Weekday Squib: Pray to ward off the plague

Religious diversity is the side effect of…increased threat of infectious disease

From the British Psychological Society’s Research Blog comes a rather startling conclusion: religion was established for the “avoidance and management of infectious disease” (linkthanks Rajeev Mantri):

Fincher and Thornhill used the World Christian Encyclopedia and the Global Infectious Disease and Epidemiology Network to compare the spread of infections and religions across 219 countries. Their results were clear: in regions with a greater variety of infectious parasites, the diversity of religions also tends to be greater. This association held strong even after exploring the impact of other potential factors, such as differences in democratisation and histories of colonisation.

The researchers say the association between religion and parasites occurs because reducing contact with outsiders can help protect against disease. In turn, when cultures fragment and groups avoid making contact with each other, more religions are likely to spring up.[BPS Research Blog]

Reality, it appears, mirrors satire. Or the Proceedings of the Royal Soceity:B Biological Sciences mirror The Onion. Now unless journals of learned societies mistake correlation for causation (the world’s oldest professional mistake), one should wonder why God created disease.

1 thought on “Weekday Squib: Pray to ward off the plague”

  1. While your point about correlation vs causation is well-taken, I would not be surprised at all if this is true. In fact many of our current ‘habits’ may have evolved as defenses against pathogens, since we have waged that fight longer than any other fight in our history. It’s not just about keeping out outsiders. It could be about enforcing certain habits designed to ward off disease, a mainstay of many cultures and groups. Consider that the Great Plague did not strike Jewish people as much as it struck Christians because through their religious practices which inevitably emphasized hygiene, Jews largely kept away rats from their dwellings (of course this apparent immunity from the plague also caused Christians to think of Jews as witches and demons but that’s a different story…)

    However, the matter is complex. For example, the same religious factors that can keep a community close together can also encourage inbreeding. Inbreeding reduces diversity in the gene pool and can make communities more susceptible to pathogens. So we have to look at this carefully and I will have to read the original article but as I said, I won’t be surprised at all if this is true.

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