Science on Religion

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Muslim views of AIDS, part 2

HIV graphicIn part 1 of this article, Jonas Svensson (Linnaeus University, Sweden) provided the theoretical background for a sensitive topic: why do Muslims tend towards interpreting the AIDS epidemic as punishment from God rather than appealing to some other explanation? As seen, he theorizes that this interpretation outcompetes its competition by being a more intuitive, powerful explanation that requires the least amount of cognitive work (thus resulting in a minimal amount of cognitive dissonance). Now Svensson must move on to the next step and test his theory.

To do so, he breaks down the “belief” that AIDS is God’s punishment into a six-part “belief set.” As he puts it, “(1) there exists an invisible agent, God, (2) who has certain strong views on (mainly sexual) morality (3) which He demands that human beings adhere to, (4) who knows when they do not, (5) and who will then act to punish them (individually or collectively) (6) by delivering suffering and ultimate death to individuals.”

To test his theory, Svenssen compares it against the prevailing literature in the scientific study of religion in four areas. First, he appeals to “minimally counterintuitive beliefs.” Minimally counterintuitive beliefs are beliefs that are indeed counterintuitive but only a smidge so. Svenssen provides the example of gods or ancestors who can pass through walls. As anthropomorphic entities, they are almost entirely human, save for their few counterintuitive qualities (all of which are readily comprehensible). In the current case of divine punishment, the ideas that God has strong views on human sexuality, demands that humans obey these views, and will punish them if they don’t (item numbers 2, 3, and 5 above) are the minimally counterintuitive beliefs at work. Each one makes God anthropomorphic, and so understandable, but adds superhuman power or knowledge. Furthermore, the fact that God knows everything, including human intentions, means that one can appeal to divine punishment in a variety of circumstances.

Second, AIDS as divine punishment passes the test of having to represent “zina,” an important term in Islamic law. Zina refers to one of the particular types of violations of divine law where God has prescribed very exact penalties. More specifically, it refers to sexual behavior explicitly forbidden by God. Obviously, this is a serious crime in the eyes of Muslims, and so extraordinary punishment (AIDS) is not at all beyond the scope of possibilities from a cultural perspective. In other words, AIDS as divine punishment fits part and parcel with a strongly held belief in Islamic culture (zina), and as such, there is an already made language and way of dealing with sexual “crimes.” Divine punishment for perceived sexual deviancy existed long before AIDS did.

Third, Svenssen cites studies about “hypersensitive agency detection” (HADD). This well-documented phenomenon refers to when humans mistake spontaneous activity for goal-oriented activity. For instance, a rustling bush could simply be wind (spontaneous activity) but the mind quickly jumps to something with agency (a tiger waiting to pounce). Svenssen argues that AIDS as divine punishment is a classic instance of HADD: something that occurred spontaneously is viewed as having agency behind it. This type of explanation for AIDS satisfies the human brain and so increases its chances of propagating.

Fourth and finally, besides zina, there is another Islamic term that may cause Muslims to default to seeing AIDS as divine punishment; that term is “qadar.” Qadar essentially means predestination, the belief that God has preordained what will happen in people’s lives. Theoretically, since God will know what people did and what they will do, God could plan for AIDS to strike people for their sins.

With these and other points, Svenssen does succeed in tying his hypothesis to the current conclusions of the field of the scientific study of religion. However, despite the massive amount of support he draws, he does not conduct exact empirical research, that is, he does not actually survey Muslims or do meatier, on-the-ground work. Perhaps one might argue he doesn’t have to, but his results do seem more susceptible to doubt.

For more, see “God’s Rage: Muslim Representations of HIV/AIDS as a Divine Punishment from the Perspective of the Cognitive Science of Religion” in the journal Numen.


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