Call for Essays: Circulations of Religion and Medicine in North American Culture [Abstracts due July 15, 2012]

full name / name of organization: 
Ashley Reed and Kelly Bezio

As twenty-first-century critics we are inclined to think of medicine and religion as oppositional disciplines with incompatible approaches to the world. The "secularization thesis," promulgated in the work of Max Weber and other early-twentieth-century sociologists, has positioned scientific objectivity as replacing religious superstition, with medicine "switching sides" from a spiritual discourse controlled by ministers and shamans to a scientific one produced by doctors and researchers. But this relatively new thesis elides how, as anthropologist Linda L. Barnes notes, "religious and medical practices often converge in that both deal with pain and suffering, birth and death, and sexuality, growth, and decay." This points to an exciting new avenue for cultural studies scholarship that takes seriously the confluence of these ostensibly exclusive disciplines.

We are seeking contributions for an edited collection that challenges the secularization thesis as it has been applied to religion and medicine in the United States since colonization. We are particularly interested in cultural studies approaches that engage written texts--literature, autobiography/life writing, sermons, poetry, creative nonfiction, and the like--as well as film, music, and the visual arts.

Recent scholarship, flourishing particularly in fields that study American literature before World War II, has begun to uncover how for many Americans medicine and religion have constituted one capacious body of knowledge. Studies from a range of disciplines, such as literary critic Justine Murison's The Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century Literature (2011) and religious historian Christopher White's Unsettled Minds: Psychology and the American Search for Spiritual Assurance (2009), eschew an analytical approach that presumes practical, cultural, or epistemological conflicts between matters of the spirit and matters of the flesh. Instead, new scholarship in a range of fields underscores how medical knowledge was used by Americans to undergird new definitions of morality and systems of faith.

We are interested in essays that articulate overlooked relationships between these two discourses and their attendant vocations. Additionally, we are looking for pieces that continue to interpret colonial and nineteenth-century contexts, during which confluences between religion and medicine were more readily apparent, but also pieces that consider the uneven disaggregation, in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, of medical knowledge and institutions from religious authority and practice. Contributions are encouraged from scholars with interests in the representation of religion and medicine across a range of fields, including but not limited to literary criticism, history, cultural studies, religious studies, critical and cultural theory, anthropology, and medical humanities.

Proposal Guidelines and Projected Timeline:

Please send 750-word abstracts or completed essays (no more than 10,000 words including notes and bibliography) and a brief c.v. by July 1, 2012 to Ashley Reed ( or Kelly Bezio ( Notification of acceptance will be sent by July 15, 2012, with completed essays expected by January 15, 2013.

Suggested topics might include (but are not limited to):

Religion and medicine in historical-cultural context:

  • Medicine and religion in the colonial era: missionary movements and disease networks, discourses of colonization and conversion (incorporation, repudiation, assimilation), inoculation, quarantine
  • Nineteenth-century innovations in medical-spiritual practices: mind-cure, homeopathy, spiritualism, mesmerism, phrenology, water-cure
  • Networks and nodes of spiritual and medical care: circuit riders, country doctors, hospital chaplains, travelling reformers, patent medicine shows, religious revivals, medical missionaries
  • Religion and medicine in mental health discourse: psychoanalysis, behavioral therapy, Christian counseling, "reparative therapy," and spiritual anxieties
  • Addiction, self-help, and the "higher power"
  • Medicine and religion in reproductive medicine and the abortion debate
  • Distribution of medical and spiritual knowledge: advice books, talk shows, childrearing manuals, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Oz
  • Richard Selzer and the rise of medical narrative/narrative medicine
  • Medicine and religion in popular culture

Professionalization and its discontents:

  • Credentialing and quackery
  • Women in contexts of physical and spiritual healing: midwifery, nursing, temperance, health reform
  • Religion, medicine and the rise of social work
  • Slave religion, slave medicine, and plantation science
  • Folk religion and folk medicine
  • Shamanism, faith healing, the laying on of hands
  • Institutionalized medicine, institutionalized religion, and their repudiation
  • Cross-cultural borrowings, adoptions, and appropriations: acupuncture, herbal medicine

Structures of meaning-making:

  • Narratives of physical and spiritual healing: religious revival as spiritual cure, illness narrative as conversion narrative (and vice versa)
  • Rhetorics of testimony and veridiction
  • Forms of charismatic authority among healers
  • Ritualized medical practice and (re)enchantments of science
  • Secularism and secularization
  • Religious values/norms in American biopolitics
  • Defining "life" and "soul" in religious and scientific contexts
  • Religion vs. science vs. pseudo-science vs. superstition
  • Locating the body in medical and religious discourses