On 27 May DOC held a webinar exploring the impact of the global pandemic on faith communities featuring speakers from the world’s foremost academic and civil society organisations specializing in religion.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought profound changes to our lives, including to our religious observance. In accordance with government and public health measures, most churches and religious organisations closed to the public, adopting unprecedented measures such as livestream or drive-in worship services and suspended pilgrimage trips.
Though houses of worship across the globe are increasingly empty, not all religious leaders are ready to accept the norms of social distancing. Many religious traditions require social gathering and communal prayer during key events in the holy calendar, which has caused serious tension between religious and civic authorities. Some have decried government limits on religious freedom, while others have blamed religious groups for spreading the coronavirus or demonstrating increased risk of religious extremism.
Questions discussed during the webinar included:
- What are the main consequences of the pandemic for religious communities? How can religious leaders and their followers help overcome the challenges of the pandemic?
- How should we reduce social tension stemming from religious factors? How can we foster solidarity within and between different religious communities and improve mental and physical wellbeing during the pandemic?
- What religious practices could become the new normal in a post-COVID-19 world? What could be the future role of religion in society?
The DOC was joined by Victor Kazanjian, Executive Director of the United Religions Initiative, Katherine Marshall, Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, at Georgetown University, and Patrice Brodeur, Professor at the Institute of Religious Studies, University of Montreal, and Senior Advisor at KAICIID.
The discussion was moderated by Scherto Gill, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sussex’s Department of Education and Senior Research Fellow at the Guerrand-Hermes Foundation for Peace.
Mr Kazanjian began the discussion with an affirmation that throughout the COVID-19 crisis, we have witnessed a great deal of caring among humans, and that those in religious, spiritual, or indigenous communities have reached out to those in isolation. However, there has also been significant strain on social bonds, as the pandemic opens the door to fear and xenophobia. Kazanjian believes the onus is on religious and faith communities to “step into the breach” and address these issues. He mentioned the importance of sustained interfaith dialogue over a long time, so that in crisis moments like these, this dialogue and the bonds that they create can remain strong, and oppose the negative forces that would seek to take advantage of crises.
Ms Marshall raised two points with regard to the pandemic. Firstly, that much of history is shaped by pandemics and other crises. We can be sure, she stated, that the present crisis will mark for our children and grandchildren a great historic moment, and hopefully we will learn from it. “One of the lessons from history about previous pandemics is that often the outcome is not positive, it accentuates divisions in societies, even ones that are not seen” she said. Looking at the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016, one frustration is that the main lesson about religious communities was not learned. Secondly, this crisis is “unmasking” our societies and highlighting the injustices and disparities that have been laid bare by the pandemic. “We need to speak about the second or third crisis, the hunger crisis; people losing their jobs; families being forced together showing spikes in domestic violence” she said. As societies are opening up again, for Ms Marshall the question is not “how do we go back to our lives as we knew them”, but rather “how do we take this opportunity to re-build and re-imagine a society where there is justice and fairness?”
Mr Brodeur raised the fact that crises bring out the worst and best in individuals, but usually the best in communities. He lamented the emergence of “bunker mentalities” and the lack of transnationalist mentality and action, as states act in their own national interest. He pointed to the media as an example of this, and questioned to what degree transnational religious groups have fallen into the same problem of only transmitting knowledge about their own adherents. However, in contrast to this, he also discussed “the increased cooperation and collaboration amongst people of faith, irrespective of what faith they may be”. This is ample sign, he said, of the robust nature that the inter-religious movement has gained over the past decade.
Our moderator for the discussion, Ms Scherto Gill, raised the question from the webinar’s international audience, of how interreligious dialogue could contribute to inter-civilisational dialogue in response to urgent global crises, such as climate change. Mr Brodeur responded to this with an affirmation that interreligious human dynamics of true openness and joint decision-making, learned in circles of interfaith dialogue, can have direct applications in inter-civilisational dialogue. This is particularly so, when contrasted with national interactions in multilateral contexts which are often not of a dialogic nature. Rather, they are most often “simply to protect national interests first and foremost”. Ms Marshall believes for interreligious dialogue to contribute effectively to inter-civilisational dialogue, we need to move away from the binaries “between faith and science, believers and non-believers”. Mr Kazanjian called for an acknowledgement that we all have differing worldviews, and following that, to behave with humility and see ourselves as one among many, thus enabling a true dialogue.
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