"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Proselytising Doctors

The Telegraph has highlighted this story of a doctor censured by the general medical council for discussing faith with his patients.
Dr Richard Scott is part of a practice called the Bethesda Medical Centre in Margate, Kent – a practice well-known for having Christian partners - and has been threatened with an Official Warning by the GMC and is currently under investigation following a complaint by the parent of young patient.
In 2010, Dr Scott saw a patient on the practice list at the request of the patient’s mother. At the end of the consultation, the patient and doctor discussed religion, each being of different faiths. The patient has continued to seek treatment from the practice, but his mother filed an official complaint, claiming that the GP had not offered medical advice during a consultation, but instead, talked about Jesus! [source]
Apparently Dr Scott claims he only did so after a lengthy medical consultation and that no objection was made at the time.
Actual facts about this seem to be scarce. It is clear that the Bethesda practice is overtly christian in nature and perhaps someone not of that faith should choose a different practice if they do not want to be exposed to it. However, most people in this country would normally expect a medical professional to confine their advice to the domain in which they were consulted i.e medicine and keep their religion to themselves. If a practice wants to style itself on christian lines, perhaps to demonstrate faith as a motivation to public good, I suppose that's fine, but it should not be seen as an invitation to evangelise. Also the suggestion that the parent did not complain at the time is hardly surprising. Most people are polite and naturally deferential to doctors who are among the most respected professionals in the country, so while someone like me might well call them out on such an unwarranted intrusion into non-medical areas, a mother accompanying a child may well wait until later to complain.
On the available evidence I cannot decide whether the GMC are over reacting to this event or not. If this is the first time such a complaint has been made, I would take the view that sullying the personal record of a doctor with twenty-eight years unblemished service is probably harsh and unnecessary. Also, I would hope that the good doctor has learnt that such transgressions of professional boundaries are inappropriate and avoid them in future.
Beyond that, personally I would call the matter closed, except to say that attempts by the Telegraph and Christian Concern to frame this as evidence of persecution of christians is absurd and unhelpful. Christians and indeed all faiths are at complete liberty to ply their wares, set out their stalls and attract the "rubes" to their own peculiar and contradictory brands of irrationality without restriction. But, as consumers of professional services, be it medicine or any other, nobody should expect religion to be offered as part of the package if they didn't buy into it at the outset.

the description of the Bethesda Medical Centre on the NHS website is rather extraordinary (bold emphasis added):


Bethesda was a place in Bible where Christ healed a lame man and means literally 'house of mercy'
The 6 Partners are all practising Christians from a variety of Churches and their faith guides the way in which they view their work and responsibilities to the patients and employees. The Partners feel that the offer of talking to you on spiritual matters is of great benefit. If you do not wish this, that is your right and will not affect your medical care. Please tell the doctor (or drop a note to the Practice Manager) if you do not wish to speak on matters of faith.

"So it seems faith is something patients must opt out of at that surgery." [Source]


  1. This is a fascinating debate. I think my views should be considered in light of my atheist beliefs. If this consultation occurred in NHS time, then I think it is profoundly wrong on many levels, most noteably that I as a tax payer would not accept my money being spent in this way. We are all entitled to your beliefs however there is a position of trust that needs to be observed by those in medical practice. How would you feel about a deeply religious oncologist talking about their world view to a dying patient. Some people are deeply vulnerable at times. On the other had there maybe should be opportunity for those with a faith to be able to engage in medical support that considers their spiritual needs, but this should be outside of state funded systems. Consider private practice for doctors who want to place their feet in both camps. I realise that some will wave the banner of cost towards the patient but then these religious doctors should perhaps consider a charging scheme that is ethically sound within their faith and obtainable to all those who wish to access it.

    An interesting debate and than you for raising it

    Intapunk, the naked atheist.

  2. Hmm...mildly disturbing profile picture you have there, but whatever floats your battleship :)

    Of course we don't have a constitutional wall of separation between church and state in the U.K so unfortunately our tax pounds are frequently spent on religion or "faith" initiatives, something that irks me a lot. Although personal ad hoc prosyletisation by NHS staff may raise eyebrows or sanction from a professional point of view I don't think the public body issue would be considered particularly relevant.

  3. > If this consultation occurred in NHS time, then I think it is profoundly wrong on many levels, most noteably that I as a tax payer would not accept my money being spent in this way.

    That's interesting - and I'd ask the question whether the conversation tacked onto the end of the medical conversation was "funded" (I hope not) or was the consultation longer to allow for the religious bit.

    I'd also note that the public seem to *like* Hospital Chaplains, according to polls and there's some evidence of benefit.

    I'd like to know whether the "we talk to our patients about religion" is trailed in the practice literature on site.

  4. "I'd like to know whether the "we talk to our patients about religion" is trailed in the practice literature on site."

    I saw a BBC news bulletin with some footage inside the practice. Lots of very conspicuous posters and literature in the waiting room. Jesus is present from the get go. But, a professional consultation is just that, shouldn't get a sermon as well.