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Medicine Science

Does Religion Influence Epidemics? 547

sciencehabit writes "Whether or not they believe in God, evolutionary biologists may need to pay closer mind to religion. That's because religious beliefs can shape key behaviors in ways that evolutionary theory would not predict, particularly when it comes to dealing with disease. According to a new study, some of today's major religions emerged at the same time as widespread infectious diseases, and the two may have helped shape one another. The same dynamics may be reflected today in how people in Malawi deal with the AIDS epidemic."
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Does Religion Influence Epidemics?

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  • Not a new concept (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @12:20AM (#37187446)

    Rodney Stark got a Pulitzer for this 15 years ago: The Rise of Christianity []

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @12:21AM (#37187454)

    ... from FEAR and IGNORANCE.

    • by tloh ( 451585 )

      From the article:

      The survey also revealed that the prospect of getting help was enticing. In the past 5 years, about 400 of those responding have shifted religions, many of them moving to Pentecostal or the African Independent Churches, places where the promise of receiving care is greater and the stigma of having AIDS is less, Hughes noted.

      The evidence presented suggests that however born, growth/conversion of religion in the study area is at least in part motivated by the incentive of some health care.

    • by drnb ( 2434720 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @01:21AM (#37187806)

      Translation: Religion is born from FEAR and IGNORANCE.

      Actually the opposite can sometimes be true. Religion can also be a practical survival manual based upon observations. For example I believe if one adheres to the old testament prohibitions against eating certain types of seafood then one will avoid most of the unsafe species in that part of the world. We say don't do something because the surgeon general says so, thousands of years ago they said don't do something because God said so. Maybe its the telephone game: "great healer says" becomes "great shaman says" becomes "God says", all based on a scientific sort of process - at least the observation part, can't say if they also did the experimentation part.

      Are you sure you are not operating on fear of a particular 3 or 4 thousand year old book and rejecting everything in it in an irrational and ignorant way? If we were talking about Hawaiian kapu and its instructions on fishing and such would you be more open minded?

      • by KDR_11k ( 778916 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @02:19AM (#37188170)

        Yeah but it's kinda silly that we've got people adhering to food safety laws from millenia ago, before the refrigerator was invented.

      • I do not agree. Look at all the religious nutters who claim that 'believe in God and he will heal you' and if you do die, it was because you were a bad person.
        Also, some religions basically tell you that if you die in this life, you will move on to a better (after)life. So don't try to change anything.

        If these people think like this so firmly that they would rather die then get a vaccination or medical help for the smallest of things, what do you think they will do when an epidemic strikes?

        Or do you think n

      • by Elrac ( 314784 )

        For example I believe if one adheres to the old testament prohibitions against eating certain types of seafood then one will avoid most of the unsafe species in that part of the world.

        Bullshit. The injunctions against certain food were based simply on the personal preference of a few people with schizotypal personalities. This video [] is a very engaging explanation of the connection between craziness and religion via OCD-type behavior.

        Partial disproof of what you say can be found in the middens of Ancient Near Eastern people: civilizations eating pork and shellfish lived next door to Jewish civilizations that didn't, and there's no indication one thrived worse than the other.

        Don't throw th

    • ... from FEAR and IGNORANCE.

      Fear, yes - but not necessarily ignorance.

      The mainstay of religion is fear of death. The vast majority of people seem to be incapable of living with the fact that when you die that's it. There's nothing else. It's all over for you. Completely. So those people need the delusion that they (somehow) live on after death - which is totally unreasonable of course. Religion provides a solid base for that delusion - so long as you don't look too deeply into it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by felipekk ( 1007591 )

      Quote I saw last week:

      "Why is it that when someone has an imaginary friend it's called insanity, but when millions have the same imaginary friend it's called religion?"

  • ...since about the time we started blaming disease on sin.

  • Too narrow a cause (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Its as if saying the last fly that hit my windshield may have contributed to the destruction of my car 3 decades later.
  • by The_mad_linguist ( 1019680 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @12:31AM (#37187522)

    The AIDS pandemic in China was caused by unsafe blood donation practices.

    Specifically, the blood merchants would extract blood from villagers, pool it together in a big tub, extract the plasma, and then reinject it. Part of it was a cost-cutting measure, part of it was due to local religious beliefs.

  • by subreality ( 157447 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @12:46AM (#37187586)

    Yes? Then I'd say they're having an influence.

    • by tempmpi ( 233132 )

      Current empirical evidence looks like "stick to a single partner" is actually a more effective strategy to combat AIDS in Africa than "use condoms":

      washington post article []

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by artor3 ( 1344997 )

      No, the Vatican's official policy is that condoms are okay to use in the interest of preventing disease. It took way too long for them to reach that conclusion, so criticize them for that. But don't spread misinformation.

    • by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @03:23AM (#37188460) Homepage Journal

      Their position on condoms is inconsistent. They are against them for the prevention of pregnancy yet support the rhythm method.

      The trouble is, the rhythm method works by timing, so there will be fertilized embryos that die because they came too late in the cycle.

      So, the Catholic teachings have killed far more babies (their definition) than if they hadn't come out against condoms in the first place.

  • When disaster hits and you have no idea what causes it, you're helpless. And people don't like feeling helpless. So they start praying. Does it help? Most likely not, but hey, at least they're doing something. Whether it helps or not is not really that critical, what matters is that people believe they're somehow reacting to it instead of just sitting there, helplessly, waiting for disaster to strike again.

    Thinking about it, it bears a lot of semblance to how we deal with the terror threat...

    • by Ocker3 ( 1232550 )
      More accurately, they join a group of people likely to help them.
    • I've got to say I sympathize with the "got to do something" feeling. Years ago, my son had a febrile seizure, turned grey and stopped breathing. As my mother-in-law gave him rescue breaths and the ambulance was on the way, I was left with nothing to do. I couldn't just stand there, helpless, and watch my baby on our bed as my mother-in-law tried to get him breathing again. So I gave myself a job: Run back and forth between my son on the bed and the front door looking for the ambulance. At one point, my

  • by Sarten-X ( 1102295 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @12:50AM (#37187610) Homepage

    Are you sick? Come ask your invisible friend in the sky for help! Come share air with dozens of others asking for other things. Too sick to leave home? We'll send a carrier to your home to take your problems back to the church!

    I jest, of course, but not by much. Religion relies on community, just as much as an epidemic does. That said, there's also a few interesting correlations between some religious taboos and common disease carriers. It's like whoever designed the religious laws somehow knew about germ theory hundreds of years before anyone else. Either that, or they just noticed that certain things smelled bad, and people who spent time near bad-smelling things got sick.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by fuzza ( 137953 )

      It's like whoever designed the religious laws somehow knew about germ theory hundreds of years before anyone else.

      Indeed He did.

    • Epidemics have the side effect that the survivors, on the whole, are more resistant. Populations will soon breed back up to the level they were before, only this time you're starting from tougher stock.

      A few iterations of that and you've got a pretty awesome secret weapon to use against brown people (for suitably red values of brown) who are in your way.

      Perhaps community makes immunity?

      • by KDR_11k ( 778916 )

        Except this breeding mostly happens in black Africa which exports mercenaries to the arab countries. Whoops, we killed the civilian population but the dictator's soldiers are immune...

  • Cue the fun.... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by RobinEggs ( 1453925 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @12:54AM (#37187634)
    I absolutely love any story that gives self-righteous atheists an excuse to say, for the umpteenth time, that religion is categorically an evil, that organized religion is clinically insane, that religion has caused more suffering in human history than all biological and political causes combined, etc.

    Before you get started this time, how about you give it a rest? We understand your opinions, but most of us are agnostic if we even care one way or another; likewise most of us realize that religion inspires good as well as evil, and see no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. Most of all it just gets really fucking boring listening to your hate fest.

    You hate "religionists" and they hate you. The rest of us would rather you all shut the fuck up.
    • You hate "religionists" and they hate you. The rest of us would rather you all shut the fuck up.

      Can I get an amen from the non-hipster reasonable-atheists in the house? That's right, I'm talking to you, the people who don't go out of their way to be a-holes. Yup, that's right hipsters, everyone hates you and the fact that you hate everything else.

    • Re:Cue the fun.... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Tim C ( 15259 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @04:13AM (#37188664)
      I'm actually not that militant in my atheism; I believe the world would, on the whole, be a better place with less religion and more rationality, but I don't go on about it.

      However, religious people do go on about it. It's much more subtle that evangelism; how many times have you seen a character in a film, etc, thank god for something or pray? How many films are there based on the premise of there being a god, heaven, etc (vs how many based on the premise that there is no such thing)? How many religious symbols do you see in day to day life (from a cross around someone's neck to a church you travel past)? How often are religious figures or issues reported on in the news?

      It all adds up to an unintentional, background pushing of religion. It's little wonder that some people feel the need to push their atheism (and that's ignoring the theists that do go round actively pushing their views; I've never told anyone they're an idiot for believing, but I have been told *to my face* I'm going to Hell for not believing).
    • I'm a naturalist (that is, I don't believe in the supernatural). I live in a secularised country (Sweden) where non-religiousness is the norm, and frankly, I think many atheists are embarrassing. Many of them seem as fanatical as the worst religious people, and take every chance to put down religion and proclaim what idiots its believers are.

      I can understand that atheists who are in a minority have a need to strengthen their beliefs and gang together against the world outside, but where I live, it just make

  • It is quite clear from some of the rules laid down in religious texts that one of the purposes that religion served in historical times was to educate the population about sanitary practices, such as the relative danger of eating meat from certain animals and seafood as opposed to others. Interestingly, Christianity as practised in the West seems to ignore most of the rules of this category, while Islam inherits most of them from Judaism, giving its own twist on the rituals surrounding them.
  • by G3ckoG33k ( 647276 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @01:06AM (#37187682)

    Still, nice set of arguments you had. ;)

    • The irony of most Christian denominations' disbelief of evolution is that religions evolve through natural selection analogously to life forms. In fact, it is through evolution that the Abrahamic faiths came to dominate Europe and the Middle East.

  • Anything that affects how we interact, especially in large groups, will affect contagion.

    What's the central social order of religion?


  • by Livius ( 318358 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @04:02AM (#37188618)

    They seem to be using a very narrow (i.e. unscientific) understanding of what evolutionary theory predicts. It is adaptive to adopt altruism in the face of a crisis that requires higher than usual degrees of co-operation.

    Also I'm guessing "[l]inking early epidemics to the emergence of disease" was supposed to refer to something more than the definition of epidemic being the emergence of a widespread disease.

  • by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @07:29AM (#37189436) Journal

    The social value of 'religion' as a concept is well-proven.

    At least one study has shown scientifically that people's behavior (in this case, children) was distinctly impacted positively by the concept of 'an invisible being watching me'. In the case I'm thinking of, children played a game that gave them both opportunities and rewards for cheating. Cheating, unsurprisingly, was endemic in the control group (no adult present). When an adult was present, the incidence of cheating was greatly reduced. When the children were told convincingly that there was an invisible person sitting in the same chair the adult had used, cheating was even LESS.

    Further, there has been some discussion of the value of shared rites (usually religious) in predicting who will reliably follow a society's rules. If a person can't/won't reliably adhere to shared religious rites that supposedly are beneficial at little/no cost to the individual, this would predict that person will be unlikely to adhere to more important societal norms as well.

    (One might further observe that this remains largely true, at least in the US. The left is politically characterized as individualist and chaotic, and the (religious) right as collectivist and 'marching in lockstep'. This has resulted in a balanced political landscape, despite a clear majority of voters self-identifying as Democrats (left of center).)

    So the value of religion to early societies is pretty clear.

    Nevertheless, I'd disagree with their conclusions here. They point to the rise of the great organized religions around the era of plague - this was also (unsurprisingly) the rise of widespread urbanization, probably something that I'd guess had more to do with both the spread of disease AND the rise of religion.

  • Seems to me... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Dcnjoe60 ( 682885 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @08:07AM (#37189656)

    Seems to me the summary has the horse before the cart. Epidemics influence religion, not the other way around. During the plaque of the Middle Ages, European towns were decimated. Monasteries, being isolated from the town fared much better. Therefore, religious practices changed to reflect those of the monks. Yes, it is true much of it happened because people thought that God had spared the monasteries, however, without the plague none of it would have occurred. The plague or epidemic was the catalyst for the change in religious thought, not the other way around.

    And, for the many posts referring to religion blaming natural disasters on God, are we talking 20th century or centuries ago? I'm pretty sure that blaming unknown forces on some superstitious being or practice was quite common in all cultures. Breaking a mirror causing seven years of bad luck has nothing to do with a deity.

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