Where Religion and Science Collide
Faith, health and conspiracy in the time of COVID-19
Story, photos and illustrations by Olivia Swant-Johnson
Rolland Karlin, mayor of Big Timber, Montana, describes his community as “Christian,” a characteristic shared by many small towns in the West.
“I mean, we have a Catholic church, two Baptist churches, a congregational church, a regular Lutheran church and a Missouri Synod Lutheran church, a Mormon church, an evangelical church, a church of God and a church of Christ,” he said counting them off on his fingers. “Oh, and an Episcopal church, too … Lots of churches — we’ve got more churches than bars!”
An impressive feat in Montana.
Like much of the rural West, Big Timber’s strong Christian foundation coincides with conservative politics and a “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” attitude, ever prepared to square up against any perceived government overreach.
Now in his final stretch of a four-year term as mayor of Big Timber, Karlin doesn’t plan to throw his hat in the ring again. He hadn’t anticipated becoming a liaison between his community and political leaders during a highly politicized global pandemic.
Describing the lockdown in 2020, Karlin recalls closing down the library and putting yellow tape around the dugouts at the baseball field and parks. He sounds frustrated when he tells me he still saw people chatting in the post office lobby despite signs advising otherwise, and crossing his yellow tape to sit shoulder to shoulder in the dugouts.
“I wanted six feet,” he said.
Ultimately, Karlin had to toe the line between setting guidelines and allowing Big Timber’s residents to make their own decisions, knowing they would do that anyway.
After all, Karlin got the COVID-19 vaccine, but it wasn’t because he was told to.
Karlin was 4 years old in 1953, when he contracted polio. He remembers flu-like symptoms, his mom cradling him in her lap on the drive from Columbus to the hospital in Billings, and the needles in his back that put him “out like a light” for weeks before he woke in an iron lung. A precursor to modern breathing machines, the iron lung was a large pressurized capsule that held the body inside with just the head sticking out, and pushed air in and out of the lungs by force.
Describing the mechanism, Karlin took the opportunity to explain the physiology of the lungs and diaphragm. “We don’t suck air in. It’s pushed.”
Karlin spent two weeks in the iron lung — his lifeboat — before he was moved to a crib. With the right side of his body paralyzed from the virus, he laid in a hospital room only accompanied by a “crabby” nurse who would get frustrated when he would ask her to wind up his little metal car so he could watch it roll across the bed.
He remembers his parents and his grandmother speaking to him through a door 20 feet away.
“I wanted a hug so bad,” Karlin said, and for a moment I thought his eyes were misty behind his wire-rimmed glasses. “That was social distancing.”
Karlin considers himself blessed to have survived. He turned 5 in the hospital, and recovered before the vaccine was available. By the time he was released, he had regained function of his right side, apart from his right arm. Rested on the conference table of the Big Timber Town Hall, fingers splayed flat, he lifts it with his left hand and drops it limp at his side to demonstrate.
For as many emails as have been sent citing “these unprecedented times,” Karlin draws a lot of parallels between our current pandemic and polio’s terror in the ‘50s.
“People were crying out for a vaccine, aching, and as soon as it came out they got it and their kids got it,” Karlin said.
Although he had already recovered from one strain of polio, Karlin recalls being vaccinated against other variants of the disease. He remembers kids lining up at school to receive a pink liquid, administered orally on a sugar cube.
Karlin grew up to be a capable and resilient young man. “My dad never let me claim my handicap, God bless him for that,” he said, recalling the time that he came home from the third grade, crying to his father that he wanted to be a Cub Scout, but couldn’t climb a rope.
“He swore at me and he said ‘you want to be a Cub Scout then blankety-blank, you go be a Cub Scout.’ So I went all the way through and became [an] Eagle.”
Karlin went on to become an award-winning science teacher, honored by former president Bill Clinton as the Middle School Science Teacher of the Year in 1999. He also led a wildly successful Science Olympiad team, which competed nationally 19 out of the 25 years he led it. Karlin said their success was because the kids “wanted to win,” but that doesn’t seem to be the independent variable.
All four of Karlin’s children found their careers in the Science Olympiad, he said. So did countless others whom he lists o by name, current location and occupation, beaming. Geneticists, engineers, biologists, physicists.
“Jesus is important in my life because I think I was spared to do something for him,” Karlin said, before launching into a story about another student who he cared about deeply.
In recent centuries, science and religion have largely been reduced to political adversaries. Many religious leaders have pointed to science as a threat to the foundations of their traditions, placing religion itself squarely in opposition to many scientific advancements.
Members of the scientific community have returned the same hostile notion: our ideals cannot exist peacefully, your magic is dumb. So we’ve created a binary that gives Christians a long list of questions like, “Can I be a Christian and believe in the Big Bang? In evolution? In climate change?” and most recently, “Can I trust God and get a COVID vaccine?”
While many groups have been skeptical of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, few have been as vocal in their opposition as the conservative Christian church. Christianity makes up just over 70% of the adult population of the U.S., according to Pew Research. A separate Pew Research study conducted in March 2021 found that 36% of all Protestants planned to refuse the shot, with 45% of Evangelicals taking the same stance.
With lines like these drawn in the proverbial sand, it’s easy to forget the roots of many modern sciences grew out of churches, synagogues and mosques, borne of thinkers who sought to understand the laws of nature established by their God. Ideally, the goal of both science and religion is ultimately to steward a healthy, just world, and perhaps if we remembered, then our conversation could begin to change.
A 1997 survey by the University of Georgia found that about 40% of responding biologists, physicists and mathematicians believed in a God who actively communicates with humankind and to whom one may pray “in expectation of receiving an answer.’’ These results were nearly identical to those of the same survey conducted in 1916. If those numbers hadn’t moved in 81 years, it would be interesting to know how much they’ve changed in 24. It’s possible that this war of ideologies isn’t such a war at all.
Karlin gets excited, leaning over the table in the town hall to explain to me the ways the events described poetically in the Book of Genesis coincide with what science has also informed us about the history of the universe. Light, then water and then creatures crawling from the water — “Science!” he exclaims.
“And in the Bible it said God created the heavens and the earth in six days. Now how do we know how long a day was for God? . . . No one was around keeping track of time.”
In his book “The Language of God,” Dr. Francis S. Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project describes his experience of sequencing the human genome as “both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship.” Dr. Collins wrote he believes in a loving God who established natural laws. In supporting that belief, Collins points to the simplicity and elegance of mathematics, the precise tunings of universal properties which made life possible against unimaginable odds, and altruism — the compulsion to help others at our own expense — which he said is present in humans despite evolutionary explanation. Collins concludes that while science offers us a set of natural laws: whens, wheres, whats and hows that govern our natural world, it does little to answer questions of
Concluding his book, Dr. Collins proposes a synthesis, coined “BioLogos” or “Theistic Evolution.” Using lengthier words, it essentially sums up Karlin’s ideology as well: God chose the “elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants and animals.” Some of those animals would have “intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will and a desire to seek fellowshipwithHim.”They would also “ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.”
In 2009, Dr. Collins was appointed Director of the National Institute of Health by former President Barack Obama, a decision unanimously confirmed by the Senate. There, the Human Genome research became foundational to the development of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, which Dr. Collins was intimately involved in. Dr. Collins, like Karlin, feels called by God to his profession. Describing the development of the vaccine as “an answer to many prayers,” it was developed in record time, and with an efficacy rate nearly twice the goal. The FDA had set a threshold for approval at 50% efficacy, roughly that of the flu vaccine. Collins told the Atlantic, he cried when the efficacy rate of the Pfizer vaccine came back at 95%, describing the experience as “breathtaking.”
In an email, Dr. Collins told me that to feel such a call, and to feel as though God had partnered in the endeavor, only to have it criticized so strongly by the loudest of those who profess his own faith has been, “to be honest, very disheartening.”
“To have this kind of remarkably safe and effective scientific solution emerge to a pandemic that has already taken 670,000 [as of Sept. 23, 2021] lives in the U.S., and then to have many believers turn their backs, is not something that I as an evangelical Christian would have anticipated,” Dr. Collins wrote. “This is a “love your neighbor” moment, when believers would normally be first in line.”
Considering his history with lifesaving vaccines and science, Karlin did not allow party lines to weigh in on his decision to get the COVID-19 vaccine. “We beat polio with a vaccine. We can beat COVID too,” he said.
But the problem many of the “vaccine hesitant” seem to have with it isn’t rooted in the science, but in a perceived view of medical tyranny and mistrust of the government. Karlin said that while he is pro-vaccine, he still believes people should be able to decide what gets “stuck in their arm,” without their livelihood being threatened.
“But I would encourage anybody that would ask me to get the vaccine, for the sake of the others,” Karlin said.
Collins said he wishes he and other public health offucials had done a better job of explaining why the decision to become vaccinated is not just an individual one, but about protecting others, too. While Karlin supports the “Don’t Tread On Me” attitude of the rural West, Dr. Collins has less patience.
“Those who complain loudly about infringement of freedoms neglect the understanding that our founders made clear — freedom is not just about rights, it’s also about responsibilities,” Collins said. “I don’t have a right to get sick with a preventable disease if I might then pass it on to my neighbor with a kidney transplant, for whom the vaccine doesn’t work so she might well die.”
It’s worth noting that George Washington mandated smallpox inoculations — an early, much riskier form of vaccine that involved scraping the skin and then rubbing it with live virus — among troops. He also once wrote to his brother, frustrated about a Virginia law that restricted inoculations, saying if he had a say in the matter, he would rather “a Law to compel Masters of Families to inoculate every Child born within a certain limited amount of time under severe Penalties.”
But for many Christians, that fear of tyranny is exacerbated by apocalyptic ideology and the ever looming “end times.”
Enter Revelation 13.
It’s difficult to wade through any online Christian forums without finding an onslaught of references to the chapter, be it posted by someone’s middle-aged aunt on Facebook captioned, “WAKE UP AMERICA!” or by anonymous Reddit users in a panicked font.
In case you’re unfamiliar, Revelation 13 can be interpreted to prophesize a dystopian future with one world government, one world currency, the rise of the Antichrist and the “Mark of the Beast” without which people can’t “buy or sell in the marketplace.” Used in many QAnon conspiracies, the chapter has taken a new angle: COVID-19 Vaccines are the new “Mark of the Beast.”
In August 2021, Peter Feaman, a top Republican National Committee ocial from Florida, took to his blog to spread the theory. And the emergence of vaccine mandates and passports has added new fuel to the fire.
The chaos of the past two years has created somewhat of an incubator for paranoia. For the 70% of Americans who identify as Christian, it can be dicult or impossible to untangle that paranoia from their beliefs, adding a whole new set of fears wielding eternal ramifications.
An anonymous Reddit user asked the forum r/TrueChristian for prayers for their soul. Noting that they’re fully vaccinated, they wrote, “I’m feeling the fear of eternal death regarding this issue … again … might need prayers for my anxiety and spiritual brokenness to go away in regards to the vaccine being the [Mark of the Beast] again … I don’t want to suer the seven last plagues and be eternally destroyed by hellfire.”
In that email, Dr. Collins wrote “It breaks my heart to see how many church members have been manipulated by lies and conspiracies that are propagated on social media, and have missed the chance to take care of themselves and their families and friends.”
This is not the first time a technology has been charged the “Mark of the Beast.” It’s been Social Security numbers, credit cards and smartphones as well. John Nelson Darby, considered the father of Dispensationalism and Futurism, made the first popular claim, concluding it was the telegraph in 1830.
Darby was a proponent of modern dispensationalism, fundamentalism, pre- millennialism, futurism and pre-tribulation rapture theory. A real mouthful. In other words, he believed sometime before the end of the millennium, as the world continued to descend into the depths of moral decay, believers’ faiths would be tested by their refusal to accept some sort of technology presented by the Antichrist. When they had passed their test, Jesus would snatch up all of his true believers to heaven without warning. There they would get to sit out of a series of extremely unfortunate events to be spilled out on the rest of humanity. Finally, Christ would return along with his Saints and they would rule a perfect new earth.
That Reddit user could trace their paranoia straight back to Darby and, in a just world, he’d be footing a lot of bills for therapy and Xanax.
Darby’s theological theory of dispensationalism was proposed about 200 years ago. Formalized during the mid-19th century, it grew in popularity in the U.S. after the Civil War. Cyrus I. Scofield, a Bible editor and self-proclaimed prophet, published the first edition of Scofield’s Reference Bible in 1909, which contained dispensationalist assumptions inserted into the margin notes and sold more than 2 million copies to readers, who were apt to take them as the literal Word of God, before the end of World War II. Still in print today, it’s widely circulated and available in eight languages.
The Scofield Reference Bible was the first of its kind, offering insight into the text. And while it popularized the ideas it contained to people who actually read it, they remained niche for 60 years.
Then came the New York Times best-selling nonfiction title of the entire 1970s — the dispensationalist book “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsey. It introduced a generation to phrases like “The Rapture,” “The Tribulations,” “The Antichrist,” “False Prophet” and “The Mark of the Beast” — all while prophesying their imminence.
In the ‘90s, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins launched their multimedia franchise “Left Behind,” which told the tale of those who were “left behind” after the rapture — finding their loved ones missing from crumpled trousers and steaming cups of coffee.
It depicts an Antichrist named “Nicolae Carpathia” who rises to power as a secretary general of the United Nations, and whose followers are marked with a visible symbol of their loyalty: 666. Those marked are to be eternally damned at Christ’s final return.
Beginning with a series of 16 books for adults with titles like “Tribulation Force” and “The Mark,” the “Left Behind” franchise published another 40 volumes for children, a 2000s graphic novel series, a computer game and four motion pictures, the last of which was released in 2014 and starred then it-boy Chad Micheal Murray and Nicholas Cage.
The 2014 movie depicted the rapture from the perspective of passengers aboard a flight to London. When all of the children and a few other blessed souls disappeared, the “left behind” spiral into confusion, devastation and violence. After a collision with another 747 whose pilot has been raptured, Cage barely lands the flaming plane into a fiery landscape. Looking out at the burning horizon, Murray observes what looks like the end of the world.
“I’m afraid it’s just the beginning,” he’s told as the camera pans out to more desolation and the credits roll. Ominous.
But dispensationalist futurism hasn’t always been the most prominent interpretation of Revelation. Another story, existing in stark contrast to the “Left Behind” series that provided many American Christian youth with fodder for panic attacks, is held by many biblical scholars.
Preterism, a much older scholarly school of thought, holds that the events described in Revelation already happened nearly 2,000 years ago in 70 A.D. Preterists don’t believe in a rapture at all.
Revelation was a letter written by an early Christian leader, to an early Christian church that was brutally persecuted by both the Jews and the Romans, and so it was written in a coded text to protect those who possessed copies of it.
Seventy A.D. is significant because that is when the Roman Empire invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem, which contained the Arc of the Covenant, genealogical records of the Levitical priesthood and the Most Holy Place, which was believed to be where heaven and earth met. Because of the vital roles of the temple and the genealogical records in the beliefs and traditions of ancient Jews, their destruction effectively ended the age of Mosaic Judaism. (Now we have Rabbinic Judaism.) Preterism holds that Revelation’s references to the end of the age and the passing away of heaven and earth, are actually in reference to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman Empire, not a future destruction of the universe.
Preterists further point to the Roman imperial cult as the entity behind the Mark of the Beast and “that abomination that causes desolation.” A long succession of Roman emperors claimed divinity and demanded to be worshiped. They had their images etched into the currency — marked, if you will — along with their claims to be divine. So when early Christians bought or sold in the marketplace, they would be using a currency that betrayed their beliefs. When Christians refused to worship them or their other gods, they became scapegoats, begging for the wrath of Roman gods to be poured out on everyone.
Nero Caesar, NRON QSR in Hebrew, was one of the most brutal emperors, infamous for acts like having Christians dipped in tar and then set on fire to light his yard. Gematria was a common form of code during this time period that translated Hebrew text into numbers. NRON QSR, coded in gematria, comes to 666.
I once heard a pastor tell an anecdote about a man who was treading water in the middle of the ocean. He’s crying out to God to help him when a man in a rowboat shows up and offers to pick him up. The man, sputtering, declines.
“No thanks,” said the drowning man. “God will save me.”
So the man in the boat rows away, confused, and the drowning man goes on drowning, screaming to God, “Save me, save me! I know you will!”
After a few hours, the drowning man is exhausted, his skin beginning to peel away, raw from the salt that burns his throat when he chokes on it. Still, when a cruise ship comes sailing by, and then a rescue helicopter, the drowning man again sends them both on their way, assuring them through cracked, bleeding lips that he is waiting for God to save him.
Then the drowning man dies. When he gets to heaven he’s angry, marching up to God.
“You didn’t save me!” He yells, pointing his finger. “With all of your power and might you didn’t save me!”
And God said to him, “I sent you a rowboat, I sent you a cruise liner and then I sent you a rescue helicopter. You didn’t save you.”
Polio’s terror in the ‘50s came 20 years before Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth,” which would take America by storm, selling over 15.5 million copies and proclaiming prophecies of doom that would seep deep into the American psyche. And perhaps that’s got something to do with the public acceptance of the polio vaccine — how it was taken at face value: An incredible scientific accomplishment that saved the lives of an unknowable number of children.
Had those ideas already taken root then, and grown into the paranoia that we see manifesting itself today, it’s likely that we would have been much less successful in eradicating polio.
I recently received this text message from my uncle, who often reads his Bible while sitting on the toilet: “Well, if you trust God, then why get the jab?”
I’ve been thinking about the drowning man a lot these last two years.
Chapter 10 of Dr. Collin’s book ends, “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshiped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful — and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect humans start such battles. And only we can end them.”
It’s unlikely science or religion are going anywhere. They are both going to continue to shape our world for the rest of humanity’s existence.
In an email, Dr. Collins wrote, “Jesus’ words come to mind ( John 8:32) “The truth will set you free.” But there is so much misinformation and disinformation out there now. I pray that the church will rededicate themselves to finding the truth in all things.”