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.