HIV

HIV, spirituality & religion

Spirituality means different things to different people. For instance, it can mean believing in a higher power, trying to find a higher purpose in life, finding inner peace, or feeling connected and in balance with others and the natural world. When the people we spoke to talked about their spirituality they were describing a personal journey based on their own experience.

Religion 

There are many different religions in the UK including Islam, traditional African, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. This summary only discusses Christianity in any detail because the people we talked to discussed this religion the most.

Most (but not all) African individuals we talked to were very spiritual in their thinking, and attending their place of worship was often important to them. For people who had to deal with very challenging life circumstances (e.g. uncertain immigration status, death of family members, poverty), religion could be a source of enormous support and encouragement.

On the other hand, given the long history of religious intolerance of sexual minorities like gay men, it was not surprising that many gay men had deep misgivings about organised religion. One man said, 'To me it's a crutch. Some people need a crutch. Some take alcohol. Some take Jesus Christ.' Also, gay men frequently had to overcome ingrained negative messages from religions that being gay makes you sinful or a bad person. But as one gay man said, 'He (God) created me as homosexual… So I'm not a sin. So I have to tell myself that, everyday, time to time. It makes me feel good.'

Instead of strongly advocating a particular religion, spiritual gay men usually discussed their views in less conventional terms (e.g. 'I generally try to respect other people. And be nice to other people.') As one man who had lived with HIV for many years said, 'I like the idea of earth and nature and animals. And the awareness of breathing. The awareness of being alive.' Another long-term survivor said, 'I am not quite sure what belief I have. I feel I am quite spiritual because I still feel even today, there but for the grace of God go I. I am living with HIV and I am not on any medication.'  

Religious ceremonies can also be comforting even to those who are not at all religious.

When religion does not offer support, this can contribute to negative thinking. For gay men, religion could make it hard for them to accept their sexuality. For Africans, the stigmatisation of people with HIV even within religions is a huge problem. Unfortunately, for many Africans, this means keeping silent about their HIV in the church or the mosque, rather than seeking support. 'We do go to churches. You are even worried to tell even your pastor about it. If you tell your pastor it's going to spread now, it's another stigma.' But as one woman said, 'God has not cast you out because of your condition. God loves everybody… The lepers were just at almost the same situation as ours… Jesus (put) out a hand and took them on.' 

People were often pragmatic with their religions, accepting what was useful while ignoring ideas that they considered wrong e.g. 'you can hear even the Catholics said you should not use condoms… But I object that. A condom is important, it saves a lot of lives.' Some women even talked about setting up their own prayer meetings for Africans with HIV. More hopefully, some religious communities are responding to the HIV crisis and are now beginning to embrace people with HIV.

Prayer

Prayer is about communicating with a higher power to express feelings and thoughts, offer gratitude and make requests. For the people we interviewed, praying worked in three main ways. 

Firstly, praying helped people because an HIV diagnosis can feel very isolating. Having a sense of a higher power that you could communicate with could be very comforting e.g. 'I think when you pray usually you feel relieved that you've talked to somebody.' When things are not going well, a conversation with a 'higher power' can provide a focus for overcoming negative thoughts and expressing difficult feelings like grief. For instance, some people were able to express anger with God when facing death, or used prayer as a way to remove themselves from negative thoughts.

Secondly, people said that praying helped to change a state of mind in positive ways. People linked their praying to having more hope, feeling stronger, being more courageous, feeling able to forgive those who had hurt you, being more positive about themselves and their lives, and having greater calmness. One African woman said that after her illness and diagnosis, ' I was praying quite a lot for God to give me strength… I found that really comforting. I thought that really kept me calm. It really kept me very calm and composed.' Although praying can still be useful, people who are very depressed may not feel like praying.

Finally, many believed that through prayer, a higher power was able to intervene in illness as well as life problems to provide help. 

While some religious communities might insist that healing for HIV can happen only through prayer and not medication, no one we talked to believed that. Instead, people believed that being spiritual helped the medical treatment to work, or reasoned that medical treatment could also be seen as the work of God.

The National African HIV Prevention Programme (NAHIP) has developed resources for Christian and Muslim faith leaders and African community based organisations. The materials are used to increase levels of awareness on HIV and to change perceptions of HIV and Africans in the UK (see the African HIV Prevention Handbook - Putting the Knowledge, the Will and the Power into Practice). 

Last reviewed May 2017.

Last updated January 2013.

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