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Religion, Social Capital amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

  September 9th 2021

Dr. Dicky Sofjan - Presentation at the First Sunan Ampel International Conference of Political and Social Sciences (SAICOPSS) 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic causes many social problems, even opening old wounds between religion and science because both sides have their own contested perspective. From the religious side, the pandemic raises many questions such as: What is the meaning behind this pandemic? Why are so many people dying? Will our faith be strong enough to withstand the test of the new Coronavirus? Do our prayers, supplications, and rituals suffice to prevent us from being infected? How should religious leaders, groups, and organizations respond to this public health crisis? Why is God doing this to us? Where is His Divine love and mercy? What have the people of faith done to deserve His wrath? How can people of faith fight against this virus and overcome this humanitarian problem? Can things ever be the same again? According to Dr. Dicky Sofjan, Core Doctoral Faculty at The Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, questions such as these are the context of recent relations between religion and science in the COVID-19 pandemic. Sofjan’s presentation was delivered at the First Sunan Ampel International Conference of Political and Social Sciences (SAICOPSS) 2021 with the title ‘Religion, Social Capital amid the COVID-19 Pandemic’.

Regarding the questioned raised, Sofjan argues that social capital plays a role in mitigating and overcoming the pandemic, and religion plays a role in contributing to increasing solidarity among the people of faith and support for the government in persuading their members to obey the health protocols. As such, there is need for interdisciplinary and inter-religious approaches. It should be beneath the shadows of conservatism, populism, and social polarization. Furthermore, Sofjan argues that in the sociology of religion there are many theories that promote the social role of religion as social capital. It essentially revolves around the idea that religion plays a role in the making of societies and how members from different groups (racial, ethnic, and religious affiliation) interact with one another. The problem is that the study of religion has been largely informed by the Western notion of the so-called world religions derived mostly from the study of Christianity and Judaism and certainly have Western interests and biases. Hence this requires the study of religion in society to take a more ethnographic and qualitative and even participatory term to herald a more rigorous sympathetic and hopefully objective way of examining the subject matter.

In addition to the Christian and Western biases, the study of religion in society has also long suffered from the extreme duality that essentializes religion. Michelle Dillon notes in her handbook on the sociology of religion, for instance, that from an intellectual perspective, it largely reflects both the over-emphasis on reason and the tendency to relegate religion to the realm of the non-rational that is characteristic of modern social thought. Therefore, there are two extreme ways of looking at religion, starkly phrased, the former places are calculating instrumental rationality as an overarching determinant of all forms of social action while the latest is religion and reason as inherently incompatible. Theoretically, social capital relates to so-called social networks or bonds of trust and social interconnectedness (Light 1972) while Pierre Bourdieu looks at social capital as an immaterial form of cultural capital (Bourdieu 1986). He also looks at it as a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition. Putnam, in his book Making Democracy Work in Italy, emphasizes this idea about civic culture and civic values. He believes that the most essential gradients of social capital are reciprocity and trustworthiness (Putnam, 2000). Meanwhile, Nan Lin looks at social capital as elements or resources embedded in social structures and networks rather than individuals (Lin et al. 2001). Furthermore, Lin also argues that investment in social relationships results in expected returns in the marketplace. By studying these theories, it is clear that so much of the logic and operational definitions of social capital is influenced by rational behavior.

Hence, according to Sofjan, the field of sociology of religion also delves into the way religion affects development and the trajectory of societies and how they respond to the various challenges, both from within and without. In that sense, religion is perceived as a strong foundation for the existing cultural systems and practices. As such, religion serves as a basis for Durkheim's theories on society. The idea of mechanical solidarity is based largely on the common values and beliefs that make members of society cooperate with each other. He also argues that one of the most time-honored assertions about the nature of religion is that it is the major integrator of human society. It is thus pertinent to re-examine the correlation between religion, which is defined operationally here to mean religious people, leaders, faith-based organizations, its teachings, its social practices, and charitable activities, and social capital within the context of the ongoing global public health crisis.

Religious authorities like the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) respond to pandemics with fatwas for instance: suggesting Muslims in Indonesia conduct their daily and Friday congregational prayers in the Mosques; to hold mass religious rituals and festivities to commemorate Islamic holidays such as Ied al-Fitri (Day of Victory) and Ied al-Adha (Day of Sacrifice); to hold iftar (breaking the fast) and night prayers during the holy month of Ramadhan; to allow Muslim to be vaccinated with the existing vaccines (vaccinations are permissible and pure); to allow Muslims to be vaccinated during Ramadhan. However, according to Sofjan, the social problem that is getting worse in the midst of a pandemic is injustice and social inequalities. Therefore, religions should develop the social capital in their communities using cultural capital, socio-religious networks, and connections, inter-religious approach, donations or charity, hospitals, and clinics to support the government overcome the problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic.