SOME non-governmental organisations at a chat with Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin last month expressed concern that Western liberalism and secularism were posing a threat to religion.
Coincidentally a day later, Deputy Federal Territories Minister Datuk Seri Dr Edmund Santhara said at a Rukun Negara forum that Malaysians should understand their own religion and that of others.
Do these “others” also include the West, particularly Europe, and are its values threatening religion?
The answer is “no”.
It is Covid-19 that poses a threat, not Western liberalism and secularism as commonly assumed.
Europe has a very long history of civilised institutional religion dating back more than a thousand years.
But under rigid theocratic laws, only the state religion could be practised except for listed ethno-cultural minorities granted the right to practise their own religions.
Modern Western values have done much good despite their perceived evils.
Liberalism and secularism have freed the European mind, turning Europe into the world’s interfaith hub.
Any white European is free to embrace Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism or Taoism.
Liberalism is a movement to liberate the mind, and secularism is a movement to free a nation’s legal system from theocratic despotism.
Although much has been said about churches in Europe having no crowds, there is more to it than what the tourist eye sees.
Millions of Europeans stay loyal to Christianity but many spend their Sundays walking in the forest or meditating at spirituality centres where the focus is on finding higher dimensions of life beyond rituals.
Religion fosters mass social bonding so vital for starting and maintaining any civilisation.
No other institution has the force of conviction to motivate entire populations to congregate every week for bonding.
Many religious congregations number several thousands at every weekly gathering, testifying to the enormous influence that religion has over society.
The rituals of bonding are plentiful: ablution, communion, greetings, hugging, singing, chanting, standing together, prostrating together, and food after service.
These rituals cement the bonding of a population, infusing its culture and civilisation with vibrancy.
Social distancing, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, breaks all this.
Limited to clan-sized gatherings, the social capital starts to evaporate.
For congregations that depend on ritualistic socialisation, the absence of mass gatherings will be crushing.
This is why lawsuits have been filed in the United States against state governments to stop mass-gathering bans from being applied to religious services.
Missing out on face-to-face interactions will loosen the dense web of social connections that strengthen relationships.
It is this social capital that enables a whole community to think, feel and act in unison at the leadership’s direction.
This is a communally shared experience like no other.
But in a pandemic, all the rituals of social bonding, if allowed to continue unrestricted, will lead to mass deaths.
You don’t have to cough to pass on the virus; you just have to talk without a mask.
To save religion, preachers should constantly highlight one key point in their sermons: Let there be no Covid-19.
What must your congregation do?
First, it must learn the facts.
Covid-19 is the end result of jungle clearing for plantations and extension of towns.
Wildlife is driven out, along with the coronaviruses that jump from animal to human.
By instinct, wild animals keep their distance from humans. But with encroachment, the distance has narrowed.
These animals are then captured for sale to exotic food markets, traditional medicine dealers and trophy shops.
Pangolins, tigers, rhinos, wild pigeons, snakes, bats, deer, wild boar, porcupine, junglefowl, grasscutter rodents, leopards, bears, elephants, hornbills – no species is safe in any continent.
To prevent more coronaviruses leaping to humans, we must completely ban forest clearing and wildlife trading in every country including Malaysia.
The only exception should be the keeping of wild animals for research and education.
By the way, forest destruction happens in Asia, Africa and South America, but not Europe.
It is in the interest of all religions that they should launch a global platform to initiate collaborative actions for prevention of Covid-19.
Religion exercises the biggest influence and holds the strongest grip over populations.
We have the knowledge to sustain humanity – what is missing is the political and religious collaboration.
If we continue going our separate ways, that is the wrong way leading to a dead end.
The writer champions interfaith harmony. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org