scythes and leading townsfolk to their painful deaths.
Between 25 million and 30 million people perished, and, historians say, the medieval mind blamed the plague’s boils and fevers on God’s failure to hear the prayers of the doomed — not, as it turned out, on fleas infected by rats. The devastation drained the faithful of faith.
No such drama will follow the current pandemic, scholars predict. In fact, many believe we will witness a resurgence in religion when the coronavirus either eases or ends.
“This pandemic is making everyone acutely aware of the fragility of life,” said Greg Sterling, dean of Yale Divinity School and an expert on the New Testament and ancient Judaism. “We all know attendance had been falling in churches before, but people are spiritual, and I think the need to connect to God may be greater after this is over.”
Coinciding with the coronavirus are other factors — economic crisis, police brutality, racial inequality — that make the country “far more open to change,” Sterling continued. “I think all these things mean a great deal to people and influence their sense of spirituality.”
Being forced to reckon with death on a massive scale compels Americans to wonder why they’re here, what purpose their lives hold, suggested Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
“People ask, ‘What does it mean to live a good life and be good to people?' These are deeply religious questions, and will have a profound impact on the spiritual sensibilities of an entire nation.”
Even as a life-ending plague burns through the United States, Americans are moving closer to God.
A Pew Research Center poll shows that while 2% of those surveyed say the coronavirus has weakened their faith, 25% declare the virus has deepened it. According to Gallup, 3% say their faith has “gotten worse”; 19% say it’s “gotten better.”
And among African Americans, who, like Latinx people, have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic, 41% say their faith has grown stronger, compared with 30% of Latinx Americans, and 20% of whites, Pew reports.
Originally labeled the “rich man’s disease” because the virus festered within the well-off who traveled by plane, COVID-19 quickly spread throughout the world among the wealthy and the poor.
“The coronavirus is a profound equalizer,” said Danielle Widmann Abraham, a professor of Islamic studies and comparative religion at Ursinus College. “It affects people at the level of their bodies.”
That creates a universal understanding that we are more alike than different, she said. And that’s a profoundly religious sentiment.
Punishment or test?
In the Muslim world, the coronavirus can be seen as either a punishment or a test from God.
“Religious people are looking for meaning in the pandemic,” said Adnan Zulfiqar, an expert on Islamic law and a legal historian at Rutgers Law School. In some countries, they ask: “Is it a penalty for something wrong we are doing? Or is it a trial to make us all better people?”
When communities become decimated by the coronavirus, “you can see the potential for the already religious to become even more religious,” Zulfiqar said.
In faiths such as Islam or Christianity, he added, there’s a notion of a day of judgment tied to an ultimate calamity that signals the final days of Earth.
For the profoundly religious, could COVID-19 be a sign of end times?
That’s how Thelma Kennerly is looking at it.
“I believe we’re in the last days,” said Kennerly, 68, a North Philadelphia Methodist who does charitable work feeding those in need. “You want to make sure you’re right with God and others.”
Kennerly also said that COVID-19 has strengthened her already powerful faith. “I feel closer to God since I know friends who were sick with the virus and recovered,” said Kennerly, who lost a nephew to the coronavirus.
Providing ‘comfort and context'
Not everyone is a believer, of course, and those who aren’t don’t frame the pandemic in religious terms.
“People ask, ‘How can God allow tragedy?’ ” said Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel Synagogue in Lower Merion. “Religion doesn’t provide an explanation. But it can provide comfort.”
When troubles persist, scholars say, the religious typically don’t shake their fist at the sky and rail at God for bequeathing us travails. Instead, they believe God is present as we bear our grief. And they reach out.
“God doesn’t cause the fire,” Yanoff said. “He inspires the firefighter who rescued the child from the window. Or the nurses and doctors to fight the coronavirus.”
Ultimately, according to Sterling of Yale, spirituality will continue to flourish in human beings because “we believe there’s something more powerful than us to dignify and give meaning to our lives.”
After 9/11, explained Sterling, the country saw increases in the numbers of people attending church who hadn’t been there for ages. That may also happen after COVID-19 is quashed, he added.
In the end, God seems like a good idea to those under siege.
“The attacks and the pandemic made people think of their own mortality,” Sterling added. “And as we’ve heard before, there aren’t too many atheists in foxholes.”