“Covidism:” How calling something a religion can act as a smokescreen

This morning I came across a Twitter hashtag I hadn’t seen before, #CoronaReligion. One of the threads participating in this Discourse especially caught my attention, as a group of Tweeters last month proclaimed that “The fastest growing religion in the world is COVIDISM.” Hashtag CovidCult. Hashtag CovidReligion.

Hmmm. Is covid a religion? Are protective masks a religious dress code? Are lockdowns evidence of a requirement for blind obedience to authority? Are public health officials requiring us to hold faith in things that don’t make sense?

Full Disclosure Time. I’m not at all interested in the answers to those questions, since, HELLO, my husband and I have had Covid, we are still recovering 9+ months later, it’s absolutely horrific, and hundreds of thousands of human beings are dying so can everyone please just put a piece of cloth on your face?

But I do want to use these tweets to examine what is a much more interesting set of issues that underlie the question: Is Covid a religion?

It might seem an odd thing for me to challenge propositions like the one in the tweet thread above, considering my recent book argues that anything can be sacred and that all humans behave religiously. In my book, I look at the ways we use language to make food, politics, sport, masculinity, skin colour and all sorts of other things sacred.

But though indeed anything can be religious, though I spend much of my time examining how language reveals our complex commitments, people’s reasons for calling something religious are also an important part of the study of religion and of religious language.

Welcome to the one world religion! The COVIDISM CULT.

Our Tweeter reminds us to “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

Committed people of faith are particularly vulnerable to language like the above, which calls on its audience to reject a set of ideas or people or behaviours because they’re behaving like a (false) religion. A cult even!

I already have a religion, the audience might think,
and I don’t want to be disloyal by following another one!

For sure, critically examining contradictions in the ways we talk and live our lives is a positive thing indeed. I believe that racism functions as a religion, for example. Racism is incompatible with my own faith. I don’t want to be racist. But I also know that as a member of communities where racism is deeply embedded, I sometimes unconsciously participate in racist ways of talking and behaving. So I welcome opportunities to reflect on my participation, to apologize for times I’ve participated in racism, to change my language and behaviour.

But, as I recently argued, calling a certain set of behaviours, ideas or people “religious” is also a common and fairly effective strategy to dismiss things that threaten the status quo of power and privilege.

Why is that? How does that work? This strategy of dismissal taps into the narrow ways “religion” is often defined and talked about, especially how religion has historically been positioned opposite the “rational,” the “secular.” Kim Knott and Matthew Francis put it like this,

Institutions, values, ideas, places, and people are assumed to fall into either one or another category—church or state, faith or reason, belief or science. Whether in the American constitution, the French educational system, or the British National Health Service, this separation leads to the marginalization of religion in the public sphere. Likewise, transgressions that threaten these boundaries are seen as impositions that should be forbidden: e.g. the opposition to public displays of religiosity in the clothing of nurses in the National Health Service in Britain and to school pupils in France.

Matthew Francis and Kim Knott (2011: 44)

A mistake we often make, then, when responding to claims like “Covid is a religion” or “Critical Race Theory is a religion” or “feminism is a religion” (Are you starting to see a pattern here?) is to accept immediately the (false) premises that underlie such claims and argue from them, such as:

  • Religion is founded on beliefs without evidence.
  • Religion is anti-science.
  • Religion is something weird, dangerous, abnormal.
  • It is possible to be irreligious.
Too Stupid to Understand Science? Try Religion! 2016
An image I discuss in Chapter 6 of my book

My approach to religious language moves beyond narrow, closed definitions of religion like this. Assuming and relying on a dichotomy between “religion” and the “secular” can fuel prejudice and justify discrimination. Tapping into this dichotomy is a convenient way to wave away something that we find threatening. It can function as a means to dismiss something that unsettles who we want to be, how we want others to perceive us, the ways we choose to live our lives, the power and privileges we want to hold on to.

I don’t want to wear a mask. I don’t want my life to be disrupted. I’m more important than elderly and otherwise vulnerable people, so I shouldn’t have to be inconvenienced for them. All that matters is me.

All this is why it’s worth paying close attention to claims that something is behaving like a religion. That claim just might be functioning as a defense mechanism against justifiable accusations of racism or sexism or ableism or ageism or greed or what have you. Rather than protecting a faith community from dangerous ideas, such claims can function to protect people in power from scrutiny and accountability.

So how do we know when calling something a religion is a smokescreen tactic?
One word: CONTEXT.
Often, during times of crisis and conflict, when a community is facing scrutiny and accountability, members of that community will react defensively by undermining the people bringing that scrutiny and accountability. One way they do this is by positioning them as outsiders, people of another religion (see the examples I give here). Classic “us vs. them”.

So, to return to our doomsday Tweeter: Are people behaving religiously around Covid-19, around lockdowns and masks? They very well may be. But we need to take care, since asking such questions can deflect our attention around what many consider more pressing questions, like, How can we protect (especially vulnerable) people from suffering and dying from Covid-19?

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