Infectious Ideas: An Epidemiological Approach to Religion

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Social scientists find it helpful to think of ideas and religions spreading like infectious diseases. Phrases like “going viral” and “tipping points” are often used to describe the spread of memes. Though many religious adherents are loath to admit it, Sam Kean writes for Search Magazine that “genes, germs, and memes of religious ideas all seem to spread through societies in the same way.”

One social scientist takes the idea a step further, saying that real diseases (the kind spread by microbes) help explain the spread of religions. Corey Fincher points out that diseases are more common in places near the equator, and there’s a vast disparity of religions in those regions, too. Up north, in places like Norway, both diseases and religious diversity are less common. Fincher believes that this is not a fluke. People tend to isolate themselves from others to stay away from diseases, and isolation breeds new ideas, so a greater number of diseases would lead to a wider variety of religions.

Even with plenty of research, most people wouldn’t cite disease as the reason for their religious beliefs. But as Harvey Whitehouse, an Oxford University anthropologist points out, “It’s not that what people say is wrong, it’s that it’s often a poor guide to people’s implicit beliefs.

Image by Orange Tuesday, licensed under Creative Commons.

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