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Innovation und Tradition in the Field of Entangled Religion and Medicine: Differentiation or Dedifferentiation? Religious Practices in the Secular Health Care Sector (3/3)

Panel Chair: Monika Schrimpf | Thursday, August 27, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

With the modern development of biomedicine and its scientific institutions, medicine and religion have been differentiated as distinct subsystems. However, religious and medical concepts and therapeutic practices are often intertwined, which indicates a process of dedifferentiation. Furthermore, the etic distinction between medicine and religion does not coincide with emic perceptions, which do not necessarily differentiate between medical and religious ‘treatment’. With these perspectives in mind, we focus on innovations in religious practice and discourse that resulted from the entanglement of religion and medicine. This panel investigates the growing presence of alternative healing practices and therapies in the health care sector in Europe and North America. Many of these innovative practices are based on religious semantics and concepts but in their offering devoid of their religious context. Do these developments indicate a process of dedifferentiation between religion and medicine? Or do they rather maintain the difference by “secularizing” religious praxis?

Jens Schlieter

Buddhist Insight Meditation (vipassanā) in Religious Settings and Kabat-Zinn’s “Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction”: An Example of Dedifferentiation of Religion and Medicine?

Mindfulness meditation attracts growing attention, transgressing the borders of a spiritual practice. Occasionally conceptualized as “mindful turn”, meditation techniques taken especially from Theravāda Buddhism were modernized, unified, and established as therapeutic practice for a wide range of applications: as coping strategy for stress and anxiety disorders, psychosomatic treatment or addiction therapy, or ADHD treatments. So far, studies were mainly interested in clinical evidence for salutogenetic health effects, or its effects on alertness, or body awareness. In contrast, the presentation will explore the transformation process of the respective techniques. In Buddhism, mindfulness meditation originally serves spiritual goals (e.g., realizing impermanence, dis-identify with a “self”, or liberation). The presentation will explore how Kabat-Zinn developed his “secular” technique, and how its Buddhist elements were brought into practice in medical environments. The example may provide a more precise description of recent innovative counter-processes of “dedifferentiation” between “religion”/“spirituality” and “medicine” (including somatically oriented psychotherapies).

Barbara Zeugin

In between religion and medicine: Alternative religiosity at the end of life

Given that religion constitutes a main topic in the context of dying and death, the medical paradigm of palliative care provides a beneficial instance of the changing inter-relation between religion and medicine. In this field terminally ill and dying people frequently revert to alternative religious concepts (such as reincarnation) and practices (such as meditation). Even health care professionals are affected by such forms of religion. Not only in their personal religiosity but also in their professional approach. A physiotherapist, for example, pays particular attention to his patients’ feet since he considers them to be the exit spot of the soul after death. It is this sort of actions and the correspondent interpretations of the employees of a hospice that this paper focuses on. They illustrate how the alleged rigid boundaries between religion and medicine are dissolved by the provision of a spiritual care that is informed by alternative religiosity.

Dorothea Lüddeckens

Complementary and Alternative Medicine within Secular Healthcare: Examples of Religious Innovation and Dedifferentiation of Religion and Medicine?

Due to the process of medicalization, religion in public secular hospitals in Switzerland is officially accepted as chaplaincy, while medicine is only related to scientific and not to religious knowledge and practice. This paper explores how religion enters the medical system through the integration of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), which sometimes is labelled or perceived as „spiritual”. This process can be described as religious innovation in that religion re-enters an area restricted to science. Compared to biomedicine, the field of CAM, alternative religion and „spirituality“ is decentralized and weakly institutionalized. By applying Ann Swidler’s theory it will be investigated how and why actors in public healthcare pursue specific strategies of action that refer to the “tool kit” of alternative religion. As there is a growing institutionalisation of CAM within public healthcare, it is interesting to further analyse whether those observations point to a growing societal process of dedifferentiation.

Steven Sutcliffe


Steven Sutcliffe will respond to the issues raised in the previous papers.


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