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Organised religion

Statue of St John of God, Spain, 1701-1900

Statue of St John of God, Spain, 1701-1900

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Religion and medicine have long been linked in many cultures. Indeed, our modern words ‘healing’ and ‘holiness’ both have their origins in the same word, ‘wholeness’. Most widely practised religious traditions interpret their sacred texts to encourage followers to look after themselves and others.

Religious charity and the beginnings of hospitals

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Rules concerning purity and cleanliness are central to Judaism, Hinduism and Islam. In all three traditions, charity is a prized virtue, and the first hospitals that cared for the sick grew out of existing shelters for the poor, the homeless and people with disabilities. Christianity, too, taught that the body belonged to God and required care.

Christian healing through faith

But various religions differed in their approach to healing. Early Christianity taught that though the body needed to be looked after, it was inferior to and required less care than the soul - which was believed to be immortal. The Christian church thus promoted a faith-based approach, claiming that the way to bodily health lay in spiritual matters. Ill people were encouraged to consult priests or visit the shrines of saints who were believed to have healing powers.

Different religions, different approaches

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Hindus too believed in the healing power associated with certain holy sites. Contrast this with Buddhism where, though spiritual wellbeing was essential for bodily health, the treatment of illness was a purely physical matter. Islamic medicine also valued practical over spiritual treatment, teaching that Allah provided a natural cure for every disease he sent.

Medicine and religion: a partnership

Medicine has generally coexisted peacefully with these faiths. Indeed it was often used to justify, or promote, a religious view of the world. Up until the late 1800s medicine tended to present anatomical observations as evidence of godly creation: physicians in various religions argued that the complexity of, say, the human eye could only be the result of a divine plan.

Medicine and religion: a conflict over the plague

Yet this relationship was not always cordial. As historian of medicine Roy Porter notes: ‘Peaceful coexistence was the norm but border flare-ups were inevitable.’ This is best demonstrated by medieval conflicts over plague treatment. Faced with these terrible epidemics, Christian authorities argued that since the cause was people’s sinfulness, the remedy lay in mass religious activity. This sat at odds with the view of city authorities, who called for quarantine and banned religious gatherings.

A rise in non-religious medicine in the 1800s

From the 1800s an increasingly secular medical practice penetrated the differing religions: the view that disease resulted from germs rather than God became increasingly influential in Islamic, Judaeo-Christian, Hindu and Chinese cultures.

The continued belief in the connection between God and health

But just as religious explanations of disease seemed to be losing favour, some groups within society started to campaign against this trend, claiming that health and disease are controlled by divine forces. For instance, creationist movements argue that anatomically complex objects such as the cell or the eye could only have been designed by an intelligent God. Though this movement had Christian origins, it now also has a Muslim following.

Bibliography

L I Conrad, ‘Arab-Islamic medicine’ in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds) Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine (London: Routledge, 1993)

N Gallagher, ’Islamic and Indian medicine’ in K F Kiple (ed.), The Cambridge World History of Human Disease (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)

R Numbers and D W Amundsen (eds), Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions (London: Macmillan Publishers, 1986)

R Porter, ‘Religion and medicine’ in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds) Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine (London: Routledge, 1993)

R Porter (ed.), The Cambridge History of Medicine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Glossary:

Shrine

Originally a container, usually made of precious materials, used especially for a relic and often a cult image. Today it has come to mean a holy or sacred place that is visited by believers.

Plague

An acute contagious fever with high levels of mortality. Both the 'Black Death' that swept Europe in the 1340s and the Great Plague of London in 1665 are believed to have been bubonic plague.

Epidemic

A sudden widespread occurance of an infection with high numbers of people affected.