COVID19: when we no longer trust God

There is a wisdom with the slogan In God We Trust, and that wisdom transcends religion or even God. Most successful and enduring civilizations had a foundation of a belief in a boundary of what man can actually control. Some notion of a higher power defends that boundary.

The boundary of allowed human control may change as circumstances and human capabilities change, but there would remain some boundary beyond which lays mortal danger to our civilization.

The notion of God as a sentry of that boundary is helpful in giving us confidence that some higher power is addressing that which we agree to avoid doing. We trust that being in taking care of those matters in a wise way. The differences in the various religions may be in the goals of that wisdom. Some religions may consider their god to be preserver of the current populations good will, others may consider their god to preserve the legacy of their past, while others may consider their god to tend to burden the current population in order to benefit future generations. It is the latter that I prefer: a God in the driving seat on the road that leaves a trail of history.

The modern civilization, on a global scale, is led primarily by governments that have abandoned any notion of boundary of what man is permitted to do. We may debate on the degree of our religiosity but I think we are more emboldened to claim any territory of action that we please. I can list numerous examples of this in our culture that would make me appear as a religious fanatic. I am not religious, but I do worry about the future consequences of asserting our dominion over what is conventionally considered God’s territory.

A major example in the current year is our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. From the start, I objected to the government’s responses. I objected even more as they contradicted earlier responses and moved the goals of what they wanted to accomplish.

I recall being fundamentally frustrated and angry about the circumstances. I first dismissed this anger as rooted in a difference in policy. I would have preferred a different policy than what we had, but my policy recommendations were of a very tiny minority (perhaps of just myself) within a democratic system. Unlike other differences in policy preferences I have experienced in the past, this one dug deeper into my soul. There was something fundamentally morally wrong in our approach.

I continue to believe this virus is man modified with deliberate intent to make it more infectious and fatal for humans. This belief should comfort my objections: man ought to be responsible for cleaning up the mess man made. Perhaps only a few people were responsible for this catastrophe, but they were members of our species and it appears they were agents of our governments. As a result, the population as a whole needs to make all necessary sacrifices to eradicate this menace from our ecosystem.

There are many examples of man made catastrophes that we have to deal with, including the nuclear accidents at 3-mile island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi. I could add to the list chemical contamination events, or other resource mismanagement. I have no problem with human obligation to take action to correct these problems instead of leaving the matter to a higher being.

The situation changes when a biological process is involved, as is the case with this virus. The virus and its consequences are new for humans to deal with. While I believe the virus was a human creation (or modification), something similar could have been a product of natural processes and we’d be facing the same challenges.

There was a brief window of time when the virus might have been contained and allowed to die out within a very small area. I suspect that window of opportunity closed before we fully recognized its threat. By the time I became aware of the issue (back in January), it was already beyond containment.

Contrary to my preferences, our governments did enact policies to attempt to slow the spread and flatten the curve. The data we have now is that the actual experience is far below the worst case predictions so it appears the policies were effective. I would argue otherwise, but that is not the point of this post.

Our response to this virus was unprecedented. We closed down our economy at local levels but on a global scale. Suddenly we were forced to isolate ourselves from our local communities and forced to rely entirely on corporations (often global ones) for our basic needs. We quarantined and isolated the healthy and invulnerable often at the same time as minimizing restrictions on the infected and the vulnerable. Instead of a policy that focused on this minority of infected and the most vulnerable, we enacted a policy that impacted the majority that is healthy and largely invulnerable.

We did this because we are now convinced we had no other choice.

Similar circumstances have happened in the past, and we have records of their consequences. In those past events, the choice was in no smart part to trust in God. We would make the effort to treat the ill and protect the vulnerable, but we would otherwise go about our lives largely unrestricted outside of voluntary adjustments to avoid riskier behaviors. There was a confidence in that course of action, and that confidence came from trusting in a God that will respond to new challenges in a way that leads to a better future.

Our responses to small pox or the 1918 flu had catastrophic losses in the near term that we interpret as a massive failure in public policy. Our current response is motivated by the desire to not repeat those mistakes. The purpose of public policy is to protect current lives.

I question whether those original responses were mistakes. Certainly the loss of lives were regrettable at the time.

From the perspective of the time, the future opportunities for that population changed radically. People were denied the opportunity of having surviving offspring, or to benefit from guidance from surviving parents or grandparents. The population as a whole lost leaders and innovators that already showed promise and many others who had yet to make their capabilities known.

In contrast, from the perspective of the present, we did quite well without the ones that were lost. The survivors managed to thrive in spite of their losses. They thrived because they did not shut down their economy and hide waiting either for their inevitable turn or for some kind of all-clear signal. They thrived because they chose to continue a reasonable approximation to normal life. I argue that they made this choice with a trust that there is a higher power watching over things for the eventual benefit of the future generations. If so, they were right.

Across history, there are numerous examples where populations thrived after hardships through courage in face of immediate danger. This type of courage is lacking in our current culture and certainly in our current governments. The root in this courage is a confidence despite the unknown and unknowable future.

The word courage has many levels of meaning. There is a certain level of courage needed to do anything in life, but for the most part that courage comes from confidence in one’s own competence. Similarly we have courage to put our safety in the hands of others such as airline pilots because we have confidence in their competence and the competence of their entire supporting industry. The is a different level of courage when it comes to continuing a normal life in the face of a novel and menacing pandemic. The courage comes from a trust in the confidence of something that is not human. That is what I call the trust in God. It could just as readily be described as the trust in good fortune, trust in that things will work out for the betterment of the future as long as we continue our lives as we normally would.

We lost this trust in good fortune. Instead we restrict our trust to humans in whom we hope will always be competent. As a result, we trusted epidemiologist modelers working from sparse information about how the disease spreads, how it progresses, and how effectively it would be treated. Their competence comes from choosing the worst case scenarios after considering in the error bars and statistical ranges.

Instead of trusting in God, we trust statistical models fed with the best data available even when that data is obviously incomplete and unreliable.

In the past, we would have trusted in God because that was the default position. It would be a trust in good fortune for those who were not religious, but it amounts to the same thing. There was a confidence that the one may number among the survivors and a confidence that the future would not disappoint.

In addition, in the past, we did not trust statistical modeling and certainly when the data was so incomplete and unreliable. We would not have trust the models that contradicted personal experience that show that each disease divides the population into vulnerable and robust, and usually the robust far outnumber the vulnerable.

Given what we now know about this virus, our ancestral trust in God would have served us must better than our actual course of action that instead trusted humans acting beyond the boundary they should not have crossed.

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