Dr. Atheist Wants to Kill You Faster, Says Guardian Article August 26, 2010

Dr. Atheist Wants to Kill You Faster, Says Guardian Article

A new study in the Journal of Medical Ethics says:

… doctors who described themselves as non-religious were more likely than others to report having given continuous deep sedation until death, having taken decisions they expected or partly intended to end life, and to have discussed these decisions with patients judged to have the capacity to participate in discussions.

The Guardian summarized the study like this:

Doctors who are atheist or agnostic are twice as likely to take decisions that might shorten the life of somebody who is terminally ill as doctors who are deeply religious –- and doctors with strong religious convictions are less likely even to discuss such decisions with the patient, according to Professor Clive Seale, from the centre for health sciences at Barts and the London school of medicine and dentistry.

The doctors were asked about the care of their last patient who died, if relevant -– including whether they had provided continuous deep sedation until death and whether they had discussed decisions judged likely to shorten life with the patient.

… regardless of their speciality, doctors who described themselves as “extremely” or “very non-religious” were almost twice as likely to report having taken these kinds of decisions as those with a religious belief.

The most religious doctors were significantly less likely than other doctors to have discussed options at the end of life with their patient.

That last line is really damning toward religious doctors… why would they not discuss all the end-of-life options with you?

Of course, you could spin this whole article in a completely different way, as Twitter users were quick to point out to me.

You could say religious doctors are twice as likely to prolong pain and suffering for terminally ill patients.

Or that religious doctor are less likely to respect their patients’ wishes.

Carrie at Skepchick didn’t like the article spin at all:

If I were to write the headline, neutrally, it would read something like Doctors’ Religious Attitudes Can Impact End of Life Care. If I felt the need to sex it up a bit, I’d probably go with Religious Doctors Less Likely to Respect Patients’ Wishes. Both would be far more responsible than what the Guardian ran with.

This is one of the worst examples of science reporting from an ostensibly respectable news outlet I’ve seen in awhile. Especially annoying is the way it plays into the fear of atheism, while missing the point of the study entirely…

It’s unfortunate the paper took the route that makes it sound like atheist doctors want to kill their patients, when the truth is so far from that. We want people to live the best life possible. If the rest of your life is going to be a living hell, you have a right to decide whether to continue it or not.

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  • I reproduce here my comment on the FB copy of this post:

    To coin a phrase, god bless those atheist physicians! The last thing I want is some god fearing doctor insisting that I suffer until the bitter end, taking extraordinary measures to PROLONG my suffering because it’s god’s will that I cling to the pain.
    Death is part of life – arguably the very thing that gives meaning to our nasty, brutish and short existence. The sooner we come to grips with it and stop letting imaginary sky wizards dictate how and when we depart this veil of tears, the better.

  • Seeker

    The more a person suffers, the more likely (s)he is to call a priest and make a hefty donation to the church, just to be sure. Religions know what they do when they condition their patients…ermmm believers, to prolong pain and suffering because ‘it should be up to God to take a persons life’.

  • littlejohn

    My mother is in her 10th year of Alzheimer’s. She goes through $200 worth of diapers a month. She’s been, effectively, a vegetable for five years. I wish her doctor were an atheist.
    And I hope when my time comes, my doctor dispatches me at an appropriate time. Why do we treat dying dogs better than dying people?

  • Steve

    I would at least like to know my options. That doesn’t mean I’d have to go through with it.

    I’m not sure what I’d do if I had cancer or some other deadly disease that keeps me conscious until the end, but I definitely know that I don’t want to be on life support in a vegetative state just for the sake of satisfying some clinical definition of life. That’s not life at all.

  • mkb

    Sign me up for one of those atheist doctors.

  • Parse

    And I hope when my time comes, my doctor dispatches me at an appropriate time. Why do we treat dying dogs better than dying people?
    Exactly this. I have to wonder how many people who are against doctor-assisted euthanasia are willing to have a veterinarian put their fatally-ill pet to sleep.
    People can give consent – animals can’t.

  • littlejohn

    Exactly this. I have to wonder how many people who are against doctor-assisted euthanasia are willing to have a veterinarian put their fatally-ill pet to sleep.
    People can give consent – animals can’t

    That doesn’t apply to my mother, chief. She’s a carrot. Besides, she has a living will, which her doctor has ignored.

  • Ex Partiot

    I hope when the time comes I have a non- beleving Dr.I have been an Atheist for over 40 years and and sure as hell will not change my mind at the last hours

  • alex

    Because, frankly, it’s easier to claim moral high ground when calling terminal cancer patients with nothing left in their lives but pain “brave” or describing children born with every possible deformity known to man as “beautiful”, rather than acknowledging them to be prime examples of why euthanasia and abortion should be legal and accessible on demand. In this twisted philosophy, a life full of suffering is better than no life at all, and besides, taking someone’s (even potential) life will take the ticket to the “upstairs” away from you — and we can’t have that, now, can we?

    Yay moral high ground.

  • Monika

    Just recently during my own stay in hospital I met a woman who knows that she only has 1.5 years max to live. She has cancer, nothing more can be done, except easing her pain and fear. She was in hospital to have her pain medication ajusted. The doctors always said: “Of course you can have more of these patches or pills, as long as you are comfortable.”
    During the long and boring days we talked a lot about living and dying and wanting to know or not, quite a sobering experience.
    Thanks to the Third Reich euthanasia – active or passive – is a hot button topic in Germany, I wonder what the results of such a study would be here. And I shudder at the headline our worst tabloid BILD would create.

    @littlejohn Can’t you change doctors for your mother? There must be one who will not ignore a living will.

  • Parse

    My apologies, I wasn’t very clear there.
    I had meant to say that because people can give consent, it should be less morally gray than euthanizing animals.

    In your mother’s case, it sounds like she gave consent (or tried to, at least) with a living will. Is there any way to get a different doctor for your mom, or at least a way to talk to her doctor about finding a way to respect her wishes?

  • Brian Westley

    The Daily Mail screwed it up first, and, of course, anti-atheist bigots like Vox Day ran with it.

  • Thegoodman

    My wife is a doctor and an atheist. She is often disturbed at how few other doctors discuss termination options with patients and their families. She is only in her residency, but this task often lands on her shoulders because other doctors shirk this responsibility.

    “Religious” vs. “Extremely Non-Religious” to me means illogical vs. logical. Logical doctors realize that a patients quality of life has gone to nearly zero their actual life should end painlessly and quickly. An illogical doctor might hold out while waiting for a miracle, all the while disrespecting their patient and his/her family be prolonging their pain/suffering.

    Euthanasia is a perfectly humane and sound way for a life to end for a terminal patient who is in constant pain. It is also far more cost effective than loading them up with narcotics and taking up precious (and expensive) hospital space with their soon-to-be corpse.

    Most people of a sound mind will opt for a short and painless stay in the hospital when their time has come. Many people are cowards when discussing life/death, and doctors are no exception.

  • muggle

    I too wonder why we’re more merciful to dogs and cats than we are human beings.

    When she was 18 1/2, I had to put my cat down. Yes, it was heart-breaking. No, it wasn’t easy. But that last half year her visits to the vet became monthly then weekly and at the last one when she let out a piteous yowl, I knew even before the vet asked me that it was time to let her go instead of clinging onto her and making her suffer out of a selfish sense of the loss of my best friend for almost two decades. I loved her enough to give the vet the nod.

    It’s most disturbing that you can’t do the same for loved humans in so much pain they have no quality of life left either, whose life is nothing but pain. I have chronic pain from health issues but, at present, I am still able to function and live a life, enjoy favorite pasttimes and be of help to my family, not just a burden. If my life became just the pain or if Alzenheimer’s or some other disease prevented me from looking at my grandson and knowing him, I’d rather die than continue and I don’t even want to think the effect of his grammy not knowing him would have on him. Yes, my death would traumatize him but I seriously think it’s got to be easier than watching his grandmother suffer and not even interact with him. I’m certain, knowing my grandson, that that would be far more traumatic than my death. I have a great fear of a living will not being respected. Locally, as far as hospitals go, the Catholic one has the best reputation but this is just one of the reasons I shy away from it.

    littlejohn, that is just horrid that her doctor isn’t honoring your mother’s wishes made in her better days. This is not what she wanted and what she wanted should be honored. Words can’t express my empathy.

  • Sarah

    Considering how some Christians are willing to go to war because they’ll end up in heaven anyway, you might think they’d be more willing to speed a patient on his way. P:

  • blueridgelady

    sorry if this is rambly, it’s still early for me!..

    The religious folk don’t seem to care so much about suffering as opposed to dogmatic adherence of the belief in mere existence. For instance, the pro-lifers that don’t want to support welfare programs or mothers once babies are actually born.

    I’d rather have a compassionate atheist doctor than one that relies on god.

    Also, I don’t understand this flirtation with science w/o going all the way. The very religious doctors had to have the same education standards as the atheistic doctors. How can they accept and implement the latest scientific approaches, understand them, and still reject science on other fronts, like evidence of suffering and logical application of ethics in those situations? Unless they are of the “god put the tools necessary to combat disease on earth” type people, which still begs the question of why god would put diseases/illnesses on earth in the first place.

  • littlejohn

    I appreciate the comments. I don’t think my mother’s doctor is a bad guy, he’s just afraid of losing his license. He practices in West Virginia, if that put things in perspective. Half his colleagues are snake-handlers, the other half practice phrenology.

  • jolly

    OK, I’m adding atheist doctor to my living will

  • For me, it’s about having the option. Some people really do want to cling to life, as it’s all they’ve known and all they have – they should be allowed that choice. And some are ready to go, they’ve had enough – they should be allowed that choice too.

    I understand if it gets to the point where they’re a living vegetable and can’t make that choice anymore – that’s a bit more of a grey area, especially if there’s no living will. But if they’ve made that decision already, those wishes should be honoured.

    Bleh. I don’t know what else to say on the issue.

  • Without seeing the details of the study more I’m not sure that this is as damning as it seems. If for example a doctor is of a given religion and their patients are generally of the same religion and that religion restricts what can be done for end of life care then they might not bother discussing the options that neither of them believe are ok. I wouldn’t be surprised for example if this happens with some Orthodox Jewish doctors who have Orthodox patients.

  • Casimir

    Since when is The Guardian a “reputable news outlet”? It has, for years, been little more than a mouthpiece for new-age irrational leftism and I would expect nothing more from them. It is about as valuable to reasonable discourse and liberal thinking as The Washington Times.

  • Hitch

    Here is how the BBC covered it:


    Notice that they too discuss the outrage, but let me quote:

    Title: “Religion may influence doctors’ end-of-life care”

    Subheading “Patient Communication”

    “Those who described themselves as very or extremely non-religious were about 40% more likely to sedate than religious doctors, the study in the Journal of Medical Ethics reported.

    Being very or extremely religious was also associated with significantly fewer discussions of decisions with patients around treatment at the end of life.”

    And later in the article:

    “The fact that some doctors are not discussing possible options at the end of life with their patients on account of their religious beliefs is deeply troubling.

    “Whilst entitled to their beliefs, doctors should not let them come in the way of providing patient-centred care at the end of life.”

    How does that sound for an “atheists kill elderly” article?

    Well they read the study right. Yes there are concerns, and it is with religious doctors failing to discuss end-of-life options with patients, and under-utilizing palliative care.

    The Guardian dropped the ball.

  • littlejohn- I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. Alzheimer’s is a godawful illness at the best of times, that your doctor isn’t following his patient’s stated wishes is horrendous.
    And you know, it was going through a somewhat similar thing with my gran- same disease, no living will so we just cared for her as best we could, kept her as comfortable as we could- that has led pretty much everyone on that side of the family, myself included, to the firm conviction that when our time comes, we want it to be on our own terms. None of this hanging on for years and years, growing gradually worse as your own mind is pulled out from under you. I want to stick around for as long as life can be good, then let me say my goodbyes and put me to sleep comfortably.

  • Michael

    Mother Theresa would also be more likely to shorten your life.
    She just wouldn’t be as nice about it as any modern doctor.

  • I kind-of wish more doctors would wear their religious underpinnings on their sleeves so we could more easily make our choices. Unfortunately, I think atheist doctors might quickly be run out of business, so I guess “don’t ask-don’t tell” makes sense…

    While pregnant with my 2nd baby, my OB told me he “isn’t an evolutionist.” It took me by surprise, and I realized he was commenting about the book I was reading while waiting for him (I was in the middle of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee at the time). I was shocked, firstly because he felt the need to TELL me this…and mostly because I couldn’t believe a doctor (a person of science) didn’t “believe in evolution.” I mean, it’s one thing to be a person of faith, and another to reject the central theory of biology! As a biologist myself, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. I felt very differently about him from that point forward (but was very close to the end of my pregnancy, so I stuck with him). I was glad I went into labor when he was away for the holiday (Labor Day actually; how cool am I?), and I chose a different practitioner when I became pregnant with baby #3.

    I don’t expect everyone to believe as I do, but I *do* have a choice of health-care providers. I choose to be cared for by someone who I’m confident will base their decisions on science and medical research. I just wish it were easier to find them in the sea of religiosity.

  • I want me an atheist doctor. Why should I suffer a drawn out, agonizing death just because someone’s “religious beliefs” demand it?

  • Staceyjw

    Littlejohn: I am sorry to hear about your mother, it is terrible that her wishes are being ignored. You should move her to Mexico, where she can have the care she needs for a fraction of the cost, and if her new doctor gives her too much pain medicine, well that wouldn’t be so bad, assuming this is what she wants. People are more pragmatic and accepting here, its not like the US (even though everyone is Catholic, it doesn’t seem to make much difference practically) where people zealously ignore living wills, but would arrest you in a minute if you tried to help her end her life. its not as crazy of an idea as you would think, I moved and it was easy and cheap.

    I make sure to find out about my doctors religion before I choose them. While some people can separate those things, this study shows that religion does influence doctors. When I chose my OBGYN to deliver my son, I made sure he wasn’t xtian. My grandma always talked about how her first 2 kids were delivered by Catholics, and they didn’t want to give adequate pain relief. The 3rd she had with a secular jewish MD, and it was pain free. Many stains DO believe that a woman is “saved” through the pain of childbirth, and I didn’t want any part of this. I also have a hard time reconciling a doctors scientific training with their belief in the supernatural.

    And yes, we do have more compassion for animals. The reason for this is because xtians think that we are suppose to be in control of all creatures, so its ok to do what we want to them. This belief is usually used to justify raping the land and killing animals, euthanizing sick animals is the one bright point. It is weird that if you don’t put your terminally ill pet to sleep painlessly, people think your a dick, but if you want the same for a human you love you are an evil murderer. When my sweet ferret was put to sleep, I was amazed how peaceful and comfortable it was for him, and I was sad that people didn’t have the option of a painless death in a loved ones arms.

  • ThilinaB

    Some one please explain to me why the people who believe in the man in the sky or an after life or both want to avoid dying at the cost of anything/everything else. You’d expect them to be much more… “well he’s in gods hands now!”.

    For the record we aren’t talking about assisted suicides here, it’s mostly do not resuscitate orders that have to signed by the patient or a family member.

  • Hitch

    That’s easy. 1) Thou shalt not kill 2) Suffering is noble and a test by god to determine how worthy you are and how much you praise him even through massive pain 3) people actually don’t want to die and 1-2) are coping mechanisms.

  • Anonymous

    Dr Evan Harris rebutted with a Guardian article of his own later in the day.


    The relevance of a doctor’s religion
    It is misleading to say atheist doctors are ‘more likely to hasten death’. The real issue is adequate patient consultation”

  • Heyzad

    I find it odd that the religious doctors would not do this. If they believe that infinite paradise is waiting for them than why not let them go? I see people of certain faiths do this routinely. Some will not except blood transfusions and others may opt for no real medical care at all and go holistic or choose to pray for some divine intervention.

    What are they so afraid of?

  • I have to add that I’m glad to live in Oregon, where we have the Death With Dignity Act. Of course I seriously hope I don’t ever need it, but after seeing what my grandmother went through in the last few days/weeks of her fight with metastatic lung cancer (in a state where physician-assisted suicide is NOT legal)…well, I just think *everyone* should have that option. Anything else is just cruel.

  • On the same topic, here’s what the Daily Mash (a UK satire site) had to say: http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/health/thousands-of-doctors-prescribing-jesus-201008273044/


  • Anonymous

    An excellent response by Anthony Grayling in the Herald Scotland, Aug 29

    Why patients have nothing to fear from Godless doctors


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