Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I'm Really, Really Glad That Alva B. Weir Isn't My Physician

At Prof. Kenyon's talk on Monday on "Myths About Atheism", he mentioned a study I was not very familiar with: a paper by Curlin, Dugdale, Lantos, and Chin in Annals of Family Medicine 5 (2007), 353-360. In this paper, the authors studied to what extent the religious beliefs of doctors influenced their decision to work in underserved areas. Their conclusion was "Physicians who were more religious in general, as measured by intrinsic religiosity or frequency of attendance at religious services, were much more likely to conceive of the practice of medicine as a calling but not more likely to report practice among the underserved."

It's an interesting study, and it's one of several that suggest that religious people aren't more ethical or socially responsible than non-religious people. What I found most interesting, however, was Prof. Kenyon's citing of this response to the Curlin study by one Alva B. Weir, a physician from Bristol, Tennessee, and affiliated with the "Christian Medical and Dental Associations". You can read the whole letter at the link; I'll excerpt two paragraphs below:


First, the article is an indictment of physicians who follow the great faith traditions, each of which mandates a responsibility for the poor. Though the most spiritual doctors do serve the poor more, the majority of doctors practicing their faith do not seem to take the mandate seriously. There seems to be a disconnect between the teachings of their faith and this selected practice of their faith. This suggests a contagion of a secular culture’s philosophy, “Each man for himself.”

On the other hand, the care documented for the undeserved by physicians of little faith suggests an influence of the faith traditions they deny. A culture completely dominated by a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mentality would find it difficult to embrace care for the underserved except through very twisted social Darwinian theory. It is the great faith traditions of the world that have taken a religious mandate to care for the poor and imbedded it into our social conscience.


Did you get that? The only reason that religious doctors don't do more is that they have been contaminated with the "contagion" of secular culture. And the reason that non-believers do as much as they do is because they have been influenced by "faith traditions they deny". The contortions of reasoning required to come to these conclusions boggle the mind.

Long before Jesus ever existed, human beings cared for the sick and the poor. They did so not because of the injunctions of some religious faith, but because humans are social animals who are able to comprehend the suffering of others.

Denying the truth claims of religious traditions, such as the divinity of Jesus, does not mean one has to embrace "social Darwinism", a philosophy that has little to do with evolutionary biology and everything to do with selfishness. Nonbelievers can do good, and do it without religion. One can accept evolution as the best scientific explanation for the diversity of life, and still help one's fellow man.

I am really, really glad that Alva B. Weir isn't my physician, because his response displays bigotry against nonbelievers, and suggests a willingness to twist the results of the study to fit preconceptions.

31 comments:

weir said...

Thank you for your comments and insight, Jeffrey.

I certainly agree that secular people without a faith in God often care for the sick in sacrificial ways. When they do, they must in some way feel that the ones they care for are more than a simple "collocation of atoms", as Bertram Russell described. They must in some way see intrinsic value in those people for whom they care, denying that both they, themselves, and those for whom they care are more than just accidental biology and "food for the worms" as Ernest Becker described.

I would love to hear from you and learn from you where these sick people gain their value if human beings are but material substance, created by evolutionary forces without a Purpose Giver. You may have good wisdom in this that I am missing.

William Sloan Coffin described a legitimate source of that value,in his speech to Willamette University when he said, "God's love does not seek value; it creates it. It is not because we have value that we are loved. It is because we are loved that we have value."

If a person of faith understands this and does not care for the underserved, that person indeed must be influenced by a society that does not comprehend this intrinsic value of human beings, placed in them by a God who loves them.

By the way, if you ever need an oncologist, I would be happy to serve you, knowing that you are a person of great value, created and loved by God.

Al Weir

Jon McKenzie said...

I would love to hear from you and learn from you where these sick people gain their value if human beings are but material substance, created by evolutionary forces without a Purpose Giver.

Humans beings are primates, which, generally speaking, means they are social creatures. It's built into us to want to care for others. Not doing so causes us some degree of anguish.

There are also practical reasons. If I don't take care of my sick friend, my friend, when she gets better, will likely not want to take care of me. It's in both of our best interests to sacrifice a little for the other, because it turns out that doing so gives us both more than we could get otherwise.

If a person of faith understands this and does not care for the underserved, that person indeed must be influenced by a society that does not comprehend this intrinsic value of human beings, placed in them by a God who loves them.

You need to take off your rose-colored glasses for just a second. Protestants, specifically Baptists, believe that sickness and misfortune are deserved, are punishments from God, that human beings must take responsibility for all of their actions. If that's your attitude, then it's very clear that the religious ideas themselves are the source of the problem, not secular ideals or anything else.

Eamon Knight said...

Dr. Weir:
You do an excellent job of missing Jeff's point: that your logic is blatantly inconsistent.

You might want to consider that your analysis of other people's motivations and what they "ought" to feel or do based on your theory of morality is simply inapplicable to real human psychology.

Oh, and it's Bertrand Russell.

Erdos56 said...

I'm occasionally very impressed with the ability of educated people to make statements that are so riddled with bias and lack of care and consideration as to make a mockery of the values of careful consideration of fact and detail that are essential components of science and reason. Dr. Weir manages to prop-up scarecrows with the best of them.

Of course we see people as having intrinsic value because we see in them aspects of our own humanity. I have never, ever believed in anything religious (and don't much care whether others do insofar as they don't bang me over the head or interfere with my rights) but served in the US Peace Corps, Dr. Weir, and contribute to charities, as well. The desire for a good society and the realization that even though people are demonstrably material, have only one life, and yet are artists, idea-factories, creators, lovers, poets, saints and sinners, is one of the great achievements of modern life.

It takes neither one or many gods to understand that, just eyes, ears, emotion and reason.

David Swart said...

I've never seen the question so explicitly begged.

Paul said...

My son is a Family Practice physician in an "under-served" community in Texas. It is under-served because it is poor. He also donates his vacations to Doctors Without Borders , traveling to Central America each year to treat patients in poverty stricken areas. Oh, did I mention he's an atheist?

My son's motivation is for the people not for some supernatural reward. I think Dr. Weir could learn something from my son.

weir said...

Paul,
I admire your son and wish all doctors, Christian or not, would emulate his care for the underserved.I would never claim that one has to belive in God to serve others. That is simply not the truth of life. My claim is that one cannot avoid serving the underserved and be true to the mandates of the Scirpture. If a person of faith does not serve the poor in some way with his/her life, he/she is either ignorant of the Scripure or has picked up that character trait from a secular world that says "me first". The corrolary of that, "all secular people do not serve the poor" is absloutely not true, as eveidenced by your son.
My question to atheists, which only Jon has attempted to answer is this, "Where within the atheist system does that desire to serve the poor come from?" Where, logically, within the atheist system, does sacrificial service for people whom you do not know come from?
I would love to meet your son and hold him up as a model for many people of faith who do not yet "get it."

Robert said...

To Doctor Weir:

Perhaps this may shed some light on your question. There have been studies conducted on animals (namely monkeys) where certain brain cells called 'mirror neurons' fire when one creature watches another creature perform actions. Scientists feel that something similar can be found in human brains. It is said these brain cells simulate what other creatures feel when observed, which gives a biological concept as to why animals and humans help each other.

I hope this have been of some help.

For more information you can refer to the following links:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empathy#Neurological_basis
and
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron

Erdos56 said...

Dr. Weir's quote:

My question to atheists, which only Jon has attempted to answer is this, "Where within the atheist system does that desire to serve the poor come from?"

demonstrates his continued failure to read carefully and critically. Both John McKenzie and I discuss ways in which Dr. Weir's claim might be untrue. First, we have good reasons for suspecting people are, like primates, social animals and use reciprocal altruism and other mechanisms as a "proximal" channel to achieving greater good, distributed among the entire social group.

For me, though, I think I am most offended by the failure of people like Dr. Weir to recognize the pure humanity of others, and the amazing emergent qualities that make us distinctive and unique, while sharing so much with our primate heritage.

We serve others and the poor because they cry and suffer and because we don't like to cry and suffer. We create art and music because we are aesthetic strivers. Understanding the likely biological mechanisms driving those properties is interesting, but is just an add-on to the brilliant humanism that is inherent in all of us.

Eamon Knight said...

Several people have given excellent answers already, but I think we're still failing to address a central fallacy in Dr. Weir's thinking:

"Where within the atheist system does that desire to serve the poor come from?" Where, logically, within the atheist system, does sacrificial service for people whom you do not know come from?

This contains an implicit assumption that moral or altruistic behaviour can only arise from some rational "system" of ethics (religious or philosophical). I am far from an expert in this area, but from what I have read, moral behaviour (good or bad) is in fact largely emotionally driven, then rationalized post facto by appeal to some moral system or authority.

I also have to challenge this statement:
has picked up that character trait from a secular world that says "me first".

This is just the standard fundamentalist bogeyman of "the secular world" (I know what I'm talking about, I used to be there) In my view, there is no "secular world" (that is a myth used to encourage Christian in-group cohesion), there is just "the world" -- a place chock full of humans with all sorts of beliefs, held with the full range of intensities, and practiced in all sorts of ways. And we are all (Christians included) members of it. Furthermore, it is not primarily "the world" that says "me first", it is human nature which says that -- it's part of our psychology. But fortunately, so are compassion, love, and an instinctive understanding of reciprocity. We each, no doubt, have our own individual mix of those traits. What the cited study seems to say is that, however that "mix" is set up, it is resistant to change by (and largely independent of) religious belief and instruction.

weir said...

Eamon,
I appreciate your comments and the reasoning behind it. I admit that I am simply a doctor educated in medical sciences and not in phiosophy, but somehow feel that even you avoid the issues of First Things.
The best I can get from each of your answers is that we are genetically hardwired as social creatures that respond to each other emotionally with compassion.
I do not understand why this fulfills a natural selection purpose or why this would develop through purposeless genetic mutations without an inalienable value placed in us to which we respond. I do not understand why this would give courage to many atheists who indeed serve others at their on risk and cost---but there is much of life that I do not understand. My assumption is that this is as far as one can get through reason in a life without an outside Value Giver and Purpose Giver.
I suspect you all have done your best to educate me and that my intellectual inadequacies keep me from a full understanding and acceptance of your theories. I thank you for trying.
Al

Erdos56 said...

Dr. Weir's try at humility is admirable but betrays his original provocative claim. If he truly was humble he would have never written the original letter nor would he persist with his vague meanderings that he just doesn't get it. After all, any principled approach to understanding the original outcome (that physician's don't provide uncompensated services based purely on faith) would have required the basic decency of asking the question of why, rather than assuming cultural forces that are neither demonstrable nor plausible.

If he is as poor an oncologist facing data as he is a philosopher of science, then Jeffrey's original fear of him as a physician is more than justified.

weir said...

Erdos,
I am sorry, but in your reply, I see no evidence that you are answering my question. I know that people who believe there is no God do care for the suffering in self-sacrificial ways. I suspect that you do as well. What is your logic for doing so? Please teach me as you insult me.
Thanks,
Al

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Dr. Weir:

Both I (in e-mail) and the commenters have answered your question in detail. Why you continue to demand answers to questions that have already been answered is a mystery to me, but I suspect it has something to do with the fingers firmly placed in each ear. Remove them, and you might understand.

weir said...

Jeffrey,
If you have completed answering my questions and I am not satisfied, it may well be my problem with comprehension. I will shut up and disappear. Some of you certainly feel that this would be appropriate. Thank you again for the conversation. May the God I know be good to all of you.
Al

voldy said...

Wow, is this just a game of, Good ol' religious bashing? This probably won't get onto the page, seeing as it's censored to allow only people that will be in hell soon enough, but as it is i will continue. We were put on this Earth by our Creator to glorify Him. Showing compassion and loving your brother was how we were designed.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Is it your contention that religious beliefs are exempt from criticism?

Anonymous said...

Googling my old friend Al Weir tonight brought me to your "so called" blog. FYI, any of you would be lucky to have Dr. Weir as your Oncologist. Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha Omega Alpha, Ranked number 1 in his class, Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Medical Oncology & Hematology. AND one of the most compassionate MDs I have had the pleasure to work beside. Shame on you!

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Shame on you!

For what, exactly? For pointing out that Dr. Weir's views are biased against nonbelievers?

Al Weir said...

Great to hear from you again, Jeffrey. I hope your life has been filled with joy since we last wrote. Looking back on all the conversations, I would have to agree that my lack of understanding of the motivations behind atheistic altuism, does not mean I can claim it is false. I apologize if my words suggested that. I can only speak to my own motivation in serving those who suffer. I serve them out of love that I learned from the Creator of the Universe who first loved me. I wish you well and pray to my Creator that you continue to serve those who suffer in a way that brings both them and you the joy that God intended

Anonymous said...

No..Shame on you for your Unprofessional conduct. Stick to healing crystals, magnets & leg-lengthening, Jeffrey..

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Shame on you for your Unprofessional conduct

And what conduct would that be?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Dr. Weir: May I suggest you read the work of primatologist Frans de Waal? His work strongly suggests that altruistic behavior is present in our chimpanzee cousins. So it is not some magical gift from supernatural beings, but simply part of our evolved nature. Atheists as well as theists do good deeds for their neighbors.

al weir said...

Jeffrey,
I certainly accept the observation that chimpanzees take care of their own. Whether that concern for each other comes from genetic sequences evolved by chance or was placed in their genes by the Creator is a theoretical question.
I am confident in the Creator's influence based on many levels of evidence that would require more than my two fingers to type. I would be happy to talk with you anytime for a significant conversation. I do wish you well.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I certainly accept the observation that chimpanzees take care of their own.

So, in that case, you refute your own suggestion that non-believers cannot legitimately have a social conscience. That seems like progress to me.

Al Weir said...

I never meant to say that non believers did not have a social conscience. Obviously I communicated poorly. What I meant to say is that I could not understand how that social conscience could be rationally explained within an atheistic world view. I acknowledge the sincere sacrficial service for the weak by those who believe in no God. I just don't understand where it comes from. If life is guided by an eternal God who offers, through his sacrificia love, eternal life free from our present sufferings, then his love for humans motivates me to love them as well. As William Sloan Coffin put it in his commencement address to Willamette University, "God's love does not seek value, it creates it. It is not because we have value that we are loved, it is because we are loved that we have value." I can understand the great value Christians place in even the most broken and disabled individuals based on this presumption. I simply don't understabnd the rational basis for serving the weak who are not your own if you believe there is no God. But there is much in life that I don't understand. I am a cancer doctor, not a theologin or a philosopher.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Well, then, I guess we haven't made any progress, because this was all explained to you years ago (see all the comments above). But then it's hard to convince someone of something when their whole world view depends on them not understanding it.

I would think the fact that the study that originally motivated the post gives evidence that religious physicians do *not*, in general, treat the underserved more, would force you to re-examine your assumptions. But then I am always mystified about how theists justify their beliefs.

Even if the Christian god exists, that alone does not provide a "rational basis" for social conscience, since there is no 'rational' reason why one would be logically obligated to follow any commandment of such a god - especially considering Yahweh's bloodthirsty record. And if one's social conscience comes from threats of what will happen in an afterlife, that is not based on some fundamental principle, but on coercion.

al weir said...

I will leave our conversation by accepting our mutual lack of understanding. I hope your way of thinking brings you a worthwhile life. If you are correct, not much in our words matter, anyway, at least not for long. I am quite at peace with the truth of life as I see it. I do wish you well.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I will leave our conversation by accepting our mutual lack of understanding.

Please do not speak for me. I was raised as a Christian and I understand your position; I simply find it is not based on evidence. If you are god-soaked and surrounded by other god-soaked people that rarely challenge your beliefs, you cannot break out of your prison very easily.

If you are correct, not much in our words matter, anyway, at least not for long.

Define "matter". On the contrary, if one leaves behind a body of work, or raises children, then effects can continue for many years. But why does it bother you so much that this might not happen? You were not alive for 4.6 billion years before you were born. Why doesn't that bother you?

I am quite at peace with the truth of life as I see it.

Of course you are. That's why noted evangelical Mark Noll wrote, "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."

al weir said...

I do appreciate your great intellect, Jeffrey. I honestly do wish you a full and meaningful life. Goodbye

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I'll just finish by saying that the refusal and/or inability of Christians like Dr. Weir to honestly confront serious and troubling questions about the faith is one important reason why I and many people like me have left the church.