Background

Modern medicine and public health owes many of its founding principles to a spiritual heritage.  However, passage through the Enlightenment and entry into a secular, pluralistic health context have yielded an estranged relationship between care of the body and care of the soul.  Scientific medicine now holds the primary role in the care of the body while religious communities are solely responsible for care of the soul.  The needs of both body and soul are in many respects served well by this specialization and division of labor, but ultimately, of course, human experience is not susceptible to such a simplistic separation.  The lack of integration of spiritual and material dimensions of the human person has led to increasingly evident tensions, including inadequate attention to the role of religion in social health and in the mechanization and isolation of the illness experience. For many, spirituality—whether it takes on a traditional, faith-based form or manifests itself in more unconventional ways—is central to healthy living and coping with illness.  However, there is a sizable gap between what patients want and need in the realms of religion and spirituality, and what our current healthcare system offers.  That gap marginalizes religion from the domain of public health policy and ignores the central role that spirituality holds within the experience of physical suffering and terminal illness.  Simply put, neglecting a fundamental dimension of human experience results in a cascading impact on public health policy, patients’ well-being, medical decisions, and the healthcare system.