HIVers 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 a study issued in April by the RAND Corp. As a result, the Santa Monica, Calif.'based research organization concludes, people with HIV who have strong religious ties are less likely to spread the virus.
David Kanouse, a behavioral scientist and principal investigator on the project, says the study did not identify what specific component of religiosity made a difference in sexual activity. However, he says two factors'moral beliefs and membership in a faith community'may be important.
'Moral beliefs may indicate an underlying altruism and a desire to make sure no one else is infected with HIV,' Kanouse says. 'Promoting these feelings could then be used as a component of HIV prevention programs.'
'These are some significant findings about the role of religiosity in the lives of people who are HIV-positive,' says Frank H. Galvan, lead author of the study, which was published in February in The Journal of Sex Research. '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.'
Religion remains a dominant force in America today, Galvan says, but the primary focus for many people of faith is sexual abstinence'rather than examining how else religious beliefs might help to prevent the further spread of HIV.
'This study suggests that there's a role for religious institutions to play in the fight against the spread of HIV,' he adds. 'They 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. Religiosity is an untapped resource in the whole struggle against HIV and should be looked at more thoroughly.'
Researchers studied a nationally representative sample of 1,421 people getting medical care for HIV; 932 of them reported recent sexual activity. Catholics were less likely than other mainline Christians, non-Christians, and nonreligious people to report unprotected sex. Catholics also were less likely to report high-risk sex than other mainline Christians and reported fewer partners than non-Christians. There was no statistical difference between Evangelicals and Catholics in reported sexual activity. Evangelicals were as likely as Catholics to have fewer sexual partners and equally likely to engage less frequently in unprotected and high-risk sex.
Other studies have found that gay men report a rate of attendance at religious services similar to that cited by heterosexual men and about the same rate in the frequency of prayer as do heterosexual women. African-Americans, who have been disproportionately affected by HIV, also report high levels of both attendance at religious services and prayer.
The researchers say 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 believe it is a point worthy of additional research and further exploration by faith-based groups. '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 notes. 'What role this may play in the sexual behaviors of Catholics and how this may differ from other religious groups warrants further investigation.'