This column is republished with the permission of the author and the Lexington Herald-Leader, where it originally appeared. An ordained minister for more than 30 years, Paul Prather is a columnist, author and pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. From 1988 to 1997, he was a Herald-Leader staff writer covering primarily religion.
By Paul Prather
Dozens of people from two Kentucky congregations ended up self-quarantined this past week after they ignored Gov. Andy Beshear’s plea for churches to cancel services on March 15.
These congregations held services anyway—and it turned out that worshiping among them were people already infected with covid-19.
A Louisiana pastor was threatened with having his future church meetings broken up by the National Guard after he defied statewide orders to not meet with groups larger than 50 people. The pastor claimed the coronavirus scare was “politically motivated.”
In my own community this past week, as I drove around town, mainly from the drive-through window at my bank to the drive-through window at my pharmacy, trying to practice social distancing, I realized it was business as usual for a lot of residents.
They were piling in and out of dollar stores, the post office, groceries, gas stations, pressing in cheek to jowl, seemingly without a care.
Pandemic? What pandemic?
We humans—all kinds of us, not just religious ones—are great for convincing ourselves facts don’t apply to us, that we’re immune, that we’re different, that we’re special.
Why, we’ve got our own personal Big Juju working for us that nobody else has.
So, when the governor or the president or the world’s leading healthcare scientists warn there’s a contagious disease sweeping the globe, killing people like flies in Italy and Spain and already multiplying here among us, we decide, “That doesn’t apply to me. It’s not real. If it is real, God will protect me!”
But maybe God was protecting you by giving you those warnings, do you think?
I’m an ordained minister of the gospel. I’m the epitome of what skeptics call a magical thinker.
I believe in an unseen God who created the world and ultimately controls it and is active in our lives. I believe God himself abides in my heart. I believe that on occasion he even speaks to me and perhaps acts through me.
If that’s magical thinking, count me in.
But to me there’s no conflict between being a person of faith and being a person who pays attention to actual documentable scientific facts.
There’s a virulent, life-threatening pandemic exploding. If you don’t avoid crowds and step up your hygiene and do all the rest, it’s going to sicken or possibly kill you. Or you’ll become a carrier who sickens or kills someone else.
True, even if you do what you should, it may get you anyway. But at least you can improve your odds of escaping it.
Again, it isn’t just churchgoers who live by magical thinking.
Americans of all philosophies eat triple-cheeseburgers, chain-smoke cigarettes or tailgate in the rain at 80 miles an hour while texting.
“Statistics don’t apply to me!” we cry. “I’m superman! I’ve been driving like a maniac for 30 years and ain’t had a wreck yet! I laugh at statistics!”
We conclude we’re protected by the Lord, or that rabbit’s foot in our pocket, or Mommy’s hovering ghost or genetics (“Papaw smoked 80 years and it didn’t hurt him!”).
And yes, a few people do get away with self-delusion. Papaw might have smoked like a fiend and lived to be 94.
But you probably won’t make it to 94. Papaw was what’s called a statistical outlier. By and large, though, the averages win. They come rushing back to bludgeon you into goop.
I have no inside knowledge and no crystal ball about this coronavirus. I’m not a prophet.
Plain common sense tells me covid-19 will get far worse before it gets better. I’d bet money we’ll be sheltering in place very soon. If we don’t successfully slow down the virus, our hospitals—and funeral homes—will be overrun like Italy’s.
I want to say to my friends and fellow citizens of all stripes, but especially to my fellow churchgoers: for your own sake, for all our sakes, use the brain the good Lord gave you.
Faith and common sense don’t contradict each other; they complement each other. You can trust God and acknowledge facts at the same time. God blesses us with facts.
Yes, God is real. But so are pandemics.
The Lord indeed performs miracles. I wrote a whole book about modern-day miracles. I’ve witnessed what I consider to be miracles.
God could miraculously protect you from the coronavirus. But miracles are miracles because they’re exceedingly rare. And they’re unpredictable.
Mostly, God works within the laws of nature. Christians and all other varieties of believers are subject to the same rules of biology and epidemiology as atheists.
So, it’s right and good to ask the Lord to spare you from covid-19. If you’re not religious, trust your rabbit’s foot or your good genes or your Big Juju.
But also obey public health organizations’ guidelines for protecting yourself. If the governor orders us to shelter in place, stay where you’re supposed to. Avoid groups. Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.
Please, in this critical time, balance magical thinking with a stern dose of reality and with loving concern for the rest of us. Just do the right thing.