“Good morning! I'm Dr. Sawbones and I'll be doing your surgery this afternoon. I thought it would be a nice thing if we spent a few minutes praying to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for a good outcome to your operation. I also wanted to make sure that you've accepted Christ into your heart, because if anything should go wrong, your only path to eternal happiness in heaven is through the saving blood of our dear Savior. Do you have Jesus in your heart?”
Pray tell, how would you react to that? Dr. Michael Wilkes, professor of medicine at the University of California, Davis, says it's increasingly likely for hospital patients to be confronted by such an “opportunity”:
Several patients recently complained about a surgeon who regularly invited his patients to pray with him before surgery. The patients said they were never forced to pray, but some complained that they felt that if they refused to pray, it might insult the surgeon who was about to operate on them. Others felt it would be bad luck not to pray when invited by your surgeon—even if they didn't believe in prayer.Although I share the concerns reported by Dr. Wilkes, I prefer to take a positive point of view. If your overtly religious surgeon were to learn that you are a nonbeliever, than wouldn't he strive mightily to preserve your life so as to have further opportunities to evangelize you and perhaps redeem another soul (that is, the soul he imagines you have)? But perhaps I am too optimistic and he would just as soon consign you to the condign punishments of hell. Only his professional pride would save you in that case.
Dr. Wilkes contributes an Inside Medicine column to the pages of the Sacramento Bee. The paragraph I quoted comes from the February 25, 2007, installment, which carries the title On care—and prayer. He points out that medicine and religion often intersect, but questions whether religious doctors have any business bringing their religion into their interactions with patients. Is there supposed to be any benefit to praying with one's patients?
There is a growing number of those in the medical community who believe physicians should both inquire about a person's religious beliefs and promote religion as a road to improved health. Advocates have been successful at encouraging many medical schools to offer education on religion and spiritual health.Attempts to prove the efficacy of prayer have always failed —at least whenever competent scientific standards have been applied to the investigations. Dr. Wilkes suggests that his fellow physicians refrain from intruding any further than necessary into a patient's personal life.
Proponents cite figures suggesting that the American population, and even a majority of scientists, are highly religious, believe in God, and if sick would want religious support. They further cite studies that show that religious activity is associated with improved health and longer life.
It could be argued, however, that many of these studies are biased and flawed. Those who are religious often engage in radically different lifestyles than the non-religious. Some could say that it's the lifestyle, rather than the religion, that contributes to any health benefit. Further, research on religion regularly assumes a Christian context that ignores the large diversity of other beliefs and spiritual thinking.
One might ask, how can bringing religion into medical practice be bad? Here, I think, there is a slippery slope. I worry that doctors may find it difficult to refrain from religious discussions or promotion of religion. Promoting or endorsing religion at a time of illness has the potential to stir intense feelings of conflict, guilt and anxiety for many people. For some, the religion discussion may even imply self-blame for not having led a more religious life....Yes—provided those sick people actually want to talk to members of the clergy. With that proviso, I'd say Dr. Wilkes has written a good prescription.
Doctors should ask sick people if they'd like to speak with a spiritual leader, and if they do, our task is to make arrangements for such a visit. We should ask healthy patients if they are religious or spiritual, just as we ask if they are allergic to any medications. In both cases, the information may be helpful in the future.
But to use our position to suggest sick people pray or attend church is beyond our expertise and takes us from a medical agenda to a personal and private agenda. The medical profession ought to attend to matters of health and illness, and refer sick people to colleagues in the clergy.