When religious blindness makes a crisis worse

Let me say at once that I’m a man of faith.  (As a retired pastor, I’d better be!)  I have no problem believing in the existence of God, the need for believers to pray and work together, and all those good things.  However, in crises, it never ceases to amaze me how many believers (of any and all denominations and sects) – not to mention how many of their leaders – get things wrong.

The Ebola crisis in West Africa is a case in point.  It was reported today that believers are gathering in churches to pray for deliverance from this plague.  Some pastors even appear to be blaming it on demonic influences.

What’s wrong with this picture?

  • We know what causes Ebola.  News flash:  it ain’t demons!  It’s a virus, and it’s transmitted by direct contact with infected persons and/or their body fluids and wastes.  The last thing people in the affected areas should be doing is congregating in large numbers in churches, where they’re inevitably going to come into contact with one another, inhale each other’s breath (and any droplets of body fluids carried by that breath), and so on.  It’s a perfect scenario for the transmission of the disease . . . so why haven’t church and religious authorities called publicly for the cessation of all church services until the epidemic has passed?  What’s to stop pastors holding church services over the radio or TV, so that people can join in prayer from the relative safety of their own homes?
  • Wrong-headed preaching and teaching can actually make the situation worse.  In many more primitive parts of the world (including West Africa) the belief in witchcraft, possession, etc. is far more prevalent and vivid than in more developed parts of the world.  Ignorant pastors catering to the credulity of their congregations by hysterically ‘driving out the demon of Ebola’ are simply making matters worse.  Why are the more sophisticated churches (including all those transplanted from Europe) not working together to educate their people about the facts of the matter?  Health care authorities are having a very difficult time teaching people about what really causes Ebola, and how to take precautions against infection.  Why aren’t the churches 100% behind and involved in these efforts?
  • There’s a time to pray, and a time to be practical.  I’m not opposed to prayer – I’ve done a lot of it in my time – but I’ll be the first to say that distributing buckets of disinfectant, and teaching people to avoid body contact with strangers and keep their homes and shared possessions disinfected, is a far more important initial response to Ebola than only praying about it!  Get the basics in place first.  By all means pray while you’re doing that, but do the work before you worry about stopping everything else to concentrate on prayer.

Sometimes I despair at the bone-headedness of many pastors and religious leaders.  They can’t see beyond their own priorities and the needs of their particular religious groups.  They seem incapable of working with outside groups in a broad-based scenario unless that benefits them as well.

(A good example of this is the Catholic Church in the USA and its attitude towards illegal aliens.  It welcomes them from South America, and does all it can to help them – up to and including accepting very large sums of money from the US government to act as its agent in doing sobecause it expects most of those illegal aliens to be Catholic, and believes that their permanent presence in this country will provide a boost for the size and role of the Catholic Church in US society.  That’s the fundamental underlying reason for its attitude – and don’t let anyone tell you differently, or pretend that altruism is the prime motivator.  It’s part of it, but by no means the whole – and if you don’t [or won’t] believe that, there’s this bridge in Brooklyn, NYC that I’d like to sell you.  Cash only, please, and in small bills . . . )

I’d love to fly over to West Africa and knock religious leaders’ heads together until they stopped behaving like blinkered sectarian automatons and got real.  However, I suspect Ebola may end up doing that on its own:  because no matter how much they preach hysterically, and pray passionately, and fruitlessly drive out non-existent demons, their people are going to go on dying until they learn (and/or get access to) better hygiene and sanitation.  I suspect the locals will end up putting two and two together.  Many will probably lose their faith as a result – which is, from my perspective, another tragic side-effect of the disease.  I’ve seen the same reaction to other tragedies.



  1. I was told, by a very nice Mennonite lady, that the 'prayer bonnets' common to the Mennonite and Amish communities, were derived from St. Paul's {?} admonition that every act of work was to be considered prayer {idle hands & all that?} – seems disinfection, & maintenance of self would fall under that heading ………………….

    Semper Fi'

  2. There's a story I've read in a few places that during the Influenza of 1918-1919, Billy Sunday held tent revivals to stop the disease and people dropped in the pews, or went home and died 48 hours or so later. There's a time and place for prayer but that wasn't it!


  3. Hey, Old NFO: Mary Baker Eddy called.

    Sorry, couldn't resist.

    Peter, I believe that my church is making a big mistake in doing exactly as you say, for exactly the reasons you state. They're taking the somewhat famous Jewish mitzvah for altruism, and running with it, forgetting (IMHO), that charity is an individual act, and when it is not individual or voluntary, it risks becoming something else entirely.
    At a men's group in my church, when I suggested that my church focus on relief efforts in the countries that are punting their kids and gang members our way, rather than swaddling them once they arrive, I was told that I was missing the point. Ever feel like the only sane man at the asylum?

  4. I am reminded of the joke about the man trapped on his roof in a flood. A pair of scouts in a rowboat happen by, offer him a ride and he refuses saying "The Lord will rescue me". Sometime late a coastguard boat motors by with the same offer and they are similarly rebuked. Finally a helicopter flies overhead and the man is once again offered a lift only to refuse. The flood gets worse and the man drowns. At the gates of heaven he's rather irritated and wet and demands of god "Why didn't you rescue me?" to which god replies "I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter, what more did you want?"

    It seems to me that if one does believe in an all knowing and merciful god, and if one does believe that said god has a plan for us all, that the medical knowledge and experiences we as a society have gathered, tested and verified are veritable gifts from that god. That they are intended for us and to be used by us. In other words, your prayers have already been answered with the knowledge you seek, no go forth and heal thyself.

    But as you say, institutional self interest blinds those that should see.

  5. I.e., God and a .45 get you out of more places than just God will. 🙂

    Or, Praise the Lord and pass the bleach-bucket!

  6. The last thing people in the affected areas should be doing is congregating in large numbers in churches…

    Cultural anthropology 101….over history, churches have served as social gathering places allowing community, and personal, interaction. Until recently, the only method of communicating to a community was F2F, so those to whom one was communicting had to be assembled in one place. (I haven't researched the etymology of "mass" but I'd venture its religious usage is linked to its social and physics definitions).

    Today, we have myriad ways of communicating that do not require assembly of "the masses," which runs into difficulty when one's community is composed of grass huts and one's philosophy closer to the stone age than the 21st century. I do not doubt there are places on the planet, a great many of which are in Africa, where smart phones and iPads would be regarded as witchcraft, and a wi-fi delivered video would guarantee death by stoning. And you want to teach them about viruses and modern antiseptic techniques, all of which will be perceived as severe religious affront? Good luck with that.

  7. TM – You reminded me of a quote by Galileo: "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."

  8. African Christianity, from what I've heard, has very little to do with Christ.

    Seems what happened is the locals heard all sorts of stories about a big and powerful god and just sort of added him to the top rung of their pantheon, figuring that that was good enough for all the OTHER big and powerful gods their neighbors told them about.

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