In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Healing and Religion

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Future Considerations

Anthropology Healing and Religion
Dori-Michelle Beeler, Jojan L. Jonker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0218


The etymology of the term “healing” dates back to 900 CE with references pointing to northwestern Europe. Historically, healing is seen to be embedded in religion. The connection between religion and healing, while emphasizing an anthropological approach, considers categories such as (but not limited to): worldviews, religious beliefs, religious and spiritual practices, rituals, deities, and symbols rather than science. Considered holistically, studies on healing depict “healing-as-practice” (framed as praxis: theory and practice integrated) rather than just a phrase, a concept, a cognitive undertaking or even a discipline in and of itself. Positioned in this way, healing is also situated in practices of global institutions, religions, spiritualties, and indigenous communities alike. In doing so, the nuances of healing used as a phrase or concept, as well as the flexibility it has in terms of understanding what matters to humans are illuminated. Healing embraces all dimensions of human life: the physical, psychological, social, and cultural. This helps position the term “healing,” a popular term within biomedicine, health care, and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) modalities, as associated with holism. In considering the holistic nature of healing, one process includes the healing of bones, organs, and tissue suggesting an underlying common order for healing that can be influenced by religious or spiritual rituals. At the other end of the spectrum of processes, individuals experience healing without any improvement in bodily function. Rather, they experience a type of subjective transformation as a result of distinct cultural, religious, or spiritual practices. In between the biological mechanisms of healing and the psychosomatic influences on healing, lies healing-as-praxis where something or someone intervenes in a person’s constellation of body, mind, spirit, and environment intent on stimulating healing or reaching a state of healing. This indicates that healing-as-practice has (at least) three domains; process or activity, intervention, and outcome or accomplishment, and relates to tradition, community, and social environment. Furthermore, healing-as-practice implies salutogenesis, an approach that focuses on the processes that support healing and well-being; while a focus on illness has to do with the configuration of one’s social, psychological, and spiritual condition. Thus, a distinction is made between curing and healing. Healing is concerned with meaning in relation to illness and curing is related to disease, albeit the terms illness and disease may be swapped in which case disease is interpreted as dis-ease—to be read as “being not at ease”—where mind and/or spirit are also involved. Therefore, the relation between healing and religion/spirituality is a natural one.

General Overview

Accounts of healing practices can be found in many studies of religions and spiritualities and performed from different points of departure. Examples of these points include: experience used by Smart 1999, performance used by Laderman and Roseman 2016, embodiment used by Csordas 1994, symbols used by Douglas 1970 and culture used by Kleinman 1988. The anthropological study of religions challenges the idea that there is only one, for example, “Christianity” and questions if a religious movement that calls itself Christian should instead be regarded as one of the Christianities as Hinnells 2005 puts it. Hinnells asked the same question regarding healing: Is there only one “healing” being the result of any given religious or spiritual tradition? Or are there many “healings” cross-referencing many religions and spiritualities? An answer can be found in Hackett 2005 when he states that experiences of healing in these contexts are expressed in embodiment, yet the appearance as well as the result of healing (i.e., of Christian prayer) may differ from healing through ayurvedic herbs or shamanism. Mattingly and Lawlor 2001 added that healing implies that despite the complexity or severity of the physical ailment, there is a self—an identity, a life—“worth struggling for” in embodied and performed dramas. Heelas and Woodhead 2005 relates this to new spiritualities when they state that this notion of many healings is also explicated as achieved through surrender and conversion in the church versus subjective spiritual experiences. Therefore, it is safe to suggest that there is no one healing but that there is something like a family resemblance of healing where members have a familial characteristic of transforming an individual from a current state into an improved constellation of one’s body, mind, and spirit within the context of one’s environment. This suggests that, in many cases, healing is best understood within geographic locales and with their own social, cultural, and religious contexts that comprises and potentially differs from the dominant health-care system. Literature on healing, such as Hanegraaff 1998, often follows Kleinman 1988 and its suggestion to distinguish illness from disease and curing from healing.

  • Csordas, Thomas J. 1994. The sacred self: A cultural phenomenology of charismatic healing. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    A phenomenologically oriented ethnographic study of American Catholic charismatics that understands religion and culture as a whole. It illustrates the significance not just of ritual healing but also of embodiment and orientation to the construction of a religious sense of self.

  • Hackett, Rosalind I. J. 2005. “Anthropology of Religion.” In The Routledge companion to the study of religion. Edited by John R. Hinnells, 144–163. London and New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203412695_chapter_8

    Hackett describes the dimension of anthropology in the study of religions. Many well-known scholars in the field of anthropology are discussed and are placed in a contextual overview and exploration of religion (see pp. 151–153).

  • Hanegraaff, Paul. 1998. New Age religion and Western culture. Albany: State Univ. of New York.

    This publication offers a lengthy analysis of the New Age phenomenon from the perspective of the study of religions. It traces the origins of New Age to Western culture with chapters divided into three parts; orientation, presenting major trends in New Age religion; exposition, presenting the variety of New Age experiences; interpretation, relating New Age religion to traditional esotericism. It is a comprehensive and authoritative survey on the topic (see pp. 42–44).

  • Heelas, Paul, and Linda Woodhead. 2005. The spiritual revolution: Why religion is giving way to spirituality. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    This study provides a statistical and qualitative account of the religious and spiritual communities in Kendal, England. The primary question concerns whether spiritually grounded New Age practices are taking over the religious, church-based activities. Within this answer is a detailed understanding of what healing looks like in these two domains, the religious and the spiritual. This is a study that develops categorical theories for understanding Western practices of healing.

  • Hinnells, John R., ed. 2005. The Routledge companion to the study of religion. London and New York: Routledge.

    This is a handbook for the field of religious studies. It explores different points of view (among others anthropology) and for that reason is referenced in this article. Part 1 presents key approaches to the study of religions, for example theology, philosophy, and anthropology. The second part presents key issues in the study of religions: for example gender, postmodernism, orientalism, and secularization (pp. 10–12).

  • Kleinman, Arthur. 1988. The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition. New York: Basic Books.

    Healing is not explicitly discussed in this book; nonetheless, this literature is potentially of interest for scholars of healing in that there is meaning associated with illness which in turn equates to meaning in healing. This study gives a foundational understanding of what is at stake in the narrative of illness which subsequently points to actions taken for healing.

  • Laderman, Carol, and Marina Roseman, eds. 2016. The performance of healing. London and New York: Routledge.

    This is an edited volume with contributions that focus on healing as performance rather than as representation. The issues presented in this volume relate to embodiment, sensation, imagination, and experience to efficacy. Ethnographically grounded, each contribution is based in a different region and healing practice.

  • Levin, Jeff. 2017. What is ‘Healing’? Reflections on diagnostic criteria, nosology, and etiology. Explore 13.4: 243–256.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.explore.2017.04.005

    This article describes the conceptual history and contemporary usages of the term “healing,” with a focus on biomedicine and CAM. It explains why and how the term, over centuries, could diverge into the currently present Babel-like confusion. Especially, the narrowness of the use in biomedicine (the repair of flesh or tissue wound) versus multifactorial, multidimensional, multicontextual interpretation in the CAM milieu accompanied with lack of conceptual clarity stands out (p. 244).

  • Mattingly, Cheryl, and Mary Lawlor. 2001. “The Fragility of Healing.” Ethos 29.1: 30–57.

    DOI: 10.1525/eth.2001.29.1.30

    The healing dramas that occur within pediatric rehabilitation therapists are described as having meaningful impact for recovery. Of interest to healing is that these dramas, in order to create transformation with the potential to heal, must have deep meaning for the patient. Importantly, if these dramas are not recognized and given importance to other than the patient, the fragility of the moment is lost, and healing is compromised (p. 53).

  • Smart, Ninian. 1999. Dimensions of the sacred: An anatomy of the world’s beliefs. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    An analysis of religious and secular beliefs through nine dimensions (extended to ten in a later edition). Belief is connected to ritual, myth, experiential and emotional, ethical and legal, social, material and political effects within society. Healing is presented as a type of shamanistic experience and a framework is offered for how worldviews and beliefs illuminate healing as a form of religious experience within any religious or spiritual standpoint.

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