COVID-19 is a harrowing test of societies’ abilities to cope with twenty-first-century global risk. Beginning with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, human decisions increasingly produced novel global hazards, the long-term consequences of which are themselves dramatically shaped by human responses to these hazards (see Beck, 1992). Viruses mutate and attack, but their spread is determined largely by human decisions. Global and state institutions coordinate efforts, but their effectiveness is shaped at a smaller scale—within local organizational and cultural contexts. These are spaces where human cooperation “grows” out of shared needs and problems, networking persons to one another.
In one of his final works, “Emancipatory Catastrophism,” Beck (2015) discussed the environmental changes linked to human-caused climate change by using the metaphor of Die Vervandlung (The Metamorphosis)—Kafka’s novella about a salesman who woke up one morning as a giant insect. Twenty-first-century hazards, from COVID to climate change, happen regardless of whether people believe in them or not. But the human consequences depend largely on how societies respond to risks. Like Kafka’s salesman, the basis for The Fly films, the hazards that imperil the twenty-first-century call for an ongoing self-reflective process, coming to terms with a new reality. In evolutionary terms, human beings are learning anew what it means to be organisms adapting to changing environments.
Self-reflection is ongoing, but there are three ways, broadly, that societies approach risk. The first involves business as usual: redoubling faith in the market-driven innovation and progress that was the promise of classical liberalism. But assessing risk means predicting human decisions, and margins of error are usually large. Market-guided approaches also presuppose “winners” and “losers,” and risk, therefore, becomes politicized. Resentment fractures societies and undermines trust. Stay-at-home orders became casualties of the “culture wars” precisely because people like me, a middle-class academic, can and do support these efforts while working from home, while “essential workers” face daily risk, and panic among the jobless rises as bills come due. No one is immune to risk for long. Businesspersons squabble with lawmakers, and each other, because of what they stand to gain—or lose—with policy changes. Civil unrest breaks out, placing larger populations at greater risk of infection. Risk fractures old political loyalties and undermines civic trust, “trickling up” to eventually make everyone vulnerable.
The second involves a “welfare state” approach, expanding the state and the power of the scientific community in a move toward centralized planning. Here, science is enshrined in policy, and state bureaucracy expands to respond to risk. Certain progressive policy measures undoubtedly make it easier to combat global hazards, but they are costly and empower armies of civil servants and expert specialists who are themselves notoriously appointed rather than elected. This can dampen civic participation, sow mistrust, and lead to cultural fragmentation much as the first approach does. Ironically, expert management may undermine trust in science—global data suggests that wealthier and more secular countries have lower trust in science than poorer and more religious ones (see Norris & Inglehart 2011, p. 68). The “planning” approach can backfire, with citizens leaping tragicomically from one official recommendation (or enforced policy) to another as expert knowledge grows.
But there is a third possibility. To realize this possibility, three distinctions are needed. First, there is a difference between de-centralized innovation driven by human needs and policy rigidly determined by the needs of “the economy.” Second, a distinction should be drawn between science as an ongoing effort and science as a class of experts increasingly removed from the problems of the society they study. Third, there is a meaningful difference between democracy as a representative government and democracy as a living ideal that follows from the previous two distinctions. Innovation is not just what markets do, science is not just what experts do, and democracy is not just what governments do.
Treating markets, science, and democracy as ongoing processes means decentralized, self-reflective politics rooted in deliberation, collaboration, and experimentation. This view also aligns with a view of human beings as social animals who have evolved to possess an innate capacity for reason and for sympathy. However, realizing these capacities requires a cultural context in which democracy can deepen, allowing societies to mitigate and adapt to global hazards, or to at least ensuring that human beings share in them more equitably.
In studying the relationship between religion and environmental concern in the U.S., I have found that both religious persons and religious institutions are driven by, and drive, self-reflective activity over time in the face of hazards. Some assume that religion is sclerotic or reactionary, but this is no truer for religion than other institutions. Religion, as a living tradition, is self-reflective, responding to shifts in the environment, both cultural and natural. It is also a highly visible part of the cultural landscape, both shaping and shaped by it. “Church, temple, and mosque” aren’t only spaces where people worship. They involve family, childhood socialization, friendship, social outings, voluntary organizations, and professional connections that happen in and through the community that arises there. Secular organizations can do these things too, of course; groups such as the Humanists have made inroads, but unaffiliated persons often tend not to be “joiners” who organize around their secularity (Zuckerman 2014).
My research shows that religious groups have moved toward parity in environmental concerns across generations. This is after controlling for education, gender, race, region, urban/rural divides, income, and political party (see Figure 1 above). As human-driven environmental changes become harder to ignore, cultural changes occur in response to them, including official responses by religious institutions and unofficial responses by communities (Szrot 2019, 2019a, 2020, forthcoming, forthcoming). Knowing this, I was not surprised to see preliminary poll data suggesting that most churchgoing Americans support restrictions on attendance during the pandemic, with less than twenty percent of Evangelical, “born again” Christians opposing all restrictions on worship, and fewer than ten percent of all groups (Beyerlein & Nirenberg, 2020). Of course, being self-reflective can mean withdrawing, resisting change, responding gradually, or spearheading change. Religion may do any combination of these.
Democracy will live or die depending on its ability to respond to twenty-first-century hazards. Sites where cooperation and community can grow, shaping human life and culture, can strengthen democracy, as well as trust between states and their people.
Read the entire Evolutionary Sociology series:
- Introduction: Nothing In Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Russell Schutt, Rengin Firat, and David Sloan Wilson
- Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory by Michael Ryan Lengefeld
- Is Video Chat a Sufficient Proxy for Face-to-Face Interaction? Biosociological Reflections on Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Will Kalkhoff, Richard T. Serpe, and Josh Pollock
- Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic by Jonathan H. Turner
- Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior by Seth Abrutyn
- Speculations About Why Sociological Social Psychology Largely Elides Evolutionary Logic by Steven Hitlin
- The Coronavirus Pandemic, Evolutionary Sociology, and Long-Term Economic Growth in the United States by Michael Hammond
- Institutionalization of Animal Welfare and the Evolution of Coronavirus(es) by Erin M. Evans
- The Coronavirus in Evolutionary Perspective by Alexandra Maryanski
- Gene-Culture and Potential Culture-Gene Coevolution: The Future of COVID-19 by Marion Blute
- For God’s Sake! What’s All This Fuss About a Virus? by Andrew Atkinson
- How Covid-19 Reminds Us We Are More Alike Than Different by Rosemary L. Hopcroft
- From the Middle: Sites of Culture, Cooperation, and Trust in Risk Society by Lukas Szrot
- Evolution Does Not Explain Tyranny: COVID-19 Could Have Led To Many Fewer Deaths If Tyranny Had Been Less Prevalent in Washington, D.C. by Richard Devine
- The Epidemic and the Epistemic: An Exercise in Evolutionary Sociology by Doug Marshall
Beck, U (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Thousand, Oaks, CA: Sage.
Beck, U (2015). Emancipatory catastrophism: what does it mean to climate change and risk society. Current Sociology, 63(1):75-88.
Beyerlin, K & D. Nirenberg (2020). For most churchgoers, controversy between religious freedom and public health is not real. USA Today, June 2. Retrieved June 3, 2020 https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/06/02/coronavirus-religious-freedom-worship-restrictions-social-distancing-column/5307600002/
Norris, P. & Inglehart, R. (2011). Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Smith, T. W., Marsden, P., Hout, M & Kim, J. General Social Surveys, 1972-2014 [machine-readable data file] /Principal Investigator, Tom W. Smith; Co-Principal Investigator, Peter V. Marsden; Co-Principal Investigator, Michael Hout; Sponsored by National Science Foundation. – NORC ed. – Chicago: NORC at the University of Chicago [producer]; Storrs, CT: The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut [distributor], 2015.
Szrot, L. (2019). America versus the Environment? Humanity, Nature, and the Sacred, 1973-2014. University of Kansas ProQuest Dissertations, 13878712.
Szrot, L. (2019a). Lynn White, reconsidered: religiosity and environmental concern in the United States. Journal of Behavioral and Social Sciences, 6(1): 55-69.
Szrot, L. (2020). From stewardship to creation spirituality: the evolving ecological ethos of Catholic doctrine. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture, 14: (forthcoming).
Szrot, L. Who cares about the environment: accounting for changes in environmental concern among religious groups across birth cohorts, 1884-1996. Journal of Behavioral and Social Sciences (forthcoming).
Szrot, L. Faiths in Green: Religion, Environmental Change, and Environmental Concern in the United States. Full Draft Under Review, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books (Forthcoming).
Zuckerman, P (2014). Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. New York: Penguin Press.