Sunday, August 03, 2008

Religion: It got started to avoid spread of disease?

Every years seems to bring a new study purporting to explain how "religion" got started. As Rachel Zelkowitz explains in Pathogens and Prayer, (ScienceNow Daily News, 30 July 2008),
The same diseases that plague humanity may also drive one of the fundamental elements of human culture, a new study suggests. A statistical analysis shows an association between higher rates of infectious disease and religious diversity around the world. The findings have already sparked debate within the academic community; critics are questioning the validity of the interpretation, and supporters say that the finding could offer a new perspective on why religions exist and what role they play in society.

The histories of individual religions are well-documented, but the evolution of religion itself is not well-understood.
No, and the new study won't make it any better understood.
Fincher and his colleagues looked for an association between a nation's religious diversity and rate of disease. They used Barrett's World Christian Encyclopedia to tally the number of religions in 219 countries and checked that against pervasiveness of disease in those areas, as documented in a global epidemiology database. There was a statistically significant, positive relationship between prevalence of disease and religious diversity, or religion richness. This persisted even when the researchers controlled for other variables that could impact the number of religions in a country: land area, population, religious freedom, and economic inequality. To correct for different patterns of human settlement in different parts of the world, they also tested the association of disease and religious diversity within the world's six major regions; the correlation still held true.
Courtney Bender, a sociologist of religion at Columbia University, disagrees. Religions around the planet range from being very open to very closed to outsiders, she says: "You can't just say religions have strong boundaries."
Yes, exactly. Religious groups range from those that don't accept converts to those where believers are expected to bang on doors handing out tracts.

I wonder how many religions exist in Canada? Canada reports religion data every ten years, and here are the data for 2001. All the major religions and many minor ones are represented here, and non-Christian numbers are growing (principally due to immigration). We are pretty religiously diverse but I would be surprised if Canada was one of the high disease areas. (If it is, there is something wrong with the study; our longevity has risen dramatically.)

Origin of religion is like origin of life: The problem is not solvable but every new theory creates a little wave of interest.


Prayer: Asking for more than healing

Speaking of prayer (story below), in "Do we have a prayer?" in The American Spectator, editor Quin Hillyer reflects on politicial activists and prayer:
Most of us have known people, too, who swear, absolutely swear, that they are alive today after some dread illness only because the prayers of others got them through. But then we wonder about those like Snow who did not survive, and none of it makes sense. Do prayers work? How? Why? And when they don't seem to, at least not by our understanding, why not?
He notes,
... we know that prayer doesn't necessarily bring comfort, or at least not "comfort" in the way the world usually understands it. Prayer does not bring comfort in the sense of ease or luxury or softness.
Ah ... word study urgently needed here: "Comfort" originally meant "strengthen" (the "com" part = with, and the "fort" part = strength). Later, "comfort" came to mean "ease" or "soothe." That created much misunderstanding around the idea that prayer "comforts" people.

Here is my view as a Catholic Christian: I have myself benefited from several healings that could only be attributed to the power of prayer, however understood. I would encourage anyone to pray, even if they are not a religious believer. Just say, "I know I am not a good person, but this feels too hard for me to bear. If You are out there, help me, please, at least to understand what is happening to me."

The main role of prayer is to put us in touch with God's view of our situation. We benefit from prayer to the extent that it does that. We benefit little from prayer if we view it as a way to make God do what we want.

In that case, even if we seem to get what we want for now, we will not grow into the people we should be. And there will come a time when we don't get what we want, and we also did not learn anything that would help us see the bigger picture. So we stop praying, and stop growing spiritually. Which is very sad because healing is only one of the benefits of prayer.

We are all going to die someday, which means that all healings are temporary. So I would say, by all means ask for healing, but don't stop there. Ask for insight too, for the day when healings come to an end.

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Prayer: Are studies of intercessory prayer an insult to God?

In Chapter 8 of The Spiritual Brain, Mario and I talked about an experiment in praying for the sick that didn't work out too well (the Benson study), and the reasons why. In Answering the New Atheism, philosophers Scott Hahn and Ben Wiker also comment, from a philosophical perspective.

First, they note, there is a big difference between studying a cause that is thought to be a natural cause and studying a cause that is thought to be a person. A natural cause must act under the right conditions, but a person (or Person!) hears you and can choose whether to act or not. It is the difference, for example, between using the laws of gravity to pilot an airplane and persuading the boss to let you buy an airplane for the business. Now, the philosophers say,
The error of the double-blind prayer experiment is that it treats God like some kind of natural cause rather than as a personal, rational Being. In doing so, God is being unjustly subjected to a humiliating attempt to manipulate Him by an experiment. In short, the experiment is an insult, and any rational being, superhuman or not, would treat it as such. That does not, of course, mean that praying for healing itself is an insult; we are speaking only of framing such prayer in the context of a manipulative experiment. (p. 57)
That, of course, has always been the difficulty with studying the effects of intercessory prayer as if they were like the effects of Pill A vs. Pill B.

See also:

Are prayer studies a waste of government money? No way!

Prayer studies: From one-way skepticism deliver us!

Prayer: Intercessory prayer works, according to study

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