STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 04/16/2008

ARTICLE: Faith Matters--But How?

Faith Matters--But How?
by Ryan E. Lawrence and Farr A. Curlin

Faith matters--at least sometimes. At the University of Chicago we have been studying physicians' religious characteristics and how they impact medical practices. Some results have been intuitive, some have been controversial. All have raised challenging questions about what it means to be a Christian in the workplace, and to integrate faith and professional activities.

Our studies have found that a large proportion of doctors are religious. More than half of doctors describe themselves as Catholic or Protestant. Fourteen percent are Jewish--a sevenfold increase over the general population. A majority of doctors say they try hard to carry their religious beliefs over into all other dealings in life. In contrast, only 11 percent of doctors have no religion. 1

In a more controversial finding published in the New England Journal of Medicine last February, we found that doctors' religious beliefs influence how they practice medicine. 2 This is particularly true for areas of medicine surrounded by ethical controversy, such as sedating dying patients to the point of unconsciousness, providing abortion because of failed contraception, and prescribing birth control to adolescents without their parents' approval. We found that doctors who are more religious (by several criteria) are less likely to believe they are obligated to tell patients about all medical options. They are also less likely to believe they are obligated to give referrals so patients can obtain controversial treatments elsewhere. In some cases, it seems, physicians' religious beliefs limit the medical options they make available to patients.

These findings added fuel to a heated ongoing debate about whether religion has overstepped its bounds and whether religious doctors are inappropriately imposing their values on patients. In a letter to the editor one critic warned, "The onus is on our profession to confront the willingness of so many of our colleagues to substitute their personal values for the fundamental right of their patients to know their treatment options." 3 Similarly, a New York Times editorial titled "Doctors Who Fail Their Patients" claimed, "[Physicians] have no right to withhold important information from their patients. Any doctor who cannot talk to patients about legally permitted care because it conflicts with their values should give up the practice of medicine." 4 Many believe that in donning the white coat the doctor agrees to set personal beliefs aside--particularly religious beliefs that may impose limits on professional activities.

This call to separate personal religious beliefs from public or professional roles is not unique to medicine. Christians teaching in public schools often face questions about what books to assign and what to teach about evolutionary theory. Christians in law and politics sometimes encounter tension between representing the views of the people who hired or elected them versus using their office to promote Christian teachings. Christians in the business world may have to decide whether religious scruples will interfere with what otherwise appear to be good business decisions. Even Christian pastors encounter this challenge every time they minister in hospitals, schools and other public settings. Will they profess their faith in Jesus or instead speak only about love and belief in a higher power? In one way or another all Christian professionals face this question of how to remain faithful to their beliefs when operating in the public sector.

Ways to Respond
There are several ways a faithful Christian can respond when professional expectations limit the ability to apply Christian teachings. One option is to leave the profession. After all, when Jesus called his first disciples, they left their nets and followed him (Mark 1:16-20). Furthermore, Jesus said no one could be a true disciple unless he "hate[s] his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-yes even his own life" (Luke 14:26). Compared with this weighty list, abandoning one's profession is no hardship. The downside to leaving the profession, though, is that one misses out on upcoming opportunities to effect change in that profession.

Another option is to stay in the profession but ignore those professional guidelines that encroach on religious teachings. Indeed, the apostles preached the gospel despite strict orders from the Sanhedrin. Peter claimed, "We must obey God rather than men!" (Acts 5:29). However, this approach is hard to reconcile with the instruction "Make every effort to live in peace with all men" (Hebrews 12:14). And from a pragmatic perspective it may foster antagonistic relationships between Christians and professional bodies.
A parallel option is to stay in the profession but promote Christian teachings discreetly so as not to cause friction with supervisors who would disapprove if they knew. The shortcoming here is the apparent use of deception; a questionable way of showing faithfulness to a God Who does not lie (Titus 1:2). It implies a lack of confidence in God's ability to advance His kingdom on His own terms.

Finally, so long as constraints do not conflict too severely with religious teachings, one can stay in the profession and agree to practice according to its own guidelines and standards. A person in this role can look for opportunities to promote reconciliation between religious teachings and professional stipulations. In line with this approach, Paul urged his readers to submit to governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established (Romans 13:1). A person taking this avenue risks compromising too much and becoming like the salt that has lost its saltiness and can no longer fulfill its purpose (Matthew 5:13). However, those who obtain influential positions may be provided unique opportunities to do good (Esther 4:14).

The best option will often vary according to circumstances. Our studies have shown that despite criticism from some sectors, many religious doctors have decided to stay in medicine and allow their religious commitments to influence some aspects of medical care. These findings are encouraging, for they indicate religion is not strictly a Sunday morning affair for many doctors but impacts much of their lives. At the same time, these findings are sobering, for the Crusades, the Inquisition and the post-Reformation wars of religion demonstrated that fidelity to religious conviction is not sufficient to produce good results. If religious teachings are to benefit society, they must be rightly interpreted and rightly applied--with a spirit of love and humility.

The last word on balancing faith with professional expectations has yet to be said. In a post-Christian, postmodern society characterized by secularism, pluralism and individualism, there is no shortage of challenges for those seeking to live faithfully as Christians in the workplace.


1 Curlin, F. A., J. D. Lantos, C. J. Roach, S. A. Sellergren, M. H. Chin.  "Religious Characteristics of U.S. Physicians: A National Survey."  Journal of General Internal Medicine, 20, 2005.
2 Curlin, F. A., R. E. Lawrence, M. H. Chin, J. D. Lantos.  "Religion, Conscience, and Controversial Clinical Practices."  New England Journal of Medicine, 356:6, 2007.
3 Stotland, N. L.  "Letters."  New England Journal of Medicine, 356:18, 2007.
4 "Doctors Who Fail Their Patients."  New York Times, February 13, 2007.

Ryan E. Lawrence '03, M.Div., is a medical student at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. He earned his M.Div. at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. 

Farr A. Curlin, M.D., is assistant professor of medicine and associate faculty in the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago.



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