The Elephant in the Room?
What about religion?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
First Amendment, US Constitution
Americans take their religion seriously.
But what should happen if we have a really dangerous epidemic in the United States?
Coronavirus, by the way, isn’t that epidemic. So far coronavirus infections have killed an estimated 180 to 320 people under the age of 45 in the United States. That’s out of a population of about 330 million. And that’s three hundred, not three hundred thousand or anything like that.
The vast majority of people, should the worst happen and they do contract a coronavirus infection, are going to get no symptoms, or a cold or maybe a week or two of what is colloquially known as the “flu,” that is, a week or two of fever, feeling really crappy and annoying and even painful respiratory symptoms.
Despite the relentless media hype, this is “just” another of many, many respiratory virus illnesses that show up every year and kill of 30 to 80 thousand mostly elderly Americans. Remember, we do not say this to trivialize or try to downplay this problem. Here at You&Me we have repeatedly called for a reassessment of the United States’ previous response, or lack of response, to respiratory viral epidemics, which to also repeat, are actually a yearly occurrence here.
Again, what changed wasn’t the actual world we live in and its threats. Those remain what they have been since humans started living on this planet. What changed is at this time is how aware people are of them.
But what if we really get the “big one?” There are worse viruses out there. Ebola for one. Due to the government’s coy wording about “body fluids” many people have been fooled into thinking Ebola is something like hepatitis C or AIDS. It is not. The body fluids in question here do include sneezes, coughing and breathing aerosolized saliva into the nose and mouth of a recipient. The “R number” of COVID-19 is estimated to be 2 to 2.5. The “R” of Ebola is estimated to be 2. They are similar because they spread in similar ways. But there the similarity ends. Unlike COVID-19, Ebola is a stone-cold killer. On average 50 percent of people infected die, and all infected people will require intense medical interventions.
Remember H1N1 (or the “Texas flu” if we are going to name things after their proposed place of origin?) Remember MERS? Remember SARS? (The “bird flu?”) All of these also have much higher death rates than COVID-19.
What has all this got to do with religion?
Well, what to do about religion during an epidemic has been the elephant in the room, the big thing that everyone doesn’t want to speak about. Governor Cuomo of New York has been much given to dramatic pronouncements, but you haven’t heard him telling people to stay home from mass. The mayor of New York has famously personally traveled out of his office to yell at Hasidim not following social distancing, but he doesn’t seem to be storming into any Christian churches to check up on them.
Are religious observances a threat?
Let’s get to the data, as usual.
Firstly, again, we can’t go by raw numbers of reported cases per state, because a large populous state is going to have more numbers than a smaller one. Instead, we use compare the expected number of cases, assuming everything were equal and all the humans in the US caught or had an equal chance of catching a cold/flu type illness equally with the actual number of cases a state reports. We then rank from 1 to 51( including D.C.) the number of cases, and compare this with the population rank of that state from 1 to 51. For example, North Carolina ranks 9th in population in the US and ranks 18th in number of cases. We subtract 18 from 9 giving us a “score” of -9. In this case, the more negative the number, the better for the state. Negative numbers mean a state has a less than expected number of cases and positive numbers mean they have more. The more negative the better and the more positive the worst.
Is there a connection between how religious a state is, and the state’s amount of cases reported relative to what the expected “null hypothesis” rank would be?
Here are the 10 most “religious” states according to the Pew Foundation in 2017, and their scores.
5.S. Carolina -7
10.N. Carolina -9
The overall average score for the most religious states is -3. The only correlation that jumps out at you is geographic, not religious—Louisiana and Mississippi are a well-known mini-epicenter of infection.
What about the “least religious” states, according to the Pew Study? Are they doing better, because nobody’s sneaking off to services?
Least Religious (ranked from “most least” on, i.e. New Hampshire is the least religious state in the US)
1.New Hampshire -1
2. Massachusetts +11
3. Vermont +3
4. Maine -3
4. Connecticut +17
Washington State -6
8. New York +3
Umm, not much to see here either. Again, mostly geography, which gives this list an overall score of +1, which is actually a bit worse than the religious, i.e. evangelical Christian states.
But let’s take a deeper dive. Let’s call out a specific subset of Christianity, one that Mr. Cuomo and Mr. De Blasio are members of, although in Mr. De Blasio’s case not a current active participant in, the Catholic Church.
First, let us make clear that the author of this column is not anti-Catholic, or a Catholic hater, and in fact comes from a Catholic background. If the Church could ever get its ideas about gender, sex and sexuality out of the 1100s, this writer would still probably be actively a member. Catholicism is awesome! What other religion lets you eat the actual blood and body of a god on the regular? And no other Christian sect puts so much energy into social justice and doing charitable works.
But unlike Protestantism, Catholicism does require your actual presence in church in order to be saved. Even when the coronavirus was raging through Italy, the Pope wasn’t telling people to stay home from mass. Not that you can really blame him, as after all the Pope does have to stay on message. You are not going to hear a Pope say “Here’s an update, the sacraments are now optional.”
Catholic thinkers and theologians have had over a thousand years to think themselves into all kinds of side alleys, complications and box canyons, but for your basic Catholic it’s pretty simple. You have to go to mass, take communion and go to confession in order to go to heaven. You have to be up to date on these activities, or you are going to hell.
Which is why you may have noted that politicians aren’t talking about this. They are not going on record as telling their constituents to literally go to hell.
Are Catholics still participating to activities such as close contact during confession and communion or mass gathering for services? And is/has this contributed to viral spread?
Let’s look at the scores for the states with highest percentage of Catholic population. The US overall is 22 percent Catholic, by the way.
1.Rhode Island (42 percent) +20
2.Massachusetts (34 percent) +11
3.New Jersey (34 percent) +9
4.New Mexico (34 percent) -1
5.Connecticut (33 percent) +17
6.New York (31 percent) +3
7.California (28 percent) -4
8.Illinois (28 percent) +3
Louisiana (26 percent) +12
New Hampshire (26 percent) -1
North Dakota (26 percent) +3
The most Catholic states do look different at first glance. There average score is +7, versus -3 for “most religious” and +1 for “least religious.” But what about geography again? Many of the most Catholic states in the US are located in the Northeast, and around New York City, which is the epicenter of US infections and the source of most of the United States virus. New York City being a crowded transport hub and tourist hot spot probably is the main reason for that. Did the greater prevalence of Catholic religious practices in the area contribute to the spread as well, especially initially? Or is it just coincidence?
Except for speculating that the New York to Louisiana pipeline that resulted in developing a secondary hot spot was fueled by some kind of co-religionists it really isn’t possible to blame even Catholicism, or religion in general at this point. Religious people, in general, have been willing to find work arounds to meet their religious needs even in Catholicism, where many parishes have developed creative ways to provide sacraments to those that need them.
We would make a proposition to America’s religious organizations, however. Just as with the government, now is the time to start thinking ahead. Develop plans, like video services, or social distance spacing and mask wearing for in-person attendance. Figure out now how to mark your pews and set up one way lanes like the supermarket, and if extra services are needed then schedule them. No more handshaking or hugging, for better or worse. Especially high risk activities such as loud singing, or choirs should be replaced by recorded music or other activities, and so on. If one-on-one meetings are necessary, they can still be confidential with social distancing measures. Business meetings such as vestry meetings can, of course, be held on-line.
The actions of a very small minority have in recent years brought shame onto the Catholic clergy. But know that in general historically no body of religionists has been more willing to risk danger and sacrifice themselves to save souls than Catholic religious and clergy. But that doesn’t mean they, or other clergy should take unnecessary risks.
Many clergy and other workers in religious organizations are older and thus at increased risk of complications from infectious disease. Religious organizations should make sure ahead of time that their clergy have adequate “PPE” such as gowns, gloves and masks and know how to use them properly. If clergy need to enter high risk environments to perform rites, then they need to be provided with properly fitted “N-95” masks or similar.
So far, the data we looked at has not shown any adverse effects overall even from belonging to a group that requires in person services, and the more religiously oriented states are actually looking a little bit better than the ones that are less so. Outliers seem more related to geography and urbanization than religion.
However, that does not mean that America’s churches, like America’s leaders, should not be preparing and planning for the future.