Britain has seen a steady decline in religious affiliation since the Second World War with 52% saying they don’t belong to any religion as recently as 2018*. This is reflected in the steady fall in church attendances and the rise of secular ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.
For me at least, the last year has revealed that while organised religion may be dying, religious thinking itself is very much alive and kicking. We may even be witnessing the birth of a new religion in the form of ‘the Covid cult’.
In times of stress and uncertainty, people often turn to rituals as a source of comfort and to give the illusion of control. The covid cult requires the frequent purification of the hands using special liquids. It also had a weekly act of worship in the form of clapping at the sky although this practise has become less common.
Many religions require the donning of a special item of clothing to identify adherents. Some Christians wear a cross, Orthodox Jews have the Kippah, Many Muslims don the hijab. The covid cult requires a ‘mask of submission’. The origins of the masks were scientific: Properly worn, high efficiency PPE can, theoretically at least, reduce the transmission of viral particles but the mask of submission has much looser requirements. Often a simple piece of dirty cloth, the mask of submission is usually worn around the neck or chin.
One of the more dangerous aspects of religious thinking is that of sacrifice. Human beings are almost unique in their ability to undergo short term pain in the hope of long-term benefit. While this is often beneficial and arguably explains our incredible success as a species, it can and often does cause incredible harm.
The error of sacrificial thinking is to assume that short term pain causes long term benefit. Ancient Peruvians would sacrifice a child each year to make the rains come and sure enough each year the rains would follow. We can only imagine but it seems likely that anyone questioning the link between the sacrifice and the rain would have been branded a ‘sacrifice denier’ who wanted the crops to fail.
Likewise, the sacrifices required of the covid cult are eye-watering and have a similar basis in science. Adherents are required to sacrifice their family, their friends and their rights. These sacrifices are required of non adherents too. There is even a weaker form of the child sacrifice that has been a near universal of human history. For the covid cult, children must sacrifice their education and indeed their childhood itself.
Finally the Covid cult has its sacred text in the form of ‘The Science’. While science is, to non-adherents, a process that produces knowledge, for the covid cult, ‘The Science’ is a collection of unquestionable truths maintained and communicated by a holy order (SAGE and the WHO).
Whether the cult will survive remains to be seen but for now at least it appears to hold sway over large sections of the British establishment. Perhaps the true test will come in the elections in May and the privacy of the ballot box where, out of the gaze of the cult members, people’s true feelings will be expressed.
* British Social Attitudes Survey 2018