Some people say that religion has some evolutionary purpose. I’m skeptical of that, and instead tend to think of it as exploiting human psychology. Especially in times of uncertainty, there seems to be a tendency for people to believe and follow whoever confidently claims to have the answer. (You can see this effect in the wake of 9/11 when people like George Bush and Giuliani received extremely high approval ratings. Over Bush’s seven years in office, his approval rating peaked one month after 9/11.) And I think religious leaders have managed to draw followers precisely because they claim to have the answers. Well, I ran across this Reuters story today: Benin priests battle bird flu with Voodoo. The small West African country recently had two cases of H5N1 bird flu in chickens – a strain that can be deadly to humans.
Sacrificing chickens in a spray of blood, Benin’s traditional priests celebrated Voodoo Day on Thursday and declared their ancient religion would protect them from risk of infection by the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus.
Benin health experts have warned the country’s Voodoo priests their practice of sacrificing chickens — sometimes by tearing out the birds’ throats with teeth or drinking their blood — creates a major risk of contamination from sick birds.
“It’s not a question of religion … the unprotected manipulation of poultry is dangerous,” Julien Toessi, director of health promotion at the Health Ministry, told Reuters.
Voodoo practitioners, spurning the protective suits, gloves and masks recommended for handling suspect birds, declared their faith would shield them from infection during ceremonies in which sacrificed chickens’ blood is sprayed over the faithful and the ground to “purify” them and gain favor from the gods.
“If you buy a chicken to sacrifice it to your God, he will not let you buy an infected bird,” said Dah Aligbonon, a Voodoo priest from Abomey, the former capital of the ancient African kingdom of Dahomey.
How sad. Those poor deluded people are completely wrong about the world they live in — and they risk infecting people with bird flu because of it. (Does religion have an ‘evolutionary purpose’ when it leads to death?) But, by standing up and confidently proclaiming that their god will protect them, they’re doing exactly what will strengthen their followers’ faith: acting confidently.
“We don’t fear infection from bird flu … because there is a divine power that accompanies our sacrifice,” Aligbonon added.