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Austin Cline

Atheist Doctors as Likely to Care for Poor as Religious Doctors

By August 1, 2007

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According to a recent study of doctors, those who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or simply not religious were actually a little more likely than religious doctors to help poor patients with little or no health insurance. If religion is necessary for morality and moral behavior, why would these results be found? Is it actually possible that being an atheist doesn't prevent a person from being a good, moral citizen who cares about others?

Large studies of people which includes information about religious affiliation consistently show that atheists aren't much different from the rest of the population. This means that people's prejudices against atheists can't stem from regular, negative contact with atheists. Instead, it must stem from regular contact with negative rhetoric about atheists — it's the anti-atheist bigotry we keep finding in the media and the mouths of Christian apologists which feeds prejudice and discrimination against atheists.

The study is based on a survey of 2,000 doctors with a 63 percent response rate. Thirty-five percent of non-religious doctors, compared with 31 percent of religious doctors, said they were likely to care for people with little or no health insurance.

Most studies show religious people more likely than others to help the poor, according to Dr. Harold Koenig, director for the Center for the Study of Religion, Spirituality and Health at Duke University. "But nobody has looked at this question in physicians," he said. "It's the largest and most systematic study of U.S. physicians. The fact that there weren't large differences is interesting."

Source: Chicago Sun-Times (via The Friendly Atheist)

Just as interesting as these results is the reaction from the lead author of the study — he's disappointed:

"This came as both a surprise and a disappointment," study author Dr. Farr Curlin, of the University of Chicago, said in a statement. "The Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist scriptures all urge physicians to care for the poor, and the great majority of religious physicians describe their practice of medicine as a calling. Yet we found that religious physicians were not more likely to report practice among the underserved than their secular colleagues."

Clearly Farr Curlin expected atheists to be morally inferior to religious theists and is disappointed that not only are they not worse, but in fact are a little better. This is a bit like doing a study to see if there are any differences in criminal behavior between whites and blacks then being disappointed to find that whites aren't more law-abiding than blacks.

That's the sort of bigotry that lies behind expecting atheists to be less moral than theists, but whereas no one would dare to publicly express such racist bigotry Farr Curlin sees no problem with expressing such anti-atheist bigotry. And why not? Given that atheists are the most distrusted and despised minority in America, he can reasonably assume that no one will object — just as there would have been no objections to similar racism being expressed several decades ago.

"The glass-half-full interpretation is that a substantial minority of physicians across all these groups, most particularly those who are not religious at all, are caring for the poor," said Curlin. "Not being religious clearly doesn't mean that people don't care about underserved patients."

Richard Sloan, professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and author of "Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine," agreed.

According to Sloan, the result supports the view of writers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who argue that an atheist can be an extremely moral and ethical person despite not having a religious affiliation.

"This provides evidence of that claim," said Sloan. "That's an important finding."

Source: Chicago Tribune

The same Farr Curlin has been involved with a number of other studies on the relationship between religion and medicine — for example, that doctors who believe in a god also believe that their god intervenes in patients' health regardless of what they do:

54% of doctors surveyed believe God or another supernatural being intervenes in patients' health.

76% of doctors surveyed believe God or another supernatural being helps patients cope with and endure illness and suffering.

74% of doctors surveyed believe God or another supernatural being gives patients a hopeful state of mind.

Source: Chicago Sun-Times

Richard Sloan commented on this study as well, saying that the doctors who believe in a supernatural being that intervenes in patients' health are making "a religious assertion, not a scientific assertion." If it's a personal belief then they are of course free to adopt it — no one should be expected to always make only scientific assertions all the time — but I'm concerned about whether such beliefs will affect the sort of care they give.

After all, if some supernatural being intervenes to help a person's health no matter what the doctor does, then does it really matter what the doctor does? Failing to provide certain tests or treatments can't prevent a supernatural being from helping, so if it has decided to help then it will help even if some tests are skipped and some treatments ignored.

I think I'd prefer a doctor who recognizes that my well-being is dependent upon the quality of care they themselves provide — and are thus motivated to provide the best without imagining that if they fail, some god will make up for it all later on. No gods will save anyone or make them healthy.

Then there is the study finding that doctors may let their personal religious beliefs limit the sort of care they will offer patients — or even inform patients about existing:

The study, conducted by University of Chicago researchers, found that 86 percent of those responding believe doctors are obligated to present all treatment options, and 71 percent believe they must refer patients to another doctor for treatments they oppose. Slightly more than half the rest said they had no such obligation; the others were undecided.

“That means that there are a lot of physicians out there who are not, in fact, doing the right thing,” said David Magnus, director of Stanford University's Center for Biomedical Ethics. ...According to an American Medical Association policy statement, doctors can decline to give a treatment sought by an individual that is “incompatible with the physician's personal, religious or moral beliefs.” But the physician should try to ensure that the patient has “access to adequate health care.” ...

Doctors describing themselves as very religious, particularly Protestants and Catholics, were much less likely than others to feel obligated to tell patients about controversial treatments or refer them to other doctors, and were far more likely to tell patients if they had moral objections. Overall, 52 percent said they oppose abortion, 42 percent opposed prescribing birth control to 14-to 16-year-olds without parental approval, and 17 percent objected to sedating patients near death.

Female doctors were much more likely than male ones to feel obligated to refer patients for treatments they personally oppose, far less likely to present their own objections to a patient and slightly more likely to disclose all treatment options.

Source: San Diego Union-Tribune

No matter how much a doctor may personally object to some course of treatment, they can't ethically conceal its existence from you. We aren't talking about strange, experimental, and high-risk treatments — we're talking about standard, legal, and even normal options which the doctor's religion disapproves of. Imagine a doctor refusing to tell a patient about pain medication because the doctor's religion forbids its use — would that be permitted? Doctors don't have the luxury of using their religion as a yardstick for measuring which options patients are allowed to hear about — that has to be done according to medical standards.

August 1, 2007 at 9:27 pm
(1) Kyle says:

I was hoping someday that you’d comment on the Gallup Polls that came out years ago basically saying that people who go to church tend to be healthier, happier, have better sex lives and marriages, and are much less likely to engage in risky behavior. I was hoping someone would put the lie to those polls.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand, I used to be heavily involved in the evangelical subculture in general and with the Southern Baptists in particular. I wonder if the low #s of religious doctors helping the poor or those without insurance has any (even remote) relation to the Bible verse that says “Whoever will not work shall not eat”. Some religious people take that a step further, interpreting that to say “If any among you will not work, DON’T LET THEM EAT” – or in this case, don’t treat their illnesses.

As far as Farr Curlin being disappointed at the results, there are two ways to look at this. While it’s a fair assumption to say that this can be motivated by bigotry against atheists, I do recall a lot of Christian leaders urging the flock to live lives that are as morally upright as possible, for the sake of “their witness” to the world.

August 2, 2007 at 10:18 am
(2) tracieh says:

>but I’m concerned about whether such beliefs will affect the sort of care they give.

NO DOUBT! I have said on more than one occasion that if I’m scheduled for a surgery, I don’t want a surgeon who’s going to be praying before I go under the knife. If the man/woman believes that a good outcome for me relies on the aid of a supernatural intervention–beyond their own surgical abilities (after all that med school training and practice)–PLEASE get me another surgeon. I don’t want a surgeon telling me “it’s in god’s hands,” I want a surgeon who can confidently and honestly say, “I know what I’m doing.”

August 2, 2007 at 10:30 am
(3) Tom says:

[b]As far as Farr Curlin being disappointed at the results, there are two ways to look at this. While it’s a fair assumption to say that this can be motivated by bigotry against atheists, I do recall a lot of Christian leaders urging the flock to live lives that are as morally upright as possible, for the sake of “their witness” to the world.[/b]

That’s sort of six-of-one, half-a-dozen-of-another. In other words, the religious leaders want the flock to set an example by being more morally upright than the nonreligious are capable of being.

August 2, 2007 at 1:06 pm
(4) Ron says:


Go here to see who occupy our prisons. Copy an paste to your search field.
Also, do a search on divorce survey by religion. The more conservative the denomination, the higher is the divorce rate. Highest in the bible belt.

August 2, 2007 at 1:13 pm
(5) tracieh says:

Ron: There was also a study done recently that showed that the more educated and professional a woman was, the better her odds of remaining married. They tend to marry later, when they’re more established, and the marriages do better–which indicates a potential reversal of a prior trend–that professional women were more prone to divorce.

The idea that better educated, working women are beginning to make better marriage choices seems to go against the conservative view of women as being predestined to become home-makers and mothers if they want true fulfillment in life.

[I'm not saying a woman can't be happy as a home-maker and/or mother. But it should be a choice not a predetermined future based on her biological potential.]

April 2, 2010 at 2:20 pm
(6) veggiedude says:

Makes sense to me. Why be so concerned with the poor when you might think that is God’s job, not yours?

May 19, 2010 at 3:51 am
(7) Rai says:

Interesting read. Would you happen to know the basic statistics of doctors who are atheist/agnostic versus believers?

I’m interested whether their degree of education may have helped them form an opinion on “god”.

March 27, 2011 at 1:48 pm
(8) Kevin says:

It would be nice if there was a website that directed you to atheist Medical Services closest to ones home.

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