Opinion: Religion, spirituality worth exploring, connecting with during the COVID-19 pandemic
Outside Willamette's Cone Chapel. Photo by David Flanagan.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a wave of national despair and uncertainty that can be felt at every level of the national zeitgeist. Americans from sea to shining sea feel in need of guidance like never before, and Willamette University is no exception. With a 2017 Pew research poll indicating that nearly 27 percent of Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and a declining number as “religious and spiritual”—with “religious” indicating commitment to an established religious tradition and “spiritual” indicating an autodidactical or self guided practice that may or may not take inspiration from existing religious theories—it may be time to acknowledge the necessity of spiritual customs in today’s trying times. Religious practice and spiritual practice alike can promote tremendous insight into some challenging and personal topics, and by eschewing religion and spirituality entirely, many Willamette students are missing out on a world of connection. Quarantine is a great time to connect with some of life’s biggest questions.
A common misconception about faith is that it’s somehow incompatible with a scientific understanding of the world, or leads to bigotry and other forms of social repression. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Scientists and public thinkers from Isaac Newton (Anglican) to Albert Einstein (Agnostic Jewish) have considered faith and reason to be happily able to coexist, with traits like inquisitiveness and community to be powerful tenets of secular and religious life alike. A quote often attributed to Francis Bacon goes, “It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” Just as science is compatible with religion, so too is religion with science. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and who has come to light as a leading figure in the COVID-19 pandemic confirms that his relationship with religiosity shaped the values that led him to go into public service. Though he has distanced himself from the Roman Catholic church in recent years, he credits his Jesuit education as developing “the principles I run my life by.” Spirituality and science, all too often construed as moral opposites, try to answer different kinds of questions.
Another misconception about modern faith is that it is tied too directly to religious fundamentalism, and that affiliation with religion necessitates the supremacy of whatever religion that is. Willamette Chaplain Karen Wood, a tireless resource for students dipping their toes in the world of religion for the first time or students who have lapsed in earlier practice, clarified the record. “Religion and social justice are absolutely connected for me,” she explained, connecting religious teachings of unity and solidarity to modern notions of social justice. From Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the current reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, religion has been used to inspire and guide intersectional movements for civil rights and bringing communities together. Though there’s no doubt that religion has been used—and will continue to be used—to justify terrible things, it’s unfair and inaccurate to paint religion as a whole as some sort of dogmatic, pro-conformity system.
But what do Willamette students have to gain from engaging with religious or spiritual practices? Firstly, they’re missing out on an opportunity to connect with something much of the world takes very seriously. After all, around 85% of people worldwide don’t identify with a major religion. Even learning about religions in an academic or casual way can be an excellent way to promote understanding and help to decolonize our Western, “objective” ways of understanding the world.
Religious groups can also offer support, belonging and community. It’s easy to feel like those things are in short supply given the current pandemic conditions and resulting losses and tragedies. Louis Polcin ‘21 of the on-campus Jewish Student Union (JSU) indicated that for many members of the Union, developing feelings of belonging and community are just as important as fulfilling religious duties. These things have become even more important during the pandemic, a time when many students can feel lost, alone, and confused. For example, when asked about the differences between meeting on Zoom and meeting for socially distanced gatherings like Shabbat Kiddush in person, Polcin noted that “the difference is remarkable.”
Finally, one doesn’t have to ascribe to a particular religion to develop a sense of spirituality. New age religions, syncretic religions and even some philosophies have spiritual dimensions that can help make meaning in someone’s life, or even just allow them to broaden their understanding of life’s biggest and toughest questions. The Office of the Chaplains is a great place to start for students looking to learn more about religious or spiritual practice, and courses in the Religious Studies department are also a great way to take an academic deep dive into topics ranging from religious culture to scripture.
In trying times of political disarray and public health crises, both organized religion and ad hoc spirituality have an important place in broader discussion and in our individual lives. There’s no time like a pandemic to start to think about life’s biggest questions.