How Should Hospitals Handle Atheist Patients? March 31, 2009

How Should Hospitals Handle Atheist Patients?

Reba Boyd Wooden, the director of Center for Inquiry Indiana, was recently on a panel discussion called “Faces of Faith” at a local healthcare center.

She tried to explain how some atheists may feel in a hospital:

Imagine this scene: You are in a hospital. You are very ill and may be dying. Someone comes in to talk with you. They tell you that your religion is based on myth and superstition. There is no heaven or hell. You have wasted your life believing in things that aren’t true. You must renounce your faith before you die. Scary?

Imagine this scene: You are in a hospital. You are very ill and may be dying. Someone comes in and says, “Do you know Jesus?” You must know Jesus or you will burn in hell for all eternity. You must accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior or face eternal damnation. Let me give you the sacraments so that you will go to heaven.

Scary? Yes. This is the nightmare that many people who are not religious have.

I’ve never heard of the first scenario happening, but the second one happens all the time.

Has anyone here encountered the religious presence in hospitals or do you know someone who has?

I’m pleasantly surprised the organizers of the event put a Secular Humanist on the panel in the first place.

There was a great outcome at the end of this, too.

Some background: Wooden explained five problems Secular Humanists can encounter in a hospital — I’ll jump to the end of the list:

5) There are no non religious chaplains at the hospitals as far as I know. I am sure that most chaplains honor the patient’s personal tradition but just the stress of having to explain to a well meaning and seemly respectful chaplain why they do not want to talk to a chaplain may be more than a severely ill person can handle and they should not have to do so. They may still fear that because the chaplain is religious that they will try to push their views on them. We at CFI would like to be allowed to have a team of trained volunteers on call who have the same privileges as lay visitors from churches and can visit, talk with, and give comfort to nonreligious people.

As an outcome of my being on this panel, Father Lyon and others from the medical center will be coming to CFI Indiana to train volunteers for a “hospital visitation team” who will be on call to serve the nonreligious. I already have ten of our members who have volunteered to be on the team.

That’s fantastic! Let’s work on spreading this idea so that atheists also have someone to talk to when they must be in a hospital setting.

(via Center for Inquiry)

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  • beckster

    I find the idea of some person I don’t know being invited into my hospital room when I am dying to be unappealing. I have family and friends that will be there for me, but not everyone has that so a group dedicated to helping/counseling the non-religious in the hospital is an excellent idea.

  • Matto the Hun

    I don’t know… It could be fun having one last go around and debate with a theist, assuming he/she would be reasonable and friendly. And if he/she turns out to be the unreasonable “Ray Comfort” type, then I’d probably have fun mocking them and telling them to piss off.

    But that’s just me. Most people probably want something more pleasant when they go.

  • Todd

    I’m confused by this. I always thought that chaplains were available if requested. Do they actually go from room to room, preying on the sick? That’s barbaric. Even if I was devoutly religious, I’d find this practice awfully intrusive.

  • My partner and I live in a small town with a decent, non-denominational medical center. We have already indicated that we are atheists, and I actually think that would be honored if we were admitted.

    What worries us is that the closest major hospital was recently acquired by a Catholic medical group. They claim that there will be no change in their service or treatment of patients (in an area with a high concentration of gays and lesbians), but there’s been nothing concrete to back that up. Their main site cites their mission as “To extend the healing ministry of Jesus Christ.” Such references are missing from the local hospital’s own site, but the very religious name of the group is most prominent. And searches for ‘abortion,’ ‘contraceptives,’ and ‘sexual orientation’ come up dry. Guess where I won’t be going if I can help it.

  • David D.G.

    My late companion was hospitalized a lot, and though she was a devout fundamentalist Christian herself, she grew to resent the hospital chaplain, who was practically harassing her with a repeat visit every day she stayed there, even after she sent word (through the nurses) for him not to come. He would even leave little cards for her when he happened to miss her while she was out for a treatment, or when she was asleep. He was more like a stalker than a comforting presence.

    To the best of my knowledge, that chaplain at least never proselytized to her, never told her that she was following the wrong faith, nothing of the kind. He was just far too persistent in foisting his presence on people who didn’t particularly want it. But given that latter characteristic, I would bet that he would have been ready to proselytize full tilt to an avowed atheist patient.

    ~David D.G.

  • Ron in Houston

    I’m sorry but Ms. Wooden’s comments are not what I’ve ever experienced from clergy in a hospital. Most hospitals ask religious preference when they admit the patient and aren’t going to send some Bible thumper to a dying liberal Christian’s bed.

    If the patient specifies atheist or something similar, I highly doubt even a religious hospital is going to send clergy to the patient.

  • Hi,

    I am the president of the Humanist Association of Manitoba, in Canada and we have members on the spiritual care visitation team for our local hospitals.

    In order to qualify as a spiritual care visitation team member all (including the religious members) must attend training that teaches us to respect the dieing wishes of patients and to refer them to the appropriate counselor. When an atheist asks for an atheist or humanist to visit, they get one. End of story.

    This is thanks to good public policy and a number of humanists that are willing to step to the plate and actually “visit” people who request it.

    Oddly, this does not stop the occasional pastor from “just checking” if someone needs Jesus. I mean, you never know. 😉

  • mkb

    I’ve spent a fair amount of time in hospitals. Usually, no chaplain comes to visit but a coupe of times I have been sent the far out ones — Metropolitan Church and Wiccan. It breaks the day up.

  • Hopeful

    I once woke up from back surgery with a priest and a rabii waiting for me. Apparently, when I was coming to, I had been mumbling something about …priest …electric …perpetual eye

    I had to explain to them that I’d been talking about a Judas Priest song called Electric Eye. They seemed disappointed.

  • Richard Wade

    My experience of this was milder. The chaplain wasn’t deliberately intrusive since the patient hadn’t specified religious preference one way or the other; she was just making the rounds to offer any assistance if desired.

    The chaplain who was pestering David D.G.’s companion was out of line, and I suggest the following method if ever you are laid up and at the mercy of some persistent shaman haunting the hospital halls. This technique should only be used if the chaplain has disregarded clear and repeated instructions to leave you alone:

    Feign weakness and whisper something, while gesturing feebly for the chaplain to come closer. He will be irresistibly drawn to what looks like a deathbed confession. When he puts his ear up to your mouth, dump your full bedpan over his head.

  • My son (12)was recently in the local Children’s Hospital. During the prep before surgery, the nurse asked what religion he was, to which he replied “I am an atheist”.

    The nurse looked at my son, looked at my wife and myself, and excused herself.

    A new nurse took over. Throughout his stay, we several times noticed hospital staff in small groups whispering, but the word “atheist” could clearly be heard.

    We had no visits from clergy.

    Of course, I live in a community that has an elected theocracy for a local government, so it gives you an idea of the religious climate.

  • GG

    I work in research in a hospital. I was slightly reluctant to take the job, as there’s a cornerstone here dedicated to the Glory of God and the name of the hospital reflects religion. I wasn’t sure it would be a comfortable work environment.
    That said, I’ve been here a year and have only once felt uncomfortable with respect to religion. A coworker asked which clipart I preferred for an information booklet for parents of kids with Cancer: a generic father and son reading a book or a toddler-age angel (wings + halo). She seemed shocked when I chose the ugly, generic one and I was too shocked to explain the 2 reasons I wouldn’t want to see that image if my son had Cancer.

  • Donna

    I live in a small, catholic dominated town. Years ago, when I first moved here, I was hospitalized. The hospital was historically a Catholic hospital, but like all hospitals in Canada, it is now run and funded by a public health board.

    Since I was bedridden, my husband filled out the admittance papers. The admitting nurse would not accept “none” as an answer when she asked him for my religion. He grudgingly allowed her to put down the name of one of the local protestant churches.

    I soon realized why they asked this question. A priest came by each day and offered communion to my roommate, then left without saying a word to me. Fortunately the clergy representing the protestant church didn’t make regular rounds, and I was left in peace.

    The hospital’s policy seemed to be “we have to assign a clergy to your case,” as if religious support were a crucial part of medical care. The patient’s privacy didn’t seem to matter much – local clergy were automatically entitled to a list of people admitted and their illnesses.

    Hospitals should never gather this information and clergy should never visit unless the patient specifically asks for it. The default assumption should always be that the patient is an atheist.

  • mikespeir

    A problem for sure, but scary? I wouldn’t think so.

  • Kat

    Has anyone here encountered the religious presence in hospitals or do you know someone who has?

    I had my last surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, no choice on the hospital.
    There were crosses in every single room, even ICU. They had a channel on the tv that was always on the hospital church, and I’d fall asleep watching discovery channel or the sci-fi channel, and when I’d wake up, the church channel would be on again.
    Nurses either asking if I wanted them to pray with me, or offering to pray for me, and so much more.
    That 9 days in there, was torture for me, not once did anyone ask me if I was religious, they just assumed I was and treated me as if I was.
    If I said I was atheist, they treated me like they didn’t hear what I said.

    I really wish more hospitals would take into account that not everyone believes in a god, and treat us better, listen to us, stop just assuming, stop praying over us etc.

  • Kat

    Ron said; “If the patient specifies atheist or something similar, I highly doubt even a religious hospital is going to send clergy to the patient.”

    Ron, you’d be wrong.
    The catholic priest came to see me daily, even when I told them I didn’t want any priest to come, even when I asked him to leave, he still came in every single day, I’d wake up to find him praying over me with a nurse also praying over me.
    They really would change the channel while I was sleeping and put it back on their hospital church, so I’d wake up to a catholic priest giving a sermon or praying for healing for all of the patients of the hospital.

    I am having surgery again, and this time my surgeon asked me to choose out of 2 hospitals, St. Josephs where all of the above happened, or the hospital I had my 1st surgery at in 2006. Guess which one I chose?

  • stephanie

    The city where my parents lived had a choice of Catholic, Protestant or Jewish hospital. When my mother was first diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, she was admitted into the protestant one and according to the female chaplain who came in, “someone had asked that she stop by to see if my mother needed spiritual guidance.” Unfortunately for the nice woman both my brother and I were present and in not in the most tolerant of moods, so the poor chaplain had to back-peddle her way from the room. I am actually grateful for that intrusion, if only because the chaplain’s hasty departure one of the very few things that made my mother laugh through the duration.

  • Eliza

    I work in health care, in liberal Seattle. Our (university) hospital has UU ministers on staff, or at least on call. My experience (in other settings) with UU ministers is that they’ll totally respect what’s important to you, & not push anything on you. (Not that they have anything to push – it’s a creedless “religion”, made up largely of humanists.) So, if you specifically ask for an atheist or humanist & nothing happens, try asking for a “UU Minister”. (The “minister” part may fool people who don’t realize it’s not a Christian denomination, & think you need one.)

    I’ve never seen anyone from the spiritual staff press their attention or services on anyone who hadn’t specifically asked for a visit. Seems unethical for someone to do that, though of course the prevailing view in some communities may be that it’s for your own good.

    The most disappointed family I’ve seen is one which wanted a priest, but instead got a nun (because that’s who was available at that moment). Nuns aren’t nearly as useful, you know – apparently they can’t give last rites, or they can but God doesn’t take their last rites seriously.

  • Gimpness

    hahaha Hopefull, that made me laugh so much

  • godfrey

    Heh, yeah, a little over 12 years ago I had abdominal surgery that went bad, and was in the hospital for 3 weeks. Lucky I’m not dead, but the funny part is the lay person coming in to give me communion, when I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink- I was on an IV the whole time. Not a great diet- I lost 35 pounds. Nobody thought to check on my condition before the visit. I’m an atheist now, so we’ll see what happens next time (if ever) when I get checked in and religious preference comes up. Hopefully I’m treated well and not pestered by a priest- that won’t end well.

  • Erp

    I think it is ok for the hospital to ask about religion but must accept graciously any answer including no answer or none. They maybe should ask also whether there is any outside clergy or other person outside of immediate family who should be cleared to visit (a religious person might well find comfort if their minister, rabbi, etc can visit even if other visitors are prohibited, anyone might want to have a dear friend be able to visit).

    At least one major hospital chaplain code of conduct prohibits any proselytization or evangelism. Their job is to support the patients not convert them; they should be listeners if the patient wants to talk even it it is about the patient’s grandchildren (the chaplain might be the only person within the hospital willing to listen). However not all chaplains subscribe (and some might follow it for ‘religious’ people but consider ‘non-religious’ legitimate targets) and hospitals are not necessarily off-limits to other clerics.

    There are a few humanist hospital chaplains and also in Britain.

  • Revyloution

    I look forward to the day I’m on my death bed. I hope the scare the faith out of the silly preacher who comes in to bring me into the flock in my time of pain. I hope my fearless facing of death with cast serious doubts on his.

    On the other hand, when my wife was in the hospital with a spontaneous pnumothorax (collapsed lung) I found the incursions of the faithful to be terribly distracting and annoying. My wife doesn’t enjoy rebuffing the faith heads like I do, so she politely tolerated their nonsense, and complained to me in private. Since it was her discomfort we were dealing with, I had to follow her wishes and just patronize the fools.

    If your curious, she made a full recovery without the assistance of prayer.

  • Nosmo King

    I recently had day surgery at a “non-religious” Toronto hospital. During the pre-admission, I was asked for my religion. I said “none”.
    On the day of the surgery, I was lying on the gurney in pre-op. The chart was sitting on my chest so I leafed through it. Under religion it said “refused to answer”.
    As I was minutes away from the operation, I didn’t say anything, but I did wonder if that was the hospital policy or just the admitting nurse’s opinion.

  • When my dad was admitted into a nursing home after his stroke, the staff asked my family (he was unable to talk for himself), “Is he Baptist or Catholic?”

    My dad, in fact, is a rock- ribbed atheist. Harder core than me, even, and for longer.

    I was royally pissed when I heard about this. And not just on behalf of my dad. I was pissed on behalf of all the Jews, Methodists, Buddhists, Hindus, Episcopalians, Jains, Wiccans, Unitarians, etc. that must have crossed through those doors. (This was in Chicago, and yes, they have a lot of Baptists and Catholics there… but it’s also a big metropolitan city with a lot of diversity.)

    And the thing is… it’s not a normal situation where you might feel like you can raise a gentle ruckus. Your life, or the life of your family member, is in these people’s hands. You don’t want to alienate them or tick them off. And besides, you’re feeling bad (if you’re the one who’s sick) or stressed (if it’s your family member). You may not have the strength to fight this particular fight, or the perspective to decide whether it’s worth fighting.

    I have no problem with hospital staff asking, “What religious affiliation do you have, if any?” I think that’s totally appropriate. But it needs to be worded in a way that makes it clear that they’re just gathering information so they can take better care of you, and any answer is okay.

  • Unfortunately I’ve spent months at a time in the hospital and have enough stories to fill a couple hundred pages.

  • flatlander100

    Had a friend some years ago, atheist, who went into a Catholic hospital [it was the best available option locally] for a knee operation. He was not in the best of moods. Downright grouchy, truth be told. A nurse who was also a nun came into his room to fill out some entry forms. In the course of which, she asked him “religion?”
    Annoyed he barked “Druid.”
    Without so much as looking up or missing a beat, she replied “Reformed, or Orthodox?”
    When he stopped laughing, he said “I meant atheist,” she recorded that and went on with the entry form questions.
    Smart lady. Got him from grouchy to laughing, and got the information she needed, all in seconds.

  • I’ve been on both sides of this issue. I’m atheist/Buddhist.

    I was hospitalized for several days and someone holding a Bible came into my room wanting to pray with me. I was feeling well enough at that moment to clearly let him know I did not want to pray with him or anytime in the future. I believe he was a volunteer, although I never found out. For the rest of that visit, and subsequent visits to the same hospital, I felt wary and anxious that I’d wake up with someone praying over me.

    I don’t want to be prayed for. I don’t believe I’m full of original sin & need to be saved.

    On the other side of the situation…I used to volunteer at a hospice. At one point one of the residents asked me to read some Bible verses to her. I read the verses she asked without any commentary on my part. As a hospice volunteer, I felt privileged that these people had let me into their lives. I wanted to learn from them, not teach them.

    I firmly believe that hospitals are NOT the place for missionary work or random offers of prayer. The audience (patient) is captive and in some physical/emotional crisis. I don’t believe it is ethical to push religious practice (prayer, Bibles, cruicifixes, etc) in this situation. If someone asks for something (e.g., hospice patient who wanted to hear Bible verses) then I believe caregivers should provide it. But ONLY if asked.

  • Giblet

    I had a good friend in his early 30’s who died of cancer back in 2002. His health was so bad that only family was allowed to visit with the exception of a minister. Some suppposed hospital minister kept pestering him daily about accepting jeebus especially after my friend told him he was an atheist. To help him out and get to visit him in person (rather than just phone calls), I signed up for the free ordination through Universal Life Church and had my buddy inform the staff that I was his minister. This kept that evangelical jackass out of his room and let me visit him daily (which was fortunate since he died about two weeks later). He is a person that I greatly admire and miss for his courage: I asked him if his beliefs had changed due to his condition (he knew he was dying), and he said that he didn’t want to die but that he still couldn’t bring himself to believe in an afterlife. To this day it enrages me that some self-righteous asshole would psychologically batter a dying man to try to prove himself right.

    Of course the rest of the story is that at his funeral, a minister used the opportunity to get all of the attendees to turn toward jeebus so we wouldn’t be burning in hell like my friend. Since many of those attending were not x-tians (including my friend’s sister), we got permission to install a small memorial marker by a newly planted tree on the grounds of the university he was attending at the time remembering him as a “philosopher, freethinker, and friend.”

  • I recently had an interesting debate on this issue with a Christian friend and fellow blogger here in Scotland. She reported on a nurse apparently being discriminated against based on her Christian religion.

    A little digging revealed a different story, which I described here and later here. Turns out that the nurse had been pushing her religion on patients against hospital policy, and despite previous reprimands.

    In general, I think UK culture has a fairly laid-back view about religion. Sometimes that means we get fair and balanced treatment of religious and non-religious views and practices. And sometimes it means that people don’t make any fuss when religious people get special privileges.

    Clearly, people in a position of power have an obligation not to abuse that power. It is frustrating that religious people do not recognize that pushing their beliefs on vulnerable people – such as hospital patients – is inappropriate.

    I like the quote in your post – comparing their proselytizing to an atheist trying to demolish someone’s religious comfort in the hospital setting. Maybe that image would help my friend understand my position better.

  • During a very serious hospitalization in 2007, two separate nurses invoked God in talking with me. One said she felt sorry for me that I didn’t believe. I wonder how many religious people would be greatly offended if an atheist told them that they pittied them for their belief…

  • Bekka

    For what it’s worth, my mother is a reform Jewish chaplain. Where she works, at least, chaplains only go in if requested – although I’d assume the option is specifically offered to most people. She was frequently the only chaplain on duty, and would go talk to plenty of non-Jews. It’s interesting, actually, because she herself doesn’t actually believe in any type of anthropomorphic god, or even necessarily a god at all (yay reform judaism) – in her experience, it’s more like hospice work, being there to comfort people. She sings the beautiful jewish prayer for healing frequently, which people like, and then beyond that usually just talks to them, or sits with them while they pray, if that’s comforting. I’ll ask her specifically about atheists next time we talk – I’ll also ask the same question of my father, who is a hospice doctor. I KNOW it is at best inappropriate and almost certainly a violation of hospital policy and at worst illegal to have a chaplain force themselves on you – whoever has experienced that should immediately take it up with the highest powers at the institution. Hospitals are bound to honor patient’s wishes, and although we all know that doesn’t always happen, especially at religious institutions, letting it slide without comment implicitly endorses the behavior.

  • lessfriendlyatheist

    On my mother’s last day in this world, a nurse came in and asked if she wanted a rabbi. She refused firmly but politely, and it never came up again. Of course, her actual wish to die quickly and with dignity was overridden because of heartless religious lobbyists, but that’s a story for a different day.

  • I spent two weeks in a local hospital last year with a bad infection in my leg.

    One day a man came into my room and asked if he could leave some (obviously religious) reading material in my room. I told him I didn’t have a problem with that.

    He then asked if he could sit and pray with me. I told him I was not interested in that, but he kept pushing me to pray.

    I was too stoned on pain medication to get too bent out of shape, but did manage to smile and politely as I could ask him to please leave his papers and excuse himself.

    Wonder how the hospital would react to an Atheist going room to room and leaving some Dawkins or Hitchens for the patients to browse through. Not a bad idea actually.

  • It does happen. It happened to my grandfather, who had terminal cancer and was approached by an infamous last rites jockey who was known for looking for donations for having assured the deceased’s journey to the afterlife. Fortunately my father was there to shoo away the witch doctor so the real doctors could do their jobs, and fortunately there was no further interference with his quality of care.

  • SarahH

    When I was hospitalized for an eating disorder in my teens, Easter fell during one of the weeks early in my stay. An extremely ancient pastor and his wife came in and we had a mandatory group session in which we had to sit and listen to him preach about hellfire and redemption and the whole lot. It was one part boring, one part mind-boggling and one part infuriating.

    Other patients complained and we were told that, in the future, we would be given a choice regarding religious activities and would have the option to take some free time instead. Still, I wonder what my health insurance company would have thought if they knew what sort of crap they were paying for.

  • izzy

    Mostly, this will only occur based on request. I’ve been working at a Jewish hospital… obviously not everyone or even the majority is Jewish. Pastors, priests,Rabi whatever the hell they call themselves will only come if the patient requests them or the patient may be asked if they want to see someone, if they say no then it’s not a problem. No one would ever be allowed to walk from patient to patient preaching. Believe me, they would be kicked out.

  • Jonas

    I was a little surprised by point #5 from the Center for Inquiry. One of the oncology Chaplains at Mass General, that I know, is a Humanist Chaplain and an Ethical Culture Officiant. She also pushed for and got an EC Chaplaincy program created.

    I’m writing to her, asking for more details. Personally, I don’t know the Chaplaincy policies at Mass General.

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