February 24, 2024

Using Darwinism to explain religion

Infectious disease is ultimate cause of religious diversity

It was Richard
Dawkins who concocted the notion of memes, ideas which propagate themselves
like a virus through natural selection. Sometimes neo-Darwinism itself seems to
be a meme spreading throughout the highly esteemed news magazine The
, especially in its science section. A recent issue featured a
Darwinian explanation for religious diversity suggested by an academic at the
University of New Mexico. Corey Fincher believes that religions are protections
against disease and death, and that they therefore confer a survival advantage
upon a religious group.

The argument runs
like this: in the days before antibiotics and public hygiene, diseases were
often deemed to be spread by strangers. Hence it behoved people to live in
tightly-knit societies to ward off those poxy foreigners. Since religion builds
social cohesiveness, Fincher hypothesised that religious diversity should be
strongest in countries which more disease. "Religions may be for marking,
but at a more fundamental level, social marking may in and of itself be due to
infectious disease stress," says

After a bit of
number crunching, he determined that the average number of religions in each
country is 31. But in tropical countries where disease is rampant, like Cote
D’Ivoire and Brazil, there are 76 and 159 respectively, compared to Norway’s 13
and Canada’s 15. (A quick tally on the editor’s fingers brought the number of
religions in Canada to well over 20, so something may be amiss here.) “There is
less than one chance in 10,000 that it has come about accidentally,” says The Economist admiringly.

This could be good
news for ecumenism. If Fincher’s theory is true, reconciling religious
differences might be as easy as supplying theologians with sanitary wipes for doorhandles
during their discussions. ~ The
Economist, July 31
; ScienceNOW Daily News, July 30