Religious superstitions and the coronavirus pandemic

By Khadija Khan

In the past, in the absence of scientific explanation, superstitious beliefs and unfounded assumptions about what causes deadliest plagues and contagious diseases led to horrific outcomes – and blame was usually heaped on the actions of minority groups in society for having ‘caused’ it all.

Ironically, while anybody can get an infectious disease, it is actually the most vulnerable ones – women for example – who bear the brunt of the devastation in the aftermath of a pandemic.

Therefore, religious people today implying the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality are the causes of coronavirus pandemic are no different from those who used to blame “promiscuous” women and homosexuality for natural disasters. And religion has been used as a tool to infringe upon women’s rights by taking away reproductive rights from them.

In reality, women, LGBT people, and minority groups immensely suffer during natural disasters because they are already in a weaker position in terms of economic and social status.

Recently, DUP councillor John Carson said the coronavirus pandemic has come about because an “immoral and corrupt” government in Ireland has angered God.

He stated, “I said when abortion was legalised that our nation would be judged by God because of its departure from his word and the legalisation of the murder of the unborn child as well as same-sex marriage.”

Cultures pervaded by religious beliefs are more likely to give credit to the divine entity for everything good which happens to society, while certain groups of people will be burdened with the greatest blame if something foul takes place.

Religious scriptures largely define what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour, which shapes a society’s values. People are then either rewarded or punished according to such ‘divine’ laws, with further consequences in the afterlife.

The so-called guardians of faith – priests, mullahs, and so forth – relentlessly warn people against the wrath of a deity (or deities) in order to control their lives.

This controlling attitude further escalates during unpleasant situations when miserable people turn to their “protector” for refuge from the insufferable destruction, to little avail.

Since radical preachers are unable to invoke a divine response to human sufferings, they look for a scapegoat to divert people’s attention.

Religious extremists urge people with little or no empirical evidence that they are punished by their God and forsaken ones such as idol worshipers, homosexuals, and “promiscuous” women must be punished for the redemption of the world.

Hardline rabbis, Christian pastors and Muslim preachers have all weighed in on the religious significance of the outbreak, with some claiming Covid-19 is a sign of the Messiah’s coming.


The Wailing Wall in Israel. Pic Credit: Jennifer Stahn / Flickr


It goes without saying that such bizarre claims are nonsense, but they serve as a tool in the hands of religious fanatics to oppress people who don’t comply.

History is littered with examples of conservative societies wherein women were blamed for the occurrence of natural disasters.

Women defying their traditional roles would be considered incendiary witches and held responsible for ecological disasters and crop failures, famine, inflation, and plagues. Mass hysteria in 17th century America, for example, saw hundreds of women accused of being witches.

In the infamous Salem Witch Trials, which began in 1692, a series of investigations and persecutions caused 19 convicted “witches” to be hanged and many other suspects to be imprisoned.

Unfortunately, today we are still seeing those on the ultra-conservative religious fringe still controlling women’s sexuality, by taking away their bodily autonomy. Women are slut-shamed for dressing “provocatively” and tempting men into promiscuity.

Discriminatory attitudes towards women are ingrained through prescribed “divine” commandments, and so this misogynist mindset conveniently becomes admissible for wider society.

Religious fanatics in countries like Pakistan, Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia believe that promiscuity among women and normalisation of homosexuality are the causes behind earthquakes, inflation, and other natural disasters.

Radical clerics also see the mysterious outbreak of the coronavirus as an opportunity to grow their religious hold on their followers by stoking fear. People are bullied into taking refuge from insufferable disasters in religion by adapting discriminatory but religiously endorsed behaviour.


Political street art in Qom, Iran. Pic Credit: Cyprien Hauser / Flickr


In Pakistan, religious extremists blame “characterless” and “disobedient” women on the recently held Aurat March (women’s march) for the wrath of God, which has cursed pious Pakistanis with the coronavirus pandemic.

Women living in conservative societies suffer hugely from unabated violence, abuse, rape, sexual harassment, forced marriages, honour killings, acid attacks, pay disparity, and inheritance rights. Unfortunately, they are shunned and bullied into silence for speaking up against religious misogyny.

Those searching for blame and violence connected to epidemics see nothing wrong in unjustly holding certain people responsible for natural calamities. This is how complicity becomes normal and people (willingly or unwillingly) condone this kind of superstitious behaviour to protect themselves from the wrath of their merciful God.

While scientists are doing their duty in trying to find a cure for this pandemic, some tend to fan conspiracy theories. Such lunacy is not restricted to clerics. Even prominent academics are pushing claims that Covid-19 “may be an artificially created bioweapon”. Another false idea, which has gained momentum on social media and YouTube, is that radio waves sent by 5G technology are causing small changes to people’s bodies that make them succumb to the virus.

Even in such desperate times, radical clergymen are wreaking havoc by not complying with the mandatory regulations of social distancing (to stem the spread of the disease) just to prove their false religious superiority.

They even go so far as to actively contradict public health advice that could put their followers’ lives at risk.

In Iran, the city of Qom, one of the most important centres of Shia Islam, became the source of thousands of infections. The ayatollahs refused to go into quarantine, which led to the entire country fighting the virus.

Religious beliefs, when observed on a personal level, can indeed provide some brief psychological relief to a lot of people.

But such views should never be a factor in determining the causes and effects of pandemics or any other natural disasters. Otherwise our scientific progress over the centuries will have been for nothing.


Main Pic Credit: mufinn / Flickr


Khadija Khan is a journalist and commentator based in the UK. You can follow her on Twitter.

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