Jeff Levin, an epidemiologist and observant Jew who comes from a large number of reputable rabbis, has studied – and lived on – the intersection of medicine and religion for decades.
CNN talked to Levin this week about how religion can both heal and hurt, and how we see both aspects play out during the pandemic.
CNN: The way you write about the relationship between religion and medicine – how close they were at first and how far apart they look now – made me think of a bitter divorce.
Levin: It's a very good analogy. You cannot really tell the history of medicine without the history of religion and vice versa. Concerns for the healing of people go back to the origins of religion, and religions have been involved in the training of healers of both body and mind. As this relationship has developed, we have seen the good, the bad and the ugly.
How do we see the relationship playing out during this pandemic?
Faith is a positive force when it motivates people to think outside themselves and to be of service. When it makes people look out for others and look for demons to blame, it does a great bear service. Honestly, we've seen both. There are horrific messages from the pulpit warning of Chinese immigrants, and on the other hand, some people act incredibly compassionate and ethical.
You point out that Jews became a scapegoat during the Black Plague in Europe. We see some of that happening now with Asian Americans. Why is this idea so persistent?
People need to flip over to have someone to blame when they feel God has left them. They think it must be the fault of others. I am disappointed that several clergy and pastors are not talking about what is happening. Some make statements, but for me this is a teaching moment for social justice for believing people. In any society where this kind of bigotry is going on, the pastors have a say. If any of their congregants don't like it, don't harass it. At a certain point, you have to be bold.
At the same time, surveys point to an uptick in people's confidence in their religion. It seems that faith plays a kind of therapeutic role for many of us right now.
Yes, people are locked in their homes looking for something to do, to feel better and not be in a reactive state all the time. And religion, in a broad sense, can help people achieve positive welfare status. Religion has this used function that may not always be at the forefront of how people engage in spirituality. The usual way is to think about it once a week and try to be a good person. Now it seems more vital, more personal, more urgent.
I wonder how long it will last. With previous pandemics, did people's trust in religion diminish when the infection was contained?
I have read things that say that this pandemic will lead to a religious renaissance or other great awakening. On the other hand, I am cynical that it will be a bit of a scandal or a naked selfie, and people will leave all this behind and be back to the same old mindlessness. When I looked at previous pandemics, like the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918, it was really out of sight, out of mind when it was over. It wasn't really talked about. And 100 million people lost their lives!
How did religious people react to the Spanish flu? Was it a wave of spirituality?
Absolutely. I think you can draw a direct line between that outbreak, combined with World War I, and the rebirth of the modern millennium. That is to say, an obsession with hardship and demeanor that was not very visible before. The beginning of the End Times ministries came out of the outbreak and has remained in the public consciousness.
Some governors have marked houses to worship important services, others have not. Are they important, in your opinion?
Well, on the one hand, I believe that religious services are "essential" in an existential sense. But this is an exceptional time we are in, and there are life and death concerns involved. So it seems prudent to be extra careful, lest our religious gatherings become vectors for mediating the transmission of a pathogenic and virulent virus. Zoom and other platforms can work just fine now to keep faith fellowship practically together. Pastors who violate restraining orders are possibly at risk for the most vulnerable of their royalty. Do they really believe that a loving God wants them to do something so foolish?
You write about Jesus' healing service in your book. I wonder if some of the conservative opposition to medicine may be rooted in the idea that Jesus will heal them too, so they don't need vaccinations or doctors?
It is fascinating to me that people would think that seeking medical help in some way is disobedient to God. Almost as if it's blasphemous. It's bizarre. For Jews, one of the ways God heals is by providing men and women with science that can help us stay well. I don't think it is implicit in Christianity not to seek medical help because of Jesus. I have heard during this outbreak that some say, "Jesus is my vaccine." Well, OK, I can respect that, but at the same time you don't have to gather with hundreds of people in a room.
The Pew findings are provocative and correct for me. I think they are surprising, but as a religious believer I think they are bothersome. (In the study, most religious people said that non-existent ventilators should go to patients who need them most at the moment; while most non-religious people said they should go to patients with the greatest chance of improvement.)
In my opinion, utilitarian calculation does not have a place in these types of decisions. We look morally to respond to people in need when they present themselves to us, without trying to analyze which life is more or less valuable or worthy. There is a very slippery slope from there to the totalitarian impulse to value some lives over others because of political calculation.
Who has a bigger role in determining morality in the medical field right now, religion or science?
I think the goal of many secular scholars and organizations is to push religious considerations completely out of the picture when it comes to deciding what is or is not morally acceptable. This is a dangerous gambit. Without a gold standard of behavior, eventually something goes. Life holiness may give way to political expediency or otherwise.
This is not a right-to-left thing; it is about how to decide what to do and why and whether there are any eternal values that will guide these decisions. This conflict presents itself especially to us now in bioethics, where hard and impersonal technological advances drive the bus and leave humanity and compassion outside the doctor-patient relationship.
Religion can be cured, as the studies in your book show. Yet it seems equally clear that religion can also kill.
Of course. Throughout history, personal faith and religious institutions have been a great force for good, motivating selfless behavior and compassion and magnificent service to others. At the same time, religious institutions and leaders have been sources of divisiveness and hatred, and religious movements have existed throughout history that have targeted outsiders for destruction. Thousands of studies have now shown that, on average, expressions of religious belief or spirituality are associated with all kinds of benefits to our well-being – less depression, less anxiety, and even longevity in some studies. And sociologists and psychologists and economists and political scientists have documented the other ways religion or faith has affected humanity for good.
But at the same time, so many people have been harmed by religion. Emotional abuse, disfellowshipped or rejected, unfairly judged, the feeling less than lifted. It is hard to convince some people that religion is basically a positive force when they experience themselves or their loved ones being abused or tortured or even killed in the name of religion. Honestly, religion is not a single entity and it is not all good or all bad. It is better thought of as a domain or dimension in life – a vessel that can be filled with goodness that can nurse and comfort and even a doctor, but which can also be filled with sludge and disease that can do bad things to humans and destroy lives. .