A friend sent me a link to this article in Science and Theology News: some doctor felt obliged to write not only an essay but a book on the subject of how dangerous it is to mix religion and medicine. After spluttering wildly for a few minutes, I flew over here to blog about it.

First, let me acknowledge that only bringing up prayer right before surgery may not be the best idea. I would, ideally, ask to pray in a followup visit to a bad diagnosis, or at the time that the surgery is scheduled – and then again the day of the surgery, if it was favorably received the first time. I would say, pray early – and often. On the other hand, for a patient who does have faith, and is naturally nervous that morning, prayer right before surgery could be very helpful.

If you read the article through, you quickly perceive that this author is not open-minded or neutral. He has the very definite presupposition that religion is meaningless; that there is no supernatural reality; in short, prayer and other religious exercises are merely “placebos” in the true sense of the word. (He’s a psychiatrist; no surprise.) The obvious problem, then, with all his arguments, is that they leave no room for the possibility that prayer is effectual, that God does give peace and joy (not simple happiness), and that his providence governs all the affairs of men. Moreover, this leads him to ignore (or undervalue) the very real detriment that may be done to religious patients (which I believe are still the definite majority of Americans, according to polls) when the doctor is afraid to talk about faith.

Dr. Sloan’s main fear seems to be that nonreligious patients may feel intimidated by the doctor’s offer, or coerced into religious activities. Nonsense! For one thing, people who dislike religion are usually very ready to say so. Especially nowadays, when patients are much more used to questioning the doctor, disagreeing, making their own choices. Again, I really doubt that patients could be “coerced” into religious activity. I mean, 50% of the time they don’t even take the prescriptions, which everyone acknowledges our expertise and authority to write! If we can’t coerce/domineer/persuade patients into taking medicine, I doubt how much pressure religious talk will exert, unless they are already open to it.

He also says that talking about religion could take time away from discussing depression, smoking cessation, and weight control. This is how we know he doesn’t believe in the supernatural the least little bit, because if he did he would have to acknowledge that this can be a very good way to deal with depression etc. Or, discussion of spiritual issues could be very relevant to the underlying reasons for why the patient is struggling with these lifestyle/choice/decision issues.

Then, he says that if you tell patients that religion promotes health, they could feel guilty if they don’t get better. Well, that would sure be a dumb thing to tell them! Unless I felt a specific leading from God, I wouldn’t really suggest that their problem will definitely be solved by prayer or faith; after all, as I mentioned before on here, God can say no. I would talk about spiritual health and destiny being even more important than physical health. This isn’t the prosperity gospel. Whether they die in a few days, live with handicaps, or recover completely, the reasons for believing in and obeying Jesus are far greater than simply a mercantile exchange: words of faith for an act of healing.

Dr. Sloan concludes by saying that trying to connect science and religion is bad for religion, because it strips away the mysticism. Well, I wouldn’t say it’s bad for religion, I’d say it’s bad science. See my critique of the study on prayer. Scientists shouldn’t expect to be able to document supernatural occurences/existence – by definition. (Which also implies the tautology that science can’t make any negative statements about the supernatural either.)

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Today the pediatricians spent lots of time telling us basic things; which was nice in that they made the rules very clear. But I was hard put to it not to roll my eyes when the chief resident, in explaining the importance and calculations of fluid intake and output, explained cations and anions to us, and spent a great deal of time practicing very basic algebra (I mean, 2x=6 variety). I’m afraid my foot also began wandering towards my mouth when three other residents promised to sit us down tomorrow and explain the very same things.

The other students were vastly amused by me falling asleep continuously all morning, directly under the eyes of the attendings. That does it, I am going to drink coffee tomorrow. I don’t think propping my eyes open would have helped; and I got enough sleep the night before. Bother.

The new patient I was assigned is a preteen girl with bad asthma; she’s just been released from the PICU after being intubated for a couple of days. She’s spent way too much time in the hospital during her life, and her family situation is a mess. She’s been in the hospital less the last year, now that her grandmother is taking care of her. I went in to talk to her. She was lying restlessly in bed, staring at the TV, and didn’t notice my presence – or chatter – beyond a few cool nods. <mantra to self: I will not be annoyed by a 12yrold!> Actually, she’s probably pretty unhappy and insecure. The other students suggested singing and/or dancing the next time I go in. Since the nurses would undoubtedly come running to stop the sick-cow sounds that would be the result of this, I’m thinking of less drastic options, such as making shocking or unorthodox statements, or offering to tell her stories, or bringing something funny from the gift shop. If these don’t work, she will probably drive me to really use my imagination. Any suggestions?

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