A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: When AIDS is God’s Punishment

Jim Burroway

March 30th, 2011

When people who are HIV-positive hold a view of God as benevolent and forgiving, their disease progression is significantly slower than for those who see God as punishing and judgmental, according to a new study to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.  

Researchers at the University of Miami followed 101 HIV-positive people over four years, measuring their viral load (VLlog) and CD-4 counts to determine the progression of their disease. Researchers also monitored other factors which may impact disease progression, including adherance to medication, sexual risk behavior, and other drug use. They also examined psychological measures to determine whether depression, church attendance, social engagement/isolation, or optimism contributed to disease progression. 

After four years, the reseachers determined that a positive view of God was significantly associate with slower disease progression, while those holding to a negative, judgmental and punishing view showed significantly faster disease progression:  

More specifically, the decline ratio shows that those who were low on Positive View of God (at the 25th percentile, score of 23) lost CD4-cells five times faster than those who were high on this construct (at the 75th percentile, score of 30). The increase ratio shows that for those scoring low on Positive View of God (25th percentile, score of 23), VLlog those scoring high (75th percentile, score of 30). Similarly, those who held a Negative View of God as harsh/judgmental/punishing had significantly greater loss of CD4-cells over the 4 years, and significantly worse control of HIV. More specifically, those high on Negative View of God (75th percentile, score of 18) lost CD4-cells 2.52 times faster than those who were low (25th percentile, score of 10.5) and had 3.32 times faster increases in VLlog

The interesting thing is that results like this held true even when the sample was adjusted for other factors. A positive view of God remained a significant beneficial factor even after adjusting for church attendance, health behaviors (adherence to medication, sexual risk behavior, alcohol/cocaine use), coping behaviors, and social support. A positive view of God also remained beneficial when adjusting for mood (optimism, depression, hopelessness). Which means that even if a person held a view of God as judgmental and punishing but was still optimistic, not depressed, socially engaged, taking his or her meds, etc., the person with a positive view of God still held a health edge after four years. According to the study’s authors, “The effects of View of God were significant and substantial.” 

The authors gave one interesting example of how this effect might work for some people:

One of our long-term survivors, Sarah (not her real name) who has a positive view of God, interpreted her HIV diagnosis by reframing it into having been chosen by God for a special purpose—to help the heterosexual HIV community by establishing a community center and place of welcome for them.

Non-belief in God was not examined in this study due to the small number of atheists in their initial sample. They also caution that while there is a correlation between disease progression and a view of God, “it does not imply that View of God causes disease-progression.”

Gail Ironson, Rick Stuetzle, Dale Ironson, Elizabeth Balbin, Heidemarie Kremer, Annie George, Neil Schneiderman, Mary Ann Fletcher. “View of God as benevolent and forgiving or punishing and judgmental predicts HIV disease progression.” Journal of Behavioral Medicine (published online February 22, 2911): in press. Abstract available here.


March 30th, 2011

I know faith in God gives a lot of people strength, etc. etc. Tho this study makes me wonder about the flipside effect: Do those who believe in God’s wrath accept at some level God’s punishment and subconsciously allow the disease to take a stronger hold? Just a thought …


March 30th, 2011

Might no even be that far below conscious thought. Those who think it is divine punishment will be less pushed to seek remedies. That’s the inherent danger in explaining the world as purposefully set up by a deity and rationalising everything in it.

Timothy Kincaid

March 30th, 2011

This is fascinating.

I don’t want to jump all over it yet, but if this is replicated or demonstrated in other areas then it provides an interesting counter point to all the “homosexuality is unhealthy” buffoons.

“No, actually there is no science that supports your assertion that homosexuality, per se, results in decreased health. However, fundamentalism has been proven to be a killer.”

Timothy Kincaid

March 30th, 2011


Yes. But that’s only half the story.

We can’t simply look at the Bad God believers who were hurt. We also have to consider the Good God believers who were benefited.

Seen from the other side, we could equally argue that this study demonstrated the inherent benefit in explaining the world as purposefully set up by a benevolent deity. It is as much an argument in favor of belief as it is one in opposition.

But it did not look at whether belief v. non-belief had any impact. We can’t legitimately extrapolate any information about belief or non-belief. We call it fraud when anti-gays compare married parents to single parents and then try to apply it to gay couples (assuming that they are like single parents). Let’s not use the same tactics.

Gay in Bethlehem

March 30th, 2011

…the last sentence basically invalidates what seems to be the purpose of the article (Causation ..which you don’t have). If anything, we could flip it around saying: for those whose disease is progressing, you may imagine their only explanation left of their God is that He is unforgiving, etc. Likewise, if someone is seeing improvement in their condition, they have reason to feel that God is watching them and smiling with forgiveness.

I just felt like the entire article (minus the last sentence), was heavily implying that this study proves that HIV-positive people should adopt a positive view of God.

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