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The Intersectionality of Religion and
Medicine in the Health Humanities



This research focuses on determining the intersectionality of religion and medicine/health throughout the years. The two have impacted each other greatly, contributing to new findings in the field of medicine and the founding of new religious sects. While originally very religious, medicine has become more secular as the years have passed. This research begins with Ancient Medicine and continues through to modern-day practices, tracing the influences of religion on medicine and its applications in the field of health.

The Cult of Asclepius during the Plague of Athens

Source: Robert Thom

Ancient Medicine

450 B.C.E. to 1600 C.E.
Overview of Various Religious Practices in Medicine:

The groups/religions focused on during this preliminary research included the Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel), the Greeks, the Romans, Christianity (Early and Middle Ages), and Islam. Hinduism, Buddhism, ancient Chinese medicinal practices, and folk medicine were also studied, although not as in-depth.  A common thread among these groups included:

  • Botany as a cure/treatment to ailments (all groups)

  • The idea of possession by demons/evil spirits (Greeks, Romans, Hinduism, Christianity)   

  • Priest and Physician as separate entities (Ancient Near East, Greek)

  • Magic's use for healing (Greeks, Romans, Early Christianity, Islam (Sufi)). 

  • Suffering as a way to repent (Ancient Near East, Greeks, Romans, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam)

  • Development of Hospitals (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism)

  • God treats through the Physician (Judaism, Islam)

  • Healing via Prayer (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Chinese Medicine)

Major Influences in Ancient Medicine:

Hippocrates (460 BCE - 370 BCE) is often coined as the Father of Medicine. He laid the groundwork for the future of medicine, through his work on the human body and by defining the 4 humours (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and mucus). He also identified the limitations of medicine, claiming “What is not healed with medicine, is healed with the knife; what the knife does not heal, is healed with the cautery, and what the cautery does not heal must be considered incurable.” Because his ideas were flexible, they were easily utilized by monotheistic religions.

Galen (129 CE - 216 CE) further developed humoral pathology and is often considered the last great physician of antiquity. Islam received the work of Hippocrates and Galen warmly. They used it in their treatments, removing the polytheistic elements to fit their religious barriers. In addition, because the act of dissection was seen as inappropriate in Islam, they based their knowledge solely on that of Galen.

Asclepius is seen as the patron god of medicine, being of Greek origin. As the chief healing god, he garnered a following, naming themselves the Cult of Asclepius, who built temples in his honor and treated patients. Beginning in the 4th century, Christians began to believe in Asclepius.

Historical Events:

During this time, several important events occurred which shaped the lens through which religion and medicine were viewed.

  • Development of the Hospital - while not considered a fully-fledged institution, the first hospital was founded in the 4th century in Rome by a wealthy widow named Fabiola 

  • Rule of St Benedict (516) - ordered no restrictions upon the care for the sick

  • 4th Lateran Council (1215) - Canon 22 pronounced confession as the ideal healing method, prioritizing priests at bedside before physicians (healing the soul is more important than healing the body)

The Emergence of Hospitals:

Starting as early as the 4th century, hospitals began to emerge. Being tied to religion heavily in the beginning, these institutions were linked with churches, monasteries, and mosques. The Bīmāristān changed this narrative, being not only for the sick but also for education. The first of these Islamic Hospitals was built in 872 in Egypt as part of the royal complex. While still having religious undertones, treatments at Bīmāristāns were based largely on the teachings of Galen, and the teaching of future practitioners was prioritized.  

Gender as an Additional Component:

Until the Middle Ages, women were still given privileges within the medicinal world. There was, and remains, a gender-specific issue of authority and power. The relationship between religion and healing was examined through the lens of the Virgin Mary and the comfort she provided to ill or pregnant women. Women were often blamed for birth defects, which were seen as a punishment from God because of their moral failings. The Trotula texts were published for women's illnesses in the 12th century. Seeing as women were underrepresented in medicine, both as physicians and patients, this was essential to furthering the level of care they received. One person of note is Hildegard of Bingen, who in the 12th century became the first woman to be recognized as a doctor of the Church in Catholicism. Her views aligned with humoral medicine and melancholia (mood disorders).

Suggested Readings
  1. Medicine and Religion: A Historical Introduction

  2. Essential Readings in Medicine and Religion: Chapter

  3. Anecdotes and Antidotes: A Medieval Arabic History of Physicians

  4. Medieval Islamic Hospital

  5. Medicine, Religion and Gender in Medieval Culture

  6. Soul of Medicine

  7. Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine


Floorplan of a bismaristan in 10th century (ancient Islamic Hospital) 

Source: AramcoWorld Newsletter March/April 2017


Floorplan of St. Giles Hospital in 13th century (medieval European Hospital)

Source: C. Rawcliffe, Medicine for the Soul: The Life, Death and Resurrection of an English Medieval Hospital. St Giles's, Norwich, c. 1249-1550 (Stroud, 1999), p. 62

Development of Modern Medicine

1600 to 1950
Mood Disorders:

Just preceding this era, Burton published The Anatomy of Melancholy, which focused on mood disorders under the term melancholia. This concept led to copious discourse during the 17th century and transformed how human thought and emotion were seen. By separating religious melancholy from the affliction of the conscience, a more therapeutic approach was founded that did not abandon the care of the soul. Some treated religious melancholy as a disease, others as a religious obstacle that could be cured through "rest and health in God." An interesting finding was that women were more likely to seek out help for melancholy, highlighting it as something that afflicted women more.


Ethnomedicine of various groups was studied during the course of this research. A major focus was that of African Americans and their utilization of Secret doctors, whom they viewed as safe options for care. This is not surprising, seeing as there is a mistrust of mainstream caregivers. Through the work of Secret Doctors, black folk medicine was given the chance to survive and prosper, allowing for the treatment of many. Secret Doctors believed in oral histories, herbal remedies, prayer, amulets, and often were familial affairs, with parents training their children in the art of healing. Secret Doctors also provided care of mental health, treating through divination. While many cultures excluded women from the field of Medicine, the ethnomedicine of Secret Doctors allowed them to be seen as strong and positive healers.

Development of Additional Religious Approaches:

As religion and medicine interacted more, additional groups arose. A prominent example of this is Christian Science, which focused on the therapeutic power of prayer and preventative medicine. Christian Scientists were found to be satisfied (more than 50%) with their lives and their incorporation of religion. 

Suggested Readings
  1. Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine

  2. Melancholy and the Care of the Soul: Religion, Moral Philosophy and Madness in Early Modern England (The History of Medicine in Context)

  3. Secret Doctors: Ethnomedicine of African Americans

  4. Prescribing Faith: Medicine, Media, and Religion in American Culture


Source: Secret Doctors: Ethnomedicine of African Americans

Modern Medicine

1950 to 2021
Cultural Competency:

Defined as the "ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one's own,", cultural competency became a concern within modern medicine in the last 50 years. Although Westernized medicine is largely secular, the same cannot be assumed for other regions of the world. A prime example is the Hmong people, who utilize their cultural techniques for the practice of healing. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is centered around the care of a young Hmong girl, Lia,  with epilepsy who received treatment via Westernized medicine. However, her physicians did not understand their limitations, such as language barrier, cultural differences, and lack of understanding. Because of this, Lia's care was affected. Ultimately, with more cultural competency and understanding of the intersectionality of religion and health in various environments, changes can be made in the medical field.

The Treatment of Women:

Women, even in the modern era, are often treated incorrectly. Whether it be claims of them 'faking' their symptoms or overreacting, modern medicine does not place women on an equal plane with their male counterparts. However, women have decided that they wish to reclaim their healing and advocate for their health.

Noteworthy quotes from Medicine Woman: Reclaiming the Soul of Healing include:

  • "For many women, diagnosis, and the path that leads to it, is a deeply problematic part of Western medicine"

  • “But their greater suffering does not eliminate mine. I am not imagining it. Something is most definitely not right within me.”

  • "The current medical system simply does not allow for the full humanity of either patient or doctor. And the mental illness brought on by stress and anxiety is not just occurring in patients, it is running at its highest level ever amongst doctors and nurses too. Western medicine is on life support."

Religion, Spirituality, and Mental Health:

From the publication of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, the idea of mood disorders was seen as conventional. Spirituality is considered as the "refining of human consciousness in reaching the truth" and as a unification of Eastern and Western ideas. In religion, spirituality can be seen through yin and yang (Chinese medicine), the cross (Christianity), and the 'middle way' (Buddhism). Religion and spirituality influence people in a powerful manner.  There is a healing power of prayer in clinical settings and religion can be seen as a buffer against disease. Prayer can also be seen through a therapeutic lens. Religion provides life with meaning and provides people with a social network and community. Through this, religion has a positive effect on coping and provides people with solutions (both emotional and spiritual). In fact, there is an inverse relationship between depression and religion. Overall, while those with strong belongings to religious groups have better mental health, they remain hesitant to reach out when they need help, often believing it to be embarrassing and that their community will support them just as much as a mental health professional.

A Secular Perspective:

As modern medicine takes the forefront, a secular perspective arrives as well. This change shifts the patient-physician relationship, making it less interactive. It gives way to a greater application of spirituality rather than religion and separates the physician from the religious perspective. Instead, in cases where needed, a chaplain or member of the clergy will help the physician. This keeps the physician from blurring the lines if they incorporate spirituality into their medical care. Additionally, pastoral care becomes more prominent. Medicine in the U.S. has become more cynical with a drive for efficacy. 

Suggested Readings
  1. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

  2. Medicine Woman: Reclaiming the Soul of Healing

  3. Prescribing Faith: Medicine, Media, and Religion in American Culture

  4. Soul of Medicine

  5. Spirituality, Healing and Medicine: Return to the Silence

  6. Handbook of Religion, and Mental Health

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Source: The Institute for Family Studies

Contact the Researcher
Aliana Rao
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