The particular sighting of religion and the coronavirus has to do with a church in South Korea now connected with a surge in cases in the country. These cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. In an article in The New York Times by Choe Sang-Hun, “Shadowy Church Is at Center of Coronavirus Outbreak in South Korea,” we learn that certain practices of the church can spread the disease: no face masks or glasses allowed; sitting on the floor closely aligned with other congregants is required; mandatory church attendance even when sick; services are followed by members going out into the public to proselytize. Shincheonji teaches that illness is a sin and that members should attend to their mission work to proselytize people even if sick. Lee Man-hee, who, according to Choe Sang-Hun’s article, is an “88-year-old self-styled messiah,” founded the church. Given the size of the church, some 150,000 members, Lee has, thankfully, urged his followers to abide by the government’s instructions. Nevertheless, as the article notes, in a message to congregants, Lee forcefully argued that “This disease outbreak is the work of the devil, which is hellbent on stopping the rapid growth of the Shincheonji.”
There we have it, sightings of every trapping of religion: ritual practice, teachings, the authority (of whatever sort) of a founder; attributions of supernatural forces seeking to thwart the work of God; and everything wrapped in secrecy. Seen as a cult by mainline religions because of the command of the church on some members’ lives, the case in point here is that religion can aid the spread of actual disease. The question is whether or not this is just a particular case.
As in many things, the particular does in fact—sadly—illustrate the general point. A provocative story in Science, “Does Religion Influence Epidemics?” by Elizabeth Pennisi (August 23, 2011), noted that David Hughes, evolutionary biologist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, gave a lecture at the 13th Congress of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology (2011) in Tübingen, Germany, on why biologists should treat religion as a serious topic. Hughes’ initial observation is that some of the world’s religions arose at the same time as infectious diseases, along with the flourishing of cities. Disease and religion, oddly enough, mutually shaped one another.
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