The Religious and the Secular: Wall of Separation?
Jonathan Imber, PhD, Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology, Wellesley College
In his landmark work, The Religious and Secular (1969) the late sociologist of religion, David Martin, described the secular and secularization as the condition and process of delegitimizing religion and the religious. He recognized how canonical figures in the history of sociology (e.g., Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber et al.) were largely responsible for the intellectual heritage of a “creeping epiphenomenalism” associated with “religion” consigning it to the dustbin of history. Yet, “Religion is nowadays very weak but practically all the unpleasant and retrogressive things in our world, of which there appear to be a great number, are due to it.” The force of this “curious oscillation” might be attributed to what I would call after the first wall of separation between church and state, a second wall of separation between religion and science. The origin of this second wall is neatly summed up in the difference between faith and reason, between traditional and bureaucratic, between theological and positive, and between community and association (all dichotomies formulated in the history of sociological theory) Medicine has been an illustrative historical case of this problem seeing the equation of the secular with progressive ideals, and religion as both epiphenomenal and retrogressive. Of course, criticisms of religious objections to blood transfusion or vaccination at least in one respect certainly exemplify the tension between the religious and the secular. Good medical practice advances both scientifically and in conjunction with morality. But the invoking of conscientious objections to abortion or euthanasia reveal a divide between ostensibly religious beliefs and the arena of legally approved practices. This paper will explore the wall of separation as it defines these boundaries with the further expectation that terms such as dignity, faith, forgiveness, gratitude, healing, hope, love, and suffering can be addressed in ways that transcend and illuminate medical practice as more than a purely secular vocation.