Research from a number of disciplines indicates that the interpretation of hiv/aids as a divine punishment for illicit sexual practices dominates both a contemporary intra-Muslim public religious discourse and perceptions of the disease among Muslims. This dominance persists despite the existence of alternative theological interpretations, and despite seemingly contradictory empirical evidence. The present article develops a hypothesis on why this is the case and poses it against existing attempts at explanations. The theoretical basis for this hypothesis is elaborated with the help of findings from within the cognitive science of religion, and particularly the notion of an “epidemiology of representations.” According to the hypothesis, a combination of general psychological and cognitive factors and specific contextual factors provide the notion of hiv/aids as a divine punishment, with a selective advantage in certain social contexts over both theological alternatives and non-religious understandings of the disease. The article finally puts forward some predictions that may be tested empirically in further research.
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Here, “theology” is used in a wide sense to denote any “discourse on God,”i.e., any reflective representation of divine agency and intentionality, more or less elaborated. As such, it contrasts with a wider notion of religious beliefs, which also includes non-reflectively generated representations, a topic that will be further elaborated on in this article.