On being an atheist medic
January 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
[Context: TEDS is The Ecumenical Discussion Society, run by my college chapel. So ecumenical they let atheist muppets like me talk there. This is a talk I gave a while ago, but I figured I might as well inflict it on you all too. As always, comments welcome.]
Hello, I’m Gregory. I graduated from here last year (allegedly with honours), and I’m now a clinical student at Addenbrooke’s hospital. One of the many flaws in my character is a philosophical bent, and that, combined with Cally’s forbearance, means I talk here far too often. Tonight, we are making history: this is my third outing, which makes me the most prolific TEDS speaker of all time. Even more amazing is that some of you have been here on all three occasions: what on earth is wrong with you? Whether it’s misguided friendship, progressive deafness or a desire for unintended comedy, I’m grateful all the same.
But enough pre-amble. The topic is “Being an Atheist Medic”. It’s a topic on which I’m somewhat hesitant. It suggests the misleading impression of Atheism of being so rare amongst doctors as to deserve particular comment, or that Atheists need ‘use’ their Atheism in their medical practise, or for life in general.
Atheism – or at least non-belief – is pretty common among doctors, and perhaps more so amongst those in training : one of the surveys Cambridge got my cohort of med students to fill out included the question “Do you consider yourself a spiritual or religious person?”. More than half answered no. There are a variety of intersecting demographics here which would take us off track, but it’s fair to say that, if anything, doctors are a disproportionately irreligious bunch.
Further, I doubt many of those are avowed Atheists, or find Atheism particularly important. The idea that there’s an ‘Atheist’ point of view on being a doctor (or anything else) strikes me as weird, and is one of the reasons I’m not a big fan of attempts to manufacture an ‘Atheist/freethought/secular humanist/whatever identity’. I don’t see an Atheist is obliged to answer questions along the lines of “Well, God doesn’t exist, so…”. They can offer any answer they please – well, bar one.
So if there’s no grand Atheist take on medicine, what am I going to talk about? Well, a few things. I’ve attended two talks by Professor Riches on Christianity and Medicine. Although I lack his wisdom (not to mention 50 or so years of experience), I figured I’d follow his good example. What stuff related to life, death, and other things besides does medicine throw into sharp relief for folks who don’t believe in God – and, given the peculiar nature of my audience, to explain myself to those who think differently. Tonight I’m some mix between ambassador, sample, and translator; how we live, and what we live for.
First question: why do it in the first place? Why do medicine? Indeed, if you’re an Atheist, why do anything? Aren’t you just killing time before the heat-death of the universe? Are there any other options besides hedonism, absurdism, or ennui?
Let’s see what I wrote on my personal statement. I was an Atheist back then too:
I want to study medicine because of a desire I have to help others, and so the chance of spending a career doing something worthwhile I can’t resist. Of course, Doctors don’t have a monopoly on altruism, but I believe the attributes I have lend themselves best to medicine, as opposed to all the other work I could do instead.
This altruistic intent hasn’t really dulled, although I hope it isn’t so clumsy and naïve (fat chance!). The drive to do the most good really was why I picked medicine. It also drives what sort of medicine I want to do – to beat major infectious diseases, as I think those reap the greatest toll from humankind. This moralism extends elsewhere: I’ve been in print advocating most people give away their excess income to charity, and have signed a pledge to give away 10% of my income to charity, with the intent to promise to give much more. Easy things at twenty-one: we’ll see how I live up to it.
So I have at least some pretence towards being ethical. Why? Because I find stuff valuable. Friends, family, (dare I say it) lovers, all the sort of moral and aesthetic experiences life can provide. Why are these things valuable? It simply strikes me as simply axiomatic that they are – no further explanation is needed. Perhaps they are (dangerous word) intrinsically valuable, or maybe I simply can’t help but regard them so. Anyway, it’s clear to me that they plainly do have worth, and further worth ‘free-standing’ of Theism. It can’t be that these things are worthwhile by dint of divine fiat alone (or, more controversially, things can’t be made worthwhile by divine fiat alone). So God is a bit unnecessary for meaning, value and all that jazz, so Atheism is no great loss in that regard.
The other topic which isn’t a huge worry to me is death. Not because of fragile bravado, nor contempt for being alive, but from reflection of how good life has been to me, and how fortunate I am. Were my parents to conceive on a different day, were another gamete to be selected, then I would have never been at all. Yet, out of the vast field of people who could have been, luck picked me as the person who would become. In the face of that, it seems churlish to begrudge the fact that my time on this mortal coil will come to a close. Untold numbers of my hypothetical betters never got anything at all.
And life has been very good to me. Not to say it’s been easy or flawless: there are regrets, difficulties, things I wished could have been otherwise. Yet, on the whole, it has been overwhelmingly positive. Even if (heaven forfend) I died tomorrow, I don’t think I’d have been too hard done by: it’d be a shame for my future hopes to be unfilled, not to mention the hurt it would cause those who knew me, but I’d still far prefer it to nothing at all. It’s find it strange how people think I should be scared of death, or that I mustn’t think about it or that I might as well commit suicide. “Cosmic ungratefulness”, like “Cosmic significance”, strike me as weird.
Yet life is not so rosy for everyone – we aren’t all fairly high-functioning Cambridge medics. And medicine can throw up desperate cases. That’s not really a problem for Atheism (given the problem of evil, I guess you could call it persuasive data). But it does make things somewhat bleak. The reasons why are somewhat nuanced, so excuse the following detour.
Evils can be defeated. That means there is some greater good for which that evil is a necessary part. In some sense, we should be grateful for this evil, as it allows us to realize this greater whole. A concrete example would be someone being thankful for a period of poor health because of the lessons it taught them. A friend of mine was sexually abused as a child – perhaps a paradigmatic example of outrageous evil – and yet is glad for having this experience, awful though it was. On Atheism, such cases will be rare – there’s no reason to think evils and good will be linked up in such a nice way. I leave it as an exercise to you whether Theism means all evil must be defeated in this sense, and the ramifications this may have.
If evils can’t be defeated, they can still be outweighed. This just means that, on balance, the good stuff is greater than the bad stuff. It might be even better if we could get rid of the evil, but the picture as a whole is good. Another concrete example: my mother has bipolar disorder. That has led to many bad things over the last five or so years – which, as far as I can see, are gratuitously unnecessary to realize any greater goods. Yet, on balance, these bad things are outweighed by the good things. So although I’d rather (for her sake) that she didn’t have bipolar, I’m still very glad to have her around. I think she would say the same.
Back to bleakness. The problem is, if Atheism, then there is no guarantee that people will live lives which are great goods to them on the whole , indeed, there may be people who live lives that are better off not lived at all. Such horrifically blighted lives are, thankfully, vanishingly rare. But even one is awful. Theists can hope that lives like these are compensated in the hereafter (although, if you’re not a universalist, there’s the even more horrible scenario of someone living one of these awful lives and getting condemned to hell as well). What can I say? Nothing – except hope that I’m wrong, and God’s there after all.
Another detour. So perhaps theists are perhaps missing a trick here. Some of you may be aware of Pascal’s wager: the idea that – whether or not God exists – the payoff for belief is much better than disbelief, so you should believe. Another medical student suggested it to me in a vaguely evangelistic manner when I was a fresher. Unfortunately for him, I’d thought I was terribly clever (and I was damn good at RE in school) and so my intellectual chess- esque reply was simple: “What about all the other hypothetical Gods who will damn Christians too. Whilst were at it, what about a God who damns Christians and saves Atheists. Without knowing Christianity is true in the first place, how can we know that belief is really our best cosmic bet?”
That shut him up, and, although that still seems about right, it was superficial – as, indeed, was I (well, am I, but even more back then). If I was slightly wiser, I should have said something else: That we can’t pick our beliefs just because they’re our prudential best bet. We believe what we do because we think it’s true. If someone offered me several million pounds to believe the moon is made of cheese, I might say or pretend I believe it, but I couldn’t actually do so. Same, pretty much, for god. I don’t have any particular love of Atheism (contra Rom 1) – Theism seems a far ‘nicer’ and more optimistic hypothesis. But, in this at least, I believe what I think is true, not what I find preferable.
Now with another small increment of wisdom, I’d agree with him, sort of – which puts me about 3 years behind. Even though people like me can’t really see themselves in great cosmic peril, we should be able to see that others will not be dealt so kind a hand. So hope for them should commit one, if not to a living faith (and, admittedly, contra orthadoxy), at least to a desire that things be otherwise. It’s a start, at least.
I’ve tried to keep things short, and I’ve modestly tried to cover a few minor issues that medicine throws up: morality, death, and suffering. As I alluded at the start about there not being an Atheist take on medicine, I’m not going to give some grand conclusion to these ruminations. Instead, thanks for your attention. Now over to you.