Should we be afraid of COVID-19? Seriously, should we be afraid? Well, that depends. What is the greatest thing that COVID-19 could take away? Your job, your security, your life? Those are pretty major things that would cause fear in any person. However, the religious world provides a unique answer to the question of fear that we have lost in our secular society.
Namely, we don’t need to succumb to fear because hope is ultimately rooted in the transcendent. Is this a more helpful perspective than what the secular world can provide during our current pandemic?
We All Have Faith in Something. The Question Is, “In What?”
I became particularly interested in the impact of religion on culture when I began my consulting business. I am a freelance consultant for small businesses and nonprofits who want to package and market their content for the “Millennial” target audience, and I have done extensive research into this generation. One of the most striking attributes about the Millennial generation is its overwhelming distrust in traditional institutions, particularly in religious institutions.
Religion presents a paradigm in which man’s life in this world — his hope, identity, and value — are ultimately rooted in the transcendent.
According to a major study by the Pew Research Center, only about 50% of Millennials say they believe in God with absolute certainty, and only 40% say religion is very important in their lives. Only 27% go to a religious service on a weekly basis, and only 55% say that religion has a positive impact on society. These numbers are staggeringly lower than those of previous generations, particularly compared with the Baby Boomers and the “Greatest Generation,” who were overwhelmingly and devoutly religious. These numbers are indicative of the mass secularization of our culture during the past century. Not only do people continually disassociate from institutionalized religion, but moreover, religion itself is losing its place of prominence and influence in society.
Ironically, our secularized culture isn’t exempt from religious tendencies. The fact is, we all put our faith in something; the question is—in what? Institutionalized religion has traditionally offered a framework for this critical question. Religion presents a paradigm that is both rooted in this world and the transcendent. What does this mean? Throughout man’s life in this world, his hope, identity, and value are ultimately rooted in the transcendent. No matter what tragedies occur, these tragedies do not ultimately affect his identity because his hope is rooted in the transcendent rather than his earthly life.
Within the secularist faith, existentialism’s mantra is king: you are what you do.
However, secularism isn’t exempt from the concept of faith either. Rather than affirming the existence of the transcendent, the secularist’s worldview dwells only within this earthly world. What does that entail? His faith is ultimately rooted in the fabric of this world, from political and economic structures, to the burden of his own accomplishments. Within the secularist faith, existentialism’s mantra is king: you are what you do. In the words of Existentialism’s champion, Jean-Paul Sartre, “existence precedes essence.” This means that what you do determines who you are, your value, and your worth. The burden of your hope in this world ultimately falls upon your own shoulders.
The Religious Response to Fear vs. the Secularist Response to Fear
What does this have to do with the current virus? What the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed is the critical importance of what we ultimately put our faith in. Arguably, the most shocking aspect of the global pandemic is not its detrimental health effects; rather, it has shown how fragile the things that we naturally put our faith in truly are.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how fragile the things that we naturally put our faith in as a society truly are.
We often take for granted that we, particularly in America, have a stable political system, can travel freely throughout most of the world, have the opportunity to find stable jobs, and can rely on one of the best healthcare systems in the world. Within two weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, our borders are completely shut down, millions have lost their jobs, hospitals are being overrun, and our government is struggling to provide relief to this unexpected crisis. For both the religiously devout and the secularist, this is a huge shock: these foundations that we put our faith in as a society to function, to flourish, and to provide security throughout our lives seem to be crumbling under the weight of global uncertainty.
So how does believing in an afterlife make a difference in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic? The global pandemic is threatening the ultimate things that we put our faith in as a secular society. If this world, to quote Carl Sagan, is all that there “is, was, and ever will be,” then the artificial structures in this world, such as politics, our jobs, our experiences, and our health, become ultimate to our identity and value. If these things are removed, what else do we have to hope for? According to the secularist, if COVID-19 takes our lives, then that’s it. Everything — our existence, our hopes — are over. No wonder the world is in a state of panic.
When your hope is rooted in the transcendent, even death itself, the greatest earthly tragedy of all, does not mean the end of who you are and who you are meant to be.
However, the question still remains: do the religious have any less reason to panic? The short answer is, yes. Most religions do not make the things in this worldly life ultimate things. Rather, the ultimate is rooted in the transcendent, and it is the transcendent alone that gives life, beauty, and purpose to our earthly life. Moreover, when your hope is rooted in the transcendent, then even the greatest tragedy cannot shake your hope, your faith, or your identity. Even death itself, the greatest earthly tragedy of all, does not mean the end of who you are and who you are meant to be. This doesn’t mean that religious individuals live recklessly in the face of fear; rather, they live hopefully in the face of fear, because they know that even the greatest fear cannot shake the ultimate grounding of reality in the transcendent.
This is by no means an analysis of whether religion or secularism is “better” or “truer” than the other. Rather, there is a distinct difference between the grounding for a sound response to fear between the religious and the secularist. This isn’t to say that religious individuals are never fearful or never panic. Rather, they have a grounding that gives hope in the presence of fear that secularists simply don’t have. When your hope is ultimately rooted in the transcendent, rather than in this world, then there is reason to hope in the presence of fear, even in a global crisis such as our COVID-19 pandemic.
Here at Evie, our motto encourages our readers to seek truth and find beauty. This raises the question, where are you seeking truth and finding beauty, especially in this time of global uncertainty? Do you seek truth in politics, in your job, or even in yourself? Or do you seek truth in the transcendent, and find ultimate beauty in something greater than yourself? Wherever you are seeking, Evie readers, I hope that you find beauty and that you are able to have hope and give hope that transcends our current crisis.