Apparently some Christian doctors  are fed up with the nonsense about health workers not being allowed to pray or offer spiritual care of patients. Or are we supposed to call them ‘clients’ now? Stories have emerged in the last few years of nurses getting into trouble for offering to pray with sick patients.

Well, according to the BBC website:

Doctors are demanding that NHS staff be given a right to discuss spiritual issues with patients as well as being allowed to offer to pray for them. Medics will tell the British Medical Association conference this week that staff should not be disciplined as long as they handle the issue sensitively. The doctors said recent cases where health workers had got into trouble were making people fearful.

The problem is, according to the doctors:

The General Medical Council code suggests that discussing religion can be part of care provided to patients – as long as the individual’s wishes are respected. But at the start of this year the Department of Health issued guidance warning about proselytising. It said that discussing religion could be interpreted as an attempt to convert which could be construed as a form of harassment.

The debate goes a bit further before (inevitably) the tiny National Secular Society gets invited to put its oar in:

We have to be very careful about how we tread on this issue. If we say it is ok for doctors and nurses to provide spiritual care and pray for patients it can all too quickly get out of hand and we will have staff preaching on the wards. The risk is that it makes patients feel uncomfortable. They may feel compelled to say ‘yes’ thinking their care will suffer. Really, it is an infringement of their privacy. I think we should be very clear that patients should have to ask for this, not offered it.

But Joyce Robins, co-director of Patient Concern said:

Most complaints from patients are about being on a conveyor belt of care. They don’t rate with staff as real people. Offering to say a prayer is a warm and kind thought. Most patients will accept it as such. It is no more offensive than being offered a sleeping pill. You can say thanks but that sort of thing isn’t my cup of tea. But if Christian doctors see this as an opportunity to promote their faith to people at a time when they are particularly vulnerable, that is totally unacceptable.

Two things spring to mind here. First, proselytism in such circumstances has never ever been advocated by any Christian with a shred of sensitivity or good theology. But for doctors or nurses to hold back from taking seriously the spiritual needs of patients is a nonsense of the first order. That is like treating a patient as ‘the cancer in bed one’ or the ‘broken leg in Ward C’ instead of a fully human being whose spirituality influences their mental and physical wellbeing.

Secondly, the NSS just doesn’t get the blindingly obvious fact that negation of a religious worldview does not leave some neutral territory occupied by atheists or secularists. This nonsense really needs to be knocked on the head. Take away a religious/Christian perspective and you are left with a particular perspective on life, death, illness, being human and so on that is positively shaped by particular assumptions  – that are no more valid or invalid than Christian /theistic assumptions.

Of course doctors and nurses should be free to pray for patients where such is requested or where the appropriateness is evidenced by the case history and what is known about the patient. Of course no one should be forced to accept prayer inappropriately. Of course the patient should be protected from mad people – be they religious or atheist. And of course Terry Anderson and the NSS should realise how out of touch they are – speaking only with the authority of a few thousand people on their register.

I would love to see a National Secular Society response to the article by Paul Vallely in June 2009’s Third Way (which doesn’t seem to be available online just now) entitled Being Reasonable. In it he questions why bodies like the NSS ‘spend almost all their energy on rubbishing religion rather than telling us what distinctive insights humanism has to offer contemporary society.’ He decries the ‘false polarity between an intolerant rationalism and an oppressive religiosity.’ He concludes with an appeal for ‘an articulation from the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society of the distinct contribution that humanism can make to modern moral dilemmas.’ He goes on:

The challenge to them is to set out that vision in entirely positive terms which can be comprehended in common by those of all faiths and none. They must do it without constantly resorting to negatives, statements of what they are against or contrasts of the things their vision is free from.

Any offers?