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Sacred Pills: Medicine as Religious Experience

How does religion fit into our pharmaceutical world?

Photo by Laurynas Mereckas on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Laurynas Mereckas on Unsplash

One word: pharmaceuticalization.

It’s a long word, a neologism, that seeks to capture a cultural transformation that is both historically specific and socially profound, a shift in mentalities and practices cutting to the core of daily, embodied existence and self-understanding. The concept is applied in sociology, anthropology, and other social and health sciences, and describes the gradual, but soon dominant, insinuation of medical pharmaceuticals into the fabric of everyday life and notions of health in the modern world.

It should be noted that pharmaceuticalization can also “potentially extend far beyond the realms of the strictly medical or the medicalized… to encompass other non-medical uses for lifestyle, augmentation or enhancement purposes (amongst `healthy’ people)” (Sismondo and Greene). The extension of pharmaceuticals beyond the medical realm can serve multiple purposes, and bear on diverse realms of existence, including the religious realm.

What many social scientists are missing, and colleagues in Religious Studies have not yet discovered, is that pharmaceuticals are also a critical component of a pervasive religious culture, built from a mixture of desires long-present in religious lives: the search for good health and well-being, in physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual terms; control and transcendence of the body; awareness of death and seeking out forms of salvation.

The power of a pill, a material but no doubt magical object, is suffused with both scientific know-how and case-study testing that are clear and present in the public framing of pharmaceutical triumphs, and unspoken but still animating and energizing sacred elements that ground the pill in more metaphysical frameworks.

Medical anthropologist Janis H. Jenkins is one who is not missing these points, and understands how the study of psychopharmaceuticals in contemporary cultures breaks down the usually firm boundaries existing between magic, science, and religion:

“Healing has medical overtones and medical practice has religious overtones. Medical care includes `ritual’ and healing practice includes `treatment.’ Appeal to the universal power of science is an appeal to faith in science similar to a religious attitude, while religious healing is sometimes targeted toward specific disorders or symptoms, which is similar to medicine’s idea of specificity of treatment. Invoking the instance of religious practice among Catholics, `taking’ Holy Communion from a priest in full vestments is parallel to `taking’ a medicine prescribed by a physician in a white coat” (Jenkins).

The history of the rise of pharmaceuticals in western cultures is fascinating and is often understood as a story of declining religious influence and ascending scientific clarity. Perhaps it is worth turning this conventional story on its head, and reconsidering the alignment between religion and health when people take something external to their bodies to feel better about their bodies, identities, communities, and worlds.

The pharmaceuticalization of our culture is not simply a modern, hegemonic healthcare imposition elaborately cooked up by schemers and corporate moguls to profit from our fears and dreams, though there is no doubt a good bit of that. It is also, as I mentioned, a product of some deep-rooted desires and sensibilities around the body and the search for healing, health, and wholeness that extends beyond the boundaries of the physical body, and that leads to faith in the mysterious but transformative powers of science.

Dig deeper down the rabbit hole, and the religious contours of our dependence on and inspiration from pharmaceutical products become clearer and clearer. Explore the broader religious landscape during the rise and dominance of the pharmaceutical industry in the last four decades or so, and the spiritual potential of these powerful pills makes more sense.

What impact does this industry have on the religious worlds of Americans? The question is not what do Christians or Hindus or Jews think about pharmaceuticals, but rather how manufactured mind- and mood-altering drugs shape religious outlooks and experiences. During the 20th century, pharmaceutical incursions into daily living was driven by both public, scientifically sanctioned rationales for treating bodies, and spiritual undercurrents expressing a desire for meanings outside of purely mechanistic models of the body and sickness.

The evidence can be found in the minutiae of religious life and consciousness: the daily rituals with pills, the ubiquitous advertising with modern mythologies of a good life, the faith in authorities and institutions with the power to control and dispense what are often referred to as “miracle drugs,” the transcendence of suffering, discomfort, and debilitation with the aid of a specially endowed object, and so on.

Rather than understanding pharmacology as a cult, as others have argued, it seems instead that an unintended consequence of pharmaceuticalization is to contribute to the dramatically altering religious fault lines in American society. Pharmaceuticals, along with a wide range of other psychoactive substances in society, including but not limited to psychedelics, are part of an increasingly mainstream and visible religious culture centered squarely on the consumption of drugs.


Sergio Sismondo and Jeremy A. Greene, eds (2015). The Pharmaceutical Studies Reader. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Janis H. Jenkins, ed (2010). Pharmaceutical Self: The Global Shaping of Experience in an Age of Psychopharmacology. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press.

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