Anti-Science, Mistrust, and Anxiety in the Orthodox World

By: Hermina Nedelescu

August 26, 2021

Russian Orthodoxy and Nationhood in the Age of COVID-19

The bubonic plague of 1771 is one example in Russian history that demonstrates the use of quarantines and physical distancing to prevent the spread of infection during the span of an epidemic. At that time, the faithful of Moscow gathered to venerate a wonder-working icon of the Virgin Mary known as the Theotokos of Bogolyubovo which was proclaimed as capable of ending the epidemic. Moscow’s Archbishop Ambrosius realized that the crowds of people who came to kiss the icon were aiding in spreading the disease. In an attempt to protect the faithful, he resolved to hide the icon away from the public inside the Solyanka Shrine. In response to this humanitarian and pastoral act, the anxious crowd killed the archbishop the next day. These individuals rejected reason and science, mistrusted the archbishop, suffered from anxiety—the overwhelming fear that some humans experience at the prospect of losing their God-given eternal existence—and subsequently struck out against the Russian Orthodox hierarch.

Some reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic have demonstrated a comparable rejection of reason and science characterized by an escalation of anti-science extremism, which is becoming globalized and embraced by a segment of society, including a vocal contingent of Orthodox Christians worldwide. Russian anti-science online bots and trolls have been alleged to contribute, in part, to an organized disinformation campaign known as “weaponized health communication.” Moreover, the Russian media has contributed to spreading disinformation about COVID-19 by promoting conspiracy theories claiming that the coronavirus was a biological weapon deployed by China, caused by migrants, or that the entire public health crisis was hoax. Finally, a Russian disinformation campaign was charged with spreading disinformation about other COVID-19 vaccines to promote Russia’s own Sputnik V vaccine for sale, particularly in less affluent countries. Russian disinformation efforts have contributed to undermine public confidence in vaccines not only outside of Russia, but also within their own nation and within the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). 

Russian disinformation efforts have contributed to undermine public confidence in vaccines not only outside of Russia, but also within their own nation and within the Russian Orthodox Church.

The new anti-science “triumvirate” comprised of (1) far-right groups in the United States, (2) Germany, and (3) amplified by Russian media and online efforts have infiltrated communities around the world. Skeptical members of the ROC have become suspicious of COVID-19 therapeutics (for example, vaccines) and non-pharmaceutic interventions (for example, masks) communicated by public health authorities and hierarchs of the ROC. Given Russia’s track record of obfuscation (for example, the case of Alexei Navalny, the COVID-19 death toll, Sputnik V propaganda), mistrust in the Russian state may be high—possibly resulting in individuals not trusting the vaccine, despite the fact that the Sputnik V vaccine appears to be safe and effective. The lack of trust in effective infection prevention measures and non-compliance is a phenomenon that has repeated itself throughout the history of epidemics and a problem at the heart of the human condition described in the Bible (see Exodus 16). Today, (mis)trust must be considered in the context of the Internet Age where some individuals are unable to distinguish true knowledge from opinion. 

Because the ROC hierarchy aligns itself tightly with the Russian state, one would expect these hierarchs to eventually accept COVID-19 prevention measures. Indeed, the ROC hierarchy has communicated adequate public health measures such as mandatory masks during services, refraining from kissing icons, disinfecting the common communion spoon after each use, as well as promoting for the Russian faithful to be vaccinated. Aside from the political situation of church-state relations in Russia, the ROC Patriarchate should be commended for instructing their parishes with science-based precautions in March 2020 because this manner of communication has likely saved the lives of many of the faithful. 

Aside from the political situation of church-state relations in Russia, the ROC Patriarchate should be commended for instructing their parishes with science-based precautions in March 2020.

Some have identified a problematic practice of the ROC on one particular hygienic measure, namely, the use of multiple communion spoons or cleaning the common communion spoon with alcohol. Typically, Orthodox churches use one single common communion spoon to distribute the Eucharist to the entire congregation, a practice which has been of considerable debate among Orthodox Christians. It has been shown that the depositing of pathogens, including viruses, on liturgical objects from the recipient’s saliva poses a risk of spreading infections. The highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 is no exception to this rule. Recent experimental evidence demonstrates that one way to effectively inactivate coronaviruses on surfaces is by using approximately 70% ethanol. The ROC’s decision to disinfect the common spoon or use multiple spoons is, therefore, in line with current science. 

To better understand the anti-science proliferated by some members of the Orthodox Church, one can study the response of the rest of the Orthodox world to analyze comparatively the ROC’s response. In February 2020, the Ecumenical Patriarchate corresponded with other primates of Orthodox churches to discuss and reach a consensus regarding the method by which to distribute the Eucharist during the pandemic. Around May 2020, Archbishop Elpidophoros of America attempted to educate the faithful as to why he instructed the use of multiple spoons for the distribution of communion with the message that the church could potentially offer an alternate method for those who are not comfortable sharing a single spoon during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

To better understand the anti-science proliferated by some members of the Orthodox Church, one can study the response of the rest of the Orthodox world.

In June 2020 after a meeting in Geneva, a communique from the Ecumenical Patriarchate stated that “it is impossible that through this Mystery of Mysteries any disease might be communicated to those who partake” and that there is no need for change to the manner in which communion is being distributed. This statement suggests that there is no need for churches to implement changes to the distribution of communion with the single common spoon, unless there is a special need due to local laws (see statement in the Orthodox Observer News). However, in a recent interview in Ukraine in August 2021, the Ecumenical Patriarch communicated the following clarified statement: “…the refusal of vaccination and other protective measures is irrational and unjustified by theological or scientific criteria.” Indeed, the science is clear and the fact of the matter is that therapeutic and non-therapeutic interventions save lives. 

The Romanian Orthodox Church—which initially and very briefly changed the distribution of communion to meet safety protocols—stated on February 28, 2020, that to combat polarization and controversies that weaken Orthodox unity, there will be no change to the manner of the distribution of communion. To my knowledge, the Serbian Orthodox Church has not taken any particular safety measures—their former Patriarch Irinej died after contracting COVID-19 in November 2020. A National Census of Orthodox Christian Churches in the United States demonstrates that local parishes under different Orthodox jurisdictions have incorporated some changes to the manner in which communion is distributed, with clergy of the Orthodox Church of America leading the way in safety on the matter of communion distribution. By contrast, over 83% of clergy under the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America responded as having retained the single communion spoon for communion distribution (see Figure 8). 

Local parishes under different Orthodox jurisdictions have incorporated some changes to the manner in which communion is distributed.

With specific regard to the common communion spoon, the saliva of an infected individual contains viral particles which can be readily transmitted to others via shared objects including a spoon. It cannot be true that both (1) infections cannot be caught and (2) infections can be caught in the context of the Eucharist. Truth is one. To better reconcile these two diametrically opposed possibilities, I suggest we study incidents from the past such as the case of communion resulting in the death of the Abu Makar monks after the wine was poisoned before the liturgy. Moreover, the Orthodox faithful can rediscover the essence of the Orthodox faith by examining other examples from the history of epidemics, plagues, famines, or other circumstance that necessitated creative diversity to present Christ to others for the sake of their salvation. 

ROC hierarchs were likely able to adopt unpopular preventive measures and promote the vaccine more readily to their faithful because of the strong bond between church and state in Russia. Without any support, hierarchs risk being harassed or perhaps risk the same fate as Moscow’s Archbishop Ambrosius back in 1771, given the current climate of anti-science and mistrust. Today, outside of the ROC, some Orthodox churches put their faithful at risk over single spoon use and health freedom ideologies which were initially focused on being against vaccines but with COVID-19 have added anti-masking, anti-physical distancing, and anti-contact tracing to their agenda. 

From a theological viewpoint, we should be compelled to show obedience to each other, including our scientists and doctors, as they too partake in a God-given vocation.

How do we remedy this humanitarian catastrophe characterized by anti-science, conspiracy theories, pious egotism, and mistrust sowing enormous confusion more generally throughout the Orthodox Church? We need strong leadership, including at the local community level, to mitigate the anti-science and pseudoscience movement by refuting unfactual and populist claims made by governments, organizations, and groups that sow disinformation. From a theological viewpoint, we should be compelled to show obedience to each other, including our scientists and doctors, as they too partake in a God-given vocation. We must remember to not be anxious or hesitant about scientifically proven therapeutic and non-therapeutic measures, and most importantly to not put God to the test. We need less anti-intellectualism, less anti-science, fewer conspiracy theories and more reason, logic, and solidarity in church communities and society to end this pandemic.

comments powered by Disqus