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.


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