On May 1, 2020, a demonstrator in San Diego held a sign demanding that churches reopen amid the Covid-19 pandemic. (Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty)

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, a number of religious institutions have defied recommended health and safety orders. Some churches refused to close their doors. Schools like the evangelical Liberty University wanted to keep holding in-person instruction. In Brooklyn, members of the Haredi Jewish community continued to hold large weddings in March, even as the virus spiked in New York. These stories were soon followed by accounts of congregants and religious leaders dying of the disease. As states have begun to reopen, including easing restrictions on in-person religious meetings, dangerous efforts persist to defy public health measures, such as not mandating masks during worship, allowing congregants to hug or sing, and refusing to assist in contact tracing after an outbreak.

These instances seem to fit a pattern of conservative religious communities once again rejecting any science that conflicts with their theology. Some of these same groups also reject theories like biological evolution and the cosmological big bang, making it easy to see willful defiance of public health restrictions as stubborn denial or ignorance of microbiology and epidemiology.

A closer look at the explicit reasons and the positions staked out by these religious groups, however, shows less rejection of biological and medical science—though there is some of that as well—and more skepticism of government authority. The science-religion conflict framework is both historically misguided and is counterproductive to public health. As the long-term effects of the pandemic become clearer, the role that religious organizations will play as both social influencers and providers of medical care require that health advocates learn to better engage religious skeptics, rather than dismiss them as theologically unyielding.

A recent essay in The New Republic criticizing Florida’s response to Covid-19 exemplifies this problematic attitude. Written after the state’s governor announced that churches were qualified as “essential services” in time for Easter—in line with several other states that announced religious exemptions to stay at-home orders—Diane Roberts asserted that allowing churches to hold in-person services during the pandemic was due to open “hostility” to science “rooted in American, especially Southern, Christianity.” To make her argument, Roberts traveled in time back to the 1920s—not to consider the aftermath of the great flu pandemic—but to exhume William Jennings Bryan’s campaign against Darwinism, culminating in the infamous Tennessee Scopes “Monkey trial” in 1925, in which a schoolteacher was convicted of breaking the state’s law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. Two years earlier, Bryan had successfully pushed for an anti-evolution resolution in his home state of Florida. By Roberts’ account, allowing Easter services to take place in the midst of a disease outbreak was proof that nothing has changed in Florida in 97 years.

While holding in-person religious services during a pandemic deserves scrutiny, the debates we are seeing today over the coronavirus are not analogous to the creationist controversies of yesteryear or today. In those evolution battles of the 1920s, the ostensible “science” side had some idea why fundamentalist Christians couldn’t accept evolution. Those in favor of teaching evolution in public schools, like Scopes defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, could at least point to the book of Genesis and see that passages taken literally could be inconsistent with Darwin. But where in Scripture is the impossibility of the SARS-CoV-2 virus?

Blaming only religion for the refusal to accept science doesn’t really explain why the protests and mask-wearing opposition have become so widespread, even among ostensibly secular people. This religion-denying-science narrative is what scholars of these issues call the conflict thesis. In brief, this idea states that the logical incompatibility between scientific and religious ideas (for example, how old the universe is or whether humans are related to other animals) result in unavoidable moments of tension. Social behavior that embodies this conflict—such as refusing to act on climate change because of a belief God gave humanity dominion over the Earth—is driven by the fact that scientific and religious beliefs cannot be reconciled. A Foreign Policy article alluded to this idea when it called Covid-19 a “test” for religious organizations: “At the heart of this test is a conflict between the rational requirements of health and the traditional requirements of religion.”

Overall, that’s not what is happening in most of the instances where congregations refuse to adhere to quarantine restrictions. The institutions and organizations garnering the most attention for refusing quarantine and social distancing orders aren’t those religious groups that have traditionally eschewed medical intervention. Neither Haredi Orthodox Jews nor the evangelicals of Liberty University categorically refuse types of medical treatment the way that other groups, like Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, notably do. (And while Christian Scientists might be unwilling to seek medical treatment if they experience Covid symptoms, they do not reject rules enforcing social distancing and hygiene.) A year ago, when a measles outbreak among the Haredim brought the issue of vaccine refusal to the fore, observers within the community and beyond were quick to point out that there was nothing in Jewish law that contradicted vaccines (and by many interpretations, even compelled them in life-saving circumstances.) Public health researchers even noted that “Orthodox Jewish leaders were engaged in the outbreak response, with rabbinical leaders supporting vaccination efforts and community groups advocating for vaccination.” One commentator argued to The Washington Post that immunization rates had fallen among the Haredim “due to a lack of trust in the government.”

If there’s a rejection of medical expertise regarding Covid-19, it is not driven by a clash between scientific and theological ideas. Instead, the conflict is driven by these questions over state and religious authority, shifting legal interpretations of religious freedom, and in some instances an anti-government ideology shared by conservative groups both religious and secular. Science—and certainly the scientific ideas behind immunology and epidemiology—are not the primary target. But when scientific evidence is cited in debates between these conflicting authorities, the use of science will be questioned, as will the government’s scientific authorities.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr issued a memorandum warning that “even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.” This rationale is an extension of several decades of efforts to expand legal interpretation of the free exercise of religion. Cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014), which ruled that even businesses have religious freedom rights when it comes to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. Barr’s memo signaled to religious groups that the Justice Department was open to supporting an expanded interpretation of religious freedom for Covid-19 restrictions. The Supreme Court’s rulings last week helped solidify the legal position that free exercise of religion—by corporate entities as well as by individuals—supersedes other laws ensuring public interest, including those guaranteeing health care and civil rights.

On May 3, several Romanian-American churches in Chicago announced plans to challenge Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s efforts to curtail the pandemic, using language that directly echoed Attorney General Barr’s memo. These churches asserted that they planned to hold services on Sunday May 10, regardless of what the courts decided. (Three churches were ultimately fined by the city for meeting, and a federal appeals court ruled against them in June.) Yet their original announcement did not seem to be the language or action of a religious group driven by antipathy to medical science. Their open letter to the governor outlined a series of precautions the churches will take to prevent viral transmission among their members, including the use of sanitizers and social distancing. These churches are not explicitly defying science, but they are asserting the priority of religious freedom over state-recommended health practices.

Many of the religious organizations making headlines for defying public health restrictions have had histories of outspoken support for maximalist interpretations of religious freedom, whether the issue at stake is health, education, anti-discrimination, or labor rights. The disease outbreak came at a legally and politically opportune time for like-minded religious groups to test the extent of this maximalist interpretation. From that perspective, it came as a surprise on May 29, when Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Supreme Court’s liberal justices in rejecting the argument brought by a San Diego church seeking to undo California’s Covid-19 restrictions on large assemblies. Roberts’ decision has put an end to the use of the pandemic to test and push legal boundaries—for now. But its focus on questions of legal process and the vague nature of some of the church’s claims suggest that it’s not the definitive word against a maximalist argument, should a less hasty case come to the Court in the future.

In the meantime, many religious communities are actually looking for scientific advice when it comes to responding to the coronavirus and keeping their members safe. Consider Pope Francis conducting an Easter Service before an empty St. Peter’s Square. Or the empty floor of the Great Mosque of Mecca, with no one making pilgrimage. This year, there were Passover Seders taking place on Zoom, despite the longstanding practice of some Jews to abstain from using electronics on the holiday. To those aware of the centrality of the sacred rituals that have been altered or postponed and the nearly unprecedented nature of some of these changes, images such as these serve as evidence of how religions can adapt to emerging scientific knowledge. Even more conservative denominations, such as the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod (which, among other statements of belief, denies evolution) have shared scientific resources with its congregations regarding the virus and how to ensure safety during this crisis.

Just as religious organizations are looking to scientists and health professionals to safely conduct their services, public health organizations have also long recognized the importance religious institutions have played in promoting health and wellbeing. Approximately a fifth of all hospital beds in the United States are at religiously affiliated hospitals. In a number of other countries, religious hospitals and clinics are among the only sources of scientific medical care. This practice is not without problems: Religiously affiliated medical care can carry associations with colonial missionary practices in much of the postcolonial world. In the U.S., there have been lawsuits regarding religious directives limiting certain medical treatment at hospitals. On the other hand, religious organizations have the capacity and networks to reach people with information and supplies, and have been willing to use those resources to combat global health problems in the past.

Theologians, scientists, and others engaged in science and religion discussions have argued for the past few decades that the relationship between science and religion is more than just the conflict thesis—that it is sometimes aligned, sometimes at odds. But often these critics still focus on the compatibility of scientific and religious ideas as determining that relationship. The Covid-19 pandemic and the issues it has exposed have illustrated the necessity of rethinking that. Sometimes, it’s not any particular religious doctrines or theories, but the identity and power of those who espouse them that give shape to social conflict.

Critics who see Covid-19 as simply the next chapter in an ongoing science-religion war have largely missed the mark. There may be ways for health authorities to appeal to these leaders or directly to their congregants, just as public health officials often rely upon religious groups to provide medical care and information to the public. But this outreach can only be effective if the messaging to these communities begins with something other than a misdiagnosis of their motivations. Demonizing these believers as scientifically illiterate is counterproductive.


Adam R. Shapiro is a historian of science and religion and the author of Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Anti-Evolution Movement in American Schools.