A Link Between Pathogen Avoidance And Religion?

24 Mar

Did you know that “bacteria” is literally Greek for rod?

Well this is a pretty far out there hypothesis. As I’ve posted before, collectivist tendencies are correlated with religion. And collectivist tendencies also seem to be related to disease detection and deterrence. An article called The Germ Theory of Democracy explores this hypothesis a bit further:

Psychologists and other social scientists have long been curious about this robust difference between human populations. In strongly collectivist societies, group membership forms the foundation of one’s identity. Sacrificing for the common good and maintaining harmonious ties with family and kin are expected. By contrast, in strongly individualist societies like those of the United Kingdom, the U.S., Australia, and the Netherlands, individual rights are valued above duties to others. One’s identity does not derive from the group, but rather is built through personal actions and achievements. Although these differences have been confirmed by many cross-cultural studies in a variety of different ways, no one had come up with a convincing evolutionary theory to suggest why it would be advantageous for one group of people to become more collectivist and another group to become more individualist.

Fincher suspected that many behaviors in collectivist cultures might be masks for behavioral immune responses. To take one key example, collectivist cultures tend to be both more xenophobic and more ethnocentric than individualist cultures. Keeping strangers away might be a valuable defense against foreign pathogens, Fincher thought. And a strong preference for in-group mating might help maintain a community’s hereditary immunities to local disease strains. To test his hypothesis, Fincher set out to see whether places with heavier disease loads also tended toward these sorts of collectivist values.

Working with Damian Murray and Mark Schaller, two psychologists from the University of British Columbia, and Thornhill, Fincher compared existing databases that rated cultural groups on the individualist-collectivist spectrum with data collected from the Global Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Network and other sources. The team paid special attention to nine pathogens (including malaria, leprosy, dengue, typhus, and tuberculosis) that are detrimental to human reproductive fitness. What the team found was a strong correlation between collectivist values and places with high pathogen stress. In 2008, Fincher, Thornhill, Schaller, and Murray published a major paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B that laid out the connection.


While there is much more research to be done, early findings suggest that—particularly when it comes to the development of local languages and religions—pathogen stress does appear to spawn cultural diversity.


By the time [Thornhill and Fincher] published a major paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2012, they had marshaled evidence that severe pathogen stress leads to high levels of civil and ethnic warfare, increased rates of homicide and child maltreatment, patriarchal family structures, and social restrictions regarding women’s sexual behavior.


Schaller and his colleagues, for example, set up a test to see if disease cues could influence laboratory subjects’ opinions of foreigners. Schaller’s team had one group of subjects watch a slideshow about germs and disease while another group watched a show about everyday accidents and dangers. The researchers then told the subjects that the Canadian government was going to spend money to attract immigrants to the country. As Schaller predicted, the test subjects who had been cued with the disease presentation were less inclined to spend money to attract people from unfamiliar countries.


Other critics have pointed to potential counterexamples to the pathogen stress theory: If strong religiosity is, as Thornhill and Fincher claim, an adaptive response to pathogen stress, then why do some religious people behave in such pathogenically promiscuous ways—engaging in blood rituals, circumcision, piercing or tattooing, or tromping off to proselytize in strange lands? Still other researchers have stepped in to suggest that the level of in-group preference in a culture can be better understood in relation to the quality and accessibility of local governmental institutions: The more dependable the institutions, the less people have to invest in their family and local groups to meet basic needs.

Seems interesting and both intuitive and counterintuitive. Intuitive because, yeah, how people respond to disease threat is a major motivator. Counterintuitive because, wow, can that motivation really snowball into entire systems of government, determining whether some government is either liberal or conservative?

Of course I’m more interested in the religion aspect of it. I wonder if the spread of religions can be predicted by the level of disease threat.

Another side point addressed in the article:

As fortune would have it, the United States may have just embarked on a natural experiment to test Thornhill and Fincher’s pathogen stress theory. Conservatives (with their collectivist values emphasizing religion, tradition, and regionalism) and liberals (with their individualist values of openness, anti-authoritarianism, and experimentation) have spent the better part of 10 years now manning their battle lines over the issue of universal access to health insurance coverage. If Thornhill and Fincher are right, conservatives may have had more reason to oppose the Affordable Care Act than they currently understand. Might an effective health intervention such as Obamacare move the country, on some deep psychological level, away from conservative values and toward more liberal ones? Is it possible that there are utterly unacknowledged stakes in this battle?

Yes, access to healthcare is also another leading indicator of religiosity. A more healthy society, that is, one where you don’t have to worry about your health, is a less religious society. Pathogen avoidance and cognitive impairment aren’t necessarily opposed in this case either; they could be working in concert to dampen a nation’s religiosity.

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Posted by on March 24, 2014 in cognitive science, economics/sociology


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