“Religion Gives Orientation in Times of Crisis”

Does faith in God help in crises? A conversation with church historian Irene Dingel.
Interview: Ursula Weidenfeld.

LEIBNIZ: Mrs. Dingel, in the past, people were always more religious during crises than in times when everything was going well. Is that the case again in the Corona crisis?

IRENE DINGEL: I don’t think that people are becoming more religious now. But people who are religious anyway, believers, are becoming aware that they are missing something which was previously taken for granted: the public practice of religion. It continues to be restricted, just think of social distancing rules, restricted admission to places of worship or the prohibition of choral and congregational singing. All of this causes us to reflect on the presence of religion in public. But I think it is unlikely that societies in general in situations of crisis would become more religious. There might be a slight increase of religious activity, but that will certainly level off again very quickly.

Is this related to the fact that today we have other forms of contemplation than faith?

For sure! Phenomena that used to be incomprehensible and threatening can now be explained scientifically, or at least we can try to do so. We are looking for such explanations now during the Corona crisis. When we think back to earlier centuries, especially to the time before the Enlightenment, we encounter other mechanisms of explanation. Back then, nature was perceived as an uncontrollable force. Natural disasters, failed harvests and epidemics were considered blows of fate or even as God’s punishment for collectively committed injustice, for bad governance or for a misguided life. In other words, for all that which in religious terminology would be called sin.

With the beginning of the Enlightenment from the second half of the 17th century onwards, religion began to be questioned and intellect began to take the place of faith.

The great motto of the Enlightenment became the Latin call sapere aude, to use the expression of Immanuel Kant: “Have the courage to use your own understanding!” Thus, of course, scientific explanations of what people experienced around themselves became widely-accepted.

Does that explain why we find virologists so important today?

It certainly does. Because we trust our virologists to decode a previously unknown virus and develop vaccines and medicines. We would hardly limit ourselves to prayers or devotions in order to avert a virus or a natural disaster.

Are there examples from the past in which religion has played a significant role in crisis management? Positively or negatively?

We can look back into history and find, for example, the Great Plague in the middle of the 14th century.

That was in 1348.

Exactly; it had shocking effects on the demographic and economic development of Europe. It has been calculated that at that time about one third of the European population fell victim to the Plague. Since that time, the Plague has also been referred to as the Black Death. And then there were the great plague waves in Early Modern Times.

How did people react to that?

People always saw either the work of evil in the world or the punishing intervention of God as cause for the Plague. In order to avert this, people turned to God in prayers, penitential rituals and vows, or have called upon the Mother of God and plague saints. People also donated money for pious causes. Just think of the plague columns that can be found in many places. The big plague column in Vienna, for example, served as an expression of gratitude for overcoming the plague but also as a focus for public devotion.

Others looked for scapegoats – like today.

Unfortunately, this is an issue again today, but of course in a less alarming way as we have seen it in times of the Plague. In those days, people very often looked for culprits in culturally and socially marginalised groups. Jews in particular were suspected of having caused the disaster, for example by referring to typical topoi of concocting poison and poisoning wells. This led to widespread persecution of Jews. If we have a look at the present time and the Corona epidemic, we will certainly find extremist groups in our society, which again are fuelling anti-Semitism or other resentments, but – as we all hope – cannot infect society as a whole to the same extent as was the case in similar situations in the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, people are still looking for culprits today. This is evident in the US President speaking of the “Chinese epidemic”, or Asians initially being shunned. Is it human to look for someone to blame?

Searching for causes is, I believe, actually a genuinely human need. However, we have to differentiate between the search for a scapegoat and the search for causes, which can be done by rational and scientific consideration of the facts. In this situation guilt and atonement no longer play a role.

It is understandable that believers used to assume that it is in the hands of God to spare them or forgive a sin. What do people believe in today?

Let us come back to the natural sciences. Today we experience the world and especially the environment and nature as controllable. Basically, people today have largely subjugated nature and exploited it. Consequently, the conservation of nature, environmental justice and climate protection are the dominant topics. This means that the addressees of the appeal to avert feared disasters are in fact the people, the societies, the governments themselves. Just think of the climate activists with their great hero Greta Thunberg. This is the impulse that moves people today.

So is Greta Thunberg a kind of saint of the new age?

You could almost think so looking at the media and seeing how many followers she has.

If you are religious, one question comes to mind: How can God tolerate something like Corona? How can the Almighty allow humanity to suffer like this?

That is the theodicy question. It first came up after the devastating earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, which almost completely destroyed the city and caused countless deaths. How can a just, benevolent and almighty God allow such a thing? In his biting satire “Candide” Voltaire responded by criticising Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who had developed the theology-friendly theory that our world was the best of all possible worlds, I. In the end, however, the Christian religion had to deal with the burning theodicy question.

With what result?

The result of the debate was usually either rejection of religion, church and faith or the courage – one could also say the presumptiveness – to endure such tensions: the idea of a just and benevolent God on the one hand, but who on the other hand evades any human understanding by allowing such catastrophes to happen.

Religious people are considered to be more resilient in crises. Why is that?

Well, you could see religion as a coordinate system which is an expression of community, even if you can no longer practice this community as has happened in these past months. And that gives orientation for religious people, and support, which they do not have to generate themselves. Another perspective would be: religion calls for not giving power to the destructive factors over one’s own life, or over the lives of other people. This could be an explanation for the fact that religious people seem to be somewhat more resilient.

Are modern, less religious societies more prone to symptoms, sensations and even hysteria of crisis because they lack faith?

That is difficult to answer. But one could speculate that a loss of orientation, an inability to articulate our thoughts, occurs more quickly when people do not feel at home within a certain system of coordinates, be it religion or some other framework of meaning.

You said at the beginning that after the great plague wave it was important to purify oneself spiritually, for example by erecting plague columns or making pilgrimages. Which role do rituals play today? Many religious people have just been cut off from practising their rituals.

Rituals offer fixed external forms and a fixed specific language, which people can turn to when they have become disoriented, when they have become unable to articulate their thoughts. In this respect, rituals offer a certain framework for coping with critical situations. I think they still offer that today. After all, thanks to the new media, rituals can be transported into one’s own living room, into one’s own seclusion, even in times of crisis.

These rituals are actually called prayer, right?

They are called prayer, congregational singing, paying respects to the deceased at a funeral, and generally communicating comfort and hope.

These are always community experiences that are important.

Essentially the basis for this is the community experience, yes.

Asking whether you can learn from history, historians always say: No, you can’t. Because every story is different and history does not repeat itself. But can we learn from history about how to deal with the current Corona crisis?

We can certainly learn that societies are always vulnerable and that you cannot plan for the future. We could also learn that people need a reliable government oriented towards the common good and a personal ethical education. Because both are necessary to maintain solidarity in society, to recognise injustice, to ensure humane behaviour in times of crisis.

But this is exactly what has often been done very, very badly in the past.

Then it would be a good conclusion to learn from the mistakes of the past.


Translation from German to English: Sofie Sonnenstatter, Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz.