Religious nurses in a secular NHS

I’ve just seen the story of a Weston-Super-Mare nurse who’s been suspended after reportedly offering to pray for a patient’s recovery. She’s already being compared to the BA crucifix lady, with similarly broken arguments. The problem isn’t that she’s religious: the problem is she’s brought her religion into work, and in some jobs there are good reasons you shouldn’t do that.

Presumably, doing so makes nurses’ lives harder. I woudn’t have any problem being treated by an openly religious nurse, but I’m sure there are believers in other religions who would. What if some religious patients decide they’d rather be treated only by religious nurses? And only of their, specific religion? What if some nurses, through either non-belief, alternative religions, or just a secular approach, ‘refuse’ to pray for patients, while others don’t? Isn’t it unfair to put them into that position? And presumably nobody wants to be getting into metaphysical discussions on the ward. Also, while I wouldn’t be offended if someone offered to pray for me, I might get a bit worried: why, with all this medical equipment, are you offering to pray? What’s wrong with me? It seems to me that once a nurse’s religion becomes a factor in patient care, in any way, things can surely only get tougher.

Nurses are utterly fantastic. You could not pay me to do once the things they do every day, in 12-hour shifts, for little acclaim, little money, and the occasional vile spewings of Tories. I feel bad coming within a mile of saying a nurse is doing something wrong, but surely a completely secular approach is the wisest stance, here? I’m pretty sure codes of practice dictate as much, too.

I wasn’t sure about the suspension at first. If it violates a code then fair enough, but it seemed a touch extreme. Then I saw she’d previously been reprimanded for handing out prayer cards(!), so she’s only been suspended because this is the second incident. And the BBC article has this:

“My faith got stronger and I realised God was doing amazing things in my life.

“I saw my patients suffering and as I believe in the power of prayer, I began asking them if they wanted me to pray for them. They are absolutely delighted.”

Which suggests she’s been asking multiple patients, not just the one. And then:

Mrs Petrie said: “I stopped handing out prayer cards after that but I found it more and more difficult [not to offer them]. My concern is for the person as a whole, not just their health.

“I was told not to force my faith on anyone but I could respond if patients themselves brought up the subject [of religion].”

‘The person as a whole’? That’s a bit much. I’m sure she has the best of intentions, but she’s left the realm of evidence-based healthcare at this point. You can’t be in medicine and bring in your own remedies.

I think there are valid reasons for a completely secular NHS, as well as any public sector institution. But as a non-believer I’m mildly bothered she said something so ridiculous. Daniel Dennett, when told a friend had prayed for him, said ‘thank you – did you also sacrifice a goat?’. Her comment is undoubtedly well meant, but is equivalent to ‘I will petition the soil goblins to send ephemeral bunnies of health and beauty up through the hospital concrete, and they will burrow into your soul and make you better’. And her version makes even less sense: in the case of the Christian healing deity, there’s empirical evidence intercessory prayer doesn’t work (furthermore, knowing someone’s praying for you may actually make things worse).

I don’t care what nurses privately believe, but if I’m in a hospital, surrounded by doctors and nurses who’ve gone through years of training in real ways to make people better, and millions of pounds worth of medical equipment designed to make people better, backed by thousands of research scientists who’ve devoted their lives to making people better, I don’t want to hear ‘do you want me to ask my sky fairy to help you out?’. It may be well intentioned, but it demeans the medical establishment, and it makes me sad.

Catholics and cancer

The Catholic Church didn’t want schoolgirls to be given anti-cancer-STI vaccines, because doing so would encourage sexual behaviour. As a compromise, the Church has now agreed to support the vaccines, provided the schoolgirls receive no advice on contraception. Said advice would explain that the vaccine only works against two strains of cancer-causing STI, and others are out there. This policy will apply to all schoolgirls in Scotland.

Just so we’re clear, here’s the previous Catholic hierarchy of Things That Are Important:

  1. Not using contraception
  2. Not using a ‘sex-encouraging’ vaccine
  3. Not dying of cancer

And here it is now:

  1. Not using contraception
  2. Not dying of cancer
  3. Not using a ‘sex-encouraging’ vaccine

What a wonderful compromise they’ve made.

If this is your worldview, you are a raving lunatic. Your right to express your opinion does not extend to anybody paying you attention, let alone consulting you on health/education policy.

This is why secularism is so important. Lunatics can and will try to harm children. Non-secular governments will let them.

Secular education ‘politically impossible’

A Tyneside headmaster’s attempts to reduce the role of religion in his school have turned up some interesting insights into the process of educational lawmaking:

‘We wanted a fundamental change in the relationship with the school and the established religion of the country,’ said Kelley, talking about the proposals he put forward towards the end of Tony Blair’s premiership. ‘They accepted it would be popular but said it was politically impossible.’

Why impossible?

One senior figure at the then Department for Education and Skills, told Kelley that bishops in the House of Lords and ministers would block the plans.

Easy solution to that.

Religion, they added, was ‘technically embedded’ in many aspects of education.

Not sure what that means. Which areas? I don’t personally remember religion (read: Christianity) turning up much in my education, other than assemblies and incredibly-biased RE and PSE (‘personal social education’) lessons.

‘I feel that children have a right to not having a particular point of view,’ said Kelley. ‘They should not be promoted to a political party, nor should they to a religion. The daily act of worship is, I think, inappropriate at school.’ […] The schools, says Kelley, ‘directly or indirectly influence children into a belief that a particular faith is preferable either to other faiths or to a lack of faith’. He adds: ‘That is not, in my view, fair to a child and it is not offering them the opportunity to choose freely. The problem we are left with is a 19th-century architecture of education in a 21st-century environment.

Quite. I don’t understand why the comparison with hypothetical political schools isn’t a killer argument.

The CoE aren’t happy with the suggestion of reducing religion’s role in education. However, their argument doesn’t prove the point they think it does:

A spokesman for the Church of England said: ‘If he is arguing for a way for individual schools to opt out of those bits of the act he does not like that is not something we would support. Either overtly or by default, this country is still a Christian one.’

This has always been, and remains, a mind-bogglingly stupid argument. The possibility that religious education produces better behaviour, although probably not true and morally eviscerated by Stephen Law in The War for Children’s Minds, is at least mildly grown-up, but “things shouldn’t change because they just shouldn’t” is begging the question and doesn’t count as arguing at all.

This attitude, combined with the continued expansion of faith schools, is disappointing, but I’m optimistic in the long-term because the historical, moral and political arguments against them are so strong. An atheist and a Christian should come to exactly the same conclusion when it comes to teaching children: teach them how to think, and let them make up their own minds1. An education system weighed in any particular direction is clearly, unambiguously, wrong.

I have suspicions about the motives of informed people who suggest anything but a secular framework. It’s a plausible hypothesis that teaching kids to think critically leads to more atheist/agnostic/freethinkers than if you surround them with religious teachers and symbols. Hence the Pope and his laughable rejections of logic and reason as just other forms of indoctrination – clearly desperate and clutching at straws, but this sounds less mental than “do what I say or you’ll go to hell”.

There are, of course, plenty of very nice people, both religious and not, who will disagree. I may think they’re wrong, but convincing them often isn’t the real problem – it’s a common issue in arguments involving religion that you come across very pleasant people who get genuinely upset when their beliefs are criticised. But, to be unashamedly melodramatic, education is too important to the future of humanity for people’s feelings to get in the way of progress. I’m optimistic, but I don’t think it’ll be easy.

Link originally via B&W.

  1. sounds like an intelligent design argument. Isn’t. []

The Guardian outdoes itself on faith

So apparently the Guardian printed something nutty today. I don’t think anyone’s had the strength to fisk the whole thing – every few paragraphs there’s something jaw-droppingly stupid – but Shuggy, Ophelia and The Labour Humanist have good responses, mainly concentrating on the idea of ‘fundamentalist’ atheists being as bad as ‘fundamentalist’ religious crazies who like blowing things up.

I’m rather tired and shall try to read the article properly tomorrow, but right now I fail to see how this made it past the editor’s desk:

Neuberger is to take on Hitchens, Dawkins and Grayling when she speaks at a debate against the motion We’d Be Better Off Without Religion next month. The debate has been moved to a bigger venue. “What I find really distasteful is not just the tone of their rhetoric, but their lack of doubt,” she says. “No scientific method says that there is no doubt. If you don’t accept there’s doubt in all things, you’re being intellectually dishonest. ”

This is a thought taken up by Azzim Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought. “I refer to secular fundamentalism. The problem is that these people believe that they have the absolute truth. That means you have no room to talk to others so you end up having a physical fight. They want to close the door and ignore religion, but this will provoke a violent religiosity. If someone seeks to deny my existence, I will fight to assert it.”

Tamimi’s words also resonate with what the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, said last November: “The aggressive secularists pervert and abuse any notion of diversity for the sake of promoting a narrow agenda.” They also parallel the chilling remarks of Richard Chartres, Bishop of London: “If you exile religious communities to the margins, then they will start to speak the words of fire among consenting adults, and the threat to public order and the public arena, I think, will grow and grow.”

Quote complete crap all you like, but some kind of reasonable response would be nice. There’s no counter-argument pointing out that the whole point of everything Grayling, Dawkins or Hitchens say is that there is doubt. Or even mentioning the tiny bit of irony in the above quotes.

The author starts from an H.L. Mencken quote:

We must accept the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.

And comes back to this throughout the article:

The gay adoption issue also outraged many non-believers, among them philosopher AC Grayling, author of Life, Sex and Ideas: The Good Life without God. “These groups are trying to be exempt from the effort to be a fair society, and we are faced with the threat of a possible return to the dark ages. We are trying to keep a pluralistic society, and elements in the Christian church and other religions are trying to destroy it.”

Why this departure from tolerant, if nicely ironic, Menckenism?

Yes, why? How strange that anybody would want to fight against bigotry using strong language. How strange that in a world where people who spout such vile opinions are taken seriously by newspaper columnists we should fight back with everything we have. How strange that we would be considered rude for doing so.

I was doing ok for a while, but this bit of commentary tipped me over the edge:

One example of this growing conscientiousness is a recent paper for the new public theology think-tank Theos, in which Nick Spencer concluded that in the 21st century, liberal humanism would face a challenge from an “old man” – God. “The feeble and slightly embarrassing old man who had been pacing about the house quietly mumbling to himself suddenly wanted to participate in family conversation and, what’s more, to be taken seriously.” Indeed, in Britain’s ethically repellent consumerist society, even some atheists might consider it would be good to hear from the old man again, if only to provide a moral framework beyond shopping.

Oh, grow up. I’m going to bed.

A vast secular conspiracy

I have to hand it to this Comment is Free article for saying something new. Your average piece criticising secularists usually waffles on with some drivel about how they’re just as fundamentalist as the other side therefore blah, or logic isn’t enough to understand the universe and love is great and blah, or they fail to appreciate how happy religion makes some people therefore everything’s dandy and the rivers would run with chocolate if only people would stop arguing. And blah. The CiF piece, though, suggests it’s all a vast conspiracy. You might want to put any drinks down before reading.

In recent years these unpleasant people have had a strategy of exploiting Britain’s innate politeness. They realised that for a decade overly sensitive souls (normally called the PC brigade) had bent over backwards to avoid giving offence. Trying not to give offence was, despite the excesses, a noble courtesy.

But the fundamentalists saw an opening. Because we live in a multiconfessional society, they fostered the falsehood that wearing a crucifix or a veil or a turban was deeply offensive to other faiths. They pretended to be protecting religious sensibilities as a pretext to strip us of all religious expressions. In 2006 Jack Straw and BA fell into the fundamentalists’ trap.

But Britons are actually laissez-faire about such things. And so the fundamentalists deployed an opposite tactic. Instead of pretending to protect religious sensibilities, they went on the offensive and sought to give offence. The subsequent reactions to the play Behzti in Birmingham, to Jerry Springer the Opera and to the Danish cartoons were wheeled out as examples of why religious groups are unable to live with our cherished freedom and tolerance.

My, haven’t we been the busy bunch. And so devious! It’s a fun read, and ends by claiming that secularists want to tell everybody what to wear and what to say. I like the part where it says religious believers are great because they can differentiate sin from crime. At no point is any evidence presented, obviously, and it’s a bit like getting stopped on the street by somebody who wants to give you a leaflet explaining how the US government is responsible for 9/11. You nod, smile, back off as quickly as possible and aren’t really happy until you’ve washed your hands.

The article was apparently printed in today’s Guardian. Yuck. B4L says everything that’s necessary.