Do You Believe in Germs?

I recently came across an interesting blog post written by a young woman cooped up alone in her 500 square foot studio flat in Manhattan during the COVID-19 lockdown. Her pen name is “BeautyBeyondBones,” because she writes about her experience of recovering from a life-threatening case of anorexia nervosa. It is a fascinating story! At the worst part of her illness she weighed only 78 pounds and looked like a walking skeleton with skin. She’s healthier now, thankfully.

“I really felt the extent of this quarantine as I watched a livestream of a random mass in North Dakota from the comfort of my couch in PJ’s,” she wrote in the recent post. “Sitting on the couch, longing to be at an actual church, I realized how much I missed God.” She admitted to feeling somewhat distant from him recently, for the same reasons that we all do from time to time: busyness, self-focus, complacency.

Her relationship with God was forged during the lowest point of her illness. “I depended on Him every single step of the way. Every terrifying moment at inpatient. Every morsel of food I was petrified to eat. He was my strength and my rock. And I wouldn’t have my recovery without Him.”

The same is true in my life: I found God during the hard times. When our lives are out of control, we turn to the one who has power to calm the storm. Does our secular world need a wake-up call? Will this coronavirus pandemic be a turning point for the world’s faith?

“I pray that one day, when we all are, God willing, on the other side of this – healthy, happy, and with an economy that didn’t crumble – we can look back and say, that was the moment that solidified my faith. That when the chips were down, I found strength in the One who is in control. Not in my ability to stock up on canned goods and toilet paper.” (from “A Coronavirus Wake-Up Call” by BeautyBeyondBones)

This post really struck a chord with me. I love stories about finding faith and learning true lessons through medical experiences. Also, I have a soft spot for anorexia because of a memorable patient I took care of in medical school. Maybe I will tell that story here someday.

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Lately I have been thinking about a topic that dovetails nicely with the post from BeautyBeyondBones. One thing is clear from watching this pandemic unfold: most people believe in germs. You can see the evidence of this all around you in the actions of individuals, businesses, and governments. How different would our behavior be if we were all germ skeptics?

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But have you actually seen a coronavirus with your own eyes? You’ve no doubt seen pictures that someone said were of a coronavirus, but how do you know that they really were? Why do you believe these germs are real if you have never seen them?

Actually, there is abundant evidence that the coronavirus is real, and that it is deadly. Although they are not visible to the naked eye, viruses can be visualized with electron microscopes. They can be grown in cell cultures. Their genomes can be sequenced and studied. In fact, the COVID-19 diagnostic test actually works by identifying unique RNA sequences from the virus.

Yes, coronaviruses and other germs are real. We believe in them even though we can’t see them directly, because we see their consequences in the visible world.

Careful experimentation can prove that specific illnesses are caused by specific microorganisms. This is the central thesis of Germ Theory, which was one of the first major triumphs of applying the scientific method to medicine. Western medicine was actually slow to embrace germ theory. It may seem obvious and intuitive to us today, but it was a major paradigm shift 200 years ago when people started to notice that hand washing by doctors reduced the incidence of postpartum fevers. It took overwhelming evidence (and the passing of a generation) for practitioners to embrace this new way of thinking and behaving. As with all medical knowledge, we learned it the hard way.

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My wife has frequently observed that children don’t believe in germs. At least they don’t act like they do. They will stick their fingers in their noses, then their mouths, then touch random things around them, and then return to their noses to repeat the cycle. “They are more willing to believe in Jesus than they are in germs,” she says.

Are adults the opposite? Do we put our faith in science and our own reasoning more readily than we will put it in Christ? That’s certainly true for many of us. I have sometimes struggled to understand science, but I don’t think I’ve ever struggled to believe it. Maintaining faith, on the other hand, is hard work. Maybe I just have a science brain, because I have met people that don’t seem to struggle with this like I have.

But here’s the thing: believing in science is essentially the same cognitive process as believing in religion. Both science and religion are ways of discovering truth about the world, and both involve experimentation and evidence. Both require you to believe in things which are not visible to the natural eye. The evidence we can collect with the scientific method may seem more tangible to our minds than the evidence we use to support our faith, but God is no less real and present in our lives than germs are. We believe in God even though we can’t see him directly, because we see his power in our lives.

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And we need that power now. People are dying of this infection, and we risk running out of hospital beds and supplies in the hardest-hit areas. The world’s economy is crippled and will be limping for a long time. BeautyBeyondBones is right. We need God.

As this coronavirus sweeps through our communities and nations, I hope we will remember to put our trust in God. I hope we will turn to him with child-like faith, and find peace in his promises. As with all spiritual knowledge, we are learning this the hard way.

“Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4:9).


Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

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