Don’t blame religion — or atheism — for COVID-19 attitudes you dislike

In reality, contra Pinker — and I say this as an agnostic —the notion that belief in an afterlife implies contempt for earthly life is a crude caricature. (For a contrast, see my Arc colleague Berny Belvedere’s meditation on death; Belvedere is an evangelical, believes few things are more important than preserving life, and believes in an afterlife.) Logically, you could easily construct the opposite argument, as quite a few religious people do: that if human life is a brief flash of consciousness followed by extinction, nothing we do here particularly matters, and enjoying life here and now is well worth the risk of somewhat earlier extinction since it’s all the same in the end, anyway. Most religious thought is concerned with a well-lived life on earth. Indeed, it’s usually religious people who stress the sacredness of human life and strenuously object to measures that would, for instance, limit medical interventions for elderly people with a low chance of recovery (remember the “death panels” outcry during the debate on the Obama health care plan?). Empirically, there is evidence that at least in the United States, religiosity is positively correlated with good health. And, of course, one can also point out that atheistic communist regimes have not been particularly known for their dedication to saving lives.

So, in one sense, Pinker’s swipe at Christian conservatives is easy to dismiss. But unfortunately, some Christian conservatives have embraced the same stereotype — reframing it as a positive one. There was the infamous First Things editorial by Rusty Reno deploring the “sentimentalism” of an excessive emphasis on saving lives and the “materialistic view of survival at any price”; Reno even labeled this attitude “demonic.” (He admitted, however, that many of his friends disagree with him and “support the current measures, insisting that Christians must defend life.”) Reno’s incoherent diatribe was especially bizarre considering his admission that many people were eschewing normal activities not because they feared dying of COVID-19 themselves but because they were concerned about spreading the infection to others. (Why, those demonic sentimentalists!)