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Austin Cline

Psychiatrists More Likely to be Nonreligious

By September 9, 2007

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There are differences in religiosity between different specialties of the physical sciences, but what about medicine? Turns out there are differences there as well. According to a survey published in the September 2007 issue of Psychiatric Services, psychiatry is the least religious of all medical fields. A bit disturbing, though, is that religious physicians are apparently less likely to send patients to psychiatrists and more likely to send them to clergy or religious counseling.
Although 61 percent of all American physicians were either Protestant (39%) or Catholic (22%), only 37 percent of psychiatrists were Protestant (27%) or Catholic (10%). Twenty-nine percent were Jewish, compared to 13 percent of all physicians. Seventeen percent of psychiatrists listed their religion as "none," compared to only 10 percent of all doctors.

Source: Science Daily

The same Farr Curlin has been involved with a number of other studies on the relationship between religion and medicine — for example, the recent study finding that nonreligious doctors are just as likely to help the poor and sick as religious doctors. At the time, he sounded positively disappointed to find that the nonreligious and nontheistic might be just as moral as religious theists. This time around, he's trying to come up with reasons why psychiatrists might not be so religious:

"Something about psychiatry, perhaps its historical ties to psychoanalysis and the anti-religious views of the early analysts such as Sigmund Freud, seems to dissuade religious medical students from choosing to specialize in this field," said study author Farr Curlin, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. "It also seems to discourage religious physicians from referring their patients to psychiatrists."

"Previous surveys have documented the unusual religious profile of psychiatry," he said, "but this is the first study to suggest that that profile leads many physicians to look away from psychiatrists for help in responding to patients' psychological and spiritual suffering."

"Because psychiatrists take care of patients struggling with emotional, personal and relational problems," Curlin said, "the gap between the religiousness of the average psychiatrist and her average patient may make it difficult for them to connect on a human level."

So, religious medical students might not pursue psychiatry because decades ago a couple of the early founders of the field were anti-religious? I'll bet Curlin doesn't realize it, but that's a pretty negative statement about the bigotry of such medical students. I'm sure no atheists refuse to go into physics because Newton was a Christian — and if any did, you can bet that Christians would leap upon that as a sign of atheist bigotry towards Christianity, never mind juvenile peevishness.

Granted, Curlin's statement here is completely unsupported speculation, but given his background it seems unlikely that he would engage in such negative speculation unless he thought he had a case — or perhaps he just doesn't recognize that it's negative, which is even worse. If he's right, then it appears that the bigotry follows these religious medical students through their careers because there is strong evidence that they send patients to clergy and religious counselors rather than to nonreligious psychiatrists.

Here, though, Curlin's anti-atheist bias seems to shine through: nonreligious counselors apparently cannot relate to religious people "on a human level" when it comes to discussing emotional, personal, and relational problems. If that's true, maybe it's only because people like Curlin are so bigoted that they cannot accept that people who aren't religious and/or who aren't theists are fully human themselves, and thus refuse to give serious consideration to any of their ideas, opinions, or suggestions. I think that perhaps Curlin should spend a little time studying relationships between atheists and theists before presuming to say that they have trouble connecting "on a human level."

"A patient presents to you with continued deep grieving two months after the death of his wife. If you were to refer the patient, to which of the following would you prefer to refer first" (a psychiatrist or psychologist, a clergy member or religious counselor, a health care chaplain, or other)."

Overall, 56 percent of physicians indicated they would refer such a patient to a psychiatrist or psychologist, 25 percent to a clergy member or other religious counselor, 7 percent to a health care chaplain and 12 percent to someone else.

Although Protestant physicians were only half as likely to send the patient to a psychiatrist, Jewish physicians were more likely to do so. Least likely were highly religious Protestants who attended church at least twice a month and looked to God for guidance "a great deal or quite a lot."

To be fair, it would be reasonable for a religious physician to send a patient to a religious counselor or clergy member if they knew their patient were religious, that their religion were important to them, and that they used religion to get through difficult times of life. On the other hand, if they didn't know the religious status of their patient, such a recommendation would be completely inappropriate. The question is arguably ambiguous because it doesn't say either way and if physicians were thinking about religious patients, it's understandable that they would answer this way.

On the other hand, why would they simply assume that their patients would be religious like them? Don't they have non-religious patients? Don't they give such patients the same consideration as religious ones? Physicians have a responsibility not to use their positions of power and authority as a platform for their religious beliefs. Physicians also have a responsibility to ensure that their patients get the best care possible, but where is the evidence that people gain as much from seeing clergy as they do from seeing secular psychiatrists and psychologists?

Comments
September 9, 2007 at 1:04 pm
(1) mobathome says:

Should the sentence fragment “people who aren’t religious and/or who aren’t theists aren’t fully human themselves” read “people who aren’t religious and/or who aren’t theists aret fully human themselves”?

September 9, 2007 at 2:07 pm
(2) tracieh says:

>Something about psychiatry, perhaps its historical ties to psychoanalysis and the anti-religious views of the early analysts such as Sigmund Freud, seems to dissuade religious medical students from choosing to specialize in this field…

I find it interesting that as he contemplates “reasons” for why fewer psychiatrists are religious he tends to imply it’s the religious prejudice of the field that steers religious people away from careers in the field.

I have to wonder why it wouldn’t occur to him that perhaps people who best understand how mental psychosis can affect people’s perceptions of reality—and how drugs can remove psychotic delusions—might be better able to identify delusional mental mechanisms—like religious thinking.

>the gap between the religiousness of the average psychiatrist and her average patient may make it difficult for them to connect on a human level…

Agreed. Although I’m pretty sure I’m interpreting Curlin in a way he didn’t intend: If someone believes in a supernatural realm that is the ultimate reality—and that this “reality” is merely a temporal experiment of a higher life form whose only goal is to utilize this “reality” as a way of sifting apart those who will believe in him/her or not…then yes, I might have trouble connecting on a “human” level with that person—since they have trouble anchoring themselves to anything on a human/mortal level. It would be like trying to connect on a human level with someone who thinks he’s a Martian. Likelihood of success? Slim to none.

>On the other hand, if they didn’t know the religious status of their patient, such a recommendation would be completely inappropriate.

This sums up my thought as well. Ultimately, it’s what the patient will be most comfortable with. Although, I have to admit, I would question the practice of sending a grieving patient who believed he was a Martian to a grief counselor who also believed he was a Martian, and using the logic that this counselor can better “connect” to the patient. I’m sure he can—but is a counselor who, himself, suffers from a major mental delusion really equipped to help others with mental issues?

September 9, 2007 at 6:45 pm
(3) Austin Cline says:

Thanks for catching that, mob…

September 14, 2007 at 2:55 pm
(4) John Hanks says:

I suppose they aren’t affiliated with Communism or Nazism either. Religionisms and ideologies feed on mental weaknesses.

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