Professionals pushing religion

by John Jackson © 2011

A regular story that features in the news is the one whereby someone is pushing or flaunting their particular religious belief system to their, or their employer's, customers or clients.

This week it has been the story of a Christian GP, Dr. Richard Scott, who was issued a formal warning by the General Medical Council (GMC) after a complaint was made against him by the mother of a patient. The complaint being that Dr. Scott was pushing religion onto her son after he had gone to the surgery for a consultation as he was feeling 'in a rut'.

Coverage examples: BBC - Kent online - Daily Mail

Although examples such as this one are worth considering individually, what is needed in order to form a general conclusion on the matter is to identify what the actual underlying issue is. I suggest that a good way of framing the issue is to ask the question: should people working in a professional capacity use their position to promote their own religious beliefs?

Of particular concern is whether such action causes harm, or has the potential for harm, of any kind; and whether it interferes with the person's ability to perform to a professional standard - this is particularly important for publicly funded, therefore accountable, workers.

Harm could arise from:

  1. Power relations

    Power relations here refers to the balance of authority between people in different situations. Examples being: parents and children, police and the public, doctors/nurses and patients, and bosses and employees. Power relations are present in almost any interactive situation or relationship but here we're considering the imbalance of authority that occurs due to the job position a person holds.

  2. Inappropriate advice

    When someone visits their doctor because they are feeling depressed (as an example) the appropriate response from the doctor is to diagnose the patient's problem accurately and provide an evidence-based answer as far as is possible. A patient who is 'in a rut' should not be seen as an opportunity or an easy target who's ripe for conversion to their particular belief system.

A common reason used in support of such actions is, "he's only trying to help". In other words, the doctor's (in this example) actions can be defended by his intention to do good. Is this a relevant defence though? Well, it could also be argued that a faith healer who's advised a cancer patient to stop their chemotherapy (potentially fatal advice) is 'only trying to help' (indeed this excuse is used by the followers of such charlatans). In short: good intention does not justify an action on its own.

The purpose of pushing beliefs

Although this type of incident is defended by the "I'm only trying to help" argument, it's worth considering who is helping whom. Why is it that religious people want to convert others to their own belief system? Is it for the sake of the person or is it to help promulgate the religion? Of course it may be a bit of both but I suspect that it's more about gaining converts than providing appropriate help.

Conclusion

I suspect that this issue gets overplayed somewhat by the media. In reality there probably isn't a great deal of harm being done here - it's probably more a case of people being offended by the inappropriate attempt to convert them to a religion. However, considering the problem of power relations and authority combined with inappropriate advice or action, it can result in people not getting the standard of care or service they have a right to expect.

I think that in this case, as well as in general, people's religious beliefs and their professional capacity should be kept separate. If that means regulatory bodies issuing warnings to offenders (even though they don't think what they're doing is wrong) then so be it.

People go to professionals for their professional services; and that's what they should get.


Further examples

Christian GP performs exorcism on patient