Medicine as religion

May 23, 2020

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Medicine as religion

original Italian text by by Giorgio Agamben
translated for The Saker Blog by Gulab Bara
posted by permission of the author
original article here: https://www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-la-medicina-come-religione

It is now plainly evident that science has become the religion of our times, the one that humans believe they believe in. In the modern west, three great systems of faith have coexisted, and to some extent continue to coexist—Christianity, capitalism, and science. In the history of modernity, these three “religions” have intersected a number of times, occasionally coming into conflict before reconciling in one way or another, gradually finding a kind of peaceable and sensible coexistence, if not a real and proper alliance in the name of common interest.

What is new is, that without us noticing, an underlying and implacable conflict has been reignited between science and the other two religions. The victorious outcomes of this conflict for science are today right under our eyes and noses, conditioning every aspect of our existence in unprecedented fashion. Unlike previous conflicts, this one does not concern theory and general principles, but rather religious practice, so to speak. In fact, like every religion, science organizes itself in different forms and levels to establish a structured order. At the theoretical level, science features a subtle and rigorous dogma, while at the practical level there is a corresponding religious sphere that is extremely broad and detailed. This sphere coincides with what we call “technology.”

It is unsurprising that the central role in this new religious war is played by medicine, a field of science that is relatively undogmatic and strongly pragmatic, concerned directly with the living body of human beings. Let’s try to define the essential characteristics of this triumphant religious faith, with which we must increasingly come to terms.

  1. The first characteristic is that medicine, like capitalism, has no need of any special dogma; it limits itself to borrowing its fundamental concepts from biology. Unlike biology, however, it organizes these concepts in a gnostic-manichean sense, i.e., in accordance with an exaggerated dualistic opposition. There exists an “evil” power or principle, which is disease, whose specific agents are bacteria and viruses. At the same time, there exists a “good” force or principle. But this opposing principle is not health, but rather healing, delivered by doctors through medical treatment. As in every gnostic faith, the two principles are clearly separate, but in the real world they can contaminate each other. The power of good, or a doctor that wields that power, can make mistakes and conspire unwittingly with the enemy, without invalidating the dualism and the necessity of the religious practice by means of which the principle of good battles that of evil. Significantly, the “theologians” that are defining the battle strategy are the representatives of a branch of science, virology, that does not occupy a clear space of its own, instead sitting at the boundary between biology and medicine.
  2. Up to now, the religious practice of medicine has been episodic and of limited duration, like other forms of religious worship, but unexpectedly the current phenomenon has become permanent and omnipresent. It is no longer just a matter of taking some medication or undergoing a medical examination or surgical procedure whenever necessary. Our whole lives must become the objects of an uninterrupted religious observance. The enemy, the virus, is ever-present. It must be combated incessantly, without any prospect of a ceasefire. Although similar totalitarian tendencies have marked the Christian religion, these affected limited individuals, most notably monks who opted to devote their whole lives to prayer. The religion of medicine takes this Pauline principle and completely inverts it, however. Whereas monks would assemble to pray in their monasteries, our new religion must be practiced apart, at a distance, though just as earnestly.
  3. Religious practice is no longer voluntary, subject solely to sanctions of a spiritual nature. It must be rendered obligatory by laws and decrees. The collusion between religion and secular power is nothing new, of course. What is totally new, though, is the exclusive concern with the observance of religious practice rather than the profession of dogmas, as was the case with Christian heretics. The secular power must be vigilant to ensure that the religion of medicine, at this point in time a lifelong faith, is promptly observed in every detail. It is immediately evident that we are dealing with a religious practice and not a scientific, rational need. The most frequent cause of death in this country by far is cardiovascular disease. It is well known that its mortality can be easily reduced by healthier living and eating. Yet, no doctor ever considered it necessary to resort to legal measures to compel patients to follow a prescribed lifestyle and diet, to decree what people eat and how they should live, transforming the whole of existence into a set of mandatory healthcare requirements. But it is precisely this that has been done, and at least for now, people have accepted it, as if it were an obvious thing to renounce one’s freedom of movement, work, friendships, loves, social relations, religious faith, and political creeds.

Here, we see how the other great religions of the west, the religion of Christ and the religion of money, have ceded their supremacy to medicine and science, seemingly without resistance. The Catholic Church has disavowed its principles, pure and simple, forgetting that the saint from which the current pontiff takes his name embraced lepers, that an essential element of compassion is to minister to the sick, and that the holy sacraments can only be administered in person. For its part, capitalism, even if with some reluctance, has accepted previously unimaginable losses of productivity, likely hoping to eventually find some accord with the new dominant religion, which seems open to some compromise on this point. XXX

  1. The religion of medicine appears to have unreservedly taken over the function of eschatology, a field of theology that Christianity abandoned long ago. Capitalism had already secularized the theological paradigm of salvation to eliminate the idea of “end time,” substituting it with a permanent state of crisis, without redemption or end. The concept of “crisis” originates with medicine. In the Hippocratic Corpus, krisis indicated the moment when the physician decided if the patient would survive the illness. Theologians later appropriated the term to refer to the Final Judgement on the final day of the world. Reflecting on the extraordinary situation we now face, we might conclude that the medical religion has merged the perpetual crisis of capitalism with the Christian idea of end time. The result is a sense of apocalypse and an unremitting urgency to make extreme decisions. The end is hastened and deferred in turns, in an unrelenting attempt to manage the crisis, without ever resolving it once and for all. It is the religion of a world that feels that it is nearing the end, yet that remains incapable, like the Hippocratic physician, of deciding if it will survive or die.
  2. Like capitalism (but unlike Christianity), the religion of medicine offers no prospect of salvation or redemption. In contrast, the healing at which it aims can only ever be temporary, since the force of evil, the virus, can never be completely eliminated. It mutates continually, assuming new forms, ever more risky it is presumed. As its etymology suggests, “epidemic” is above all a political concept (in Greek demos means people or population; polemos epidemios in Homer refers to civil war), which fits with the fact that it has become the new landscape of global politics, or perhaps “non-politics.” Indeed, the current epidemic may represent that global civil war that some astute political scientists have claimed has taken the place of traditional world wars. Are all the nations and peoples of the world in a protracted war with themselves, because the invisible and elusive enemy they are grappling with lies within them?

Just as at other critical junctures in history, philosophers will need to engage in debate and dispute with religion; this time not with Christianity, but rather with science, or at least that part of it that has assumed the guise of a religion. I’m not sure if we will see a return to the burning and blacklisting, but as already evident, the views of those who seek the truth and refuse to accept the dominant fictions will undoubtedly be excluded from public discourse, or met with accusations of purveying fake news (news, not ideas, because news is more important than reality). As in every emergency, real or simulated, the ignorant will smear the sages and scoundrels will seek to profit from the misfortunes that they themselves have provoked. All this has already happened and will go on happening, but those who bear witness to the truth will continue to do so, since no one can bear witness for the witness.

Giorgio Agamben
May 2, 2020

One Response

  1. Karl Marx was right, “Religion is the opiate of the masses”.

    “Government” is a religion. (Larken Rose)

    This is an excerpt from Larken Rose’s new book, The Most Dangerous Superstition.

    The Religion of “Government” (TMDS pp. 28-32.)

    “Government” is neither a scientific concept nor a rational sociological construct; nor is it a logical, practical method of human organization and cooperation. The belief in “government” is not based on reason; it is based on faith. In truth, the belief in “government” is a religion, made up of a set of dogmatic teachings, irrational doctrines which fly in the face of both evidence and logic, and which are methodically memorized and repeated by the faithful. Like other religions, the gospel of “government” describes a superhuman, supernatural entity, above mere mortals, which issues commandments to the peasantry, for whom unquestioning obedience is a moral imperative. Disobedience to the commandments (“breaking the law”) is viewed as a sin, and the faithful delight in the punishment of the infidels and sinners (“criminals”), while at the same time taking great pride in their own loyalty and humble subservience to their god (as “law-abiding taxpayers”) And while the mortals may humbly beg their lord for favors, and for permission to do certain things, it is considered blasphemous and outrageous for one of the lowly peasants to imagine himself to be fit to decide which of the “government” god’s “laws” he should follow and which it is okay for him to ignore. Their mantra is, “You can work to try to change the law, but as long as it’s the law, we all have to follow it!”

    The main factor distinguishing the belief in “government” from other religions today is that people actually believe in the god called “government.” The other gods people claim to believe in, and the churches they attend, are now, by comparison, little more than empty rituals and half-heartedly parroted superstitions. When it comes to their everyday lives, the god that people actually pray to, to save them from misfortune, to smite their enemies, and to shower them with blessings, is “government.” It is “government” whose commandments the people most often respect and obey. Whenever a conflict arises between “government” and the teachings of the lesser gods — such as “pay your fair share” (taxation) versus “Thou shalt not steal,” or “duty to country” (military service) versus “Thou shalt not murder” — the commands of “government supersede all the teachings of the other religions. Politicians, the high priests of the church of “government” — the mouthpieces and representatives of “government,” who deliver the sacred “law” from on high — even openly declare that it is permissible for the people to practice whatever religion they wish, as long as they do not run afoul of the supreme religion by disobeying “the law” — meaning the dictates of the god called “government.”……

    http://deadlinelive.info/2011/02/28/government-is-a-religion-larken-rose/

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