Something That Cannot Be Put into Words? Intensive Care, Secularity and the Sacred


  • Gitte H. Koksvik Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, Norwegian University of Science and Technology



Medicine, Secularization, Sacred, Ethnography


Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in intensive care units in three European countries, the aim of this article is to engage with issues of secularity and the sacred in contemporary biomedicine. Contemporary biomedicine plays well into the narrative of secularization. At the same time, faced with criticism for its one sided and reductionist scientific focus, healthcare has moved in a supposedly more holistic direction, making space for the spiritual needs of patients. I suggest however, that some of the clinical practices that at face value appear to contradict the narrative of secularization, may just as much be interpreted within this framework and not as points of challenge. A second argument concerns the creed of biomedicine itself. Here, I draw on Durkheim’s understanding of religion as a collective, moral project founded in the distinction between the sacred and the profane. These are collectively maintained categories, and the sacred according to Durkheim inspires in us a sense of deep-seated respect. It is socially determined, but its value and truth appear undeniable. Drawing on my own ethnographic experiences of being an observer in intensive care, as well as on social-scientific literature about the moral project of medicine, I suggest that contemporary biomedicine represent not only a disenchantment of human life in line with typical secularization theory. Rather, I suggest, we find in the practices and implicit moral stances of this field, evidence of what our society holds to be sacred.

Author Biography

  • Gitte H. Koksvik, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
    Postdoctoral fellow, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, Norwegian University of Science and Technology


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How to Cite

Koksvik, G. H. (2018). Something That Cannot Be Put into Words? Intensive Care, Secularity and the Sacred. Implicit Religion, 20(2), 167-186.