Why Are Medicine and Religion Separate? Part 2: The Nature of Physician Authority

By Michael J. Balboni

This is the second entry in a four-part series examining the social and historical forces that have led to the current divide between religion and medicine. Drawing on Peter Berger’s theory of plausibility structures (particular social processes that legitimize social beliefs and practices, giving them a matter-of-fact quality), this series examines key factors that lie behind the current state of spirituality in medicine. This post focuses on our cultural beliefs about physicians as scientists, and how the late nineteenth century alliance with science has transforming the meaning of the medical vocation.

Throughout the history of Western medicine, physicians viewed themselves as invested with a divine mission and purpose. In fact, according to sociologist Jonathan Imber, the initial ascendance of the medical profession during the middle of the Nineteenth century was due in part to the fact that physicians were allied with and morally commissioned by Protestant clergy. Imber suggests that Protestant clergy empowered the medical profession with a moral and spiritual vocation, resulting in a deeply held public trust of physicians.[1] A vivid depiction of this spiritual/medical vocation can be seen in Luke Fildes’ 1891 painting, The Doctor. In this painting, the physician leans pensively over the sickbed of an ill child. The tools of his trade are pushed to the side, as illness takes the upper hand, whereas a light shines on his thoughtful face and gentle expression. He is here not only to offer his medical skills, but also to shepherd the family through a difficult and painful experience. (more…)



Why are Medicine and Religion Separate? Part 1: The Evolution of the Hospital
Tuesday February 27th 2018, 8:45 pm
Filed under: history of medicine and religion,hospitals,palliative care

By Michael Balboni

This is the first in a four-part series examining the social and historical forces that have led to the current divide between religion and medicine. Drawing on Peter Berger’s theory of plausibility structures (particular social processes that legitimize social beliefs and practices, giving them a matter-of-fact quality), this series will examine the driving factors behind the current state of spirituality in medicine. This post centers on the evolution of the hospital from the medieval period to the modern day, and how religion came to be of lessened importance in this setting.

Many modern American hospitals (especially in wealthy areas) are palatial and imposing, home to a wide variety of medical specialists and technologies. It can be intimidating to step into the imposing marble entryway of Dana-Farber’s Yawkey building or the labyrinth of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the hospitals where I work, especially when one is facing a potentially devastating diagnosis. Patients of faith may also notice that for all their technological marvels, modern hospitals offer little by way of spiritual support to help them navigate their experience of illness.

This wasn’t always the case. During the medieval period, hospitals were primarily affiliated with religious organizations, who sought to ensure the comfort of patients and support them as they entered into right relationship with God in their last days of life.
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