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Judgments and Decisions Research

Judgments about the acceptability of water for religious use after potential scientific treatment

In light of the complex cultures and religious practices, our concept of scientific contagion bears special relevance in cautiously expanding potential scientific treatment of water used in religious practices. We need to think not just about using advanced water technology for cleaning water but more about public judgments.

Academic Publication

Research by Sumitava Mukherjee and Payel C. Mukherjee

Religious use of water abounds across the world. There are several narratives that augment the sacredness of waters deeming its celestial, sin-absolving nature which has been bestowed as a gift for human salvation. Such narratives are common across various water sites, in turn adding reverence to the belief in its healing, religious, and consecrated properties. At the same time, there is a looming public health risk in many of these holy waters from religiously famous wells and rivers that have high levels of microorganisms that can cause multiple adverse health issues and hence require scientific processing before use. 

Most would agree that scientifically treating water at religious sites or water filled from rivers or springs before religious use would be helpful to contain health risks. However, treated water needs to be acceptable for consumption — especially for religious usage by the public. This is not a trivial notion. For decades, researchers have documented the perceived differences between science and religion. On one hand, water technology is now sufficiently advanced for treating the water at the source or before use. On the other hand, psychological barriers to water treatment are largely based on the nuanced psychology of contagion. Scientific contagion, as we observe, underscores the possibility that water used for sacred purposes is psychologically different from water used for drinking, and that the idea of purity as a criterion for its acceptability for the two may be different.

Considering the intrinsically associated touch of the sacred in narratives about holy waters or merging with the scared in religious rituals, would any further touch — especially the touch of science in the form of scientific treatment, disrupt its acceptability for religious use?

We expand upon the original conceptualization of contagion to introduce a new hypothesis which we term Scientific Contagion. Our proposition is that scientific treatment might transfer some essence of science or technology to the processed substance which impacts the very nature of the substance. This transfer need not be physical. It requires expanding the spiritual contagion model that originally proposed a transfer of some essence from people to objects through physical touch to even more abstract transfers where specific processes imbibe or remove certain essences of the substance. One idea that is also closely associated with scientific contagion is that of contamination. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, contamination can be defined “as the action or state of making or being made impure by polluting or poisoning”. It is pertinent to note that while scientific contagion in our definition does not refer to making the substance physically impure; there is an implicit sense of “polluting” a spiritual essence. However, it does not necessarily hint at the object becoming non-consumable or inappropriate for any form of usage. Instead, scientific contagion acts like a mental heuristic where we intuitively regard the ‘touch’ of any ‘scientific process or treatment’ to potentially desecrate or contaminate the value of the substance. It specifically contaminates the essence for which it was understood, respected, and valued, particularly with respect to its sacramental, religious, and ritualistic usage.

The studies below lay forth this possibility and also highlight how our judgments are affected. This account in turn points out the complex relationships between science and religion via water that are relevant to public health.

Using the backdrop of India and its age-old religious history of using water, we conducted four studies.

For an ancient natural well having a religious narrative, most participants judged that the acceptability of water would be reduced for religious purposes but not for drinking if local officials scientifically treat the water. That is not the case if religious rituals are conducted on the water instead (study 1). If water from a “holy river” is processed scientifically, most participants predicted that it would reduce acceptability for religious use while increasing acceptability for drinking (study 2). Potential scientific treatment even without altering the composition of water from a natural spring also decreased acceptability for religious use but there was no effect on acceptability for drinking or on willingness to pay money for the water (study 3). A follow-up study comparing acceptability for different kinds of water sources — from a holy well, natural spring, and household tap water sourced from either underground wells or rivers found lower acceptability for religious usage compared to drinking after potential scientific treatment for all these waters, but more so for holy and natural waters (study 4). These studies establish the phenomena of scientific contagion that could have significant social implications and open future directions.

This paper sets the stage for an interdisciplinary dialogue between the psychology of judgment and decision making, the environmental research on water and the symbolic socio-cultural narratives around human engagements. It helps to think in terms of the growing relationship between the symbolic and the material. These complex relations between society, religion, science, and natural resources are of concern to multiple stakeholders spanning social scientists, health professionals, administrative policymakers, and the public at large. In light of the complex cultures and practices in India, along with the focus on hygiene, Swachhata, and cleanliness initiatives, our concept of scientific contagion bears special relevance in expanding such relations with water. This is a matter of critical concern because millions of people across the world possibly use water for their religious or sacred purposes. The bottom line is that it is not about advanced water technologies, but rather about public acceptability of such technological use in critical life activities in our culture.

(Excerpts taken from the paper published under Creative Commons Licence).

Mukherjee, S., & Mukherjee, P. C. (2022). Scientific contagion heuristic: Judgments about the acceptability of water for religious use after potential scientific treatment. Judgment and Decision Making17(6), 1334.


In Collaboration with the Academic Writing Lab, IIIT Delhi (Dr. Payel C. Mukherjee)

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Motivated by UN Sustainable Development Goal 6