COVID-19 exposes the fragility of our belief-systems

I’ve been reading Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. It’s a fictionalized account of an un-named narrator in the 1665 plague in London, who struggles not just with the health crisis, but with a crisis in meaning.

He’s a devout Christian, trying to discern the Will of God. Does God want him to stay in London or flee to the countryside? He’s also a citizen in early modern England, which had recently introduced statistics as tool of public policy, like the Bills of Mortality that were posted each day. Are the statistics reliable, he wonders, or ‘Knavery and Confusion’? Are the enforced health measures likely to work? What about the miracle cures, and the Signs and Portents that astrologers point to in the sky?

The plague, says the narrator, ‘drove us out of all Measures’ — by which he means, it was beyond their capacity to measure, to describe, to know and understand.

Every great disaster provokes a meaning crisis — Voltaire wrote Candide in response to the Lisbon earthquake, which killed as many as 100,000 people and shook the 18th-century faith that we live in the ‘best of all possible worlds.

COVID-19 is likewise testing our capacity to make sense of things, and proving all of our belief systems to be somewhat inadequate. That’s most obviously the case with fundamentalist religion, based on the idea that faith in God will miraculously protect us from all adversity. That faith — helpful in some circumstances — becomes dangerously untrue in these times.

In Tanzania, the fundamentalist Christian president has refused to close the churches. He went on TV to declare: ‘Corona is the devil and it cannot survive in the body of Jesus.’ In Nigeria, a renowned Muslim scholar has said Muslims are immune to the virus. In India, a Buddhist politician has led crowds in chants of ‘Go Corona!’, while the ministry for Ayurvedic homeopathy has posted official recommendations of homeopathic supplements to keep the plague at bay.

Religious communities can be reluctant to alter their deeply-ingrained customs. In South Korea, a Christian cult caused a huge spike in national infections after they refused to stop their services. In New York, the Hassidic Jewish community refused to obey restrictions on public gathering, and weddings had to be broken up by the police. In Iran, the holy pilgrimage city of Qom became the centre of infection when ayatallohas encouraged pilgrims to continue their visits despite thousands of deaths.

But it’s not just fundamentalist religions — every belief system is tested, and found somewhat wanting. I’m in the loose faith community known as ‘spirituality’, and I’ve seen it struggle to make sense of the virus and respond to it appropriately. Initially, my Facebook feed was filled with spiritual teachers complaining about having to cancel retreats or workshops they’ve organized. As a self-employed person I sympathized, but also thought, is that our best response? Is spirituality basically an industry rather than a religion?

I then saw a sort of sappy nature-worship response among my fellow ‘seekers’. A lot of people shared a poem supposedly written by the virus, telling us it had come to help us slow down and reflect. I found it grotesque, like if someone was eaten by a shark, and you sent their grieving partner a poem from the point of view of the shark, saying ‘now they are part of the circle of life’. Yes, we are all part of the circle of life, COVID-19 included, but now is not the time to say that, with the hospitals groaning and people asphyxiating in their tens of thousands. Now is not the time to say COVID-19 is ‘nature’s purge’, as one idiotic ayahuasca guru put it, or to suggest ‘why don’t we just smoke DMT and talk to the virus’.

Other belief-systems also struggle. I see free market capitalists hating the lockdown and insisting we need to put the economy before the lives of our parents and grandparents. I see culture warriors still fighting the culture wars — railing against trans rights, or insisting COVID-19 is a ‘disaster for feminism’, even though 70% of fatalities in Italy are men. I see environmentalists saying ‘hey, emissions are down’. Yes, that’s true, but now is not necessarily the time to celebrate it.

People see COVID-19 through the keyhole of their obsessions. The journalist Isabel Oakshott saw COVID-19 as an opportunity for Harry and Meghan to return to the UK to redeem their ‘shattered reputations’. Come again? George Monbiot thought the British government was the worst in the world to deal with the crisis because of its links to the tobacco industry. Huh? Telegraph journalist Madeline Grant thought the ‘losers’ from COVID-19 would prove to be ‘hardcore environmentalists and identity politicians’ — funnily enough, the Telegraph’s usual enemies.

We may think we’re rational and secular, but we can’t help but see the plague as proof we’re right and God is smiting our opponents. Pundits around the world rush to their laptops to say ‘now is the time for X’ — X inevitably being precisely whatever idea they’ve been banging on about for the last five years. Perhaps I’m guilty of that too. ‘Now is the time for Stoicism! Here’s some I prepared earlier…’

I see celebrities seeing the crisis through the prism of their own egocentricity, assuming that in these difficult times we obviously want to see more of them — in the bath, with their pets, singing Imagine, even Instagramming without their make-up. Such sacrifice!

I see every company I have ever done business with assuming I want to hear from them now, to learn how they are taking steps in these difficult times to protect their staff and ensure the continued supply of scented candles.

I also see a lot of brutal Darwinist thinking around. People saying things like ‘it’s getting rid of some of the dead wood’, or ‘COVID is going to cull a lot of idiots’.

And then there are the conspiracy theorists, who are obviously having a field day. COVID-19 is a biological weapon designed by the Bildeburg Group to reduce the pension burden. COVID-19 was spread through 5G. And so on. Our whole metaphor for internet transmission comes from pandemics — ‘going viral’ — and fake news has been spreading like, well, like COVID-19 — dolphins are back in Venice, blowing a hair-dryer up your nose reduces the likelihood of infection, the Army is building a giant lasagna in Wembley stadium.

You could say COVID-19 has exposed the extent to which we are in a ‘meaning crisis’ (to use John Vervaeke’s phrase). But I’m a little wary of this term as a historical concept. When did this ‘meaning crisis’ begin? For who? Maybe young Americans are in something of a meaning crisis now, as they turn away from Christianity, but British people went through that loss of faith in the late 19th century, and I’m sure it’s different for every culture around the world.

I’d suggest humans are always in a meaning crisis, we always have been. We have a tiny mind-map, equivalent to a photo of a street, and we’re out there in a great megapolis trying to use this photo as if it was Google Maps. We look around bewildered, look at our photo, and think ‘this looks a bit familiar’.

There is so much we don’t know, and we can learn to be OK with that. As a rule of thumb, we can be suspicious of any expert who seems over-certain, who rarely pauses for breath or questions their assumptions. When was the last time they admitted they were wrong? When was the last time they said ‘I’m not very sure about this, this isn’t my field of expertise’?

Philip Tetlock, in his book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, points out that media pundits are never held to account for their contradictory or flat-out wrong predictions. They are rewarded not for the accuracy of their predictions but for the heat of the response they provoke, and by that criteria, the more outspoken their declamations, the better.

The British government got a great deal of stick for changing its mind about its COVID-19 strategy two weeks ago, and that’s fair enough. There’s a lot we can criticize our government for, not least the lack of testing relative to other countries. On the other hand, thank God we have a government capable of changing its mind in the middle of a crisis. Imagine if we had Jeremy Corbyn in charge, a man who hasn’t changed his mind in 50 years.

Dominic Cummings, Number 10’s chief advisor, is supposedly The Man Who Changed His Mind — he switched from heeding one scientific strategy to following another, and the UK went into a lock-down. He’s a follower of a movement called the Rationalists, who pride themselves on their ability to change their mind when new facts come to light.

One of the leading Rationalist bloggers is the psychiatrist Scott Alexander (often referenced in Cummings’ blog), who at the end of each year and decade looks back over his own opinions and predictions and estimates how accurate they were and the most important ways he’s changed his mind. He has a whole section of his blog dedicated to mistaken opinions he has held.

That’s not a bad model to follow. When were you last wrong? When did you last fundamentally change your mind?

We can try and be flexible in our thinking, recognizing that conditions change and our tiny little meaning-map will always be inadequate to the dynamic complexity of reality. We can try not to approach crisis and conflict as occasions to defend the hillock of our prejudices. We can try not to curl up into a defensive shell like the pangolin. In between our shibboleths there is a space, where growth can happen.

Author of Philosophy for Life and other books. Honorary fellow, Centre for the History of the Emotions.

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