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Religion And Medicine Essay, Research Paper

The admixture of medical science and religion has changed throughout the centuries from cooperative to antagonistic. In the seventeenth century, God was seen in relationship to nature, and medical science operated within religious beliefs. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, signs of the impending separation of medicine and religion were seen. Now it seems that the separation between medicine and religion is clear cut and distinct, each reflecting its own practices. But is it true that medicine can operate independently of religion and vice versa? In this paper I shall try to briefly examine the ancient relationship between science and religion and progress to a discussion of the more modern relationship of medical science and religion, culminating in a look at the contemporary issue of genetic engineering as viewed from religious and medical perspectives.

Objective, universal, rational, observational: these are all adjectives that many people would use to describe medical science. On the other hand, when things like subjective, traditional, revelational and infinitesimal are said the picture of religion begins to form. These terms seem to be opposing and unrelated, and in some ways that is true. Religion and medicine can be, and many times are, viewed as separate and distinct entities. Where this distinction should be drawn and the nature of the religious-medical relationship is the continuing challenge to those involved in medicine and religion. To separate them utterly would, I think, be a grave error. As Branford once said, ?Science ultimately sprang, and is continually springing, from the desires and efforts of men to increase their skill by understanding the eternal principles that underlie all dealings of man with nature and of man with his fellow men.? Medical science also springs from this desire to seek eternal principles, which is fundamentally a very religious pursuit.

Medicine and religion have gone through history hand-in-hand, whether there was no distinction between the two, as in ancient civilizations, or a constant conflict of theories, as it appears today. Religion predates history, and medicine sprouted out of religion. Western philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato did not conform to their polytheistic society, and yet did not isolate their discoveries from religion. Plato often discussed immortality of the soul, and of eternal forms from which the earth we know is just a projected shadow.

Eastern religions had a strong development between medicine and religion. Often healers were also priests or holy men. Science, from which medical science sprang, was incorporated into many religions. A clear example relationship that has been maintained throughout many cultures and religions is the development of accurate calenders for religious purposes.

The more recent development of the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity also ushered in a new age of medical science. Still learning and knowledge were transmitted by religious tradition. But as scientific knowledge advanced, splits began to form between science and religion, exemplified by Galileo?s struggles with heliocentricity and Darwin?s struggles with natural selection. As went science, so eventually did medical science. I will discuss recent medical developments in genetic engineering, although medical advances in the last one hundred years have brought about a veritable avalanche of ethical issues, ranging from end-of-life issues to genetic counseling and a host of others.

Genetic engineering is an area of medicine that is moving with frightening rapidity. Less than a year after the first tentative report of a successful cloning, numerous laboratories have repeated the procedure in ways that virtually assure that human cloning is possible. Gene therapy techniques are being looked to as a potential solution to many diseases. Although there are some held religious views, such as the Catholic Church?s opposition to germ line gene therapy and human cloning, medical science has progressed so quickly that it has found itself in a moral morass, sinking under the weight of ethical issues stemming from medical advances. It is in these new advances that we can begin to see the need for religion to act as a rudder in a sea of uncertainty, providing people with a constant in the midst of instability.

In a specific example, sickle cell anemia is a disease that could be very amenable to treatment by correction of the sickle cell gene. It would seem at first glance to be a reasonable thing to suggest a germ line correction of the ?bad gene? to prevent the sickle cell trait. So what could the problem be? While medical scientists could only point to the potential benefit of malarial resistance conferred to heterozygous carriers, a poor reason at best in the United States, religion can point to the sanctity of the body and the eternal warning that humanity not ?play god? in either our hearts or actions.

Would germ line mutation to prevent sickle cell anemia be a good or bad action? I cannot answer that question, but I can say that the ability to take that action will arrive long before medical science can discuss all the repurcussions of such an action. However, religion is ready and willing to discuss such an issue, using guiding principles that are both traditional and constant. Thus in medical science I see a growing need for religion.

1) Barbour, Ian. Religion in an Age of Science. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1990.

2) British Medical Association. Our Genetic Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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