CULTS AND EXTREME RELIGION: PANDEMICS AND DOOMSDAY

Photo Credit, Fashion Magazine 2018.

By Mallory Tater

Doomsday. Judgment Day. Day of Reckoning. The Rapture. Crack of Doom. Last Days. Tribunal of Penance. Court of Conscience. 

These are the terms used by Roman Catholics, Fundamentalist Mormons, Evangelical Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other religious groups to describe their conviction that the world will end, and God will descend to choose his most loyal followers to join him in Heaven while secular society perishes, often in the wake of epidemics. 

During this COVID-19 pandemic, I find myself thinking of the fictitious sect called The Den in my novel The Birth Yard. It is isolated from our world, which they called Main Stream. It is not a right-wing Christian group but a cult with a totalitarian government in which their political leaders are the deities, akin to the way the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints might think of their leader, Warren Jeffs. I wonder what the leaders of my novel’s cult would think of our current social distancing, our anxieties about the unknown, our fragile healthcare system and economy, our living in fear. They’d probably be smug and agree that their resistance to our social structure and values has saved them from disease. They’d probably thank their “God,” a misogynistic and narcissistic university professor, for creating their isolated world — their form of social distancing.

The belief that disease and contagion came from God has been given scientific credence since ancient times. According to Jeff Stryker’s book The Social Impact of AIDS in the United States, early Greek medicine explained that epidemics were the result of a perfect alliance between celestial, ethereal, and terrestrial influences that together could brew a climate for disease. 

In the US during cholera outbreaks in 1832, 1849, and 1866, the epidemics were thought to be a disease targeting heathens.  American medical historian Charles E. Rosenberg notes that both medical and theological professionals thought “the intemperate, the imprudent, and the filthy were particularly vulnerable [to cholera].” Sin, if not the primary cause of disease, was at least the “predisposing cause.” Americans firmly believed that cholera was a way for God to divide “good” Christians from “sinners.”  Cholera, to them, was a warning to repent and be saved. 

The 1918 Spanish Flu was a pandemic that took 50 million lives worldwide. South Africa’s Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church was one of many religious groups that believed that the flu, alongside World War One, were signs of Doomsday. They called God The First Cause of the flu and they believed God’s wrath was encouraged by alleged sins such as adultery, homosexuality, alcoholism, science and poor church attendance. According to Dr. Howard Phillips’s essay South Africa’s Worst Demographic Disaster: The Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918, at the time of the flu, Calvinist ministers saw the epidemic as a sign that God was making a fool out of world leaders, with their military acumen and the wartime bloodshed. 

When the AIDS crisis of the 1980s devastated the world, particularly gay communities, Christian churches for the most part remained silent, a sign of deeply-rooted homophobia. Since homosexuality was generally disapproved of by religious groups, this tragic pandemic drew little attention at first —and none at the official level. Some Christian leaders believed that God was targeting individuals with AIDS to punish them for their homosexuality. 

Today, the Westboro Baptist Church is a cult on the USA’s official list of hate groups. Most Christian denominations reject their severe ideology. You may recognize them as the family-run group that pickets soldiers’ and celebrities’ funerals across the country, carrying placards with cruel messages. Even their website name is a homophobic slur.  (Look it up.) They believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will bring us a new Doomsday, drawing nearer day by day.

In The Birth Yard, The Den exhibits the groupthink of most radical religious groups. The members would probably see the rest of us trying to help each other during COVID-19 as insignificant. Futile. Pathetic. Of course, they’d be wrong. The kindness, thoughtfulness and empathy I have seen from our society, in my own neighborhood, and among my friends — our “Main Stream” — has been nothing short of magnificent. The strength of love and community will get better as research widens, resources are shared, and empathy is provided so that we can see each other through this pandemic, and let extreme religious groups cross out “DOOMSDAY???” from their calendars, yet again.  

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