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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.