Journal of Religion and Health

, Volume 50, Issue 1, pp 62–74 | Cite as

American Medicine as Religious Practice: Care of the Sick as a Sacred Obligation and the Unholy Descent into Secularization

  • Margaret P. Wardlaw
Original Paper


Modern medicine serves a religious function for modern Americans as a conduit through which science can be applied directly to the human body. The first half of this paper will focus on the theoretical foundations for viewing medicine as a religious practice arguing that just as a hierarchical structured authoritarian church historically mediated access to God, contemporary Western medicine provides a conduit by which the universalizable truths of science can be applied to the human being thereby functioning as a new established religion. I will then illustrate the many parallels between medicine and religion through an analysis of rituals and symbols surrounding and embedded within the modern practice of medicine. This analysis will pay special attention to the primacy placed on secret interior knowledge of the human body. I will end by responding to the hope for a “secularization of American medicine,” exploring some of the negative consequences of secularization, and arguing that, rather than seeking to secularize, American medicine should strive to use its religious features to offer hope and healing to the sick, in keeping with its historically religious legacy.


Religion Biomedicine Symbolic meaning Enlightenment 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Institute for Medical HumanitiesThe University of Texas Medical Branch at GalvestonGalvestonUSA

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