Monday, June 29, 2009

Atheism, Hospitals and Prayer

Got a good response to the Atheist post which all took place over on facebook, which this blog feeds into. The conversation discussed what people mean when they self-describe as atheist. As I said earlier, I suspect that for many it just means "I don't do God" or even "can't be bothered to think about it", rather than the adoption of a clear ideology. There also seem to be passive and active atheists in the latter category - some who keep their views private, whereas others want to convert you as passionately as Christian evangelists.

Meanwhile, there is now a debate about prayer in hospitals, which follows on from a case where a nurse was disciplined for offering to pray for a patient. The BMA will be debating a motion about the right of health care professionals to offer to pray with patients.

The coverage has interested me. "Doctors are demanding the right..." was the BBC Sunday radio headline, and is echoed on the news website. In fact, the motion being put to the the BMA representative meeting is as follows:

Motion by THE AGENDA COMMITTEE: That this Meeting:
(i) recognises that the NHS is committed to providing spiritual care for patients;
(ii) notes the position on inappropriate discussion of faith matters in GMC Guidance on
Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice;
(iii) while welcoming the constructive and necessary advice in the document "Religion or
belief", is concerned that some paragraphs suggest that any discussion of spiritual matters
with patients or colleagues could lead to disciplinary action;
(iv) believes that offering to pray for a patient should not be grounds for suspension;
(v) calls on Health Departments to allow appropriate consensual discussion of spiritual matters
within the NHS, when done with respect for the views and sensitivities of individuals.
(Sheffield Division has been asked to propose this motion)

Full agenda available at

Hardly the mandate for aggressive and exploitative manipulation of vulnerable people, which the National Secular Society spokesman suggested. The Radio 4 debate descended into a rather odd conversation about whether it was inconsistent not to offer prayer to everyone, when he seemed to be suggesting that one could be a little more discerning than that. After all, not praying with a patient doesn't mean you don't pray for a patient.

Banning spiritual/religious issues from the practitioner-patient conversation would be a conscious decision to make health care atheistically secular. A democratic society is entitled to make that decision, but it isn't a decision to be taken by default. Even limiting that conversation to Chaplains represents a compartmentalising of spiritual matters. If the NHS is more than a mechanistic service, and seeks to offer person-centred care, then it would seem that every aspect of a person needs to be cared for.

Patient Concern, a (not Christian-based) patient advocacy organisation seemed to be the voice of reason in the midst of all of this.

But Joyce Robins, co-director of Patient Concern said: "Most complaints from patients are about being on a conveyor belt of care. They don't rate with staff as real people.
"Offering to say a prayer is a warm and kind thought. Most patients will accept it as such. It is no more offensive than being offered a sleeping pill. You can say thanks but that sort of thing isn't my cup of tea.
"But if Christian doctors see this as an opportunity to promote their faith to people at a time when they are particularly vulnerable, that is totally unacceptable."
Quoted from

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