Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Reader’s response: Is it ethical to bring religion into medicine?


JMS Pearce
London, England

Dr. Patrick Guinan raises many important issues in his paper “Is it ethical to bring religion into medicine?” in Hektoen International, Volume 2, No 1 – Winter 2010. He says that “a new religion called complementary or alternative medicine is threatening his territory.” Though I share his implied views of these practices, they are not to be equated with religion nor subsumed under religion as a metaphor. They are simply a variety of practices with very little, if any, scientific validation. Their popularity may be misguided, for those who seek such remedies are usually doing so because of desperation or failures of orthodox treatments. This is doubtless assisted by a faith in the remedies or in their practitioners, but that surely does not amount to even a metaphorical religion.

We all know that many illnesses are currently resistant or wholly uninfluenced by conventional medicine; it is important that the modern physician honestly informs his patients accordingly, but this does not excuse him from proper palliative care, kindness and symptomatic treatments. Hippocrates (c.460-c.377 B.C.E.) illustrated the separation of divine belief from scientific knowledge:

People think that epilepsy is divine simply because they don’t have any idea what causes epilepsy. But I believe that someday we will understand what causes epilepsy, and at that moment, we will cease to believe that it’s divine. And so it is with everything in the universe.

I agree that we “overemphasize the material or ‘scientific’ aspects of healing to the disadvantage of the humane aspects.” But the humane approach, exemplified by thousands of doctors over the centuries, does not depend on religious belief of either doctor or patient. The humanity and sense of responsibility to one’s fellow men is just as much a feature of those without, as it is of those with, religious faith. Indeed many atheists are among the kindest, most caring doctors. Dr. Guinan says that academic and scientific medicine tend to ignore alternative medicine and religion, and is often hostile to both. Religion is based on belief and faith, which by definition are incapable of scientific testing. Medicine can and should combine scientific knowledge with kindness and caring that do not necessarily derive from religious belief.

Since various religious beliefs often clash with orthodox medical practices, and since ethics and morality are often independent of religion, I would argue that to bring religion into Medicine is potentially disastrous.

JMS PEARCE, MD, FRCP, Hull Royal Infirmary, London, England

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 2, Issue 2 – Spring 2010

Spring 2010



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