Study: Religiosity an 'Untapped Resource' in AIDS Fight

Moral beliefs may play a significant role in the prevention of HIV/AIDS, a national study revealed. But religious devotion is an "untapped resource" in the whole AIDS battle, says one of the study's author.

"Religiosity, Denominational Affiliation and Sexual Behaviors among People with HIV in the U.S.," a study by the non-profit research think tank RAND Corporation, found that HIV-positive people who say religion is an important part of their lives are likely to have fewer sexual partners and engage in high-risk sexual behavior less frequently than other people with the virus.

According to Frank H. Galvan, lead author of the study, the study suggests there's a role for religious institutions to play in the fight against the spread of HIV. And the role of faith communities goes beyond talking about sexual abstinence.

Galvan suggests examining how else religious beliefs may help to prevent the spread of HIV other than abstinence talk.

"They (religious institutions) have these core belief systems that do have a positive impact on the lives of people who are HIV-positive and who are sexually active," stated Galvan, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior with the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, in the report. "Religiosity is an untapped resource in the whole struggle against HIV and AIDS, and should be looked at more thoroughly."

An estimated 38.6 million people worldwide were living with HIV at the end of 2005, according to the 2006 UNAIDS report. While the numbers of people living with HIV have continued to rise, there have been recent declines in national HIV prevalence in some countries that go alongside indications of significant behavioral change, including increased condom use, fewer partners and delayed sexual debut, the report stated.

Best-selling author and megapastor Rick Warren said at a recent Urbana missions conference in St. Louis, Mo., that although there are secular approaches to preventing HIV/AIDS, they only slow the pandemic.

"If you want to stop it, now you have to bring in the church," he said.

David Kanouse, a RAND senior behavioral scientist and principal investigator on the project, noted two factors that may be important in influencing sexual activity - moral beliefs and membership in a faith community.

"Moral beliefs may indicate an underlying altruism and a desire to make sure no one else is infected with HIV," Kanouse said in the report. "Promoting these feelings could then be used as a component of HIV prevention programs."

The RAND study, published in the February 2007 issue of the Journal of Sex Research, was conducted in 1996-1997 on a national sample of 1,421 people getting medical care for HIV; 932 of respondents reported recent sexual activity.

Results showed Evangelicals were as likely as Catholics to have fewer sexual partners and equally likely to engage less frequently in unprotected and high-risk sex.

Overall, Catholics were less likely than other mainline Christians, non-Christians and non-religious people to report unprotected sex and they were also less likely to report high-risk sex than other mainline Christians.

"These are some significant findings about the role of religiosity in the lives of people who are HIV-positive," said Galvan. "The next step is to find out how can we use this information in a way that can help lower the rate of spreading HIV to others."

The researchers said they don't understand why there were differences between the different denominations, including why Catholics were more likely to use condoms despite the Catholic Church's prohibition on birth control, but said it was a point worthy of additional research and further exploration by faith-based communities, according to the report.

"Although the Pope may issue a proclamation on some aspect of sexual behavior, Catholics increasingly are inclined to consider their individual consciences as sources of moral authority," the study noted. "What role this may play in the sexual behaviors of Catholics and how this may differ from other religious groups warrants further investigation."

The study's findings are not likely to have changed over time, said Galvan, who added that the findings are consistent with other studies that have found a link between religiosity and fewer lifetime sexual partners.