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Issue 06 – Corpus Christi 2021


The Medical Religion

On the reigning system of belief in the modern West.


It has been evident for quite a while that science has become our time’s religion, the thing which people believe that they believe in. Three systems of beliefs have co-existed, and in some ways still co-exist today, in the modern West: Christianity, capitalism, and science. In the history of modernity these three “religions” often and unavoidably intersected, each time clashing with one another and then reconciling until they gradually reached a sort of peaceful, articulated cohabitation (if not a true collaboration, in the name of a common interest). What is new is that, without us noticing, a subterranean and implacable conflict between science and the other two religions has ignited. Science’s triumphs appear today before our very eyes, and they determine in an unprecedented way every aspect of our existence. This conflict does not pertain, as it did in the past, to general theories and principles but, so to speak, to cultic praxis. No less than any other religion, science organizes and arranges its own structure through different forms and ranks. To its elaboration of a subtle and rigorous dogmatics corresponds, in praxis, a vast and intricate cultic sphere that coincides with what we call “technology.” It is not surprising that the protagonist of this new religious war is the very branch of science whose dogmatics is less rigorous and whose pragmatic aspect is stronger: that is, medicine, whose object is the living human body. Let us try to define the essential features of this victorious faith—one which we will increasingly have to deal with.

The first feature is the fact that medicine, like capitalism, has no need for a special dogmatics because it is limited to borrowing its fundamental ideas from biology. Unlike biology, however, medicine articulates these ideas in a Gnostic or Manichean sense; that is to say, through an exacerbated dualistic opposition. There is a malign god or principle—namely, the disease, whose specific agents are, say, bacteria and viruses—and a beneficent god or principle—which is not health, but recovery, whose cultic agents are doctors and therapy. As in every Gnostic faith, these two principles are clearly separated but can, in praxis, contaminate one another: the beneficent principle and the doctor who represents it can err and unknowingly collaborate with their enemy, without thereby invalidating either the reality of the dualism or the cultic necessity through which the beneficent principle fights its battle. It is indeed significant that the theologians who have to entrench this strategy represent a science—virology—that does not possess its own place but stands at the border between biology and medicine.

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About the author

Giorgio Agamben

Giorgio Agamben is an Italian philosopher and political theorist. This article is excerpted from his latest book, Where Are We Now?: The Epidemic as Politics, translated by Valeria Dani. It is reproduced here by arrangement with the publisher, Rowman & Littlefield. It originally appeared in the Corpus Christi 2021 issue of The Lamp Magazine.