Conceptualizing "religion": How language shapes and constrains knowledge in the study of religion and health

Perspect Biol Med. 2004 Summer;47(3):386-401. doi: 10.1353/pbm.2004.0050.


Despite recent advances in the field of religion and health, meaningful findings will increasingly depend on the capacity to conceptualize "religion" properly. To date, scientists' conception of religion has been shaped by the Enlightenment paradigm. However, recent developments in philosophy make the "objectivity" of the Enlightenment paradigm problematic, if not untenable. Contrary to common understanding, the secularism essential to the Enlightenment paradigm does not enjoy any special privilege over religious ways of seeing the world, because both religious and secular worldviews constitute self-referentially complete interpretations of the human condition. If there is no objective frame of reference from which to measure religiousness, then the study of religion and health is fundamentally contingent on the specific languages and contexts in which particular religions find expression. While applying this cultural-linguistic approach to religion would require significant changes in the existing methods for studying religion and health, such changes may generate a deeper understanding of this relationship.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Health
  • Health*
  • Humans
  • Religion and Medicine
  • Religion*
  • Secularism