Religion and Disease

Deadly epidemics can have a profound impact on people’s choice of religion.

Aug 25, 2011
Cristina Luiggi


Religion and disease have always been intimately entwined. Deadly epidemics that swept through ancient populations millennia ago played an intimate role in the rise of modern religions, ScienceNOW reports. Conversely, differences in the way religions deal with disease and the caring of the sick have shaped the course of epidemics over time. Of main interest to Penn State evolutionary biologist David Hughes is why some religions, in particular Christianity, emphasize the importance of caring for the diseased, even at the risk of one’s own death.

In an attempt to study this in a modern setting, Hughes and colleagues surveyed religious attitudes among the people of Malawi, where AIDS has become the leading cause of death among adults. They found that 30 percent of people who described themselves as Christians visited the sick, in contrast to 7 percent of Muslims  They also found that in the last 5 years, about 400 of the 3000 respondents changed religions, mostly to Christianity, “where the promise of receiving care is greater and the stigma of having AIDS is less,” Hughes explained to ScienceNOW. The researchers presented their data at the 13th Congress of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology earlier this week.