By Tim Maby
The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a sense of an imminent apocalypse to many religious groups, a web seminar conducted by the Religion Media Centre has been told. They are asking: “Is this a sign of the last days?”
Many current conspiracy theories were circulating before the pandemic. Researcher Dr David Robertson of the Open University describes them as “popular explanations for underlying concerns”, which have now been given fresh impetus.
They can be based on fear of technical change, such as the belief that the virus is exacerbated by 5G technology, similar to the previous fear of wi-fi. In India, the pandemic has been taken up in the endless conflict, so Hindus are claiming that the virus is being spread by Muslims. In the United States there’s a belief that Donald Trump has a plan to “drain the swamp” of his enemies.
It has also meant many questionable solutions to the virus and its causes have sprung up. Emeritus Professor Eileen Barker, founder of the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements (Inform), says it is clear that many religious people think God has caused the pandemic as a way of punishing humanity, or of cleaning up the world. New religions themselves have been blamed, as in South Korea.
Wildly untested medical solutions are being propounded, even by President Trump himself, when he proposed the use of a disinfectant, chlorine dioxide, promoted by the Genesis II “non-religious church”. Dr Sarah Harvey, who has researched Genesis II for five years, says it has always been controversial and feeds into “Big Pharma” conspiracy theories — the idea that the US government is suppressing the population through the pharmaceutical industry that keeps the government in power and people sick.
President Trump has been supporting many such conspiracy theories, as far as Dr Robertson is concerned, as a way of keeping himself in power, even though he is appealing to only a relative minority, a “group of economically and educationally marginalised people”. His methods seem to be mirrored by the President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who goes further in denying the danger of the virus altogether.
Tihomir Kukolja, executive director of the American Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation, based in Houston, Texas, is concerned that these militant groups seem to be a prey to any sort of conspiracy theory and are convinced that the pandemic is some kind of hoax at the very least. They are in danger of inciting others to violence. He questions why it is that certain white Christian groups are so open to such theories, from a fear of vaccination onwards.
Dr Robertson argues when there is a widespread worry throughout society, explanations that some would call conspiracy theories are not fixed, but a way of “responding to things” in times of stress. This allow us to go along with ideas that we might not normally consider. The old saying is that “there are no atheists in foxholes” on the front line in war.
Meanwhile, Saba Zaman, a Muslim television producer, said many of her contacts on social media were proposing a plethora of remedies for combating the coronavirus, including a long-used herbal tea based on black seed oil. She has found people of intelligence and education who are saying they no longer believed in conventional medicine and discussed what was once a conventional remedy for fever called “wet cupping” — piercing the skin and removing blood by suction. Another is sumac tea, which was revealed to an Algerian woman centuries ago in a dream. These are not extremists, Ms Zaman said, but everyday people around the world.
The academics were asked how far does the expression “conspiracy theory” go? For instance, there was one idea spreading here in Britain, following an upsurge of deaths in old people’s care homes and a preponderance of death among the non-white communities. The suggestion was that the government had a deliberate policy to sacrifice the elderly and let the poor and the vulnerable go to the wall.
Dr Robertson explained there was a long history of conspiracy theories from left and right of the political spectrum. Conspiracy describes a deliberate policy made in an organised way, in secret. It can take the shape of satire or a critique of something that is happening. But once its veracity becomes known, it ceases to be conspiracy.