Do Religions Arise to Control the Spread of Diseases?

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

The science editor of The Telegraph, Roger Highfield, reports on a new study by two biologists from the University of New Mexico. The scientists’ theory is that Religions thrive to protect against disease.

Religions thrived to protect our ancestors against the ravages of disease, according to a radical new evolutionary theory of the genesis of faith…

It seems that people became religious for good reason – actually to avoid infection by viruses and other diseases…

The study is the research of Corey Fincher and Randy Thornhill. In their introduction, they ask: “Why does the country Cote d’Ivoire have 76 religions while Norway has 13, and why does Brazil have 159 religions while Canada has 15 even though in both comparisons the countries are similar in size?”

Their idea is that “the genesis of religions has varied spatially across the globe because religion manifests from evolved behavioural strategies for the avoidance and management of infectious disease. And, importantly, infectious disease stress varies across the globe.”

Or as The Telegraph puts it:

The reason is that religion helps to divide people and reduce the spread of diseases, which are more common the hotter the country, the research suggests.

Any society that increased its coherence by adopting a religion, and dealt less with local groups with other beliefs as a result of cultural isolation, gained an advantage in being less likely to pick up diseases from its neighbours, and in the longer term to have a slightly different genetic makeup that may offer protective effects, for instance by making them less susceptible to a virus.

Equally, societies where infectious diseases are more common are less likely to migrate and disperse, not because of the effects of disease itself but as a behaviour that has evolved over time.

No argument from me that “religion helps to divide people”. From my admittedly quick reading of their findings, it appears to me that the authors looked at contemporary religious associations to contemporary diseases. I think this would be more useful for them to look at historical models of disease and religious diversity.

The article, “Assortative sociality, limited dispersal, infectious disease and the genesis of the global pattern of religion diversity“, is available at the Proceedings of the Royal Society website. From the abstract:

If this argument is correct then, across the globe, religion diversity should correlate positively with infectious disease diversity, reflecting an evolutionary history of antagonistic coevolution between parasites and hosts and subsequent religion genesis.

We present evidence that supports this model…

Some interesting ideas. Some more questions that spring to mind are:

  1. Is the U.S. more “diseased” than Europe?

  2. Did the rise of Protestantism in Europe correspond to an outbreak of disease?

  3. Would not the advance of medicine reduce the number of religions over time?

  4. Religions migrate such as with the spread of Christianity and Islam for example. How does this fit this religion as separation theory?

What are your thoughts?


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  1. . . . religions form purposely to avoid disease.  Their article includes the following:

    It is not necessary for our model that individuals have actual knowledge of the infective status of unknown or out-group individuals. Rather what is important is that limited dispersal and assortative sociality are the solutions for contagion avoidance, which have been favoured by selection.

    I take this to mean that the part of a society that splits to form a new religion is not knowingly doing so to avoid disease, but for some reason it tends to work out that way.  Are they saying a new religion can be an unconscious result of natural unselection — the avoidance of others who are perceived to be diseased?

    This would suggest that the formation of a religion is . . . evolutionary.  

    That’s gonna cause some conservative brains to explode.

    It’s an interesting article — thanks for posting this.

  2. There could be other explanations, like geography and topography, age of the culture.

    I’m thinking that in a jungle you might have more distinctly separated groups than other places. But you might also have more disease too so these guys might be right.

  3. like the one in the Tennessee shooting are to supporting gay marriage.  

    I would consider a change like that as “evolutionary,” similar to other social behaviors that change over time.  

    Maybe the authors’ findings reflect a social behavior where perceived health, or lack of it, contributed to a desire to divide the population, similar to how attitudes toward gay marriage can divide the population.  And history has shown as that forming a new religion certainly accomplishes a division.

    This topic is quite confusing!  😉  


  4. …a correlation lacking causation.  In which case, I don’t think that it is truly meaningful.

    • Viet71 on July 31, 2008 at 01:24

    on a mixture of myth and knowledge.

    In my village, we believe ACTOS is the god who gives life, health, good birth, music, and wisdom.

    Every time we sacrifice a pig, ACTOS signifies he’s happy, by ending the thunderstorm (which scares all of us and our animals).

    We know, therefore, that sacrificing a pig appeases ACTOS.

  5. and cooler/cold ones have fewer of both (each?).

    Seems like one possible conclusion would be, religions are diseases.  Many act like they are; especially those constructed around some “Big Daddy” authority/power figure.

    Would not the advance of medicine reduce the number of religions over time?

    Yes, the advance of science, including medicine, does.  Truth and fact trump myth and superstition.

    As always, my opinions, stated as facts.  YMMV.

  6. align them selves with governments, or visa versa. It bolsters the authority of both. Very interesting essay. I always thought that a lot of the laws of religion for example the kosher dietary ones were established for the groups protection. Healers too as the shamans and such. The texts of mosts religions however are so ancient that their explanations of how the nature works stays stuck in the past, and seeks to keep people from evolving on humanistic levels.  

    The prohibitions make no sense out of context and time.          

    • Edger on August 1, 2008 at 04:03

    of controlling the spread of republicanism. Or bushism.

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