When religion is dangerous for your health

By Daniel Burke, CNN Religion Editor

CNN: The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the best and worst aspects of religion.

Faith has inspired countless acts of generosity and goodwill while helping believers get through an extraordinarily scary and difficult time.

But some believers, from Christians to Hasidic Jews, have flouted social-distancing guidelines, insisting that God will protect their congregation. And as in previous pandemics, some have gone looking for scapegoats to explain why God would allow such immense suffering.

Jeff Levin, an epidemiologist and observant Jew who comes from a long line of esteemed rabbis, has studied — and lived at — the intersection of medicine and religion for decades.

The Baylor University professor’s new book, “Religion and Medicine: A History of the Encounter Between Humanity’s Two Greatest Institutions,” is a comprehensive and fascinating look at the complex relationship between spirituality and healing.

CNN spoke to Levin this week about how religion can both heal and harm, and how we’re seeing both aspects play out during the pandemic.

CNN: The way you write about the relationship between religion and medicine — how close they were at first and how far apart they seem now — made me think of a bitter divorce.

Levin: That’s a really good analogy. You can’t really tell the history of medicine without the history of religion and vice versa. Concerns about the healing of people go back to the origins of religion, and religions have been involved in the training of healers of both body and mind. As this relationship has evolved, we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly.

How are we seeing that relationship play out during this pandemic?

Faith is a positive force when it motivates people to think outside of themselves and be of service. When it makes people strike out at others and look for demons to blame, it’s doing a great disservice. Honestly, we have seen both. There are terrible messages from the pulpit warning about Chinese immigrants and, on the other side, some people are acting incredibly compassionately and ethically.

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