Religion

Does Disease Cause Religion?

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University of New Mexico biologists Corey Fincher and Randy Thornhill are proposing the idea that religions proliferate as a way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. As the Telegraph reports:

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

[The researchers] come to this conclusion after studying why religions are far more numerous in the tropics compared with the temperate areas.

"Why does 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?" they ask.

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.

" If this argument is correct then, across the globe, religion diversity should correlate positively with infectious disease diversity," they say.

So can we conclude that as we control more infectious diseases, secularization will spread? Or does correlation necessarily mean cause in this case?

Whole Telegraph article here.

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  1. So can we conclude that as we control more infectious diseases, secularization will spread?

    Other way around. Diverse religious beliefs spur secularization.

    Oh wait sorry, i did not catch that you have conflated secularism with atheism.

    Yeah, Ron, these two things are not the same thing.

  2. Religion is caused by endogenous DMT and psychedelics. The first religions were based on plant shamanism.
    This theory is bunk.

  3. Wasn’t this what Snow Crash was about?

  4. Does Disease Cause Religion?

    Indirrectly. I suggest you read “On human Nature”

    This book looked at this subject some 40 years ago.

    Also the study does not seem to indicate that climate determines religiosity but determines diversity of religions.

    You are on a conflation rampage today Ron.

  5. joshua corning: You caught me, but I plead that other sources make a similar association. See Princeton’s Wordnet definition of secular below. Have a good weekend.

    WordNet – Cite This Source – Share This
    secular

    adjective
    1. of or relating to the doctrine that rejects religion and religious considerations
    2. characteristic of or devoted to the temporal world as opposed to the spiritual world; “worldly goods and advancement”; “temporal possessions of the church” [syn: worldly] [ant: beguile]
    3. not concerned with or devoted to religion; “sacred and profane music”; “secular drama”; “secular architecture”, “children being brought up in an entirely profane environment” [syn: profane] [ant: sacred]
    4. of or relating to clergy not bound by monastic vows; “the secular clergy” [ant: religious]
    5. characteristic of those who are not members of the clergy; “set his collar in laic rather than clerical position”; “the lay ministry” [syn: laic]

  6. Brazil is about 75% Roman Catholic (140M Catholics, 185M total population). Doesn’t that skew the data a bit?

  7. joshua corning: But on this theory, no infectious diseases might imply no need for any religion at all, although I suppose religion could arise as a form of entertainment like music, theater, or dance.

  8. sixstring | August 1, 2008, 5:10pm | #
    Brazil is about 75% Roman Catholic (140M Catholics, 185M total population). Doesn’t that skew the data a bit?

    But interestingly, the areas where Roman Catholicism hasn’t caught on as well are the high disease tropical rainforests. The problem, though, is that being insular to protect against disease also inhibits the spread of religion, so these folks may have the cart ahead of the horse.

  9. I don’t see how one could possibly test this hypothesis.

    More likely, based on the examples given, diversity in religion depends on physical isolation. Cote d’Ivoire is on the Ivory coast of Africa an area of broken geography with a high density cultural and languages each existing in its own geographical pockets. Norwegian by contrast has most of its population concentrated around the fjords and has a high degree of communication and has had so thousands of years.

    Religions do suppress disease by enforcing food taboos, mandating forms of food processing and by preventing sexual promiscuity ( a major cause of disease transmission).

    Religions tend to spread and include more and more members. This is the opposite we would expect to see if religion prevented infection.

  10. Interesting theory… now try to explain, with that context, the rise in religious differentiation in Enlightenment-era Scandinavia. Last I checked, disease hasn’t really been much of a problem there.

  11. Its counting the ‘number of religions?’ Wouldn’t it be better to count the number of adherents per capita? I’m pretty sure the US has the largest number of individual religions.

    Or maybe I don’t understand the argument. Is it suggesting that religions evolved for the purpose of dividing people into small groups? Then why did proselytizers evolve?

  12. joshua corning: But on this theory, no infectious diseases might imply no need for any religion at all, although I suppose religion could arise as a form of entertainment like music, theater, or dance.

    Or in fact religion also endows us with other things that benefit our survivability while diversity of religion adds the benefit of less disease in hotter climates.

    I am an atheist but am fully spiritual…that is to say i have had feelings that can be described as transcendent in nature. I realize that these feelings are just in my head (this in no way makes them less pleasant) but i think the disconnect is that many atheists do not accept the possibility that the ability of mind to generate these feelings has to have a biological basis or in fact an evolutionary origin.

    Imagine a bunch of cold climate atheists who, as the study implys, have less social cohesion then a group of cold climate religious people. All things being equal which group would out compete which group?

  13. If religion evolved millenia ago as a net benefit vis a vis the spreading of disease, then your final question misses the point. Even if disease was eliminated we would presumably hang on to this vestigial adaptation–until religion itself because maladaptive for whatever reason. Just as we still have appendixes and emotions that better served us on African plains than in modern society. Correlation perhaps, but there is no immediate causation in evolution. There are only the reproducing and the nonreproducing.

  14. Terence McKenna does a great deal to explain the rise of religion through the “stoned-ape theory”

  15. But on this theory, no infectious diseases might imply no need for any religion at all

    Put another way why would infectious disease ridden people have religion at all? If religious diversity has the benefit of isolating groups from one another why not go all the way and become solitary? Something kept these people in groups and kept those groups religious.

  16. Also, isolation of groups is only beneficial in the short term. In the long term, genetic variance increases the likelihood of disease resistance to occur in offspring

  17. The fact that religions proliferate where infectious diseases proliferate, would suggest that religion is a disease. No?

  18. From the headline, I thought that they were going to say mental illness causes religions to be created. The first couple of generations must be insane to accept it, but after that, it just takes blind faith that your ancestors knew what they were getting themselves into.

    As for this story, I really don’t see how this would be a subconscious survival technique. This sounds like a load of bunk.

  19. … and this is why scientists make awful historians (economists and sociologists included too!). Why religion? Why not politics? Hairstyles? Preference for one staple food over another? Beyond the already-noted problem of the genesis of religion(s), there are any number of ridiculous ways people can divide themselves.

  20. I think religions came about from tribal leaders bull shiting. They had to give reasons to the tribe why they should be in charge. If someone gets a disease it’s because they angered the gods & so on.

    I was in Hawaii & some native hawaiians were telling me that before westerns came it was an executable offense for a woman to eat a bannana because it angered the volcano god.

  21. “From the headline, I thought that they were going to say mental illness causes religions to be created. The first couple of generations must be insane to accept it, but after that, it just takes blind faith that your ancestors knew what they were getting themselves into.”

    The perfect example of this is Mormon faith. We can prove with DNA evidence that Native Americans are not Jews that were cursed with brown skin cause they offended God. That doesn’t stop Mormonism from being the fastest growing religion in the western hemisphere.

  22. Warren, dude, Dawkins beat you there by about twenty years. 😉

    Memes over genes, bitches!

  23. (i)The fact that religions proliferate where infectious diseases proliferate, would suggest that religion is a disease. No?(/i)

    That’s *hic-cup* right!!!

  24. I was in Hawaii & some native hawaiians were telling me that before westerners came it was an executable offense for a woman to eat a bannana because it angered the volcano god.

  25. “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.”

    Tell that to the American Indians.

  26. I was in Hawaii & some native hawaiians were telling me that before westerners came it was an executable offense for a woman to eat a bannana because it angered the volcano god.

    Were there bananas in Hawaii before westerners came?

  27. TonyQ hits on the most important point. Most of the commenters (and evidently Mr Bailey) are confusing strategy with adaptation. The theory is not that anyone either consciously or subconsciously encouraged or embraced religion as a means to fight disease, but rather that those who (randomly) were more religiously inclined were more successful at having offspring and the adaptation persisted. It’s not going to magically go away just because the conditions that contributed to it disappear, unless at some point it becomes an evolutionary hindrance, and even then it would be on a massive timescale.

    Also, my personal theory is that tribalism is the more fundamental adaptation, and that religious orthodoxy is simply one outgrowth of tribalism.

  28. As for this story, I really don’t see how this would be a subconscious survival technique.

    Monolithic religious society forms in hot climate…epidemic kills lots of people in that sociaty. Isolated religious groups survive.

    The fit were isolated and small…the unfit were profuse and big. Consciousness is not needed be it sub or overt.

  29. “Were there bananas in Hawaii before westerners came?”

    That’s a great point i have no idea.

  30. The first couple of generations must be insane to accept it, but after that, it just takes blind faith that your ancestors knew what they were getting themselves into.

    Your ancestors created you. The ancestors who did not create anyone do not have anyone to have blind faith in them.

  31. That’s a great point i have no idea.

    Not all that great…looks like they probably were there before westerners.

    From Wikipedia

    Banana is the common name for a fruit and also the herbaceous plants of the genus Musa which produce the commonly eaten fruit. They are native to the tropical region of Southeast Asia and Australia. Today, they are cultivated throughout the tropics.[1]

    For some reason I thought bananas came from Africa.

  32. joshua corning | August 1, 2008, 7:12pm | #

    The first couple of generations must be insane to accept it, but after that, it just takes blind faith that your ancestors knew what they were getting themselves into.

    Your ancestors created you. The ancestors who did not create anyone do not have anyone to have blind faith in them.

    They were the smart ones.

    /My wife is due in October with our first kid.

  33. Travis | August 1, 2008, 6:55pm | #
    I was in Hawaii & some native hawaiians were telling me that before westerners came it was an executable offense for a woman to eat a bannana because it angered the volcano god.

    You’d think it would be encouraged.

    *wink wink*

  34. If you want to check the original publication, look at the Proceeding of the Royal Society website. The article title is “Assortative sociality, limited dispersal, infectious disease and the genesis of the global pattern of religion diversity”, and the abstract is in their biology journal. I’ll need some time to review the article, but the authors’ claim that Canada has only 13 religions raises a red flag. If the authors disregarded first nation religions in Canada, then they are looking at historic forces, not evolutionary forces.

  35. # Brownie | August 1, 2008, 5:01pm | #
    # Wasn’t this what Snow Crash was about?

    Thank you, that was my first thought, too, although I think the distinction between which was cure and which was disease was a little murky, if I recall the novel correctly. BTW, if you haven’t read PK Dick’s Valis as a complement to Snow Crash, you’re missing out…

  36. “Why does 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?” they ask.

    This is from the Onion, right?

    1. Similarity in area would seem to be irrelevant. Similarity in population would be more relevant, and there is no similarity in population between Canada and Brazil. There’s no need to appeal to a disease prevention model to explain why there’s much less religious diversity in Canada’s Arctic islands versus a section of the Amazon rainforest with equal area.

    2. Also, they’re comparing countries at very different stages of development. There were probably hundreds of different religions in Norway and Canada in the year 500, for instance, despite the fact that the climate was no more conducive to infectious diseases at that time.

  37. jtuf,

    Also, I wonder if they’re lumping all Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, etc. denominations into the Christian religion, while counting each African village’s local animist cult as a different religion, even if their beliefs are very similar.

  38. After skimming the paper, I’m not impressed. The authors relied on the most readily available data rather than the most relevant variables; they looked at current conditions which have more to do with water policies than social ranges; and they used summary statitics for each country when the looking at individuals would result in less error. In short, the authors’ theory is neither convincing enough to accept nor practical enough to investigate further.

  39. It’s really nothing new. Read Mary Douglas’ “The Abominations of Leviticus” (among others) for thoughts on separatism and group ideologies.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1552231/Dame-Mary-Douglas.html

    The article also indirectly points to the continuing downward spiral of cultural anthropology’s reference, thanks to UNM’s finest.

  40. Before refrigeration, sanitation and so on, eating a pork chop in the hot desert would fucking kill you. So how do get people to stop eating them? You tell them, “God said so.”

  41. I think there’s a strong biological drive towards religiousity. There certainly seem to be people that seem to natuarlly gravitate towards spirituality, even in places where it’s strongly dissaproved of.

    I cannot wait for the day when I can propose to my militant atheist friends the notion that the religious are as helpless in their preferences as homosexuals, and deserving of the same regard.

  42. The perfect example of this is Mormon faith. We can prove with DNA evidence that Native Americans are not Jews that were cursed with brown skin cause they offended God. That doesn’t stop Mormonism from being the fastest growing religion in the western hemisphere.

    Dude, when their skin changed color, their dna changed also. DUH

  43. Before refrigeration, sanitation and so on, eating a pork chop in the hot desert would fucking kill you. So how do get people to stop eating them? You tell them, “God said so.”

    Why is it worse than lamb or cow?

  44. I`ve long ago come to the conclusion that religion IS a disease.

  45. Is “evolution can explain everything” the atheistic/agnostic version of the a-rational “God did it” explanation from many theists?

  46. “Why is it worse than lamb or cow?”

    Trichinosis

  47. “Is “evolution can explain everything” the atheistic/agnostic version of the a-rational “God did it” explanation from many theists?”

    Atheist yes, agnostic no.

  48. It seems more likely to me that religion is just a by-product of other traits we’ve acquired that do have an evolutionary benefit, namely pattern-seeking and deference to authority.

    Before refrigeration, sanitation and so on, eating a pork chop in the hot desert would fucking kill you. So how do get people to stop eating them? You tell them, “God said so.”

    Archaeologists can tell Jewish from non-Jewish ancient settlements from the presence or absence of pig bones. The pig-eaters were doing just fine until Joshua and his homeboys came knocking.

    And I’m having a hard time thinking of what benefit there ever was from sawing off parts of an infant’s genitals with a sharp stone. The death rate from infection must have been truly horrible.

  49. Religion is a disease. A malignant tumor. A contagion, a genocidal albatross.
    The root cause of more strife and suffering than any other man-made malady.

  50. How many religions were there in temperate North America before white people showed up? I’m going to guess dozens to hundreds.

    Additionally, before Columbus, Eurasia had many more deadly infectious diseases than any part of the Americas, even the tropics. Was that a result of religious homogeneity or was that a result of domesticated animals, dense living conditions, and poor sanitation?

  51. “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.”

    Odd, I’ve always heard it more described that lots of interbreeding and “hybrid vigor” was a better way to avoid disease. Culturally isolated groups that refuse to interbreed or have lots of contact with other groups have less disease? Obviously not true in the case of congenital diseases as opposed to infectious, (ask Ashkenazi Jews about Tay-Sachs), but even beyond that it seems like a poor long-term society. Cultural isolation of various groups didn’t prevent the Black Death.

    “But on this theory, no infectious diseases might imply no need for any religion at all, although I suppose religion could arise as a form of entertainment like music, theater, or dance.”

    The theory is that being culturally and otherwise isolated from others is good for when there are a great deal of infectious diseases. The theory really doesn’t say much about why cultural isolation would take the form of religion or distinct religions; that’s something that you would have to investigate further. I suppose that religious taboos are among the strongest type to avoid mixing with others.

    Of course, one has to contrast this with religions that don’t feature such taboos. Ones that encourage evangelical outreach and missionary work, work among the sick, and pilgrimages from throughout the world to central holy sites would not be encouraged by infectious disease, according to this theory. This theory would hardly imply that it encourage all sorts of religions, merely specific types.

  52. At first I assumed they were referring to the fact that the most successful major religions generally stress cleanliness, hygiene, and sexual restraint, all of which had a hell of a preventive benefit back when cholera, dysentery, smallpox, syphilis, the still-unknown Athenian plague, etc., took a huge toll.

    I don’t think this “isolation” idea makes much sense at all, though. Canada has few religions because it had few people, relative to the tropics.

  53. I’m reminded of an Ayn Rands’ quote, something like “Psychologists seek to study man as though he were unconscious”, i.e, he had no will. I’m not syain there are aren’t plenty of under the radar psychological motives for seeking out religion, but this story- in keeping with so many “science” articles in the UK press ( not to mention NPR)- promotes that vicious meme ; ” You are your DNA”, i.e, every action must fall into the rubric of a covert evolutionary plan. I think they’re planting the seeds for a new kind of religion, a “science” based one. C.S Lewis was absolutely right on about the “Materialist Magician” coming to the fore.

  54. I think they’re planting the seeds for a new kind of religion, a “science” based one.

    You mean like “Scientology”?

    Does disease cause religion? No, but religion is a disease.

  55. I don’t know.Sounds not very convincing to my ears. Look at the US and India.

    So many different religions and confessions in the US compared to only Hinduism and Islam in India. When I checked the last time India had a much more tropical climate than the US. But then, perhaps Hinduism has a lot of confessions too of which I am ignorant.

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