The body is an important topic in the study of religion today, as it is in other fields of social and cultural studies. Embodied experiences and physical practices, for example, related to food, sexuality, movement, or body modifications, are increasingly central to religious studies. Recent discussions about secularism often use the body as a lens for looking at conceptions of religion and its absence, for instance through the practice of circumcision, as will be discussed further below. Yet, this is a relatively recent development and something of a reaction, since the body has long been neglected or seen as inferior. This negative attitude is often attributed to the somatophobia, or fear of the body, which is characteristic of Western culture, including Western Christianity, and therefore also of academic thought on religion.

The negative attitude toward the body has its roots in ancient Greek thought, where the body was seen as separate from and inferior to the soul. While the soul made up the highest and immortal part of (male) human beings, the perishable body tied people to earthly existence and lower impulses. The relationship between the body and the soul—or, in later thinking, also the mind—was not imagined to be the same for everyone. Certain people were associated more closely with the body, rather than with any higher part, based on factors such as gender, ethnicity, and social position. In this way, negative attitudes toward the body in general went hand-in-hand with negative attitudes for particular groups of people.

It is partly as a challenge to this hierarchy, and as a result of the influence of social movements aimed at improving the positions of disadvantaged groups, that bodies have become such a central topic.

Insight into bodily experiences and practices has grown significantly, along with the recognition that such aspects have always been important for religions. Protestant Christianity, for example, often thought to be lacking a concern for anything physical, has had a consistent interest in policing bodies—whether in dancing, clothing, or sexual behavior—and therefore has attributed significance to what these bodies did.

Increased interest in embodied experiences has also led to a rejection of “the body” as a natural, stable phenomenon across history and culture. In the context of religion, bodies are therefore studied through a variety of disciplines, including the study of gender, sexuality, culture, politics, sociology, economics, and history. In addition, there is an increased interest in examining bodies from within, through disciplines such as neuroscience, where brain imaging techniques are used to analyze, for example, the effects of prayer and meditation. Increasingly, religion is seen as a product of the body. Some scholars argue that religion is an evolutionary adaptation that offers particular advantages, such as increased social cohesion, while others see it as merely an evolutionary byproduct.

Even though the body-mind opposition has lost considerable relevance in the field of religious studies, it still informs many popular conceptions of religion, and therefore continues to be important. In law, politics, and society generally, religion tends to be defined as belief in a higher being, or, as accepting unverifiable claims about an imaginary world. Religion is very much seen as something that is in your head, rather than something you do with your body. The distinction between mind and body is often interpreted as also a distinction between beliefs and practices. In this view, religious practices are seen as consequences of particular beliefs, rather than as an integral part of religious identity and experience in themselves. As a consequence, religious practices that are contested in society today—often practices associated with the body—need to be justified by arguments based on beliefs, in order to be seen as legitimate.

This is evident, for example, in discussions about the circumcision of boys, particularly in European countries. Here, the ritual is often taken by critics to be a secondary expression of a deeper, underlying religious faith. This hierarchy is explicit in the new Norwegian law on circumcision, which came into effect in 2015. This law “on the ritual circumcision of boys” (LOV-2014-06-20-40), defines ritual circumcision as a surgical procedure where the foreskin of the penis is entirely or partially removed, and where the “purpose” is “religiously motivated” or “religiously justified.” Under the law, a circumcision is not legitimated by the religious nature of the ritual itself, by the circumstances under which it is performed, its communal nature, or the participants involved, but rather by the purpose and motivations with which it is undertaken. Only when the rite is performed with a religious intention is it protected under the Norwegian law.

Governments thus implement standards about how religion can be expressed legitimately on and in the body. In this and other legislation, such as relating to head and face coverings, there is an implicit idea of what a nonreligious body, or a body that expresses religion in a legitimate way, looks like. This implicit ideal tends to be one that reproduces the understanding of religion as a matter of internal belief and, as these examples show, clearly has a gendered aspect. In this way, old conceptions of body and mind, and of certain bodies being more problematic than others, are still present in how bodies are governed today.