Friday, February 06, 2009

Prayer versus Medicine

It seems that a nurse had been suspended from her job and faced a risk that she would lose her job for the "crime" of offering to pray for a patient. She has since been reinstated. (See Daily Mail NHS staff face the sack if they discuss religion with patients..

The charge is that she showed disrespect for the patient's beliefs and, for that, she must be terminated.

I would say that many atheist bloggers liked the idea of a religious person facing discipline for no principled reason. Rather, they have simply learned to enjoy the prospect of a person who believes in God suffering what, in this case, is some particularly harsh inconveniences.

I consider the idea that this nurse should be terminated or even disciplined to be absurd. She has committed no moral crime. The thesis that we live in a world filled with people who do not share our beliefs is violated, not respected, when we prohibit some of them from offering to engage in the peaceful act of praying for a patient.

It is, in fact, a demonstration of compassion, and we have far too little compassion in the world.

Having said that, I do not want a particularly religious person in charge of my medical care or the medical care of those I care about and am responsible for. I have two reasons for this.

First, I want a physician who knows and understands the relationships between evidence and the conclusions that one draws from those evidence. I do not want a physician who, when he looks at a set of symptoms and tries to make a diagnosis and design a treatment, thinks it is plausible to conclude, "I don't know what is wrong with you, so God must have done it." Whatever is wrong with me has a material cause, and I want my physician to find it and remove it.

Second, I do not want a physician who will abdicate personal responsibility for the consequence of his actions to a “higher“ authority. I worry that a physician who thinks that whether I live or die is determined by God and that his hands are tied might not be so diligent about looking for ways to save my life.

Instead, I want a physician who realizes that, if I should die, it is because of some lack of knowledge or understanding on his part or on the part of the medical community in general.

This does not imply that I want every physician racked with guilt over each patient that dies or whose suffering cannot be prevented. There are things that we do not know, illnesses we do not know how to treat, and injuries we do not know how to repair. In a sense, :God's will" can be used as a euphemism for "that which I lack the intelligence and skill to do anything about" However, the euphemism is less dangerous than the fact when a doctor or nurse denies responsibility for their own actions and assigns it to God

However, the fault, in this case, is not God's will. The fault is our ignorance. This fact should be used as motivation to push the boundaries of our knowledge out a little further, not as an excuse for wringing our hands and saying that nothing could be done.

This happens the other way as well – patients thanking God for the skill and efforts of the physician. How do you like it when you struggle to complete some task. Then, the person you did the work for turns to somebody who did not lift a finger is given all of the credit and the reward. The claim that doctors and nurses are to be held responsible for their failures goes hand-in-hand with saying that they also deserve credit for their success. It is a form of theft to take from them the thanks and the gratitude that they deserve

So, while I would not be offended by somebody who asks to pray for me, I would be worried that my health and well-being is not in the best of all possible hands. And I reserve the right to hire or fire any doctor basec


Mule Breath said...

I do not want a physician who will abdicate personal responsibility for the consequence of his actions to a “higher“ authority

Neither do I want politicians with such aberrant beliefs seeking answers from higher authorities.

rgz said...

I agree, it was an abuse. all atheists I know agree. I even suspect this is a scam to make atheists look bad.

Matt M said...

From what I've gathered, she wasn't a full-time employee of the NHS, she was a support staff who they called upon when necessary. Rather than fire her, they simply decided - given the history of complaints from patients - not to call upon her in future. At least until the tabloids got involved - at which point they reverse their decision.

If she wants to pray for people, she should pray for them. No one's stopping her, and nor should they. What apparently got her into trouble is the fact that she was making her patients feel uncomfortable.

anton said...

I agree that it is an act of compassion! I also agree with your concerns if religion takes charge of the operating room. The resignation of "he is now in God's hands" may be used an abdication of personal responsibility, or, as you stated, an admittance of ignorance or lack of ability.

I might also point out that if we carry this approach to extremes, people will stop wishing others a "Merry Christmas" out of fear that they not be addressing a Christian and could be terminated. When a person wishes me a "Merry Christmas" I choose to look at it as a wish for my happiness, regardless of my (non)religious beliefs.

anticant said...

We live in an age of ever more pervasive "Political Correctness" absurdity. A lot of this is driven by fear that groups who are 'offended' might resort to aggressive and even violent protest [as Muslims sometimes do].

Incidentally, Matt, nobody can be 'made' to be offended, or to feel uncomfortable: these are personal choices for which we should take responsibility.

If this nurse wants to pray for someone, why can't she just do it privately without announcing her intention?

There is a serious issue in the UK national health service because hospital chaplains are employed at quite high salaries which some secularists [including me] think should not be paid to them out of taxpayers' money. If they feel they have a vocation to minister to the sick, they should be funded by their own religious communities.