Can God be blamed for the Pandemic?
The COVID toll had been raging for weeks. On 15 May 2021, usually cheerful Nāgamma made a stunning comment. Lifting both her hands towards the sky above she said in Tamil “Intak kaṭavulukku manasātciyē illaiyā?” (Does this God have no conscience/is God heartless?). She went on to ask why was God acting like this? She may be illiterate but has rightfully claimed her freedom to criticize a God she worships and considers good. She is not a Christian. Her village Goddess is Māriamma but the God she refers to is Katavul, the ‘one who transcends all bounds’, according to the fundamental Tamil concept of divinity.
Nāgamma can ‘scold’ this God, whereas Christians tend to dodge but not question God. Who is this God who will not listen to the prayers of millions as they appeal to save family members from death, and to prevent their children becoming orphans? Do our prayers have no power to stop the ultramicroscopic virus from entering our houses or the churches where fellow Christians gather to sing, read the word, and break the bread?
How often do people gather for a short function, pray for good weather, and thank God at the end for hearing their prayers because they were not inconvenienced by rains? Why then not pray to save people from the Pandemic? Yet, as of June 2021 more than 3,94,000 in India and 3.9 million worldwide have died so far. Either God is not listening or has no power against the devastating effects of a virus, just about 0.00001 millimeter in size.
There is an alternative explanation that some fundamentalists embrace: the pandemic was actually sent by God! This view was also advocated when the day after Christmas 2004 a devastating tsunami killed nearly a quarter million people and left tens of thousands suffering. For many fundamental believers around the world, God sent the tsunami as punishment and a warning against their evil deeds, sexual perversion, or a perceived increase in rate of abortion and gay and lesbian people. The pandemic too is seen with a similar viewing glass.
Due to the COVID pandemic, ‘sin’ is once again in focus. Some preachers continue to say how wicked and sinful people are; they scold and warn their flocks to repent. They add, subtract, and manipulate numbers in the Bible to predict an imminent Second Coming! Prophecy talks on end times have accelerated on online social platforms. Creating more fear in the hearts of people is an effective means of mind control when they are already dispirited due to the pandemic.
Either tsunami or pandemic, what seems inexplicable is ‘suffering’. Is God good, loving, compassionate, omnipotent and omnibenevolent? Suffering, while believing in a good God is a conundrum that theologians refer to as ‘theodicy’. For Pope Francis COVID-19 “is not the time of [God’s] judgment, but of our judgment: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not”. Dr. Heiner Wilmer, a Roman Catholic bishop in Germany, says the idea of a punishing God is “terrible and also completely un-Christian”.(https://novenanews.com/bishops-insist-coronavirus-not-gods-punishment/).
Cardinal António Marto, Bishop of Leiria-Fàtima in Portugal too calls it ‘unchristian’ to label the pandemic as God’s punishment, and that such views could only be justified through “ignorance, sectarian fanaticism, or madness”. (https://novenanews.com/cardinal-madness-coronavirus-gods-punishment/). Indeed, to attribute the pandemic to a divine act of punishment is an insult to the very idea of divinity.
We tend to focus on the question of theodicy when pandemics, epidemics, diseases and natural disasters occur. But why are we ignoring or indifferent to the ever present death, pain and suffering caused by human demigods: evil rulers, fascists and casteists, religious fanatics, autocrats, land grabbers, people addicted to power, wealth, and who revel in their military might. Hundreds of thousands of young women become widows with little children, children become orphans, people are wounded and rendered homeless and often become refugees. But they are unwanted by countries that once enslaved them or exploited their resources. Would those who proclaim that God did send the pandemic to punish, teach or renew the people also blame the same God for sending weapons of mass destruction, millions of guns and assault weapons, that have not stopped killing people in some part of the world every day?
God did not send COVID-19, nor the tsunami. There is good scientific explanation for the present pandemic as well as for all that occurred in the past. Scientists estimate that there may be more viruses on Planet Earth than stars in the universe! Most of these live in animals, mainly mammals and birds. A tiny fraction of about 200 viruses cause various diseases in humans, some in epidemic and pandemic proportions. New viral diseases including pandemics will emerge in the future. Viruses are tiny strings of genetic material, DNA or RNA with some associated molecules. A virus has the amazing ability to replicate and produce millions of copies of itself within an hour, but only after entering living cells of other organisms.
For hundreds of millions of years viruses have been infecting other organisms. Many have inserted their DNA into the DNA of their host. One such infection about 200 million years ago, by a virus related to HIV, transformed the course of evolution from egg laying animals to those that give live births. A viral infection of an egg or sperm was responsible for the evolution of the placenta! A protein derived from that virus can still be seen in the human placenta. This protein is responsible for the fetus to be attached to the uterus. (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/endogenous-retroviruses/)
Biologists have difficulty defining viruses as living organisms. They can function and multiply only after entering living cells. Viruses, bacteria and other pathogens are part of nature and biodiversity of a living Earth. At least 30 million distinct species of organisms share a common heritage with humans. Some 600 million species that lived during the past 3.5 billion years are now gone, due to five major natural causes of mass extinction. For the first time in this immense period of history, we humans are now responsible for the ongoing potentially sixth major extinction. One consequence of the destruction of undisturbed habitats is the spread of zoonotic diseases. Zoonosis is an infectious disease where a pathogen in one animal species infects another species. Habitat loss forces animals to move out of their natural homes and come into contact with humans. Mild forms of viruses in animals can mutate, cross the species barrier, and infect humans resulting in pandemics such as COVID-19.
Pain, suffering and death are not unique to the human species. We seek divine protection from a virus, consolation in suffering, death, a bleak future and loneliness. We also seek hospitals, masks, medicines, oxygen and vaccines to trounce the same virus. Reconciling this dichotomy takes courage, and makes us human!
About the Author:
Dr. P. Dayanandan is a botanist who taught at Madras Christian College. His interests include environment, evolution, science and religion, art history and Tamil literature.