The Catholic Church has often been criticized for its opposition to the use of condoms in relation to preventing the spread of HIV infections.
Religion is not the enemy according to a recently published book, “Religion and AIDS in Africa,” by Jenny Trinitapoli and Alexander Weinreb, (Oxford University Press).
In their introduction, the authors noted that many of the people they spoke to in Africa about AIDS viewed it from a religious perspective. This was a challenge in their research, they admitted, as they came from a background of demography and sociology, with ideas about religion that were strongly influenced by secularization theory.
“In line with this view, we imagined that the religious responses to AIDS in the context of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) were a vestige of antiquated ideas about health, illness, germs, viruses, witches, and spirits,” they explained.
Over time their attitude changed as they saw how religion was such an important part of the lives of people.
On examining the correlation between religious practices and HIV it turns out that the level of infection is notably lower among members of theologically conservative traditions.
One study in Malawi found that religious men and women in religious villages were less likely to be infected with HIV. The relationship was stronger for women than men.
Level of religion
They also found that it did not matter which Church or faith people belonged to in terms of the level of HIV infection. The critical factor is how religious people are.
Religion also plays an important part in educating people about AIDS and how it is transmitted. In general in SSA the authors found that a majority of Catholics and Protestants knew about how the infection is transmitted, a higher level of knowledge than among Muslims and practitioners of traditional religions.
When it comes to an infection related to sexual transmission, abstinence is clearly the most effective way to avoid contracting the illness, the authors admitted. While both secular and religious groups promote abstinence they do so from very different perspectives.
The secular groups advocate abstinence from purely instrumental reasons, while religious groups do so as a moral issue, the authors commented. Religious messages, they noted, reach a wider audience, and are more in tune with the situation of the average African.
As in the rest of the world adolescents who are religiously active are also less likely to be sexually active, compared to their less religious counterparts, the authors observed. Research has shown that this can have important consequences in curbing the spread of HIV.
In addition to promoting abstinence all the major religions promote marital fidelity. Not only in SSA, but around the world, studies show that those who regularly attend religious services are less likely to engage in extra-matrimonial sex, the authors commented.
“Religion shapes how people think about fidelity, temptation, and risk,” they noted.
One of the chapters of the book explained in more detail how religion influences personal behavior. It looked at attitudes regarding divorce, alcohol consumption and the use of gifts or money for sexual activity.
Prevention and assistance
Secular policy-makers have overlooked these factors, the authors commented, yet, they concluded religious leaders have the capacity to legitimize different types of prevention strategies.
When it comes to how people react to those who are infected with HIV the authors concluded that religious leaders are less stigmatizing than people in general. This also holds true for the members of institutionalized religions. “More religious people report less stigmatizing views than their less religious counterparts,” they observed.
Religion also influences people when it comes to helping those who are infected. In their research in Malawi the authors found that visiting the sick and helping them with donations of food was notably higher among Christians.
Around 30% of Christians engaged in this activity, compared to 7% of Muslims, and 5% of those who seldom attended religious services.
The pattern repeats itself when it comes to orphans. “In the world of AIDS mitigation and beyond, church-related caregiving groups, orphan care groups and development committees are intermediate institutions, which are critical building blocks of a burgeoning civil society,” the book concluded.
The concluding chapter of the book noted that organized religion is often portrayed in the media as being a barrier to condom use and therefore an obstacle in fighting AIDS. “Our findings counter this view,” the authors stated.
Without the religious response to people who suffer from HIV the toll of AIDS on communities in SSA would be “infinitely worse,” they added.
“In SSA, the most effective efforts to reduce the transmission of HIV and to mitigate its effects on families and communities contain a substantial moral component,” they affirmed.
The religious-moral component to this subject “is off-putting to committed secularists,” they admitted, but ignoring it “will lead us down the wrong path.”
The evidence presented in this book clearly shows that far from being a problem when it comes to AIDS, religion, and particularly Christianity, is an essential part of the solution.