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Trust Allah, but tie your camel.” – ancient Arab proverb

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Ruins of a Medieval church in the aftermath of the devastation of the Plague of Justinian|541-542AD| (Image courtesy:Scott Masterton/Getty Images)
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When a Bedouin, visiting Prophet Mohammad at Medina, left his camel untethered outside the mosque, the Prophet noticed and asked him why he didn’t tie the animal. The Bedouin replied that he had placed his trust on Allah and therefore it was not necessary to secure the animal.

Mohammad famously replied,” Trust Allah, but tie your camel.”

Interesting quote. It is not an either-or……it’s not either you trust Allah or you tie your camel, which implies that if you tie your camel, you don’t really trust Allah enough. It is more of a diplomatic do-it-anyway statement.

On the face of it, Mohammed’s advice is very empowering. It exhorts us to look at our situation dispassionately and take the necessary steps to address it. But don’t his words actually caution us against relying too heavily on faith? To me they seem like they do.

You and I have a certain level of intelligence, an ability to reason and make sense and we must utilize it. We are responsible for our own destiny. It is our ass on the line. Hard science tells us today in the face of the corona virus that we have to shut down sermons and communions at churches, anjali and bhog ceremonies at temples, namaz at mosques and even restrict the number of people that can gather at funerals.

But organized religion is the only thing that has not issued any upgrades. It still peddles the same old “as you sow, so you reap” crap, which it has been hustling for the last three millennia, during which time history has proved exactly the opposite – that you don’t reap as you sow and that many have reaped without bothering to sow at all.

Believers turn to their faiths in panic, during the 1350AD bubonic plague in Europe which lasted 5 years and wiped out 30 million. Given that the world population then was around 300 million only, the wipe-out was 10% of all humans alive.
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The world has seen plagues galore, since the beginning of recorded history. If there is one singular fact that we have learnt from them it is that religion has not, cannot and will not save us from them. But that goes against a fundamental tenet in all religions – that there is an all-powerful God (Or Gods) who can make anything happen and stop anything from happening.

Thankfully, the human race has never actually waited for any divine intervention. We have found out the hard way that we are on our own and thanks to our ingenuity, we have survived. The fundamentalist kooks and their dumb believers might say, “but it was God who gave us the ingenuity to develop ways out of every jam. He encouraged us to find our own solutions to our problems”.

Death, as a skeleton with wings, hovers over a new-born, as he is made to sign an agreement which acknowledges that human existence is nothing but a brief and miserable episode. Oil “Humana Fragilitas” by Salvatore Rosa, during the plague of 1656. The infant in the image is his son, Rosaldo, who died in the pandemic.
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So here we have a mind-fuck of a lifetime. Our God is all-powerful, can get anything done, prevent any catastrophe from befalling us………. but he won’t. He’ll let us solve our own problems while he sits up there and just watches. Innocents, believers and little babies who aren’t old enough to develop the means to live a virtuous life, they will all die horrible deaths, painful sores covering their bodies, high fever turning them delirious. But God will just stare back, he’ll do a Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse now”.

That Bedouin at Medina had the right to feel confident he could leave his camel untied. His own religion had taught him that if he had been virtuous, it was okay to leave everything up to God and everything meant literally everything, even a fucking camel on the loose. But then here was God’s sales rep – his prophet, telling the Bedouin, “ummm, nyet, buddy. That’s not a good idea. You had better be safe than sorry. Just tie the bleeping camel up.”

Within the mafia there is an unwritten contract between the Capo and his crew – that if they do strictly as they are told to do, the Capo will have their backs. It is a covenant that is set firmly in stone and the single most important reason why the organized crime gangs like the N’Drangheta remain a deadly force. It is why a made wise guy can put a bullet into anyone’s head in broad daylight and still get away with it. He is invincible as long as he has that covenant.

A man of faith must expect a similar covenant with God, no? Why is it unreasonable for him to believe that if he remains virtuous, God will protect him and his family from misery, prevent robbers from stealing his camel? Is it too much to ask of God to hold up his end of the bargain? Alas, history shows it is. History tells us that when needed most, God has been the “absentee landlord”.

It’s all very simple actually. There never has been any “my virtue for your protection” quid-pro-quo covenant with God. It was our desperation to cling to beliefs.

Titian(1488-1576), as himself in tatters, prostrating in front of the dying Jesus in the arms of Mary, begging for his and his son Orazio’s life during the Venetian pandemic. It didn’t work. Both succumbed in 1576.
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When the Roman Empire was at the height of it’s power (250AD), an ebola-like plague ravaged it, killing over 5000 a day, causing crippling manpower shortages, severely weakening Rome’s defenses, nearly bringing the empire to it’s knees. It is known as the “Plague of Cyprian”, after the guy who wrote a treatise on it. Over a period of 14 long years, the virus spread all across the Italian peninsula and into the adjacent regions of Gaul, Hispania and Sicilia, ending up killing 27 million. It took the life of even the Emperor at the time, Hostilian.

The Plague of Cyprian had a consequence – Romans believed the plague to be a “lack of performance“ by their existing pagan deities. Hadn’t they prayed to them constantly, offered sacrifices in their honour? And yet..??? It was not long before Romans began to see the hollowness of their pagan beliefs. Waiting in the wings for over two centuries was a new, yet untested alternative – one that preached a single, omnipotent God of all things, who had the power to heal the worst of plagues – Christianity.

The conversion to and rise of Christianity in Rome is commonly credited solely to Constantine the Great, whose reign began in 306AD. The actual fact is that by the time he came to power, fifty years had passed since the Plague of Cyprian. Fifty years of excruciatingly painful recovery from the plague. Fifty years of softening toward Christianity. Constantine merely made it official.

Unfortunately, the Christianity upgrade from paganism remains a “Beta” version till this day. There have been 20 major plagues since the one in Rome and they have killed a billion people so far. Religious adherence could not prevent them.

Christianity has managed to cling on, but there have been hiccups. When the 14th Century “Black Death” killed 100 million in Europe, Christians felt they weren’t getting the bang for their buck and Catholicism splintered, giving way to Protestant Reformism.

“The Virgin appears to plague victims” – Antonio Zanchi(1666), at the Scuola Grande di Rocco in Venice, the city which invented the practice of quarantine, a word which In Venetian literally means 40 days, the amount of time for which foreign ships were impounded during the period of the plague.
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Today Christianity stands further divided into scores of different denominations – Lutherans, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Pentacostals, Baptists, Anglicans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Coptics and on and on and on. Oh and the largest, most evil, most corrupt denomination of them all – Catholicism. The christianity practiced today is unrecognizable from the one Jesus Christ envisaged. Just like the Islam of today – the prophet Mohammad would have great difficulty recognizing it.

There is no question that pandemics (and other natural disasters) shake people’s faith in religion. The fastest growing new religion today is actually – No Religion. As secularism grows, the influence of atheism and agnosticism is expanding. Driven by growing apathy and disenchantment, churches all over the western world are going bankrupt. Extreme fundamentalists like Mennonites and Amish and their faith are succumbing to the relentless onslaught of technology and vanishing. In North America, the religiously unaffiliated (atheists and agnostics) now form over 30% of the population, while across the Atlantic, one in two Europeans think religion is senseless and irrelevant. I look at pandemics not so much as the scourge of humanity but much more as nails in the coffin of organized religion.

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Okay, so pandemics affect religious belief, but does religion influence the way we look at pandemics? Are you kidding me? Of course it does.

The concept of a higher power that controls everything began to crystallize around 11000 BC in a little settlement called Jericho, in present day Israel. Since then as more settlements grew, humanity acquired a new travelling companion that has stayed with us ever since – pandemics. Viral infectious diseases have regularly wiped out two-thirds of a population.

With the growth of settlements came self-appointed holy men and belief systems, some of which advocated staying put and just sitting out the scourge, while others said run, head for the open spaces.

And then came Christianity and Jesus’s reputation as a healer. His followers listened rapt as Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbour as yourself. Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for others.”

Jesus healed a number of ailments, such as blindness, leprosy, lameness and demonic possession. He didn’t (or maybe couldn’t) heal plagues or any sort of viral infection. It is a known fact that viruses do not survive extreme heat and the Levant being an exceedingly hot and dry region for most of the year, maybe the opportunity simply didn’t arise for Jesus to try his hand at curing viral infections.

Be that as it may, Christianity encouraged tending to the sick and risking death as that was a sure path to heaven. When the 1527 bubonic plague hit, Martin Luther – the father of Protestant Reformism – refused calls to flee the city and stayed back to minister to the sick. Martin Luther articulated the Christian response to pandemics clearly. He proclaimed that “the plague has turned the sick into crucifixes, on which we must be prepared to impale ourselves and die…” As a consequence, his daughter Elizabeth fell victim to the plague.

Christianity’s brother religions, Islam and Judaism however didn’t buy into all that altruism. They simply said,”Hey it’s all God’s will. We can do jack-shit about it. Only God can handle pandemics, so let God take care of the scourge. We should just sit tight, remain faithful and finger our prayer beads.” You don’t see many Jewish or Muslim missionaries running charitable hospitals, do you?

If that Bedouin in Medina had come to me instead of Mohammed, I would have told him, “Tether your camel, Allah is taking a long vacation.”