Studying Religion in Times of Corona

By Birgit Meyer

In my previous blog I introduced our new “Dossier Corona.” Pondering the accounts so far posted on this site and following news about how the relation between religion and Corona plays out in multiple ways, I would like to share four points that arise from these materials for the study of religion in times of Corona (a term I use to refer to all dimensions of the Corona pandemic, as explained in my introduction to the Corona Dossier).

Amsterdam, NDSM Terrain, March 2020. Photo: Birgit Meyer

Firstly, it is important to note how deeply pandemics and religion are connected historically, and how these connections have repercussions until today. As Beatrice de Graaf points out, in the Middle Ages pandemics such as the plague were framed in a religious idiom. As the privileged authority to interpret and intervene in the Unseen, religion was expected to offer protection and healing, until, gradually, science challenged that authority. In his account of the history of passion plays, Ernst van den Hemel explains that the famous Oberammergau passion play is grounded in the pledge of the inhabitants of this Bavarian village (in 1633) to stage a passion play every ten years if they would be spared from the plague. These posts remind us that religions may enshrine archives of memories of past pandemics. Interestingly, such archives can be reactivated in our modern era, even though medical science has long and successfully claimed the sovereignty over the interpretation and treatment of diseases, and we have come to think about pandemics as exceptional, feeling at a loss vis-à-vis pain and suffering. Such a link between pandemics and religion does not only pertain to Christianity in Europe, but also to religious traditions in the Global South. European traders and colonizers transmitted devastating infectious diseases, such as smallpox, which are still remembered in indigenous myths and worship in e.g. South America and Africa. Angelantonio Grossi refers to Sakpata, the Ewe deity Smallpox, a disease which spread phenomenally in Africa in the slipstream of the slave trade. The memory of smallpox pandemics is retained through the figure of Sakpata (Sopona in Yoruba), who also is an orisha in Candomblé. As a deity that is understood to have the power to protect against smallpox and other diseases, Sakpata is now called upon in a modern Ewe shrine to combat Covid-19 (with the priest at the same time endorsing all the hygienic measures and proscriptions for social distancing imposed by the Ghanaian state).

The fact that spiritual entities and religious rituals were triggered by and developed in response to pandemics does not mean that they have become superfluous with secularization. As Van den Hemel shows, the popularity of The Passion in the Netherlands, one of the most de-churching countries in the world, spotlights the ongoing appeal of the religious repertoire of the passion play in coping with anxieties and experiences that many find difficult to express via purely secular means. This becomes glaringly obvious in the current crisis. For instance, the digital procession that the organizers of The Passion held as a substitute for the real procession prompted 20.000 participants to post online statements about their fears and suffering, especially with regard to vulnerable family members and friends. Many sent video-clips of them singing the popular melodramatic song Geef mij nu je angst; and the way in which these pre-recorded clips were blended together in the final scene formed a sensational apotheosis that I myself, while by no means “religiously musical”, found moving. Overall, Corona appears to trigger a deep sense of insecurity vis-à-vis an invisible, difficult-to-track-down enemy, and to fuel a need for collective rituals, from clapping hands for medical personal to synchronized lighting of candles, and the like, as shown by Irene Stengs. This demand for rituals also shows, as pointed out by Elza Kuyk, in the remarkable joint initiative Candles for Earthlings by the museum and congregation Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, around the controversial art installation Poems for Earthlings by artist Adrián Villar Rojas that divided the two custodians of the building. Offering rituals that echo memories of past pandemics and suffering, religion – as well as art and popular culture in its wake – seems to speak to a lurking sense of insecurity and despair, in the face of an invisible intruder that sneaks into one’s body, overpowers the vulnerable, and makes social interactions dangerous.

This leads me, secondly, to the relation between religion and science. Religious gatherings – for example, of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in South-Korea (BBC News), the evangelical Christian Open Door Church in Alsace, France (Washington Post), the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi, India (BBC News), or at the shrine of Fatima Masumeh in Qom, Iran (New Yorker) – have been identified and blamed as causes for the spread of the virus. The fact that the Corona-virus spread through these and similar occurances, of course, cannot be taken as proof for a priviledged responsibility of religion for the pandemic. The fact that religion implies the gathering of people (and, with Durkheim, may even be seen as the Ur-form of the social) reminds us of the potential for infection to occur in any social relation. Events in which the distance between bodies is minimal, including religious gatherings as well as carnival, après-ski parties or pop-concerts, do not only evoke effervescence – indispensable to create a sense of togetherness – but also enshrine the risk of infection. I noticed that a great deal of news reporting about religion and corona recussitates a stance according to which religion is seen as backward and irrational, or even as a potential danger for public health. Especially in the beginning of the pandemic, news reports dwelt on spectacular instances of certain religious actors stubbornly disregarding the measurements proscribed to hamper the spread of the corona virus (De Volkskrant). There are stunning instances of this disturbing attitude – not the least among evangelicals in the United States who question science by principle. But by now it is also clear that grosso modo religious groups accommodated themselves to the new situation and did not see it as their mission to challenge medical knowledge and disobey state measurements to prevent infections.

Not only do religious groups – including African traditionalists, who are often dismissed as “backward” by Christian and secular opponents – make their own interventions comply with the authority of medical science and state policy. It also appears that the Corona-crisis itself may be employed to take religious leaders to task. As Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu shows, in Ghana, where the pandemic is heavily spiritualized by the state and religious groups, preachers and prophets may be challenged and mocked for their inability to forecast the arrival of the virus and to offer effective cures. It remains to be seen what the effects of the crisis will be for the position of prominent Pentecostal leaders, certainly those who initially were reluctant to embrace the necessary hygienic measures and practices of social distancing. To what extent may the Corona-virus lay bare the limits of, especially, the Pentecostalist promise that “with God everything is possible”? And with regard to Iran, Pooyan Tamimi Arab and Arash Jazi show that the way in which the Shiite clergy deals with a pandemic may push people to endorse or question its power. While the 19th-century cholera and plague pandemics enhanced the political authority of the clerics among the Iranian people, the current Corona-crisis sharpens societal divides and pushes an increasing number of Iranians to regard religion and secular knowledge as incompatible, making them strive for secularization. In this regard, the satiric image of US Vice-President Pence warding off the virus with a cross presented by David Morgan also speaks volumes. So, the point is not only that religion accommodates medical-scientific insights much more smoothly than secular critics of religion might expect and that many religious groups, in observing state regulations, easily and eargerly adopt digital means. More importantly, we see that in the wake of Corona, the relation between religion, science and politics may become subject to re-negotiation by religious leaders and followers. Religion may be valued and criticized in the light of leaders’ preparedness to take the virus and the medical-political measures to prever its spread seriously.

Thirdly, the use digital means as a substitute for live worship is truly remarkable. The live-streamed Easter Mass celebrated by the Pope on an empty St. Peter’s Square may serve as a poignant example (see also a fascinating set of pictures showing how the corona-virus hinders Easter celebrations in NRC). Interestingly, those religious groups that already have experience and expertise in employing digital media – including the Ewe priest Christopher Voncujovi who addresses a global vodu followership via streamed Facebook events on a weekly basis from his Magick temple in Accra – can more easily refashion their worship in line with our digitized times, with others following suit. The challenges of the use of digital means as a substitute for face-to-face encounters are articulated poignantly in the ironic image of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper with social distancing”, as discussed by David Morgan.

Of course, the phenomenon of religion going digital is not as new as it may seem from the perspective of outside observers. The amazing digitization of religion prompted by Corona should be studied in the light of earlier research on religion and media, paying attention to the ways in which new media are negotiated and accommodated into long-standing practices of mediation between humans and the divine. Here it will be interesting to follow theological debates about the question whether and how sacramental or “real” presence can be conveyed via digital social media. For example, what are the reasons to allow for live streaming, but to not put the whole event on Youtube for people to watch in their own time, as is the case with digital celebrations of the Catholic mass? And looking ahead, it will be interesting to explore in how far the expertise gained with digital media might have a lasting impact on practices of religious gathering in post-Corona times.

Fourth, while I have stressed the epistemological compatibility of religion and science, I hasten to emphasize that the relation between both is more complicated than a simple idea of differentiation into different tasks for each under a modern knowledge regime would suggest. Here I want to return to the fascinating figure of Sakpata. When I encountered it in my research among the Peki Ewe in Ghana in the early 1990s, I found it difficult to understand why one would worship a terrible disease such as smallpox. Now I realize that my initial idea of what worship is (in Ewe: subosubo) was too limited; I wrongly started from a Christian idea according to which worship is an act of venerating a positive power. Pondering the figure of Sakapta in times of Corona in the light of Grossi’s account, it dawns on me that this figure enshrines a wisdom that is strikingly similar to basic medical understandings of infection and immunization. Sakpata is smallpox, but by serving Smallpox as a deity its priests have the possibility to employ the disease in a dosed manner. This is a question of measured intensity – after all, the dose makes the poison. This attitude is significantly different from Pentecostal pastors who see the Corona-virus as an evil spirit that should not be domesticated and engaged, but to be cast out (as pointed out by Asamoah-Gyadu). Traditional priests of Sakpata had the power to inflict infection (even literally), but also to counter it. In my view, this is a mode of thinking and action that reminds of what in a medical discourse is described as the building of immunity by triggering anti-virus through the infection. Looking at Sakapata – and possibly many similar deities – from this perspective, it appears that religious and medical thinking may share a deep common ground. Such a common ground, which is still to be charted, could serve as a productive starting point for our attempts to reconfigure our understanding of the social by taking the Corona-virus as “good to think with” (as I indicated in the introduction to our Corona Dossier)

The figure of the virus stands for a particular fundamental relationality: the infection of a host via a parasite. This is not merely a medical matter, but also a political-social one. As pointed out by Sybille Krämer, the fear of infection is deeply embedded in the everyday anxieties and hysterias of modern globalized societies. Infection by a virus involves a particular kind of corporeal transmission, in which the virus reproduces itself via the cells of its host, who may spread the virus by virtue of being afflicted by it, but also gains (at least temporary) immunity. The infection with the virus triggers the body’s defenses and makes it resistant. This basic logic of virus infection is also prefigured in the worship of Sakapata. Looked at from this angle, infection via a virus is not simply an accidental disruption of normality. The social is not only a space in which infections happen, it is also shaped through them. Infection is a key modality of the social. As proposed by Krämer, the figure of the virus operates as a medium that transmits disease from one person (or animal) to another, as well as generates immunity against it. This way of thinking, in which a virus is a central actor that connects, afflicts, destroys and eventually triggers immunity, challenges ideas about humans as powerful masters of their world. It puts at the center the reality of affliction that is also remembered in phenomena such as passion plays or the worship of Sakpata. Exactly for this reason I take the figure of the virus – scary as it is – as able to enlighten us about the complex entanglements of dead and living matter in which we humans find ourselves alongside with things, animals, plants and other beings. The fact that we cannot fully control these entanglements all the more prompts us to try to understand their dynamics. In this sense, we might apprehend the Corona-virus as a key figure for our sociological imagination with regard to our hyper-entangled world.

This text was first published on the Religious Matters Blog.


Birgit Meyer is Professor of Religious Studies at Utrecht University. She chairs the Academic Advisory Board of the Forum Transregionale Studien. Trained as a cultural anthropologist and working on lived religion in Ghana for more than 20 years, Birgit Meyer studies religion from a global and post-secular perspective. Her research is driven by an urge to make sense of the shifting place and role of religion in our time, and to show that scholarly work in the field of religion is of eminent concern to understanding the shape of our world in the early 21st century.


Citation: Birgit Meyer, Studying Religion in Times of Corona, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.04.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23783.


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  1. 6. July 2020

    […] Meyer, Studying Religion in Times of Corona, 27 April […]

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