Epidemiology and Religion: Aetiologies of Contagion

By Paul-François Tremlett

We are all becoming acquainted, at some level, with epidemiological theories of viral transmission, as we try to understand the gravity, and see a way out, of our current crisis. Perhaps uniquely in the humanities and social sciences, the field of religious studies has been working with these theories for some time. This is because religious beliefs have, at least since the 1990s, been represented repeatedly in epidemiological terms as viruses and contagions. Indeed, these metaphors for religious beliefs and their transmission have been constitutive of new atheist and evolutionary psychological theories of religion which owe much to the work of the anthropologist Dan Sperber. Sperber argued that

… individual brains are each inhabited by a large number of ideas that determine … behaviour … An idea, born in the brain of one individual, may have, in the brains of other individuals, descendants that resemble it. Ideas can be transmitted, and by being transmitted from one person to another, they may even propagate … Culture is made up, first and foremost, of such contagious ideas … To explain culture, then, is to explain why and how some ideas happen to be contagious. This calls for the development of a true epidemiology of representations (Sperber 1996: 1; italics in original).

Sperber’s controversial rendering of learning and transmission in terms of a disease model was taken up by Jesse Bering, Pascal Boyer, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett among others. They proposed that religious beliefs had special properties that made them cognitively attractive and ensured their continuing propagation in human populations, even in “modern” ecologies assumed to be hostile to religious transmission (Bering 2003; Boyer 2003; Dawkins 2007; Dennett 2006). But what are the effects of talking about religious beliefs in this way?

Forgive me if my answer to this question includes a detour to Manila (one must travel these days any way one can).

On the 14th March 1902, a ship from Hong Kong arrived in Manila and, despite observing quarantine restrictions, shortly after, cholera was discovered in Farola, a barrio near the mouth of the Pasig river. It was the beginning of a cholera epidemic that spread through Luzon and lasted until February 1904, claiming over 109,000 lives. The Filipino historian Reynaldo Ileto (1988) has focused on the entanglement of the medical campaign launched to arrest the spread of the cholera bacillus with the US military campaign simultaneously waged against Filipino nationalist forces. Many of the Filipinos fighting the Americans were participants in religio-nationalist movements. Their conceptions of health and freedom were as much the targets of the quarantine measures as the cholera itself. Medical knowledge and discourse de-legitimated local forms of knowledge and experience which were rendered as “backwardness”, “ignorance” and “superstition”, and indeed provided ideological cover for some of the larger claims of Empire. And, if the cholera epidemic provided cover for the American Empire in the early twentieth century Philippines, the ideological effects of anthropologists, new atheists and cognitive psychologists talking about religious beliefs using terms imported from medicine surely include disguise for an attempt to establish new protocols and procedures to determine who is and is not qualified to speak about religions – in short to advance, under cover of objective science, a particular constellation of power-knowledge.

It is important not to misunderstand the point I am trying to make. I am not a relativist arguing for the equal validity of different forms of knowledge and experience. Rather I am arguing for vigilance, for every claim to knowledge is a move in a war of position. And every move has consequences.

Bering, J. (2003), ‘Towards a Cognitive Theory of Existential Meaning’ in New Ideas in             Psychology, 21: 101-120.

Boyer, P. (2003), ‘Religious Thought and Behaviour as By-Products of Brain Function’ in Trends in Cognitive Science, 7 (3): 119-124.

Dawkins, R. (2007), The God Delusion, London: Black Swan.

Dennett, D. C. (2006), Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, London: Penguin.

Ileto, R. C. (1988), ‘Cholera and the Origins of the American Sanitary Order in the Philippines’ in Imperial Medicine and Indigenous Societies, (ed), D. Arnold, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Sperber, D. (1996), Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach, Oxford: Blackwell.