Physician, Heal Thyself

I mentioned in an earlier post that I recently came across Freethought Radio, the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s new weekly radio show, which I highly recommend.

The very first episode, which I was listening to the other day, made me aware of a shocking violation of the separation of church and state. This latest outrage, not surprisingly, arises from George W. Bush’s constitutionally repugnant “faith-based initiatives” plan, a political euphemism for forced taxation in support of religion. (The FFRF has won five major court victories against various aspects of the faith-based initiative program in the past several years, and has filed a new lawsuit against this one.)

This new violation is the fault of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, of all groups. Apparently, the VA has begun to integrate religion into the medical treatment of injured or disabled veterans – religion not as an optional service available to those who request it, but as a built-in part of all treatment whether a veteran requests it or not. It seems that every patient admitted into the VA system is given a “spiritual/faith assessment”, containing questions about how often the person prays or attends church, how often they read scripture or listen to religious TV programs, or how often they “experience the presence of the divine”. Readers are invited to wonder how this could possibly be relevant to any patient’s care. Some assessments go so far as to include leading questions such as, “How often do you worry about your doubts or disbelief in God?”

Based on the patient’s answers, the attending chaplain determines whether there is – wait for it – “spiritual injury”. If so, the chaplain prescribes attendance at a “spiritual injury support group”. All of this is based on the premise that good health care is incomplete without attending to the patient’s spiritual needs, apparently regardless of whether the patient themself feels any need to do so. (The FFRF press release has further information.)

There is no constitutional problem with providing chaplains to address patients’ needs. But this should come only at the patient’s request, to protect their free exercise rights. The VA crosses the line when it seeks to make this involvement a part of every patient’s care, regardless of whether they desire it or not, and in so doing breaks the law by attempting to promote religion using government resources. Should I ever be admitted to any federally funded hospital, I will encourage the doctors to treat my body only, thank you very much, and not concern themselves with the state of my soul. Were I in this situation, I would refuse to fill out any ridiculous questionnaires about my “spiritual health”, and I would certainly decline the invitations of any bullying chaplain to take part in his rituals of superstition. I hope many nonreligious veterans are similarly refusing to comply.

On another note, my local newspaper recently ran the following gushing story about how a Catholic woman’s prayers to the “Divine Child” saved her daughter’s life by getting her the kidney transplant she needed:

Rosa’s 14-year-old daughter, Yesenia, needed a kidney transplant. The girl had been subjected to a year’s worth of three-hour-long dialysis treatments three times a week. This was her second child to go through this. Rosa’s first daughter suffered kidney failure but was able to quickly find a donor in her brother. Coincidence? Rosa firmly believes that a solution was because of intervention on behalf of the Divine Child through Rosa’s frequent prayers.

I sent a letter to the author of this article, which is reproduced below. Should I receive any response, I will provide an update.


This letter is in reference to your article ‘Saving Yesenia’ that appeared in the May 13 edition of the Times Herald-Record, which I read with some interest. I am an atheist, and no one is happier than I that Yesenia received the transplant she needed and is now doing well. I wish her and her family all the best. However, I must comment on this story’s credulous acceptance of Ms. Solis’ belief that her prayer to the ‘Divine Child’ was what resulted in her daughter receiving a transplant, as opposed to the diligent efforts of the many hundreds of human beings throughout history who have worked to make such life-saving interventions possible through study and medical research.

This claim is an instance of a very common mistake in thinking called confirmation bias, also known as ‘counting the hits and forgetting the misses’. There are tens of thousands of people waiting on lists to receive organ transplants, and the vast number of them doubtless have friends and relatives praying that they receive one. People who do receive one, of course, view it as a miracle and the answer to their prayers – but that is only because they overlook the thousands of others who are praying the exact same thing and receive no answer, and of course those stories receive little or no newspaper coverage. According to, about 18 people die in America every single day while waiting for organ transplants they never receive.

Although Ms. Solis doubtless did not mean to cause any offense, her belief that her daughter’s transplant was due solely to her prayers could be viewed as highly insulting to those others. What would she tell the mother of some other young girl who died waiting for a transplant? Did God see fit to grant one mother’s prayers but leave someone else’s daughter to die? Does Ms. Solis mean to imply that her daughter was more deserving of life than those others? This view makes God an evil and capricious being who saves some and abandons others to die on a whim, a view that is unworthy of being held by any human being with a conscience.

In addition, this view thoughtlessly neglects the contributions of the hard-working, dedicated doctors who actually located a donor and performed the surgery, by making it seem as if Yesenia’s recovery was a matter of prayer alone. In reality, it was a human effort, carried out not by miracles or angels but by human beings who care for each other, using techniques that have been honed through decades of patient study and scientific research. At no point did any gods intervene in this process, and it is demeaning to imply that Yesinia’s recovery was a miracle from heaven that simply dropped into the family’s lap. Though that outcome might be described as a miracle, it is the only kind of miracle that exists: the kind that we work together to bring about for ourselves.

I hope you will exercise due skepticism in the future before running any more stories of this type.”

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • andrea

    I would add one more question to your reply to the kidney transplant article: “Did God kill someone just to fulfil the mother’s prayer?” For that’s what evidently had to have happened since everything is supposedly God’s will. What of the parents of that child? I guess they didn’t pray “right” or “enough”.

  • EnigmaOfSteel

    Well, we each have two kidneys, so a living person could have donated one. But certainly there are transplants where one person is able to extend life, in part due to the death of the person donating the organ.

    I happen to have just had a discussion over lunch related to prayer and miracle cures, and an unfortunate person who has bone cancer. It seems odd to me that someone would pray for a cure to the very thing that, if it did not give the person cancer, at the very least allowed it to happen. And then what, is this all-knowing all-powerful thing going to change it’s mind, due to the prayer of a simple human? If it does, then did this god make a mistake in giving the person cancer? It seems that regardless if this god exists or not, what is going to happen, will happen – regardless of prayer. Why then pray.

    It’s the same problem I have with saying grace at meal time, something I encounter quite often, and am trying to determine the best way to respond. People thank a god for having food. Of course, some people do not have food. If the god is responsible for some people having food – what is the responsibility to those who do not have food? It seems the god only gets the credit. To be consistent, maybe the poor should be reciting a prayer that chastises the god for lack of food.

    It’s not my intent to sound crass about the cancer/prayer thing – who knows how I would respond in a moment of weakness. Hopefully none of us will have to encounter that situation.

  • tobe38

    I just have to say that your point, Adam, about doctors losing the credit they deserve to God is something I’ve felt strongly about for some time. For example, I saw a documentary about a woman who had a 200lb tuma (not a typo!). Everyone refused to operate becasue of the risks, but one brave surgeon and his team conducted a highly complex 36 hour operation on a scale never before attempted to save the woman’s life (who, I understand, is alive and well to this day). And guess what, her mother interviewed afterwards: “I prayed to God to let her live, and now I thank him for answering that prayer” (paraphrased, but near enough). No mention, let alone thanks for the doctors. Unbelievable.

  • Shawn Smith

    You know, James Randi regularly displays letters of this type that he or his readers send in to quackery-based organizations. I would be surprised if you get anything more than a form letter, thanking you for your submission, but letting you know in no uncertain terms that the paper will never stop printing these kind of stories. Kind of a, “nyah nyah nyah you’re a poopie-head,” response.

    Bleahhh. :-þ

    On a tangentially related note, I heard another reason for people to pray that I hadn’t really heard stressed before. It was said by a somewhat orthodox rabbi and he said that the only real reason to pray was to reinforce the hierarchy of the divine relationship to the person praying–that God is Great™, Humanity is not, and that’s that. I thought to myself, “well, at least he’s being honest, even if he’s being a jerk.”

  • Quath

    I am glad you sent that letter. I hope it gets a good response. I have thought a few times about sending in such a letter to my local newspaper. I think next time they run such a story, I just may send in a letter also.

  • Ebonmuse

    I’ve had no response from the reporter yet, not that I was expecting one. (I did have an exchange with another reporter from the same newspaper after challenging a credulous article she wrote about chiropractic – I’ll probably post about that in June.)

    Andrea raises an interesting point, one which I should have remembered to include in my original letter. Although it’s true that a healthy individual can donate a kidney, that is extremely rare, and I don’t think it was done in this case, since the article didn’t mention it.

    It’s absolutely correct that a prayer to receive an organ transplant is usually, in essence, a prayer for someone else to die – and not just anyone either. Generally speaking, if you die from old age, disease, or any kind of serious systemic injury such as a car crash, your organs will not be suitable for donation. The typical organ donor is a young, healthy individual who has suffered some massive head trauma, resulting in brain death without damage to the rest of the body. That way, although the prospective donor is clinically dead, their body can be kept functioning until the organ recovery can commence. Therefore, a prayer to receive a donated organ is not just a prayer for someone else to die, but a prayer that a young, healthy person who otherwise had a full life ahead of them will die. What could be said about the morality of a deity that would grant such a request?