Religious Agnomancy: Faith, Ignorance, and Illness in a Time of Plague

The past decade has seen a burgeoning literature on ignorance as a social construction and a social force. The primary and crucial discovery is that ignorance is not always a passive and default lack of information but is all too often an intentional, sometimes intentionally manipulated, disregard of, indifference to, or even hostility to information, accomplished by suppressing facts, attacking fact-bearers, creating doubt and confusion, and circulating misleading or plain false (mis)information. Most of the attention from scholars of ignorance (or agnotologists) has been directed at corporations and governments for their campaigns of agnomancy (or the conjuring of ignorance), but religion too has a long history of agnomancy, from taboos and secret-sacred knowledge to banning and burning books (and occasionally book writers and readers), denying science, and teaching (at best speculative and at worst nonsense) doctrine.

At times religious agnomancy is mildly amusing or fairly vexing, depending on your state of mind. At the present moment, however, as the United States and the entire world face a deadly plague in the form of COVID-19, religious agnomancy can be responsible for suffering and even death. Sadly, we see religious agnomancers busy at work in the U.S. and elsewhere, spreading ignorance and encouraging ignorant behavior in a number of ways.

The first way, which is the typical first step in all agnomancy programs, is denial that the Coronavirus is real at all or that it is serious. We have of course witnessed the American president declare Coronavirus a hoax, only to deny his denial when the facts became undeniable.

Plenty of preachers and pastors persist in the practice. For instance, Rodney Howard-Brown of the Tampa, Florida megachurch, The River, called it a hoax and a “phantom plague.” Chuck Baldwin in Montana claimed that if it is not a hoax then it is “a completely exaggerated, super-hyped, super-inflated psychological ops campaign against the American people." Such religious dismissiveness is not limited to the U.S.: the leadership of Iran also initially waved away reports of the disease as foreign propaganda.

The second form of religious agnomancy concerning the virus, and another standard tactic of agnomancers, is offering bogus alternative explanations. If not a hoax, the Iranian ayatollah surmised, then it must be a bioweapon, probably launched by the United States (although why the Great Satan would also deploy the weapon against itself was not explained). Howard-Browne considered it part of a global plot by agencies like the World Health Organization “whose goals were forced vaccinations and mass murder.”

“Self-described prophet,” Lance Walnau, instructed his followers that it was a conspiracy by leftists to destroy the economy and improve their election chances later in the year. He accordingly advised them to ignore information from the media (despite the fact that previous-denier Donald Trump has since used the media to sound the alarm about the disease). More than a few religious figures have identified the hand of Lucifer in the crisis, which raises the perennial theistic problem of theodicy: why would a benevolent and omnipotent god allow such misery?

On the other hand, Ralph Drollinger, who has conducted Bible studies for the Trump administration, is not alone in opining that the deadly infection is his god’s punishment against America. And naturally, various religious figures have suggested gay rights, secularism, abortion, and other left-wing bogeymen as the source of divine wrath (resulting in this deity, as always, to discipline with a blunt instrument, afflicting the guilty and innocent alike).

A third way that religions practice agnomancy about COVID-19 is suppressing information about themselves. Iran apparently underreported the number of cases and deaths in that country (of course, countries may underreport mortality for purely non-religious reasons too, as China has most likely done, merely to manage impressions and save face). In an egregious case, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, has actually sued two journalists for seeking information about Coronavirus on his campus. A photographer for New York Times, Julia Rendleman, and a reporter for ProPublica, Alec MacGillis, have been charged with the frivolous crime of trespassing to talk to students. More reprehensibly, he blamed the journalists for bringing COVID-19 onto campus from their liberal bastions of Washington, DC and New York; at the same time, he criticized their reporting for overestimating the incidence on campus, where miraculously only three students had tested positive. (Coincidentally, Liberty students have not been nearly as cavalier about the virus, many of them refusing to return to campus after spring break.)

Which takes us to a fourth manifestation of agnomancy, the willful disregard and flagrant violation of sensible guidelines for dealing with the outbreak.

Naturally, if you think there is no outbreak or that it is trivial, you would be inclined to ignore orders to stay home and avoid large gatherings. Unfortunately, although Americans often tout religion as a personal matter, it is actually immanently and irrepressibly social and collective, and so preachers and their congregations tend to push back on instructions to suspend their collective religious services. Falwell kept his university open when many others had closed their physical campus and gone online.

Howard-Browne had to be arrested before he would stop calling the faithful to worship, where the virus could spread silently, and more than a few pastors have threatened to hold Easter services in defiance of government orders and sheer commonsense.

Again, this problem is not unique to the U.S. or to Christianity. Iran was probably hit especially hard early on because of worshippers gathering at the holy city of Qom, where one of the acts of faith is licking the shrine—a sure-fire way to spread a virus. In Indonesia, another majority-Muslim country, believers have also eschewed social distancing and continued to gather at mosques, partly because religion teaches them to fear Allah more than sickness and death—indeed, allowing fear to interfere with devotion would be a sin itself, a sentiment shared by Texas prosperity gospel advocate Kenneth Copeland who castigated fear of Coronavirus as a sinand partly because of general mistrust and resentment toward the government. This last observation raises the important point that ignorance, like a virus, can spread from one institution or claim to another: if people distrust politicians or scientists or whatever in one regard, they may and will distrust them in another.

And people’s reasoning is frequently highly motivated: if governments or experts tells them things that they do not want to hear or believe, or admonish them to do things they do not want to do, they are inclined to doubt or disrespect those statements.

The fifth and final way in which agnomancy rears its ugly and unsafe head at the present moment is the promotion of fanciful, false, and foolish claims of cure for COVID-19. In some cases, religious leaders like Los Angeles preacher Shawn Bolz assert that medical cures like vaccines are available or soon will be, which is untrue. More laughable, although lamentable, are supernatural remedies for a supposedly supernatural condition. The aforementioned Copeland prescribed the simplest solution: “Copeland claimed on March 12 to heal coronavirus-infected viewers who touched their TVs. ‘Put your hand on that television set. Hallelujah. Thank you, Lord Jesus. He received your healing.’”

There has been no follow-up to determine if the TV-screen treatment was effective. Religious leaders have pulled out all the strategies of faith healing and exorcism, from laying on hands to praying and cursing the devil. Then of course, if their god inflicted the disease in the first place as righteous punishment, he will lift it when we humans have served our sentence. But if Copeland is correct, believing Christians are immune to the plague anyhow: as he wrote on Twitter, “No weapon meant to hurt you will succeed… No disease. NO VIRUS… Believe it. Receive it. Speak it in Jesus’ Name!” Hopefully post-outbreak statistics will inform us how well that worked, but religion has survived greater epistemological challenges in the past.

The problem especially now during the COVID-19 crisis is that religion is playing an active role in ensuring people remain ignorant of the facts about the Coronavirus. As a leading promoter of agnomancy, religious institutions are practicing an intentional disregard of, indifference to, and even hostility to information, accomplished by suppressing facts, attacking fact-bearers, creating doubt and confusion, and circulating misleading or plain false (mis)information.

To learn more about religion and the deliberate conjuring of ignorance, you can read this article for free by the peer-reviewed academic journal, Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry (SHERM).

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • YouTube Social  Icon
  • LinkedIn Social Icon
  • Tumblr Social Icon

©2020-Present Global Center for Religious Research (GCRR)