On being an atheist medic

[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. Continue reading