Though shalt not go to church

A cautionary tale

Despite the huge ramifications of her decisions, only so much is publicly known about “patient 31”. We do not know her real name or many details of her life before February this year. Nor despite extensive investigations by public health authorities, do we know how she contracted the covid-19 virus.

However, we do know she is a 61-year-old woman and lives in Daegu, a South Korean city of two and a half million people. We know that on Feb 6th, she was involved in a car accident that led to her being hospitalised and that whilst she was there, she developed a fever. We also know that on Feb 17th, she tested positive for Covid-19, making her the Republic of Korea’s 31st confirmed case of the virus.

Most crucially, we know she was a member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus and that she attended the church’s services on February 9th and 16th, the latter time despite the fact her fever had already began presenting itself. Finally, we know that this was a decision that would have catastrophic consequences.

As her designation implies, coronavirus had been present in Korea before “patient 31”. However, most sufferers had either travelled to Wuhan and been in direct contact with someone who had. It was in short, thanks to a world-class public health infrastructure, broadly contained.

Then “patient 31” brought it into contact with the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. It spread first amongst “patient 31’s” congregation, then amongst Shincheonji members across Korea, and then to members of the general public they had contact with. As of March 20th, 5,000 coronavirus infections had been traced back to “patient 31” and the Shincheonji Church, more than half the total number reported in Korea.

There are particular factors which made Shincheonji an effective vector for spreading the virus. Its congregations are unusually large and during services they sit close together on the floor. It is also a secretive organisation that is often branded a cult in part because it teaches that the Bible is full of secret metaphors which only be interpreted by its founder, a self-proclaimed messiah named Lee Man-Hee. Due to its suspicion of outsiders, it initially obstructed the health authorities’ efforts to trace and isolate potentially infected people.

That said, virtually all religious worship involves bringing people from different households into close proximity. So, it is to my surprise that I see some Christians agitating to physically congregate despite the risk of creating many more “patient 31s”.

Leading us into temptation

An Ohio churchgoer recently earned herself worldwide internet notoriety by telling a TV reporter on the way out of a service, that she was not worried about catching or passing on the virus because she was “covered in the blood of Jesus”. This might seem lurid but of the 39 states in the US to have implemented ‘stay at home’ orders, 12 specifically exempt religious gatherings.

Nor is this a purely American phenomenon. In the Philippines, despite official disapproval from the Government and the Catholic Church: “Some…penitents flagellated themselves and prayed outside closed churches…to commemorate the death of Jesus on Good Friday.”

Even here in the UK, where churches have almost uniformly conformed to, or even gone beyond, official advice to physically distance, there are still voices calling for a more relaxed approach. Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, used a recent opinion piece for the Telegraph to argue that church closures were a mistake because in difficult times “we should be providing, rather than withdrawing, resources for strengthening and supporting people’s faith”. He emphasises the need for any gatherings to be social distanced – but nonetheless argues for churches to opened, and asks rhetorically, why this would be ‘any more dangerous than shopping in a supermarket or travelling on the London Underground?’

I submit these positions rest on a set of three misconceptions:

1. There is no religious immunity from this virus

Seeking exemptions from lockdowns for religious gatherings makes little sense, because, bluntly, viruses do not comprehend, much less respect, sacred spaces.

Any Christian tempted to imagine that what happened to the Shincheonji church was God enacting his wrath on a heretical cult – or at least a sign they did not enjoy his protection – and that, therefore, it could never happen to a more mainstream Christian church is ignoring one very basic fact: something remarkably similar has already happened to a mainstream church.  

In February, a group of about 2,500 worshipers from around the world gathered for an annual prayer meeting at an evangelical church in the French town of Mulhouse. A regional public health official likened what happened next to an “atomic bomb explosion”.

One of the worshipers, must have been carrying covid-19. Within days of it finishing, dozens of attendees began displaying flu like symptoms. And from there it kept spreading. For example, a nurse who had been to Mulhouse carried it into a hospital, where 250 patients and staff became infected.

This one prayer meeting has now been linked to thousands of infections, hundreds of deaths and disease clusters on three continents.

That faith is not an effective anti-viral should not surprise us. God offers an assurance of salvation, yes. But this is spiritual, not physical.

Believers have been wrestling with the implications of this fact since at least 1755. In that year, a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck Lisbon on the morning of All Saints Day. The result was that when every church in the city collapsed or was destroyed by fires, they were packed with worshipers. So not only were the faithful not spared but they bore the brunt of the tragedy.

In fact, as two millennia of martyrs attest to: having faith not only does not reliably repel physical danger but can actually attract it!

I would, however, be remiss not to point out an important distinction between what happened in Mulhouse and in Daegu. As far as I can see, the French church did nothing wrong. At the time their gathering took place there was no guidance in place discouraging such events or advising physical distancing.

However, as we have seen, there remain Christians not only arguing for the right to continue holding services, but actually doing so. This apparently has already led to tragedy. Three members of an Arkansas church, including a 91 year old greeter who had served the church for decades, died after a childrens’ service went ahead despite the state’s advice to avoid gatherings.

Health officials in the Californian city of Sacremento linked 71 infections to a megachurch, where some members appear to have continued to meet informally after the shutdown. There is also the case of Bishop Gerald Glenn, who died of coronavirus last week after having vowed to continue holding services “unless I’m in jail or hospital”.

2. Closing churches does not mean the Church is out of action

Part of what make these deaths so tragic is that they are unnecessary. Gathering for worship is of course a hugely important part of Christian life. However, it is hardly of overriding importance.

In an article for Christianity Today on celebrating Easter at a time when churches are closed, Rev. Tish Harrison Warren reflects that:

“the solid fact remains that Christians do not make Easter through our worship…Jesus rose from the dead, and even if it were never acknowledged en masse, it would remain the fixed point around which time itself turns.”

What goes for Easter, goes for any Sunday. If, for reasons beyond our control, we cannot attend church for a few weeks or months, we do not cease to be Christians. We have never held those with serious illnesses to this standard and I see no reason why, in the context of coronavirus, we should be holding the broad mass of churchgoers to it now.

This is even more the case given that our ability to gather together without physically being in the same space is greater than ever before. Services can be livestreamed; study groups can meet via video calls, and messaging apps can broadcast prayer requests far more widely than a preacher in a pulpit. Clearly these options are not open to everyone – and even the most tech literate are unlikely to find virtual church a perfect substitute for the experience of an in-person service – but as a stopgap measure they substantially mitigate the impact of closures for many.

Of course, churches do more than hold services: they are also vital pillars of the community. But here too there are grounds for optimism. Bishop Nazir-Ali’s accusation that the church has withdrawn its support in the nation’s time of need because its premises are closed to the public is wide of the mark. Not only have churches made replicating their Sunday services online the norm, they have continued to be a huge source of charitable and pastoral support: parish priests have become temporary hospital chaplains, church buildings have become mask factories and congregations have taken on a central role in providing mutual aid.

It is a truism that a church is not just a building, but the lockdown has proven it afresh.

3. Love our neighbours

There is, however, an even more basic principle at stake. As has been reiterated many times by now: maintaining physical distance is not only that it prevents you catching the virus, but that it prevents you passing it on to anyone else. The practice combines concern for yourself with concern for others. For example, had Patient 31 demonstrated it, then she would have shielded literally thousands of people from harm. It is a way to “Love your neighbour as yourself”, which is after all one of the two commands Jesus declared the greatest.

This is why I take issue with Bishop Nazir-Ali equating the risks of going to church with the risk of going to the supermarket or taking the Tube to argue for opening churches. Not only does it ignore the fact that, both those activities are currently so dangerous that TfL and supermarket staff are dropping dead; it also, fails to grapple with physical distancing being a way to love our neighbours.

Not only does it ignore the fact that both these activities are currently so dangerous that people who work on the Tube and in supermarkets are dropping dead, it also fails to grapple with physical distancing being a way to love our neighbours.

It is not something in which Christians should be aiming merely to match prevailing standards. We must instead seek to be exemplary physical distancers.

After all, Jesus spent much of his earthly mission curing disease; if we are cavalier about spreading it, we are directly contradicting the example he set for us.

Our faith demands that we never risk the lives of our neighbours for the sake of our worship. Following regulations designed to protect the health of the population is not the same as capitulating to an oppressive regime trying to supress our faith. Rather, it is modelling God’s love to those around us.


When I first published this post, it stated that the Greers Ferry Church is Arkansas had met in contravention of social distancing guidelines. In fact, the virus spread at a service prior to the state’s stay at home order being instituted. Apologises to everyone connected with that church.

Notes on sources

I have mostly acknowledged the writing I have drawn on via hyperlinks in the main text of this post. However, I wanted to acknowledge the particular debt I owe to Reuter’s reporting on the Daegu outbreak and ‘How a prayer meeting at a French megachurch may have led to scores of coronavirus deaths’ by James McAuley for the Washington Post.

The creator of the lobotomy was awarded a Nobel prize

The lobotomisation of Howard Dully by Dr Walter Freeman. The fact that Dully was only 12 at the time and the lack of any medical need has made this perhaps the most notorious example of the procedure.

Warning: this post contains potentially disturbing material.

In 1949, the Nobel Prize for medicine to two neurologists: Walter Rudolf Hess and Antonio Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz. Hess had discovered that different parts of the brain controlled different functions. Moniz was to find a deeply unfortunate application for this discovery. The official presentation speech included the following:

It occurred to Moniz that psychic morbid states accompanied by affective tension might be relieved by destroying the frontal lobes or their connections to other parts of the brain. On the basis of this idea Moniz gradually worked out an operative method whose purpose was to interrupt the lines of communication of the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain. Since these lines of communication run through the white matter, this operation was called frontal or prefrontal leucotomy. It was soon found that morbid conditions in which emotional tension was a dominating part of the pathological picture reacted very favorably to such operations. To this group of diseases belong, primarily, states of depression accompanied by fear and anxiety, obsessive neuroses, certain forms of persecution mania, and a considerable part of the most important and common of all mental diseases, schizophrenia: those cases, namely, in which the schizophrenic pattern of behaviour and the emotional condition is affectively charged to a high degree, as for instance in states of anguish or anxiety, refusal to take food, aggressiveness, and the like. Great subjective suffering and invalidism are characteristic of this group of diseases. Many of the diseased, especially within the schizophrenic group, are very difficult patients and are often dangerous to the people around them. When it is remembered that other methods of treatment have failed or have been followed by recurrence of the disease, it is easy to understand the immense importance of Moniz’ discovery for the problems of psychiatric treatment. As was expected, the results are best for the non-schizophrenic groups, that is to say, among those suffering from depression, obsessive neurosis, and the like, where the great majority of patients operated upon have recovered and become capable of working. Within the schizophrenic group, where the disintegration of the personality has often advanced very far, the prospects are less favourable, but even in this group quite a few cases can be released from the mental hospitals, some of them after having fully regained the capacity for work. In other less favourable cases, the nursing problem will be much simplified by the fact that the patient, after operation, can be kept in a «quiet» ward.

The results would be horrifying. The procedure was essentially jamming an ice pick through someone’s eye socket and into their brain. Unsurprisingly that produced disturbing results:

The lobotomy in many cases either turned them into a vegetable or simply made them more docile, passive, and easy to control—often much less intelligent as well. Many of the doctors took this as being “good progress” because they didn’t know how else to treat severely mentally ill patients. During the days of the lobotomy, unless it killed someone they considered all of the permanent brain damage be a negative side effect of the treatment. Many of the people who have asked for the Nobel Prize awarded to Moniz to be rescinded have complained that they or their family members not only weren’t cured but suffered permanent damage that changed who they were and, in some cases, made it impossible for the individual to live a normal life. In one case, a pregnant woman was given the procedure simply for headaches, and afterward she was never the same again. It was more than just being like a child; she could not feed or take care of herself at all—it took her years just to relearn basic tasks. In another case, a boy named Howard Dully was lobotomized by a stepmother who didn’t like him, simply for being a difficult child. Freeman seriously recommended it as a way to change the child’s personality, and Dully spent most of his life feeling like a part of himself was missing.

There’s a whole article on Dully’s case from the Guardian. The extra details are as horrifying as you would expect. Worst of all is the scale of all this. Tens of thousands of these procedures were performed. On one occasion Freeman performed 25 lobotomies in a single day. This becomes all the more disturbing when you realise that 14% of those he lobotomised died as a direct result of the operation.

That along with his reckless evangelism must make Freeman the principal villain of this story. Nonetheless, Moniz is not necessarily innocent here. He has been criticised for not properly following up the patients he operated on. There’ve also been calls for his Nobel prize to be rescinded.

Hat tip:

Moronic responses to ebola

OK, let’s be clear what is happening in West Africa is horrifying and worthy of a very serious response. However, there have been some really callous and dumb responses. Salon reports some of them of which the most shocking is this:

Howard Yocum Elementary School, in Maple Shade, New Jersey, is across the river from Philadelphia. It’s 146 miles away from a hospital in Maryland, 782 miles from a hospital in Georgia, and 1,475 miles from a hospital in Texas, where Ebola patients are located. However, when parents and school officials heard that two students from the East African country of Rwanda were enrolled, they lost it—even though Rwanda, which has no Ebola cases, is 2,846 miles from the virus’ epicenter, Liberia and Sierra Leone in West Africa.

The school’s staff told teachers (but not parents) that Rwandan students were coming and not to worry. That lit up the rumor mill, and here’s what parents told Fox News:

  • “I don’t feel comfortable sending my daughter to school with people who could be infected with Ebola.”
  • “Really concerns me. I don’t want to keep my boy out of school.”
  • “Don’t smile in my face and have a secret like that.”
  • “Stay there until all this stuff is resolved. There’s nobody affected here—let’s just keep it that way.”

As a result, the Rwandan children have been “voluntarily” quarantined by their parents for 21 days, which is the Ebola incubation period. “I don’t think it would hurt,” one parent told Fox News. “You have a lot of children that are involved, so I don’t think it would hurt.”

Really? Do they think those two Rwandan kids will return to class free of stigma?

Mental illnesses are also physical

We make a distinction between physical and mental illnesses, and too often that means making a distinction between illnesses that are ‘real’ and those that ‘are all ‘in someone’s head.’

Obviously this way of looking at the distinction doesn’t make sense but does the distinction itself? I’d argue that in a very meaningful sense mental illnesses are physical conditions.

In fact, distinguishing the mental and the physical in any context is dubious. What we call thoughts represent physical changes in the brain and humans only experience the physical world through our thought processes.

Even if we get past this philosophical problem there are still problems applying the divide to mental illnesses. Let’s take depression as an example. As the video below makes clear, while there is little consensus about what causes it, there does seem to be a physical component, be it a chemical imbalance in the brain or changes to its structure.

What is more it actually has physical symptoms. NHS choices lists the following examples:

  • moving or speaking more slowly than usual
  • change in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased)
  • constipation
  • unexplained aches and pains
  • lack of energy or lack of interest in sex (loss of libido)
  • changes to your menstrual cycle
  • disturbed sleep (for example, finding it hard to fall asleep at night or waking up very early in the morning)

As a final kicker there are physical conditions that have the same symptoms – both mental and physical – as depression. For example, it is quite normal for Doctors to administer a blood test to someone they suspect might have depression in order to rule out the possibility that they have anemia.

Which all begs the question, why there is an additional stigma around mental illnesses when they are ultimately not that different from other conditions.

Just how implausible are AIDS conspiracy theories?

Quite a few conspiracy theories surround HIV/AIDS. Most destructively there is the notion tragically adhered to by former South African president Thabo Mbeki that AIDS is not actually caused by HIV. There are also significant numbers who believe that it was created deliberately:

According to a 2005 survey of African Americans living in the US, almost 50% of the respondents believed that HIV was manufactured in a lab. Furthermore, over 25% believed that this was done by the government. A significant number also believed that it was created in order to control the population of black people/homosexuals.

In general I’m quite interested in conspiracy theories (or in their debunking at least) but this later idea was one I’d paid little attention to. The risks faced by the purported perpetrators and the degree of cruelty required of them seemed – even by the standards of conspiracy theories – outlandish. It’s also probably true that as a white graduate living in Berkshire I hear less about this theory than about say those around JFK or 9/11.

Therefore, it was not until I read this article on the origins of HIV at I Fucking Love Science that I came to appreciate quite how implausible it is:

Some of the earliest documented cases of HIV were in the late 1950s; it’s absurd to think that scientists would have had the knowledge or technology to create viruses back then. We only identified the structure of DNA in 1953. We’ve only just managed to create the first synthetic bacterial genome, let alone create a virus from scratch.

Creating a virus would require knowledge of genetic manipulation. We simply did not have the expertise to be able to achieve something like this at that time.

That puts this theory into its own league of detachment from reality. The CIA would at least theoretically have had the capacity to shoot JFK or hijack planes on 9/11, where as even that claim cannot be made for the supposed nefarious creators of HIV.


P.S. In case your interested the article winds up concluding that there “exists an overwhelming amount of evidence to suggest that HIV arose from cross-species transmission of closely related viruses that are found naturally in various primate hosts in Africa” and suggests this most likely occurred when these apes were hunted for bushmeat or kept as pets.

Ancient Egyptians used penicillin

Imhotep: a polymath from the 27th century BC. He is one of the first physicians or doctors known to history.

Imhotep: a polymath from the 27th century BC. He is one of the first physicians or doctors known to history.

Penicilin is conventionally thought of as one of the great achievements of the twentieth century. I was taught at school that the antibacterial properties of mould were discovered in by Alexander Fleming in 1928. While this is partly true – Fleming was responsible for a great stride in our understanding – such treatments had been being used a long time before that. It was one of many medicines deployed by the Ancient Egyptians:

Egyptian physicians made use of a wide variety of medicinal plants, but the most numerous remedies were purgatives and emetics. The cathartic oil of the castor plant was used both as an internal drug and as a medication for wounds and irritated areas. Products from the opium poppy may have come into use in Egypt relatively late, but some scholars believe the plant was a therapeutic drug in the second millennium B.C. Substances such as hyoscyamus and scopolamine (an ingredient of “twilight sleep” in recent obstetrical practice), which are both related to mandragora from the mandrake plant, probably also were employed, but the time of their introduction is not established. Some of the vegetable decoctions may. well have had antiseptic action. The “rotten bread” prescribed in several formulas might have been effective on wounds because of the presence of antibacterial molds (just as penicillium mold is used today).

This was just part of a remarkably advanced system of medicine: Homer wrote that “In Egypt, the men are more skilled in medicine than any of human kind.While the Egyptians were not immune to the pull of magic and faith healing, doctors and physicians were a distinct class from magic men or priests. They were able to perform surgery and dentistry, and provide reasonable advice on nutrition.