Stranger in a Strange Land

Inside Noah's Ark (photo from AP)
Inside Noah’s Ark (photo from AP)

Reading about the opening of the Noah’s Ark Theme Park in Kentucky brings to mind the days when I worked as a physician in that state. I had moved from an academic position in Colorado and joined a large group of private practice cardiologists in Louisville. I found that people in Kentucky were different from those in Colorado. They were much more overtly religious.

As an interventional electrophysiologist I would meet with each patient’s family before and after every procedure. Not infrequently one of the group sitting in the waiting room was introduced as “this is our pastor.” Usually at some point the pastor would suggest a round of prayer, and I was expected to participate, at least by bowing my head and maintaining a respectful silence. If the prayer was before the procedure the main focus was usually to make sure God guided my hand and the outcome would be good. Prayers after the procedure usually focused on thanking God for safely getting the patient through the procedure and asking for a speedy recovery.

It was not a good time to bring up the fact that I was an atheist. So I just went along with it, only briefly and mildly discomforted. Religion gives strength and comfort to people in the life and death situations that doctors often deal with. I rationalized that my silent participation was helping my patient and the family psychologically. Besides, how would they feel about my performing complicated heart procedures on their loved one if they thought I was an unbelieving heathen incapable of accepting God’s guiding hand?

It’s uncomfortable to be an atheist and a doctor, just as it uncomfortable in America to be an atheist in general. Polls show that the public distrust atheists to about the same degree they distrust Muslims. Being an atheist is practically taboo for someone running for public office. George H. W. Bush famously said “… I don’t think that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”   Atheists are considered immoral by religious people. They point to the atrocities committed by Stalin, Mao, or Hitler. Atheists in turn point out the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of witches, or, more recently, the atrocities of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Neither the religious or non-religious have a monopoly on morality.

As social consciousness is raised about oppressed groups such as the LGBT community, there has been little progress in the acceptance of atheists in American society (I mention America because the situation is quite different in Europe). And yet the non-religious are a fast growing group. In 2014, 22.8% of Americans did not identify with a religion.  Although a relatively small percentage of these people call themselves as atheists, probably because of the negative connotations of that term, this overall percentage is larger than the percentage of Catholics, Mormons, Jews, or Muslims.  It is amazing how unrepresented this large group is in our government! If one looks at scientists, (2009 Pew poll ), only 33% profess belief in God, vs 83% in the general public.  There is some evidence that the top, elite scientists are even less likely to believe in God (only 7%).  But do doctors hold beliefs similar to scientists? An older poll from 2005 showed that 77% believe in God, slightly fewer than the general population, but far more than scientists.  Nevertheless there are undoubtedly many doctors who do not share the religious faith of their patients.

To the religious patients who read this and feel they wouldn’t want a non-religious doctor:  I can assure you that I am a good person, with a sense of morals rooted in our common humanity. Not believing in an afterlife just makes me want to focus more on improving the quality of this earthly life, the only life I believe we have. I would only ask you not to assume that your doctor holds the same religious beliefs as you or that your doctor wants to participate in group prayer with you and your family.

To the non-religious doctors who read this I ask: how do you deal with your atheism in your practice? Are you, like I was, basically mum about it? Would your patients distrust you if they knew? Would they find another doctor? Is it better to pretend to be religious, just as pretending that a placebo is a real drug can be beneficial? In many parts of the country this question comes up rarely or not at all (I never faced it in Colorado), but in Kentucky, the state of Ken Hamm and Kim Davis, as well as throughout the Baptist South, I assure you that this is an issue you will face.

Back when the Creation Museum opened in Petersburg, Kentucky in 2007, I was one of the protesters who stood by the entrance and waved signs touting science and reason over belief that the Earth is only 6000 years old and that dinosaurs and humans lived together at the same time. I watched as families with small children and church buses filled with impressionable kids drove past. There were a number of obscene gestures pointed our way, but most people just seemed puzzled that anyone would question their beliefs.

Standing next to the hospital bed, I only wanted to help my patient and if that meant concurring with their religious beliefs, so be it. But I also think non-religious doctors, and non-religious people in general, are afraid to “come out of the closet” and assert their own beliefs — belief in the beauty of nature and science, and in our own innate morality. After the attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels, Orlando, Istanbul, and Baghdad — just to mention some of the latest — the destructive force of extreme religious ideology is evident to all. Given what is at stake it isn’t helpful for non-religious doctors or for that matter for any non-religious people to hide their beliefs.

Which is why I wrote this.

By mannd

I am a retired cardiac electrophysiologist who has worked both in private practice in Louisville, Kentucky and as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver. I am interested not only in medicine, but also in computer programming, music, science fiction, fantasy, 30s pulp literature, and a whole lot more.


  1. So I happened to be driving through Kentucky, and after at least two hours of somewhat disturbing chest pain that would not go away, I pulled over at the blue H sign. I was pretty sure it was nothing. A healthy athletic person like myself, it can’t possibly be of any concern. I explained this at the ER that I was pretty sure it was nothing, but I thought I should ask–don’t want to waste anyone’s time or the money.

    It seemed overly precaucautious or certainly far too dramatic. Me? What? What do you mean? Then they put me with all these dying people. I felt like I was in a cemetary, and just waiting for them to throw dirt on me. This simply wasn’t right. The only thing that made sense is that I have to PRAY TO REBUKE DEATH. That seemed like it was helpful. So I kept doing that.

    The headache was totally worth it, I could not get enough nitroglycerin. Can I have another? I asked. But doesn’t your head hurt? Well, yes it feels like it will explode but it is totally worth it because my chest is worse, far worse. I never thought I was to spend the night in cardiac ICU. It was horrible. I was so uncomfortable–and the moment I came close to catching a nap some nurse would wake me up. They were not kidding about observing me.

    Morning came and now they were taking me to the math lab; I like math. No, the CATH LAB. Oh… So the cardiologist came and did his thing to me. He seemed kind of shocked, which was not necessarily what one might hope for in this circumstance. I think he said nothing a few times, can’t recall. It was a strange experience.

    I can’t think of a word that desribes his facial expression. I can’t recall the exact words, but he told me that I had no signs whatever of cardiovascular disease. Nothing. Nothing at all. Perfect. He had no explaination for what had happened to me, and that was two strange things that happened to him this morning.

    He came in to sign a death certificate for a DOA. Then the guy got up, asked where he was, walked out. I guess it was a good thing I prayed then.

  2. I’m from Kentucky, and an atheist physician. I don’t practice in ky anymore, but that’s not why. I’ve experienced the same requests for prayer and I’ve just respectfully joined in. Hoping for the mentioned placebo effect, I’ve even been known to evoke god when it suits me in conversation with patients that I know are religious. “God willing” and “it’s in god’s hands” are even easy ways to excuse my self, if not sloth the patient. I just use their religious beliefs for my own purposes when needed. But seriously, I believe that the power of religious belief may actually have some healing properties, and there are studies that suggest this. Similar to companion animals, nature, etc.

    1. Using patients’ religious beliefs as a tool to promote healing may be beneficial, but is it ethical to mislead patients about one’s own beliefs? Maybe this falls into the harmless “white lie” category. I’ll bet there are many politicians who do the same thing.

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