Sick? Your religion may matter.

SickIn 2006, scientists who worked on the John Templeton Foundation study of anonymous, intercessory prayer released their conclusion that such prayer does not aid in recovering from illness. However, religion may still play an important role in recuperating from disease. Religion can contribute to combating diseases in other ways than asking for supernatural intercession. Evolutionary biologist David Hughes (Pennsylvania State University, University Park) argues that religious social structures and how a group handles epidemics mutually shape each other.

Hughes notes that, historically speaking, many of the world’s major religions today arose during a time of widespread plague. Religions birthed in the period from 800 BCE to 200 BCE had to confront epidemics as deadly as polio, smallpox, and the measles. In all, these epidemics had the power to kill up to two-thirds of a population, so deciding whether to take care of the sick had serious repercussions.

Religion provides incentive to help a sick nonrelative, despite the risk of catching a lethal disease. From an evolutionary perspective, assisting family in the wake of disease increases the chances of one’s own genes surviving and therefore justifies the risk. Risking life for a complete stranger, though, requires additional motivation—hence, the importance of religion. Given the choice to preserve one’s own life or aid the helpless, many religions suggest (or even command) that one love one’s neighbor.

Hughes, for example, points to Jesus as an example of a religion founded by a healer. Christianity in general, he says, promotes taking the risk of caring for the sick because it promises heaven to those who do. According to Hughes, Islam, by contrast, emphasizes caring for kin rather than for strangers. Hughes also mentions Judaism, and states that Jews tend to think that only God can heal someone and that no death occurs without the will of God. As such, Judaism discourages its members from treating the sick generally, regardless of familial ties.

Hughes supports his conclusions with statistical evidence from Malawi, a country ravaged by AIDS (one out of every 14 Malawians is HIV-positive). Malawi primarily consists of Christian, Muslim, and mixed communities. About 30% of Christians surveyed there reported that they visit the sick on a regular basis, whereas only 7% of Muslims said the same. Not surprisingly, many Malawians have migrated to Christianity over the past five years in the hope of receiving better support, especially socially (having AIDS stigmatizes the victim socially).

Not knowing his religion as well as his science, Hughes may have provided a bit of an oversimplistic picture. While Christianity does emphasize healing, it does not guarantee any sort of reward in the afterlife for caring for the poor, as Hughes suggests. Protestants especially emphasize “justification by faith alone” and not by “works.” Of course, Protestantism, the dominant form of Christianity in Malawi, does incentivize its followers to aid the sick, though without a supernatural carrot.

Similarly, Hughes’s characterizations of Islam and Judaism leave much to be desired. Islam also emphasizes loving one’s neighbor (see Al-Baqarah 2:177 and Aal ‘Imran 3:92 in the Qur’an). While Muhammad did not purport to perform miraculous healings (or any miracles at all), the religion he founded certainly places importance on community. The discrepancy between the percentage of Christians and Muslims who look after the sick requires more careful analysis. As for Judaism, not all Jews, especially post-Holocaust, see death as the will of God. Furthermore, Jews see doctors as often as anyone else, so Hughes’s notion that Jews leave all healing up to God makes one wonder exactly what he means by this.

Finally, Hughes wants to suggest that not only does religion impact the spread of epidemics, but that the spread of epidemics also impacts the formation of religion. However, his data only show the prevalence of disease from the period 800-200 BCE, but neither Christianity nor Islam existed during this time. To make his case that disease shaped these two religions, he must point to epidemics that occurred when these religions existed and then show how the theology or community changed when confronted with this tragedy. At most, Hughes’s data warrant saying that religion matters when dealing with disease but not vice-versa. In an era when so many see religion and science in conflict, this study serves as an important reminder that, in order to talk about “religion and science,” one must understand them both.

For more, see “Does Religion Influence Epidemics?” in ScienceNOW.