Is rooting out disease the root of religious belief in good and evil?

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Australian-led research suggests that disease could lie behind religious beliefs in good and evil. The researchers investigated the beliefs of 3,140 people from 28 countries, and say high levels of disease were associated with stronger beliefs in the devil, the malevolent power of the evil eye and in witches who channel evil. They also say conservative ideologies are more prevalent in countries with high disease burdens. The researchers suggest these beliefs may cause people to behave in ways that help avoid the spread of disease, such as shunning the afflicted who may be possessed by the forces of evil, so they may be an effective way of avoiding the spread of infection in countries where the risk of contracting illness is high.

Journal/conference: Proceedings of the Royal Society B

DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2019.1576

Organisation/s: The University of Melbourne, The University of Queensland

Funder: Australian Research Council.

Media Release

From: The Royal Society

Explaining illness with evil: Pathogen prevalence fosters moral vitalism

Pathogens represent a significant threat to human health leading to the emergence of strategies designed to help manage their negative impact. We examined how spiritual beliefs about forces of good and evil (moral vitalism) developed to explain and predict the devastating effects of pathogens and spread of infectious disease. We conclude that lay theories that good and evil forces exist in the world (moral vitalism) may be adaptive: by emphasizing concerns over contagion, these beliefs provided an explanatory model that enabled human groups to understand the transmission pathways of contagious disease and reduce rates of infection


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