ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Religious life and medical traditions

Location Chrystal Macmillan Building, Seminar Room 2
Date and Start Time 21 June, 2014 at 09:00


Don Duprez (University of Edinburgh) email
Mail All Convenors


This panel wishes to examine the engagements between religious perspectives and practice, and how these matters intersect with various medical traditions in order to address issues of health, healing, and notions of efficacy.

Long Abstract

Religious practices, and the cosmologies they draw upon, shape many people's understanding of the relationships of the body, the mind, and the soul. These understandings form a critical foundation from which social, cultural, and ethical perspectives of health and practices of healing emerge. Historical and contemporary perspectives of the development of Western medical traditions and clinical institutions has provided a framework that favours Western scientific discourse. Through this discourse, alternative medical traditions and practices have become largely marginalised. Furthermore, in many communities where concepts of health and healing practice draw strongly upon religious beliefs and alternative understandings of the natural world, the efficacy of Western medical traditions and institutional privilege has been challenged or reinterpreted.

How do religious perspectives, and respective cosmologies, address or influence practices of health and healing within the contours of various, and at times disparate, medical traditions? This panel invites papers that seek to explore this question through historical and contemporary contexts that address various understandings and notions of efficacy, and the diagnosis and treatment of physical and/or mental illnesses.

Chair: Dr. Magnus Course (University of Edinburgh)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Social class, cosmology and religious-healing practices

Author: Ioannis Kyriakakis (Independent researcher)  email


In this paper I am presenting four different stories of sickness and religious healing extracted from my doctoral ethnographic research in southwestern Ghana, and I examine their social-class relatedness and cosmological implications.

Long Abstract

In this paper I am presenting four different stories of sickness and religious healing extracted from my doctoral ethnographic research in southwestern Ghana, and I examine their social-class relatedness and cosmological implications. Three of the individuals who narrate the stories are all Roman-Catholics but they follow three different healing-traditions and their respective religious agents. I am examining the role that their social-class condition plays in their final choice with regard to their healing treatment. The fourth individual involved in the stories is me. By narrating my own sickness and healing experience, I wish to investigate the possibility that social class condition exerts stronger influence upon cosmology in inter-cultural encounters than the vice versa. It goes without saying that one needs to try a sort of theoretical revision of the terms "class" and "cosmology" in order to carry out such an investigation.

Interrupted reproduction and 'inauspiciousness': faith healing and the challenge to notions of reproductive health in NW India

Author: Maya Unnithan (University of Sussex)  email


Hindu notions of inauspiciousness characterise childlessness in Rajasthan. The paper suggests that for infertile women ‘reproductive health’ is a quest to gain auspiciousness, and healers have a greater hold over concepts of reproductive well-being.

Long Abstract

Hindu notions of pollution and inauspiciousness characterise the condition of sterility (banjhpan) and the bodies and selves of childless women in Rajasthan. Taken together with culturally and historically specific understandings of the female body, these notions spawn complex, plural trajectories of health-seeking, especially among poorer women (more prone to a high prevalence of reproductive tract infections). Biomedical cures are sought in combination with the intervention of faith healers, although almost always, the latter are considered more efficacious in the sense of 'having more force (hold/pakad)'. In the paper I argue that it is healers who have a greater hold over indigenous notions of reproductive well-being despite their marked absence, as that of infertility itself, from the history of an Indian modernity (focused on fertility and its rational management; Ram 2013). Given their ontological and ritual liminality, for infertile women, 'reproductive health' becomes a quest to gain auspiciousness rather than to be free from reproductive infections per se.

Spiritual and faith based approaches to health and healing in a Denver Hmong community

Author: Don Duprez (University of Edinburgh)  email


This paper seeks to examine how the various contours of Hmong spiritual and religious practices and cosmologies affect how issues of health and healing are approached, understood, and experienced within the contemporary social and cultural milieu of a Hmong community in Denver, Colorado.

Long Abstract

Over the course of the Hmong diaspora and their transition from life in Laos to life in the US, the Hmong have been exposed to, and have adapted to, various religious, political, and social forces that have shaped their experiences and understanding of life in America. In particular, Christian faiths and traditional shamanic practice have retained their importance as central themes within contemporary views of Hmong social and religious life in America. These practices and institutions have maintained their individual perspectives and teachings regarding cosmological order and mechanics. In so doing, these spiritual views and cosmological models have gone on to provide differing explanations of how a person's physical and spiritual being is situated within these cosmological frameworks, and how a person should approach their spiritual and physical health and healing based on these understandings.

To further compound matters, these various institutions, practices, and traditions are understood and experienced differently between generations and the varying degrees of exposure to life outside of the Hmong community. As part of the emergent scholarship of contemporary Hmong life in the US, this paper seeks to examine the means by which the various religious and spiritual practices of the Denver Hmong community approach, understand, and engage with traditional and Western notions of medicine, health, and healing within their distinct, and at times fragmented, cosmologies.

Disease, health and religious therapies: a comparative perspective between candomble and neopentecostalism

Authors: Érica Jorge (UAB)  email
Ana Keila Pinezi (Universidade Federal do ABC)  email


It´s not new the idea that religious worldviews direct perspectives and practices that are social and culturally shared. This paper aims to present, in a comparative perspective, the notions of disease, health and some therapeutics practices used by candomble and neopentecostalism religions.

Long Abstract

It´s not new the ideia that religious worldviews direct perspectives and practices that are social and culturally shared. Sociology and anthropology of religion have already proved that religion is a social construct and its notion is based on cosmologies which allow followers attribute meanings to reality. From the ideia that religious discourses establish specific practices, this paper aims to present, in a comparative perspective, the notions of disease, health and some therapeutics practices used by candomble and neopentecostalism religions. It´s in the center of the research the discussion that religious discourse results a particulary vision about body, health and curatives practices. Both religions analised present particulary aspects, for theirs approaches and detachment and they´re important and representative segments of plural religious field in contemporary Brasil.

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The devil and the holy water… and the archangel Michael: mediation, materiality and cosmology in Ethiopian orthodox exorcism

Author: Diego Maria Malara (University of Edinburgh)  email


This paper explores practices of mediation, sacred materiality and cosmological hierarchy in the context of Ethiopian Orthodox exorcism. I focus on the sensorial dimension and the material instantiation of the relationships between the different human and non-human beings taking part to the exorcism ritual.

Long Abstract

Drawing on the anthropological literature on mediation, this paper explores exorcism ritual in contemporary Orthodox Ethiopia. In Ethiopian orthodox Christianity, access to the sacred and contact with the divine are regulated by severe ritual restrictions typically enforced by the clergy. However, there are practices and domains of religious life where the authority of the clergy is less prominent. In the healing site chosen as a case study, members of the clergy are not allowed to exorcise demons. Indeed, it is the archangel Michael who acts as the exorcist and the mediator of God's power. Crucially, this power becomes effective only through a material medium, that is, holy water. In this paper I explore Ethiopian Orthodox exorcism by shifting the analytical emphasis from deliverance per se to the processes whereby the agency and presence of different spiritual beings become manifest at the sensorial level. The purpose of exorcism, I argue, is not merely to free the demoniac, but to publically and sensationally uphold and instantiate a hierarchical, cosmological and moral order in which every being, including demons, are subordinate to divine power. This process is better grasped by focusing on: the roles, voices, and gestures of the different human and non-human actors of the exorcism ritual; their mutual relationships; and how sacred materials, such as holy water, mediate such relationships.

Health and spirituality in post-secular societies: the particular case of the Hare Krishna movement

Author: Néstor Nuño Martñinez (ARESIMA)  email


This paper draws a first approximation to the issue of Hare Krishna’s health perceptions. This construction employs dimensions interrelated which aim to improve the spiritual practice. This perception needs to be considered carefully, because some conflicts with biomedical practitioners can emerge.

Long Abstract

The study of religion has been a relevant issue in social sciences. In the middle of the twentieth century, the hegemonic theories used to date were overcome owing to the emergence in of the so-called new religious movements. One of these, the Hare Krishna cult, has been studied during the last forty years. Through different researches, an overview of their cosmological beliefs, gender principles, worship practices, political structure, or internal conflicts has been drawn. Nevertheless, a specific analysis of Hare Krishna devotees' health perceptions has been neglected. This paper aims to introduce these principles to compose a useful theoretical scheme to comprehend the establishment and consolidation in Westerns societies of the conjunction between medicine, religion, and spirituality.

In this sense, health construction of Hare Krishna employs three dimensions: body, spirit, and mind. All the dimensions are interrelated and they have as main purpose to improve the spiritual practice. Hare Krishna devotees relate the notion of health with the possibility of performing a correct spiritual practice. This implies that devotees attitudes traditionally described as "deviated" under biomedical principles are healthy in devotees' perception.

Moreover, this perception of health needs to be considered carefully. It encompasses dimensions out of the border of biomedicine and some conflicts with biomedical practitioners can emerge. Therefore, Hare Krishna devotees try to find and promote alternatives to meet their medical needs. Some of them are based on Ayurveda; others can be framed into the Complementary and Alternative Medicine which importance is being increasing in Western societies.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.