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Doctors' Report

Doctors' Report

Follow-up research informs me that news of a survey in the July issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine could be glimpsed on cable TV and got some notice in newspapers, but it created less stir than one might have imagined. Only when I scooped up mail on one of my occasional visits to the University of Chicago campus and came away with the July 14 issue of the Chicago Chronicle did I become aware of it (John Easton, "Survey on physicians' religious beliefs shows majority faithful"). Maybe this is catch-up time for subscribers who are alert to such news, but I suspect that others have paid little attention. I think we should.

Let's start with the stereotype: Physicians are women and men of science. They are good at dealing with the empirical, with what they can touch and test -- thank God! So they tend to be dismissive of the transcendent, the eternal, the spiritual. They are busy people, and cannot always tend to the things of the spirit. The ethos of physicians' lounges does not foster positive comment on religion. Further, doctors are trained at secular humanist medical schools monitored by liberal elite media. Every church or synagogue of any size may include some physicians, but these are rare and remarkable exceptions. Read the literature we read, and I think you'll agree that this typing is accurate.

All wrong -- or so says Farr Curlin, M.D., an internist at the University of Chicago, who surveyed 2,000 randomly selected physicians. Dr. Curlin found that 76 percent of them professed belief in God, only 7 percent fewer than do so in the larger population. But certainly they must keep their faith in the box marked "private," right? No, 55 percent believe that their religious beliefs influence their practice of medicine. So then they are evidently smart enough to wield Occam's razor and not introduce religious concerns irrelevantly or promotionally. Not exactly; they are stumped like so many other believers are. In dealing with major problems in life, most of them -- 61 percent compared to 29 percent in the general public -- try to "make sense" of the situation and "decide what to do without relying on God." Good for them, I'd say; we want good doctors, not necessarily good Orthodox or Quaker or Mormon doctors.

Still, 58 percent do say that they carry religious beliefs into other dealings of life. Up that figure a notch to 59 percent who believe in life after death. While 64 percent of us "general public" folk look "to God for strength, support, and guidance," only 48 percent of the physicians checked in positively on that one -- but still a higher figure than the stereotype allows for.

You are likelier to find physicians at worship than you are to find non-physicians: 46 percent say they attend religious services twice a month or so. Only 40 percent of us unwashed non-physicians claim to. And while 19 percent of the rest of us say we never attended a religious service, only 10 percent of the doctors have never been present. This could in part be a ceremonial-class matter, as physicians may often be in cultural strata where they are likely to be present for certain rituals.

Physicians' religion scorecard: 38 percent called themselves Protestant, 22 percent Catholic, 14 percent Jewish (that's high -- fewer than 3 percent of the public is Jewish), 5.3 percent Hindu (also high). Not many bother to be or sound "anti-." Only 2 percent reported being atheist, 1.5 percent agnostic, and 7.1 percent had no religious preference/affiliation. I'd treat these "affiliation" statistics with considerable care. Still, enjoy the surprises.

[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 15, 2005.]


Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at Original Source: Sightings – A biweekly, electronic editorial published by the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.