Divine Placebo: Health and the Evolution of Religion


In this paper, I draw on knowledge from several disciplines to explicate the potential evolutionary significance of health effects of religiosity. I present three main observations. First, traditional methods of religious healers seldom rely on active remedies, but instead focus on lifestyle changes or spiritual healing practices that best can be described as placebo methods. Second, actual health effects of religiosity are thus mainly traceable to effects from a regulated lifestyle, social support networks, or placebo effects. Third, there are clear parallels between religious healing practices and currently identified methods that induce placebo effects. Physiological mechanisms identified to lie behind placebo effects activate the body’s own coping strategies and healing responses. In combination, lifestyle, social support networks, and placebo effects thus produce both actual and perceived health effects of religiosity. This may have played an important role in the evolution and diffusion of religion through two main pathways. First, any real positive health effects of religiosity would have provided a direct biological advantage. Second, any perceived health effects, both positive and negative, would further have provided a unique selling point for ‘religiosity’ per se. Actual and perceived health effects of religiosity may therefore have played an underestimated role during the evolution of religiosity through both biological and cultural pathways.

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This study was funded by Marianne and Marcus Wallenbergs Foundation (Grant 2017.0049).

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Correspondence to Patrik Lindenfors.

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Lindenfors, P. Divine Placebo: Health and the Evolution of Religion. Hum Ecol 47, 157–163 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-019-0066-7

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  • Evolution
  • Cultural evolution
  • Health
  • Placebo
  • Religiosity
  • Social support networks
  • Lifestyle