Fear and Faith in a Pandemic

Many religious people feel themselves to be under assault. Restaurants have been allowed to open; mass protests have been tolerated. But in the name of public health, many state governments have maintained strict limits on religious gatherings. Yet religious people are also being a little paranoid. Many secular policymakers do not hate religion; they simply do not understand it. They do not understand religion as something known through inner experience, but simply as an external phenomenon that produces behavior they cannot relate to. Even attending a church that socially distances makes little sense to them, as the slightly increased risk of getting infected comes with no apparent benefit.

Ironically, just when religious people feel put upon, an opportunity exists to improve religion’s reputation in the secular world, as the pandemic has concentrated secular people’s minds on death like no other event. If religion can calm their minds—and opinion polls suggest it can, as religious people have less fear of living in a COVID-19 world than secular people do—then the secular world may re-think its dismissive attitude toward religion. True, secular people who fear dying of COVID-19 will not allow themselves to be persuaded by a lie if they truly believe it to be a lie. Nothing in religion’s dreams will ever convince them to stop worrying completely about coronavirus—or to believe in religion. Yet “religion as psychology” may have something to offer them, which could improve religion’s relationship with secular society long after the pandemic has run its course.

The Fear of Dying

These days, I lie awake for a while before going to sleep. Then I cough and—like many people—my mind begins to work. I think about how I might have COVID-19. I try to fall asleep, but my mind checks off other possible symptoms. I work even harder to fall asleep, but now I am kept awake precisely by my own desire and concentration. I have both insomnia and COVID-19, I decide, and I become irritated as well as afraid.

And that’s just the night. Then comes the day, when I ruminate on the risk of catching the virus, as the news bombards me with the possibility at every moment. I plunge back into my fear; I wallow in it. I think about the patients I once intubated in the ICU, since I might be a patient myself one day. I run down the list of all the possible ways of dying from the virus. In a word, I am wounded, and I do nothing but scratch my wound.

Such fear exists in all of us. Yet its intensity results from our repeated attempt to analyze our situations. When we suffer from fear, we find reasons for being afraid in any thought whatsoever. If the news tells us how dangerous the virus is, we feel justified in our fear. If it predicts a cure by December, we fear not surviving until then. If it tells us to social distance, we feel completely alone in the world, and afraid again. The churning of all our thoughts only reminds us of the fear to which the pandemic has consigned us. Everything in the world draws us back to our fear.

Now imagine a secular man who strays into a church with this mindset. He sees people at a distance and considers them a threat. Yet his fear soon eases. Much of our fear comes when we’re alone—that is when fear is most unbearable—and we become our own worst enemy. The presence of the worshippers around him signifies an admission of weakness and vulnerability (at least before God), such that our man no longer feels alone in his plight. 

When we rush around at great speed we are hardly richer at the end of our journey than at the outset. The real richness is in the details.

The man settles into a pew and once again thinks obsessively about the virus. Meditation often increases fear. People fear death as soon as they start to think about it, as their thoughts get lost in possibilities. But then the church interior draws the man away from his thoughts as he looks up and around, which is what religion wants him to do.

The lens of the eye is at rest when it looks into the distance, and so is the mind. When a man looks for information close by to apply to himself—for example, when he reads a book—his lens tenses and his mind focuses on all his anxieties, as the information is close to his passions. Sitting in a pew and staring into space gives the man’s eye and mind an opportunity to journey outward and contemplate. His eye leads him to one object at a distance, and then to another, and then to 10 or 20 more, and this torrent carries his imagination to the winds, the clouds, and the stars. The movement draws the man away from himself, and so he feels less afraid.

Sitting in a pew calms the man’s mind in a second way. Much of life involves rushing around, and we don’t really see anything. We see things on the run, and when we do, they all look alike. A mountain is just a mountain; a river is just a river. When we rush around at great speed we are hardly richer at the end of our journey than at the outset. The real richness is in the details. Seeing means going over the details, stopping at each little one, and then taking in the whole once again. This takes time.

People in a house of worship tend to stare at the beautiful things around them because they are anchored in their pews and can do nothing else. People who rush about can take in many more sights per minute, but that is why their memories of what they see are often confused, and the images cemented in their minds have indistinct lines and shadows. In church, people have time to carefully look at a piece of stained glass, first at the borders, then at the center, and then back at the borders. The stained glass changes at every glance. If they return to a particular section they saw a few minutes before, and take the time to examine it, it strikes them as if it were new. Several minutes of such activity helps people to momentarily escape from the scary thoughts that imprison their minds.

The service begins. People pray. Our secular man refuses to do so, since he doesn’t believe, but gradually he comes to appreciate the psychological benefit of prayer. Prayer makes him refrain from forming other thoughts. It shuts down the frenzy of fear in his mind.

Our secular man is preoccupied with his fear of death. He is like a pining lover who has been dumped by his sweetheart and who doesn’t want to talk about anything else.

He is living proof that the fear of death can sometimes be worse than death itself. For the dead person, the drama is over. Perhaps death was quick; death’s duration comes about only through reflection. We look at the person who has died of COVID-19 from the perspective of someone who is always on the point of catching and dying from the virus, but who never actually does so. We create for ourselves a kind of movie view of our own destruction, in slow motion, and occasionally the camera stops completely—for example, at the moment when we touch a plastic bag coated with the virus, or later, when we’re admitted to the hospital, or even later, when we’re intubated. Then we start over. I’ve done this hundreds of times while very much alive.

Prayer works as a kind of mental opium. Dying seems long to us because we think about it from every different angle, which makes us afraid. Each new image in the process drives out the last, and the cycle of suffering continues unabated; in our imaginations the dead never stop dying. Prayer rescues people’s minds from this vicious cycle by forcing them to think about something else.

The sermon begins. The subject: eternity.

Is Death the End?

As an anesthesiologist, I’ve often wondered why young people fear losing consciousness under general anesthesia more than very old people do. After all, the latter are usually sicker and have greater risk. It cannot be that young people cherish life more; on the contrary, they often combine their fear of going under anesthesia with dangerous thrill-seeking behavior at home. One answer may be that they simply have stronger egos. They cling with terrific force to whatever they desire at the moment, and they fight against the unconsciousness that will part them from it. Very old people still desire in life, but not with the same tenacity, and so are more likely to view passing from consciousness to unconsciousness as just life flowing on in easy monotony.

The clergyman delivering the sermon agrees. Young people fail to recognize that what they desire in life will change over time, he says. Indeed, a man is different from who he was the day before, and the day before that; every hour, even every minute, a man’s consciousness changes. True, despite these continuous changes, a man imagines an enduring immaterial something within his consciousness, which he calls his ego and  makes him him.  Yet old age changes this perspective. An old man realizes that nothing inside his consciousness was ever continuous, and that he is not the same person that he was as a young man. Consciousness changes, just as the body does.

Our secular man protests inwardly: “But all these years of life I know I have been a unity of some kind. It really has been my life that I have lived inside my body. It is what I fear losing if I die.”

Belief in God was religion’s cornerstone because it was the unprovable idea that most appealed to the reasoning part of people’s minds.

The sermon continues: People fear death because they fear their special ego will disappear. Yet all they really lose with death, the clergyman tells them, is their last stage of consciousness in an infinite series of stages during their life, which they wrongly associate with their ego.

The error people make, the clergyman continues, is to imagine their ego to be a product of consciousness. People really do feel continuity in their lives despite their ever-changing consciousness. But this feeling—this ego—is not in consciousness, but rather, that which unites all their states of consciousness into one. It is like a cord upon which are strung, one after the other, the various consciousnesses that have followed each other in point of time throughout their lives. This ego exists independent of time. It exists independent of the body, for the feeling of being a unique person living one continuous life persists despite the body’s changes. It even exists independent of consciousness, for when people fall asleep or lose consciousness under anesthesia, their ego returns upon the return of consciousness, whether they are unconscious for two minutes or twenty years. If an immaterial something exists independent of time, the body, and consciousness, then perhaps that something continues when time, the body, and consciousness end, with death?

The service finishes. Our secular man leaves church with vivid memories of having experienced radically different thoughts and feelings of a kind that he has not felt in a long time—if ever. In one hour he feels himself to have lived a full life, which makes him less fearful in another way, for the more we live a full life, often the less afraid we are of losing it. Another paradox in life.

A First Step

For centuries, religion layered one unprovable belief over another to create a unified system of thought. Angels and demons, heaven and hell, stretched the limits of the human imagination, but the whole enterprise seemed perfectly reasonable because everyone agreed beforehand that the existence of God constituted established fact. Belief in God was religion’s cornerstone because it was the unprovable idea that most appealed to the reasoning part of people’s minds. For religious people, it upheld all that was laid on top of it. For secular people it made religion seem sensible and “essential,” although not something they personally believed in.

That cornerstone has weakened, which explains why relations between religion and the secular world have soured. In 1995, 97 percent of Americans believed in God; in 2007, 71 percent did; in 2018, only 63 percent did. For many secular people, the concept of God seems like just another crude delusion. Secular people and religious people no longer have any common ground.

The pandemic makes a new cornerstone possible—easing the fear of death—one that both religious and secular people can agree on as important.

Many secular people cannot shake their fear of dying from coronavirus. They pay no visits and receive no guests; they stay indoors; they buy everything online; they put the mail in the oven for 30 minutes before reading it; they skip necessary doctors’ appointments; they even avoid sex with a partner in their own household. All they do is shiver and shake and think to themselves, “Thank goodness, I’m still alive!”

Religion may not cure COVID-19, but it may help cure people of their fear of dying from it. If it can, even just a little, then secular people will pay it more respect. As Tocqueville observed, religion in America is not so much about morality, or social justice, or even about fighting against selfishness, as it is about mental order and calming the mind amid the threats, commotion, and instabilities of the physical world. It is why religion in America, more than in any other country, Tocqueville said, has so few forms, figures, and observances, and presents such “distinct, simple, and general notions to the mind.” To re-engage with the secular world, religion in America today must rediscover this simple psychological purpose. The pandemic gives it the chance to do so.