“Spiritual health” (whatever that is)

Nov 03, 2011 Comments Off by

Archbishop Sentamu has suggested in the House of Lords the NHS cater to “spiritual health”. This concept does not originate with Sentamu, and has been brought up in American and British medical and military contexts frequently in recent years. While one would hope the NHS would limit its treatments and list of properties considered unhealthy to those for which such claims are supported in peer–reviewed science, a religious exemption would not be unique, as homeopathy currently has NHS funding. Still, even the weaker request that the terms be defined isn’t risen to in the “spiritual” case, whereas homeopaths make abundantly clear what they think is medically wise. Since Sentamu isn’t the first to make such a proposal, we know from the past what ends up happening whenever this kind of thing is governmentally authorised, or goes on without such authorisation. It amounts to those who don’t believe a god exists being considered less than those who do. In medical contexts, bedridden non–believers suffer proselytisation they’re powerless to evade; in military ones, atheists in foxholes suffer discrimination in the workplace. We should only give Sentamu what he wants if the former is what we want to see happen. However, the idea that you are healthier if you think that a god exists than if you don’t seems too implausible even for British politics.

Atheists are all too familiar with accusations that they are morally inferior to those who succumb to the god hypothesis. I won’t revisit that tired debate here. But surely the claim atheists are medically inferior is even more absurd. In what way would this be so? And remember that, if nowhere else in life, medicine’s being based on what we can empirically find should be of paramount concern to even the least rational people in society. (Indeed, insofar as religion has tried its hands at treating people their own way, it’s gone very badly wrong.) It should also surprise no–one aware of the correlation between atheism and such things as wealth, education and intelligence if the religious aren’t the healthier group after all. You occasionally hear claims of evidence that, in some way or another, atheists are statistically less healthy, e.g. being more stressed or having shorter lifespans. But it is worth noting these differences never exist when we compare societies of differing levels of religiosity – quite the reverse, in fact – and, insofar as they exist at all, are differences between the religious and non–religious within a society. As far as we can tell, it may be entirely attributable to the detrimental effects on personal (including mental) health of anti–atheist discrimination. Indeed, that is a medical danger Sentamu’s style of healthcare would enhance rather than tackle. Worse still, if atheists’ health declined because of the way they were abused, this would enhance the statistical alleged health benefits of religion, furthering the pretext for “spiritual” approaches to healthcare, creating a vicious cycle.

The relation between faith and medicine is a very poor one. Why is the United States so uniquely religious amongst wealthy nations? The consensus among experts is because that wealth doesn’t translate into good things for the majority in the US in the way they do elsewhere; for one, the US is the only first–world nation whose citizens don’t enjoy free healthcare. Jerry Coyne has even argued that, just as religion causes opposition to evolutionary science, poor medical provisions cause said religion, so that the most effective way to promote evolution is by giving people healthcare, which is laudable for entirely different reasons. Why health should promote atheism is obvious; people who worry less about their health have less reason to depend on divine assistance. Why religions should seek to make medicine less effective is clear, too; besides the concern the aforesaid point must create for them, if you believe in a god you will see natural phenomena such as diseases as his influence upon us. For centuries theists have grappled with why a perfect god allows bad things in the world. Whatever specific answer is provided for this question, we must ask whether God in his omnipotence decided it no longer applied to smallpox, since otherwise he would have intervened to stop us bringing it to extinction.

Biology, Neurology, and Medicine, Christianity, News, Psychology and Sociology, Religions and other Belief Systems, Sciences, UK

About the author

For most of my time as an undergraduate there was an atheist society in my university, which was founded late in my first year there. I was a committee member from then until my degree ended, by which time the society was atheist, secularist and humanist (you needn't be all three!). This gives me many experiences to relate. I have long critiqued pro-religious arguments, including in hundreds of posts - many of them thorough rebuttals to articles - on richarddawkins.net under my name. My degree was in physics, and I know a lot of the science - physics and otherwise - relevant to the debate on religion.
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