Morality, Conscience, and Religion

In the last edition of the sBMJ, there was an article about the role of those possessed of religious convictions within the medical profession. I don’t have the article handy, but I recall that the result was not favourable.

As you may have gathered, I am a medic and I am also a Christian.

Yet I can’t help but be tempted to side with the atheists on this one.

And not because it was even-handed and fair and brilliantly argued. It wasn’t particularly.

No, my reaction is because of the response to the article that was printed in the June edition. “I feel that doctors who have a conscience are preferable to ones who don’t,” writes a fourth year medical student. “Optimally, I would like to know that my doctor had a Judeo-Christian conscience, rooted in life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.”

I’m not about to jump up and start witnessing.

I think there’s no reason for my patients to know on which principles my conscience is based. I don’t tell them that I’m a Christian and I’d prefer any of my healthcare providers not to tell me, either – after all, what if their Judeo-Christian conscience were rooted in Leviticus? I’d run a mile.

And so long as I seem to be acting with a conscience, what should it matter where that conscience comes from?

Is he saying that an atheist doesn’t have a conscience? Or that any parts of a personal moral code that don’t come from the Bible aren’t real morality? Really? I believe in God, but I believe in the UN Declaration of Human Rights too. The men and women of other faiths, are they without conscience? Is there no morality in Islam or Buddhism? Or Judaism? What, any goodness gleaned from the Torah doesn’t count unless you subscribe to the New Testament as well?

A response from a different student also appears. “I do not respect religion,” he writes. “However, I respect everyone’s right to hold religious beliefs and to practice their faith. As doctors we must keep our personal beliefs outside of the consultation room and act in the best interests of the patient.”

It’s probably inappropriate to say to a self-confessed atheist, but Amen.

The original article can be found for those with access at: Riddington T. Religion and hypocrisy. Student BMJ 2011;19:d2502. The responses that I’ve discussed can be read there or on p6 of the print edition of sBMJ June 2011.



  1. Hmm. Well, first off, I just want competence, not conscience.

    That said, morality doesn’t have much to do with being religious: morality has to do with having considered issues of morality and having attempted to resolve those issues. It’s about considering others, really, and I don’t think that religious people have any patent on that process whatsoever.

    If anything, religious people may have less of a moral grounding because they may have simply accepted some things as right without having considered why they are right. So when it comes down to it, because their motivation comes from the outside, they may decide to go against that moral judgment – because it’s not a true moral judgment.

    David Hume talks extensively about moral judgment (the Humean Theory of Motivation) and how a moral judgment is intrinsically motivating. If one has considered the issue and actually made a moral judgment, then one will be motivated to act in a particular way (of course, there’s always weakness of will, insanity, etc.). If one hasn’t actually made that judgment, though – if one has simply accepted a rule from outside oneself – then there is the danger that, when pressed, the judgment which is made will conflict with the external system (i.e., religion).

    The question is, then, Do religious people consider issues of morality more than nonreligious people? I don’t think so, actually, because I believe that many religious people conflate morality with the broader category of normativity – i.e., they include cultural detritus in their “moral” system. Thus, while they may consider truly moral issues, they may also be considering things which are in all actuality quite silly (e.g., hair length, the use of makeup, premarital sex, etc.).

    Now, if we’re going to consider hypocrisy, we must ask: who is more moral, the Christian who gives large doses of morpheine to a dying patient without considering that that act is essentially assisting suicide, or the athiest who does the same? In the former case, assisting suicide is likely against the self-professed moral code of the physician; in the latter there is no such moral code. In both cases they may not have considered the issue … but in the case of the Christian, we ought to expect that they had done so.

    • I think that doctors should have a conscience and should practice with it – situations happen like Harold Shipman, if they don’t. But I basically agree with the second respondent, that the only matter of conscience that ought to be present in encountering a patient is am I acting in this person’s best interest. If a doctor’s conscience is worried about other things, then that’s fine, but it’s for them to make their peace with on their own time. That goes too for lawyers and teachers and social workers and suchlike.

      Yes, to the rest. It’s why I’m not a fundamentalist or a literalist, and why I’m a bit scared by those who are. I don’t believe that my Christianity is a reason to stop thinking for myself; if anything I think that that might be a bit insulting to my God. If someone thinks that murder is wrong only because the Ten Commandments say so, then I’d rather have the atheist who has decided for themselves that it’s not right.

  2. Conscience — I’m wondering if there’s maybe a different British usage here somehow. I’m not sure where a moral sense of right and wrong comes into practicing medicine…? Or, maybe I’m being simplistic. Obviously, conscience is going to enter into it, in terms of having a terminal patient who requests your assistance to die, or with a woman who has mental disabilities yet is pregnant via rape — terminate at the request of her family, or no, at her request? — but a.) I’m not sure a conscience CAN be Judeo-Christian or any other flavor of religion, and b.) maybe ethics needs to come into it, more than conscience. Ethics, in a medical situation, is supported by law, there are ethics boards and officers who are responsible for helping doctors make those decisions and documenting the reasons behind them — at least in the U.S. Ethics seem just so much more …solid somehow than personal conscience…. because truly, what if someone’s conscience IS based on Leviticus? There goes that lovely cotton-poly mixed fabric lab coat…(Lev. 19:19)

    And again, maybe I’m being too simplistic. And possibly silly…

  3. I agree with you. The point that I’d make about ethics versus conscience/morality – and I think the confusion over what morality means comes from the fact that that guy uses ‘Judeo-Christian conscience’ when I’m pretty sure he means ‘Judeo-Christian morals’ – is that one must have enough of a conscience to follow those ethical guidelines, particularly relating to those that aren’t set out in stone but are dependent on what is thought to be in a patient’s best interests at that time. The nature of good medical practice is largely dependent on situational ethics, and situational ethics are at least partly dependent on someone having a basic sense of what is The Right Thing To Do. I’d hope that people would recognise that you oughtn’t to be bringing your personal religious morals into the care of others, but I know that there’s a minority who do not recognise any such thing.

    For the sake of interest, medical ethics in British law are judged on the basis of the Bolam Test, which essentially says that you acted ethically if a group of your peers agree that you did, or agree that they would have done the same thing. So you can see how even that has a certain amount of fluidity.

    If the poly-cotton blend is the thing you think you’re being silly about, that was actually exactly what I meant by a Judeo-Christian conscience based on Leviticus albeit in a slightly facetious manner. :)

Leave A Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s