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From Freedom of Religion to Coronavirus Denial

In the United States, people have tried everything. Countless crackpots have invented their own religions, claiming magical revelations rather than inherited teachings. Millions of mushy-headed mean-wellers have discovered something or other that all religions have in common, for the purpose of thereby declaring them all to be true — but, of course, the only thing that they all have in common is the practice of claiming to “believe” stuff for no good reason (quite an odd foundation for claiming to believe all of them).
People take part in a protest for “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine” at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on April 15, 2020. – The group is upset with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s(D-MI) expanded the states stay-at-home order to contain the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

The U.S. government was created with the mandate to not establish any state religion or to forbid any religion. There were a couple of ways this could have gone.

Here’s one path that was not taken. The freedom of religion and the separation of religion from the state could have encouraged a widespread understanding of what a crock of malarkey religion all is. If no religion can actually persuade everyone of its claims, if people choose their various and sundry religions based on factors wholly unrelated to persuasive argument, then why not let religion fade away with other myths and superstitions?

Here’s a large part of what actually happened. The freedom of religion created the practice of respecting as beyond question multiple conflicting and contradictory dogmas because each was declared by some person or group to be their religion. The right to believe what you declare it important to you to believe is more widely cherished in the United States than is the right to a decent standard of living.

Anti-intellectualism is baked right into the U.S. conception of civil and political rights. If the world is full of religions whose adherents mostly acquired their “beliefs,” not through any awareness of reasons to believe them but through what family they were born into, then something must be done to salvage the respectability of religion. In the United States, people have tried everything. Countless crackpots have invented their own religions, claiming magical revelations rather than inherited teachings. Millions of mushy-headed mean-wellers have discovered something or other that all religions have in common, for the purpose of thereby declaring them all to be true — but, of course, the only thing that they all have in common is the practice of claiming to “believe” stuff for no good reason (quite an odd foundation for claiming to believe all of them). And mostly, a society has simply been developed in which it is each person’s treasured prerogative to assert his or her “belief” in anything at all, and the height of rudeness, insensitivity, or even bigotry to challenge the claims of others — especially, most importantly, the claims that appear the most ludicrous.

This is a different feature of U.S. society than the oft-lamented over-abundance of information that famously makes it difficult to know which news sources to believe. It’s a different, though not unrelated, problem from that of irresponsible public figures promoting fantastic or fascistic ideas. What makes U.S. society so open to nonsensical claims is its longstanding practice of telling itself that belief is a choice, like what clothes to put on in the morning is a choice. Should I believe the Republicans’ BS or the Democrats’ BS? It’s a style preference. The important thing is to go to the best church and to declare my “belief” for what the pastor says in that church. No pastor can be complete without a proper flock.

And so, in the nation doing the very worst among wealthy nations on earth at handling the Coronavirus (apart from Sweden which has consciously tried not to handle it), many people are determined to believe it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t spread, or can’t be asymptomatic, or doesn’t kill, or is easily blocked by wearing a mask around your neck but not your face. Pick what you want to do, what you’re tired of, what you long for. Declare your “beliefs” accordingly. Locate the suitable “journalism” and “science” that you can pretend motivated your “beliefs.” And raise holy hell if anyone questions your right to believe what you want to believe when you’re obviously not harming them.

Except that, of course, you are harming them by helping to spread a deadly disease. People who sign up for tickets to a Trump rally in order to not use them and leave seats empty probably do more for the public health (diminishing both a disease pandemic and a fascism pandemic) than people who appeal to verifiable information in an effort to persuade others about the spread of the disease. Yet facts are not utterly impotent. Informing and persuading people with what we know and why it matters is both what we need to do in the current situation and what we need to encourage everyone to try to do in every situation.

Of course, the fact that the United States is doing worse in this pandemic than other countries runs up against the more-or-less religious belief that the United States always does better than other countries, but ridding people of that notion could be a big added benefit of asking them to try thinking intelligently right about now.

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