Is Treating The Indigent A Measure Of Morality? genre: Hip-Gnosis & Little Red Ribbon-Hood & Six Degrees of Speculation

Medicine And Morality

A popular topic of debate between people of faith and those who do not believe in a deity centers on moral behavior and the motivations that influence people to act appropriately. Many believers argue that in the absence of god, civility would evaporate since the fear of god serves to keep people's unsavory inclinations in check.

Non-believers of course disagree and cite numerous examples of improprieties committed under the guise of divine inspiration as well as great acts of altruism executed by those who denied the existence of god.

Every now and again a piece of research into actual human behavior is released which provides some scientific measure of relevance to the debate...as well as some intriguing insight into the complexities of human nature. Such a study, conducted by the University of Chicago, is being reported by Reuters.

CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. physicians who identify themselves as religious are no more likely to care for poor, underserved patients than those who have no religious affiliation, researchers have found.

The study suggests doctors in the United States who see religion as a "master motive in their lives" are not more likely to care for the poor than others.

"Religious physicians are not disproportionately caring for the underserved," Dr. Farr Curlin, of the University of Chicago, said in a telephone interview on Monday.

Curlin, who considers himself religious, said he undertook the study because many religions include a call to serve the poor.

"I was curious about whether doctors who are more formed in their religious beliefs are more likely to take care of patients who are poor," said Curlin, whose study appears in the Annals of Family Medicine.

What they found was physicians who were deemed more religious as reflected by intrinsic religiosity or frequency of attendance of religious services were not more likely to report caring for underserved patient populations -- those that tended to be poor, uninsured or on Medicaid, the federal program for the poor.

"It suggests, I think, that when doctors are making the connection between being people of faith and the practice of medicine, that connection does not seem to lead them ... to an added commitment to caring for the underserved," Curlin said.

I realize that one study is far from conclusive but it begins to confirm what non-believers have argued for many years...that morality is not the exclusive domain of those who assert a belief in god. Further, the fact that one may report to be religious may not necessarily indicate that one's actions will be altruistic or morally superior.

In my opinion, one of the key identifying traits found in many who report a belief in god is a certainty about what is and isn't moral...regardless of their ability to uphold that morality. Further, such beliefs frequently lead these individuals to feel comfortable in making judgments about others; with particular attention paid to those who do not believe.

Granted, the above statement involves a degree of generalization...and while I feel comfortable in making the anecdotal observation...by no means am I suggesting that all believers act accordingly...just as I don't believe that all atheists act with a definitive consistency.

Nonetheless, the study suggests that acts of altruism are not dependent upon religious faith and, as such, it serves to invalidate the notion that immorality would ensue in the absence of a prevailing belief in god.

As I've previously argued here at Thought Theater, morality born of a fear of god may well be a lesser morality than that which is chosen voluntarily without fear. Ultimately, what resides in the heart of the individual is the essence of the individual...and it no doubt supersedes whatever we may choose to self-report. Perhaps that simply affirms what has been stated for years, "Actions speak louder than words".

Lastly, the study reinforces an argument I've made on a number of occasions with regard to issues of morality. Morality lived is far superior to morality espoused. As such, acts of altruism need not be motivated by a belief in god or a fear thereof. A simple belief in the sanctity of our fellow human beings can and should be ample motivation.

I'll close by taking liberty with a well known saying reserved for those in the medical field...one that should arguably hold true for all of us...and one that I'm suggesting is relevant to people of faith, "Christian, heal thy self".

Tagged as: Atheism, Christianity, Healthcare, Morality, Physician, Poverty, Religion

Daniel DiRito | July 31, 2007 | 3:23 PM
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