Gary B. Ferngren, Medicine and Religion: a Historical Introduction

Gary B. Ferngren, Medicine and Religion: a Historical Introduction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) 256 pp. Hb $49.95, Pb, EPub, Mobi, PDF $24.95. ISBN: 9781421412153

Gary Ferngren’s Medicine and Religion is a survey of the intersections between medical practices, broadly defined, and religious traditions across different societies and historical periods in the Western world. Ferngren makes a number of important caveats in his acknowledgements: this book is not intended to be a historical monograph on either medicine or religion, but is instead a general introduction intended for non-specialists. He avoids using technical jargon, which makes this volume accessible to a general reader, and it should appeal to anybody interested in the historical development of the relationship between medicine and religious belief in the West.

As Ferngren makes clear in his introduction, there are two historiographical principles that are central to this survey. The first is the idea of ‘contextualism’, which he describes as a historiographic approach that ‘recognizes that all medical ideas and practices, including our own, are shaped by their cultural context’ (3). Crucial to Ferngren’s study is this insistence on seeing each of the societies that he writes about within their respective context and not judging older medical traditions using the standards of modern science. Of course, the difficulty that he then faces is that concepts of health, medicine and pathology vary across different periods and societies, making it difficult to speak about them consistently across differing contexts. This contextualist approach is not particularly radical: the idea that scientific theory and practice are relative to extra-scientific intellectual contexts has been predominant since the emergence of historicist approaches in the philosophy of science. Nevertheless, it is an instructive exercise in avoiding the various historiographical pitfalls of which Ferngren remains duly cautious.

The second principle that is central to the book is the assumption that religious belief and medical practice are not necessarily in conflict, but that the relationship between them is more complex. Ferngren, drawing from an early collaborator Darrel Amundsen, proposes four models of this relationship, each model describing a varying degree of overlap and tension between the two domains: i) medicine is subsumed under religion, ii) medicine and religion are partially separated, iii) medicine and religion are completely separated and compartmentalised and iv) religion is subsumed within medicine (4-5). The various societies that Ferngren surveys can be situated conceptually by means of these models.

In each of the chapters, Ferngren’s account is mostly a comprehensive summary of what is known about different societies based on surviving medical manuscripts and religious scriptures. The first chapter explores the different degrees of overlap between magico-religious healers and physicians in Mesopotamia and Babylonia, ancient Egypt and also in Hebrew medicine. In the second and third chapters, Ferngren traces the development of medical and religious thought in Greece and Rome respectively from classical to late antiquity. In the fourth chapter, Ferngren examines ideas of healing from early Christian society to late antiquity. What is especially interesting is his discussion of Christian philanthropy and how it led to the founding of the first hospitals. Chapters five and six examine medicine and religion in the Middle Ages, the former looking at Europe and the latter (a collaboration with Mahdieh Tavakol) specifically at Islamic society. The seventh chapter explores medicine and religion in the Early Modern period. This period was marked by the expansion of scientific rationality during the Enlightenment; however, this spread of Enlightenment thinking was not uniformly felt across all of Europe. In the final chapter, Ferngren examines a number of different themes pertaining to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ranging from the advent of modern nursing, the professionalization of medicine, fundamentalism and the ethical ambiguities of new medical technologies. Following this ambitious survey, in his epilogue Ferngren provides a broad summary of the compatibilities and tensions between religion and medicine, and he ends with a brief discussion on the need for compassion in medicine, and how ideas of suffering and compassion seem challenging to religious and medical thought.

From the very outset, it is clear that there are a number of limitations to the depth and scope of this study, many of which Ferngren notes in his acknowledgements. This book omits detailed annotations on primary sources, references to secondary material and a comprehensive bibliography in the interest of simplicity and accessibility. To make up for this, the publisher has made a bibliography available on their web catalogue entry for this book (accessible at, which is fairly comprehensive and should be a valuable resource for scholars looking to study this field further.

There are two further limitations which need to be given serious attention. Firstly, Ferngren excludes non-Western traditions like Persian, Indian or Chinese medicine. He attributes this omission to the limitations of his knowledge, which would make it impossible for him to explore these histories in meaningful depth, as well as to the material limitations of the length this volume had to be in order to make publication feasible. He also excludes psychology, psychiatry and medical ethics. Secondly, he adds that his book is ‘directed to a largely North American readership’ (x), which is why his chapter on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is focussed primarily on American medical science. Ferngren admits these limitations graciously in his acknowledgements; however, the narrowness of the book’s scope is far too significant to be explained away in passing like this. The title and subtitle imply that this book is a historical introduction to the intersection between medicine and religion as a whole. This suggests some kind of universality - that this book is a global survey - whereas it is focussed primarily on the Western world. The reader would have been better served had this focus been specified in the title and then explained clearly in the introduction, so that the study was framed by these parameters, rather than this limitation merely being mentioned in the acknowledgments. Far from being a trivial detail, the exclusion of non-Western cultures is a persisting problem in the historiography of ideas.

Finally, Ferngren’s account is too descriptive and does not consider deeper epistemic or metaphysical affinities between medico-scientific and magico-religious thought. There is a sense in which his survey merely provides a broad-brushed sketch of what religious and medical practices were like in these societies. Besides brief observations about the nature of religion (being either polytheistic or monotheistic) and a few passing remarks about general religious worldviews, he does not go deeper in analysing the metaphysical or ethical ideas that were integral to the belief systems (or ‘contexts’) in these respective societies. This is where Ferngren’s contextualist approach would have benefitted with sustained dialogue with the philosophy of science, especially historicist ideas of ‘paradigms’ going back to Thomas Kuhn. Many of the issues that he highlights, such as the ‘imaginative gulf’ (13) separating epistemologies of different societies or the ‘Whiggism’ (3) in scientific historiography are problems anticipated in the works of Kuhn as well as post-Kuhnian philosophers of science (such as the problem of incommensurability and the question of rational development of scientific paradigms). Because Ferngren does not provide an adequate analysis of the various ‘contexts’ (or paradigms) that characterised the religious and scientific history of different societies, his study seems somewhat incomplete. Nevertheless, despite all of these limitations, the broad survey of religion and medicine in the Western world that he provides is eclectic and accessible, making his book a useful starting point for a study of the subject.

Vivek Santayana, University of Edinburgh