What are the relationships between religion and health issues such as AIDS?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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When health issues emerge, one can find a segment of people embracing religion as a potential means of explanation and even justification for such concerns..  Throughout human history, the relationship between religion and health issues can be linked through the former being an offered means of understanding the complexity of the latter.  This was seen as far back as the Black Death and can be seen in the current framework of health issues surrounding the spread of the Ebola virus.  It is also a part of the history of the AIDS disease.

One distinct part of the relationship between religion and health issues is a perception that it is a reflection of "God's judgment."  Those in the position of religious power have often used health issues as a way to increase awareness of religious concepts.  For example, during the Black Plague, so much fear was rampant that people willingly paid high amounts of money in the form of indulgences to members of the religious clergy in order to be "spared" from the "damnation" which was perceived to be a part of the plague.  This same type of belief is evident in the current fear surrounding the Ebola Virus.  For example, Christian leaders in Liberia have made the connection that the health issue of the Ebola Virus is a direct statement of God's unhappiness with those who do not follow the Christian way:  “God is angry with Liberia...Ebola is a plague. Liberians have to pray and seek God’s forgiveness over the corruption and immoral acts (such as homosexualism, etc.) that continue to penetrate our society.”  The connection of religion to health issues provides a two pronged approach to those in the position of religious power.  The first is that it provides a sense of explanation for individuals who are sincerely confused as t the exact dimensions of health issues.  Religion is used as a way of explanation.  For example, very few now suggest that polio is a form of "God's curse" because there is a vaccination for it.  However, when it comes to a health issue where answers are not immediate, the invocation of God helps to initiate a sense of fear within the individual as a means of explanation.  That is to say that the thought process emerges that since there is not a full means of understanding the health concern, invoking religion might be where some explanation is present.  At the same time, it also helps to substantiate those in the form of religious power.  Those making the connection between religion and health issues speak from a perceived position of power and stature that continues throughout the health crisis.

The convergence of both of these realities of explanation and power is a significant aspect of the relationship between the health issue of AIDS and religion. When AIDS was at its zenith in the 1980s and when answers were not direct and plentiful, religion was used as a way to both explain the health crisis and help to justify power associated with religion at the same time.  Leaders such as Reverend Jerry Falwell were instrumental in this connection.  Falwell asserted that "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals, it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals."  Falwell also claimed that AIDS was "proof of society's moral decay," and linked AIDS to a lifestyle that was not immediately associated with Christianity and the "Christian way." In this regard, Falwell and others like him were quick to connect religion and health issues.  They sought the opportunity to both explain health realities as well as bolster the public perception of their own spiritual faith.  Throughout human history, there have been individuals who have been able to manipulate this condition of health concern and religious spirituality.

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