From Providentialism to Epidemiology: Understanding Pandemics through History

Thomas W. Laqueur, Helen Fawcett Distinguished Professor Emeritus, UC Berkeley, and John Handel, PhD candidate, History, UC Berkeley

As part of the Public Forum on Religion and Pandemic, Thomas Laqueur (UC Berkeley Department of History) sat down with John Handel (UC Berkeley Department of History) to discuss COVID-19, American democracy, and the relationship between religion, medicine, government, and death from a historical perspective. How does our current moment relate to epidemics past, as well as previous responses of liberal democratic governments to these crises? How have religion and secularization impacted attitudes toward illness and its prevention? Our guests tackle questions of historical comparison, COVID-19 as the first “social science disease,” the history of inequality in relation to disease, and the politics of public health in response to pandemics.

Thomas W. Laqueur is the Helen Fawcett Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. His work has focused on the history of popular religion and literacy; on the history of the body— alive and dead; and on the history of death and memory. He writes regularly for the London Review of Books and the Threepenny Review, among other journals and is a founding editor of Representations. Laqueur is a member of both the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences but is most proud of the Mellon Distinguished Humanist Award, the proceeds from which he used as seed money for programs in religion, human rights, and science studies at Berkeley—all of which are now self-sustaining. His most recent book is The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton 2016) His current research is on the history of humanitarianism and on dogs in western art.

John Handel is a PhD candidate in History at the University of California, Berkeley. He specializes in the history of finance and the history of modern Europe. His dissertation entitled ”The Infrastructures of Modern Finance: The Rise of Stock Exchanges in Britain and its Empire, 1800-1929,“ studies the transformation of financial capitalism over the course of nineteenth century by examining the material, social, and epistemological infrastructures that were necessary for the emergence of the modern financial system. In addition to his work on financial history, he also has written and lectured extensively on nineteenth century religious history. His focus has been on the history of nineteenth century Anglicanism broadly, and the history of the Oxford Movement and John Henry Newman in particular. He is especially interested in the ways modern communications technologies reshaped religious discourse and religious belief during the nineteenth century.

As part of the Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program, BCSR’s Public Forum on Religion and Pandemic brings together scholars and the public to address the current pandemic and its commensurate crises, exploring the intersection between religion and timely topics such as the environment, public health, elections and democracy, religious freedom, and nationalism in order to foster dialogue and reflection.

The Berkeley Public Forum on Religion and Pandemic is generously sponsored by the Henry Luce Foundation