Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I am an atheist secular humanist. I am also a physician in my last year of residency in a “Bible Belt” area and, while I have gotten a fantastic medical education, I have not found any good role models to help me address the myriad of difficulties surrounding being an atheist doctor. I suspect that some of my attending physicians also are atheist or agnostic, but it’s not something that many people discuss openly around here.
I often find myself in difficult situations at work when it comes to religion. I always try to respect the beliefs of my patients, but I struggle to find an appropriate response when they ask me to pray for them or ask me point blank, “Doc, do you believe in God?” Often I find myself blundering for a way to change the subject and dodge the question or let them think I share their beliefs without actually lying and saying that I do, but this feels dishonest. I also would like to “come out” and become more involved in the atheist community but I’m worried about how that might affect my career. My impression is that many patients would not want to be cared for by an atheist doctor.
I suspect that doctors, as scientists, tend to be more atheistic and agnostic than the general population, but it seems to be a taboo subject. Do you have any suggestions for resources or support groups for atheist doctors? It would help to have a professional community to which I could turn to for advice.
It’s a taboo subject probably for the same reason that you have succinctly described here: Depending on the setting and the circumstances, coming out as an atheist doctor can be hazardous to your career. Nurses who are atheists face this risk as well, not just from patients but also from their colleagues. Not everyone can enjoy the impunity and immunity of Dr. Gregory House.
Often your patients feel vulnerable and scared. They know you’re smart and well trained, but they also know you’re only human, so they hope you will be given a little extra help because you have a good buddy named God. Because you’re a person who wants to help people in their anguish as well as their illness, their neediness might cause you to feel inadequate to meet all their needs. Keep in mind that you can’t meet all their needs. Their car, their computer, their tax return, and their spiritual issues are the purview of other specialists.
I understand that it is distasteful to have to lie, or to be evasive, or to allow them to assume incorrect things about your beliefs, but these matters are not relevant to your practice of good medicine for them. You don’t have to tell them the truth about irrelevant things if it is going to hurt you. Give yourself permission to respond in whatever ways help you to keep helping them as a doctor.
You have to get along with them, so you probably can’t just say, “That’s none of your business.” You might try a technique that I’ve used as a counselor. I would turn any question that my clients had about me into a question about them. When your patient asks you to pray for them, say, “Are you feeling anxious or scared about any of this? Can I better explain to you what we’re going to do? Would you like me to ask the hospital chaplain to visit you?” This kind of response gives your patients three things: Firstly, it acknowledges and shows caring about their underlying feelings. Secondly, it offers them what you can do for them, such as explaining the medical issues clearly. Thirdly, it offers them a better qualified resource for their religious concerns.
If you’re cornered by a direct question about your belief in God, and if you neither want to lie or evade, you might try asking them why that is important to them. Listen carefully, and if it seems appropriate say something like this: “I focus all of my mind on giving you the best medical care I can. That’s all I do. I concentrate on nothing else.” That might or might not satisfy them, but it’s honest, and it’s the most polite way can think of to close down the topic.
You need to find some comrades and confidants in the medical field, either doctors or nurses. They will probably have much better suggestions than mine. Ideally, you could use a trusted atheist friend who is at roughly your level in the hospital hierarchy, and another one who is senior to you. Together, they can advise you about ways to deal with patients, and also about who in the hospital administration you need to be careful around.
The tricky part is how to discreetly find them. You may have to risk a little by feeling out someone who seems the least religious and the most discreet. I wish I had a better suggestion.
You’re correct that a higher percentage of scientists are atheists than the general population. The percentage may differ between disciplines. A study by the University of Chicago indicates that about 24% of medical physicians are atheists. That may be less than scientists in general, but it’s still more than the general population, and you only need one or two.
I found no current online support group specifically for atheist physicians. I found one blog called The Atheist Physician, but I don’t know if he will have anything to offer you. Read his first entry of Oct. 29, 2011, and contact him if it seems worth a try.
This column doesn’t just rely on my knowledge. There’s a large readership of very knowledgeable people, and they have helped letter writers many times. Perhaps there are some people reading this who know of resources for you.
Any medical professionals or anyone else out there who can offer some suggestions?
Kimberly, I know that residency is exhausting, and you are at the mercy of the whims of senior doctors and administrators. Once you gain more autonomy, hopefully you won’t have to be so circumspect about your views. Of course in the U.S., the particular region in which you live can make a big difference.
I wish I could think of more immediately helpful suggestions. Sometimes just like doctors, I can only offer meager assistance and hope for the best.