When Your Doctor Offers to Pray for You

medicine-prayerSo welcome back to the Great Midwest and the next best thing to Evangelical heaven. Ask me what it’s like to go to the doctor and receive, a couple of days later, a letter from the doctor telling you his office is willing to pray for you to make you all better:

Our entire staff would like to welcome you to our office…We would also like you to know that we are happy to pray with you at any time, and if you complete a prayer request card while you are in the office, we will pray for you in our morning staff prayer time. Our providers and staff consider it a privilege to care for you in this manner.

Gosh, and here I thought doctors used modern medical science to heal people. I bet there are no atheists in that particular foxhole. I mean, what happens if you’re on the staff and you refuse to pray?

Turns out that at this office they’re perfectly content with Bronze Age medical treatments. It also turns out that though this is my first encounter with doctor-prayer it is not something new, or even limited to the United States.

But I wonder what happens if they decide you’re cursed or possessed by demons? Do they fill the syringe with holy water instead of penicillin? Do they really believe in the germ theory of medicine or is it merely optional?

You know, I have nothing against people praying. I pray to my gods. I ask Thor to ward my journeys and the journeys of those close to me who also honor Thor (I won’t bother him with the safe travel of followers of the White Christ, because frankly, why would he give a damn?).

But come on. You’re a doctor. You went to medical school and even if you went to seminary, you still also studied to be a doctor. So why the prayers? Aren’t they redundant? Do you not trust medical science? Or is your role as a doctor evidence that you don’t trust prayer?

If, as a patient, I want prayers, I know where to find them. I can pray for myself according to my own traditions, and after all, if I want prayers to the White Christ, I can’t pee around here without hitting a church. I don’t need my doctor to solicit them.

And if conservative Christians feel their religious freedoms are being stepped by when required to provide contraception, etc, why do they feel it is perfectly alright to step on the religious freedom of others by sending letters to them offering to pray?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course. We already know they think you don’t possess any religious freedoms. It has been well established that from their perspective, religious freedom is uni-directional. Their beliefs are privileged. The Constitution established their religion as a state-sponsored religion, after all. Haven’t you read the First Amendment?

Sadly, this is not the sort of nightmare you can wake up from. Our beloved America has really fallen into this shithole of a reality bubble.

And no, this witch-doctor will not be treating anybody in this family ever again.

“Ministering the love of Christ through health care,” the letterhead says. Great.

How about ministering the sick through medical science? You’re not Jesus. Laying on hands ain’t gonna work.

You get used, in the Midwest, to seeing pictures of Jesus, and stray Bibles in physicians’ offices and in hospitals but the proselytizing is something you don’t expect unless you’re helpless in a hospital bed. at which point the sky pilots become vultures.

Richard Sherman, a cornerback on the Seattle Seahawks whose play I really admire, said in response to his critics,

Everybody has haters..People think Jesus didn’t exist. They think he wasn’t a miracle worker. There are people who say he didn’t walk on water, or he only walked on water because he couldn’t swim. Those people’s opinions mean dirt to me.

I’m okay with that, because I have a similar opinion of his opinions with regard to the divine. I just don’t care. As Thomas Jefferson said, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. And Richard Sherman isn’t sending me letters offering to pray for me.

This knowledge of not-necessarily-shared beliefs should apply to doctors as well, as a doctor, Robert Klitzman, wrote in the New York Times in 2008:

I would argue that your doctor’s personal beliefs don’t matter. What matters is that your doctor recognizes that your beliefs are important to you. Training cannot convince doctors to become more spiritual. But it can, I hope, make them more aware of the range of views that their patients have.

I wouldn’t normally care if a doctor believed Jesus tap-danced or back-flipped or even cart-wheeled across the Sea of Galilee either. Most of my doctors have been Christians after all. But again, they’re not proselytizing. They’re acting as doctors should: treating my medical condition through application of medical science.

Doctors are not pastors. They should not pretend to be. If they intend to function in both roles, they ought at least to inform you of that: John Smith, M.D., D.D. Because honestly, the doctor of divinity isn’t why I came to see you, doc. If I saw a sign like that, I’d head elsewhere without ever touching the door handle.

Can someone, perhaps, make an ap? Let’s put our smartphones to use in our own defense. There is a lovely symmetry to it: science defending science; humans inventing science, science defending humans.

I knew I was in for it with this move when I saw a Romney sign in my neighbor’s yard. I just didn’t realize how deep in. This isn’t Kansas, but the evil that infests Kansas is the same evil that infests Colorado Springs and many other places, places that have tossed the Constitution and its ideas about religious pluralism under the bus, and embraced the idea that we all ought to believe what they believe; places that, while they were at it, tossed the entire post-Enlightenment world and everything it represents under the bus as well, and embraced Bronze Age values instead.

I am beginning to wonder how long it will be before I’m trapped in a dentist’s chair and the technician or dentist starts in with the prayers and exorcisms to eradicate the demons in my teeth, or flushes my mouth with holy water. I really hate the idea of a team of surgeons chanting and praying over my body while my chest cavity is opened up. My heart needs your medical knowledge, not your prayers.

Speaking of which, there is a wonderful essay at the Dawkins site, by a heart-surgery patient and his thoughts on intercessory prayers and how to deal with them:

[W]e now have quite solid grounds (e.g., the recently released Benson study at Harvard) for believing that intercessory prayer simply doesn’t work. Anybody whose practice shrugs off that research is subtly undermining respect for the very goodness I am thanking. If you insist on keeping the myth of the effectiveness of prayer alive, you owe the rest of us a justification in the face of the evidence. Pending such a justification, I will excuse you for indulging in your tradition; I know how comforting tradition can be. But I want you to recognize that what you are doing is morally problematic at best. If you would even CONSIDER filing a malpractice suit against a doctor who made a mistake in treating you, or suing a pharmaceutical company that didn’t conduct all the proper control tests before selling you a drug that harmed you, you must acknowledge your tacit appreciation of the high standards of rational inquiry to which the medical world holds itself, and yet you continue to indulge in a practice for which there is no known rational justification at all, and take yourself to be actually making a contribution. (Try to imagine your outrage if a pharmaceutical company responded to your suit by blithely replying “But we prayed good and hard for the success of the drug! What more do you want?”)

I’m just wondering how what an atheist version of this doctor’s letter would read like and how it would be received:

Our entire staff would like to welcome you to our office…We would also like you to know that your God doesn’t exist and that we won’t be praying with you at any time, and if you complete a prayer request card while you are in the office, we will tear it up at our morning humanist meeting. Our providers and staff consider it a privilege to care for you in this manner.

The day they think a letter like that is just fine and dandy is the day letters like theirs will no longer vex me.

Image from Scope

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