A friend of mine was recently telling me about some COVID-19 mitigations going on in Washington DC, where restaurants were permitted to winterize their outdoor dining areas, which means putting walls around them and a roof over them. I.e. they are putting their outdoor dining area indoors for the winter, and it apparently counts as being what we might call “ritually outdoors”.
My friend laughed at this, but it’s actually a really interesting example of how paganism works and the human urge to pagan superstition. I’d like to talk about it for the sake of understanding those better. (COVID-19 will eventually pass, the urge to paganism will always be with us.)
I maintain that one can see the most essential element of paganism in the Book of Exodus, when the Israelites turn to paganism while Moses is talking with God on Mount Sinai. They are wondering in the desert and are running low on food and water. They asked Moses whether he brought them out into the desert to die, because they could have done that with more convenience back in Egypt. Moses went up to Mount Sinai to ask God for help, and when he was gone for longer than the Israelites had patience for, they asked Aaron to make them a god. He gathered up their gold, and using the fire melted it and cast it into the form of a calf. Then the Israelites worshiped it, and shouted,
Israel, here is your God who brought you here from Egypt!
The key thing to notice is that they did not turn to worshiping someone else’s god. They were still trying to worship the one who brought them out of Egypt; they were just trying to worship him on their own terms. They did not want to worship him according to his instructions; that was taking too long and they couldn’t see Moses and didn’t know what became of him. They did not want to trust. They wanted something that they could take an active part in. They wanted control.
So they made themselves a statue. They made it of gold, to please the god they were trying to worship. They worshiped it, to please the god. In effect, they were trying to do what all pagans do—they were trying to engage in a transaction with the god. They had no real way of knowing what, exactly the god wanted. That wasn’t really the point, since the gods were, if you get down to it, unknowable. The point was that they were doing something, and about as much as a human being could be expected to do, and that really should be enough, shouldn’t it?
And here we come back to indoor areas which are ritually outdoors. COVID-19 has a lot in common with the ancient gods, especially if you bear in mind that the ancients generally had gods of sickness and pestilence that one would give offers to in order to be spared. We have some basic knowledge about how COVID-19 works, but it’s still mostly guesswork how it spreads. (It’s pretty clear that it’s airborn, I don’t mean that basic fact, but what actions actually spread it, and how far, etc are not known with certainty.) No one can ethically set up controlled experiments to see what does and does not spread it, so we have to remain in ignorance about most of the practical aspects of how it spreads. Still, we have to do something. We can’t all hide in individual burrows until the disease goes away (storing up weeks of food per person would massively overtax our food delivery infrastructure), so what do we do while we’re not doing the thing we know would actually work? It’s got to be something.
As the days with COVID-19 drag on, the amount people are willing to not do grows less and less. So, in the absence of knowing how to do the things we want to do while staying safe, we must do something to show that we have not grown proud, that we’re doing as much as a human being can be expected to do, and so we should be spared. So we wear masks while no one really knows their effectiveness. (There are some designs of mask which do a very good job at stopping respiratory droplets. There are some designs of masks that aerosolize respitory droplets more than wearing nothing. Whether stopping respitory droplets or aerosolizing them further affects transmission is, however, not known. Even apart from that, how masks are worn significantly affects their performance, making any sort of generalization near impossible. In medical settings people are trained in how to use N95 masks and are actually tested on it by being put in environments with aerosolized aspartame. If they can taste the aspartame, the mask doesn’t fit correctly. Without a proper fit, air tends to pull in from the outside through the bad seal because there’s less resistance there than through the filter medium, meaning that a poorly fitted N95 mask provides almost no protection.)
And when people want to eat at restaurants, the restaurants ritually purify themselves by building new buildings, dedicated to the god of disease, in order to placate the god of disease to show that we are not being hubristic but are taking it seriously and asking it to spare us.
This is a thing you will see any time danger intersects partial ignorance and necessity or desire. When people do not know what to do in order to avoid bad fates, they will make offerings to the gods in order to be spared.
And, as a bonus, if the one who made the offering was not spared, then at least he will not be shamed before other men; he did everything he could, and the gods are capricious.
Unfortunately, so are men. His fellow creatures will be very tempted to suspect that he did not make the offering in good faith, that he had some private vice that the god saw but men didn’t, and is being punished.
As COVID-19 has recently reminded us all, we human beings live in ignorance and so paganism will always temp us.