Thursday, 5 February 2009

Secular witch-hunts?

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The other day I got a little bit of stick on this blog for suggesting that, in my opinion, the suspension of a Somerset nurse for offering to pray for a patient might have been a bit harsh. In the end I wasn't arguing that her bosses were wrong to take action – I do think suspension without pay is drastic, but I also don't think people whose publicly-funded jobs put them in contact with the members of the public should be permitted to involve their religions in their work. Say a prayer in your own head by all means, but keep it to yourself while you're working.

I bring this up again just to pass on a link I just received from online magazine Spiked. Their commissioning editior Nathalie Rothschild (who has previously criticised the Atheist Bus Campaign) argues that the outspoken support secularists have offered for the decision to suspend the nurse suggests the existence of a witch-hunt to bring down anyone who dares to involve their religion in the public sphere.

Now, if you didn't agree with my suggestion that the suspension was harsh, you definietly won't agree with Rothschild. Thoughts please - how should secularists react to cases like the praying nurse?


cedgray said...

One of the things that would cause me to worry, were I offered prayer from a healthcare professional, would be the nagging thought that their failure to compartmentalise their rational treatment regimes from their irrational beliefs might be causing even more trouble for my further treatment, let alone the other patients in the hospital.

What if this strange overlap in medical fundamentals were extended to include a nurse's personal hygiene, or attention to proper sterilisation procedures in the ward, and she simply prayed that nobody was going to catch a nasty infection?

If we can trust professionals to use prayer when it doesn't matter if (or 'that') it fails, then I don't mind, but how can we know whether their application of prayer might begin to stray into at best inappropriate, and at worst downright dangerous areas?

We expect hospitals to use rationally-based knowledge - after all, that's how medical professionals have become demonstrably useful to societies. When someone can show that prayer has a beneficial effect, by all means let priests in as well. Otherwise they possibly just giving what amounts to premature last rights.

Religion is not tolerant said...

I worked for Education Bradford which receives public money for delivery of Education Services. There was one guy who worked there who continually kept sending me e-mails about God and religion and what we should and shouldn't do, according to HIS belief. I e-mailed him back about this and made it clear I was not a believer but the e-mails still continued. I then complained to my boss, partly because I objected to this religious lecturing and partly because it wasted my time opening his e-mails which I had to just in case they were about work. My boss refused to do anything about this and said he was only trying to be kind. She (the boss) was more interested in protecting HIS feelings than mine and this is the case for all sorts of things at Education Bradford - religion trumps atheism, atheists' views and feelings are not respected here.

dead yeti said...

i think PZ Myers had the best reasons for critizing the nurse:

For those of you who think atheists are being too touchy, here are two additions.

Put yourself in the position of the patient. You are sick and dependent on this person to help you get better, and she declares that your belief in her god is important. What do you do? There is an element of coercion here that should not be ignored.

If the nurse were sincere in her faith, there's something very easy she could do. Don't ask, just go quietly off by herself and pray for the patient. The request is an unnecessary element that is little more than a ploy for attention, a declaration of her piety.

Richard said...

"a witch-hunt to bring down anyone who dares to involve their religion in the public sphere."

The problem is that the very definition of secularism is that religion should not be involved in the public sphere. In the converse case, of an atheist nurse attacking people's religious beliefs then I doubt the media would admit any ambiguity in this being unprofessional.

I think suspension without pay is rather harsh, but it does sound as if this nurse has been inflicting her beliefs on people who don't want her to.

SilverTiger said...

I am not sure that "secularists" ought to have a single view on this. Surely, secularists ought to think and respond as individuals, not as well drilled cohorts under religious thought control.

Personally, I think the trust was right to take stern action. I have explained my reasoning elsewhere. That's my opinion and I happen to be an atheist and a secularist.

You may have a different take and that's fine too.

Paul Sims said...

Richard - good point. I wrote "public sphere" because it's used in the Spiked piece. However on reflection the term "public sphere" perhaps doesn't fully apply to the nurse case as what she did isn't quite the same as a blurring of church and state, for example. Her "public duties" may be a better term, although I guess the NHS is by definition the "public sphere".

Anonymous said...

I think PZ Myers and Dead Yeti make the most pertinent point about this particular case. This is not a woman approaching strangers in the street and asking if she could pray for them. In this case I would put her role in a similar category as doctor, teacher, manager - anyone who has some formal control over their treatment of you - because there is no guarentee that the patient would not feel some anguish about appearing to offend the nurse by saying no to her prayers. It really isn't appropriate for a health professional to place any patient in that position.

The woman who reported this apparently - according to the interview with the nurse I heard - was not offended or concerned but obviously felt she should report it. But if she were, would we have heard about this case?

And I agree that by asking, the nurse was asking for recognition of her piety which is entirely unnecessary if all she wanted to do was the best for the outcome of the patient. This isn't a reason for her not to be used again by that health board (which is within their right as she is a bank nurse and so isn't being sacked), but the fact she is a nurse and may be putting patients in a very difficult situation is.

Tom Morris said...

"Public sphere" is very vague, like "public domain". Religious beliefs are already in the "public sphere". If you want to go to a church or a mosque, it's accessible from public roads. If you want to read religious books, they are available in both public libraries and private bookshops, and on web servers which are privately owned but made accessible to the public by having various ports open.

But nobody - no evil secularist lobby - are wanting libraries to remove religious books. If anything, I want there to be even more books available. I want my local library to contain all the religious manuscripts that one can practically display. Few secularists want to see churches remove signs from the land they own - it is tolerated by secularists as a byproduct of liberalism.

But a nurse using her job as a way of pushing her beliefs is neither. It's someone abusing the trust of her employer and the responsibility she has been trusted with as a healthcare provider. The British taxpayer pays for her salary to provide nursing care to patients.

If I were to hire someone to prepare sandwiches and sell them in a shop I owned, and they decided to urinate inside the sandwiches because they were an evangelical urophile, a prompt sacking of this person would not constitute an attack on urophiles. I see no moral difference between an evangelising nurse and an evangelising urophile, except urine is sterile and doesn't leave you open to exploitation by televangelists.

Kevin said...

If we had a US-style constitutional separation of church and state, the answer would be more clearly cut, given that the NHS is funded by the taxpayer. There's no room under the US constitution for religion in the public sphere (except for all the times they turn a blind eye, like the currency, the Pledge of Allegiance, presidential swearings-in etc etc)

I may have written elsewhere that I would have asked for her "head on a stake" if I'd been the patient. A comic exaggeration, of course, but I wouldn't want to take her unsolicited evangelising, as it were, lying down.

Paul Sims said...

Something I didn't pick up on in the blog post is the issue of "evangelising". A lot of arguments about this have stated that the nurse was "evangelising" or that she was being a "missionary". But is offering to say a prayer the same as "evangelising"? If I said to you "would you like me to say a prayer for you?", would that be the same as "Have you heard about the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that through him you can have everlasting life?".

Kevin said...

As PZ and others pointed out, if she wants to pray for a patient, nobody's stopping her. I think that's why the fact that she was approaching patients and asking them if she could pray for them is being widely interpreted as covert "evangalising".

Like a "free personality test" kinda deal? Maybe.

Her previous offence reportedly involved "prayer cards". I'm not entirely sure what those are, but when I read it I mentally substituted "leaflet".

Digressica said...

Believers seem to be up in arms about this, as though it's some sort of personal attack on Christians and Christianity, like the nurse is being treated differently to non-believers or people of other religions.

Actually, the key point is that she's NOT getting special treatment, and that's why people are upset about this. Christians and other believers have become accustomed to special concessions on account of their faith, and when a public service organisation insists that they should behave in the same manner that everyone else must behave - e.g. this nurse must work within the policies and guidelines of the NHS, which are fairly clear-cut and which most certainly do NOT allow for the mixing of faith and professional duties - they get upset.

Well, boo-hoo. If this woman had acted in a professional manner and not callously disregarded previous reprimands for the same behaviour, she wouldn't be in this situation. I think the fact that she was a repeat offender speaks volumes about the sense of righteousness and immunity people think they have due to their belief system. It's unfair, and actually quite absurd, and it needs to end.

AT said...

It's pretty straightforward, isn't it? You shouldn't dismiss anyone for offering to pray for you, whether their intentions were deeply darkly evangelical or not. On those grounds you're liable for dismissal for making a joke about how silly the catholic church is.

And I'm not sure what 'inflicting your beliefs' on someone actually means. Is it chronically damaging, that? Illegal?

Joe Hayhurst said...

It makes you wonder what she's doing being a nurse in the first place, maybe a faith healer would be a more appropriate vocation.
If praying worked there need be no hospitals.

Colin said...

I'm a pretty ardent atheist, but even I wouldn't say suspension without pay is warranted by what actually happened.

Simply offering a prayer to someone who's ill seems fairly innocuous; furthermore, she took the refusal for what it was and said no more. If she'd been obnoxious and persisted, like so many evangelicals I know, perhaps this would be justified.

Also, I don't buy this 'slippery slope' argument that suggests leaving the odd offer of prayer unpunished will lead to faith-based medicine. The offer was plainly an optional addition to (rather than a replacement for) conventional, fact-based treatment: no public resources were wasted.

I *am* a secularist, but this just seems petty. If the price we had to pay to get superstition out of places that actually matter (i.e. government) was the odd nurse offering to pray to Asklepios or whoever for us, I'd take that deal.

Instead, evangelicals get a trump victim card and a rallying point, and what has the secularist cause gained?

Richard said...

"However on reflection the term "public sphere" perhaps doesn't fully apply to the nurse case as what she did isn't quite the same as a blurring of church and state, for example. Her "public duties" may be a better term, although I guess the NHS is by definition the "public sphere"."

It's admittedly a very vague phrase, although as a nurse would not even be able to wear a cross or headscarf in a country like France that does have a formal separation of church and state, it's by no means irrelevant. While we don't have a separation of church and state, the NHS is nonetheless obligated to serve all members of the community. Given that, a requirement to 'demonstrate a personal and professional commitment to equality and diversity' doesn't sound all that unreasonable to me.

"On those grounds you're liable for dismissal for making a joke about how silly the catholic church is."

Had a nurse done that to a catholic patient, I'm sure there would be calls to dismiss them on exactly those grounds, almost certainly with considerably less controversy than this is generating. In general, I don't think a public service is really the place for these subjects to be aired. Clearly, this nurse's patients didn't either.

"And I'm not sure what 'inflicting your beliefs' on someone actually means. Is it chronically damaging, that? Illegal?"

The Rothschild article records the nurse as distributing christian literature to patients - not just the offer of a prayer on her part but an explicit invitation to participate. That does sounds like evangelising (or inflicting their beliefs in my previous phrase) to me. Damaging or illegal? No. Unprofessional for a public servant? Yes.

George said...

This really isn't that complicated. An employer can have reasonable expectations of its employees and issue policy accordingly. If an employee fails to measure up to expectations they will invite disciplinary action. If they continue to fail, such action will increase in severity accordingly.

Now, as a provider of healthcare services, would it be unreasonable of the NHS to expect its employees to refrain from offering say, spell-casting services to supplement the care they are employed to give? Would the headline, "White Witch Sacked for Offering Magic Spells" invite charges of "Secular Witch-Hunt?" I think not.

If there is a distinction to be made between this hypothetical case and the one under discussion it is one of degree, not kind. Simply put, Judeochristian spell-casting is beyond criticism.

And, was she evangelising? Of course she was. Intercessory prayer has nothing to do with constructive intervention - the entire point is to get people praying - the sick as well as the carer. It's harder to convince someone of the power of prayer after they've recovered if they didn't know you're praying for them.

steffan said...

She was clearly wrong in what she did, but there's a process in these things. Informal warning, verbal warning, written warning, final written warning. This was an overreaction.

If you are a christian, praying for someone who's suffering or who may be about to suffer is an instinctive reaction. I'm a staunch atheist, but even so, I've a echo of cultural-christanity that when I hear that someone's died, my instinctive reaction to think of them along lines which resemble a prayer. This isn't to a deity or even directly to them in any belief that they will hear me in an afterlife, but it's still something that isn't entirely rational. I'm not ashamed of that, as I consider it a human, humane and actually humanist instinctive reaction.

If we're to win the secular argument, we need to demonstate that whilst we believe that the principle of separating the religious (and the atheist, incidentally) from the public sphere needs to be abided by, we're not going to threaten people with their livelihoods if they transgress - particularly on a fairly unimportant issue, which from what I gather there was no complaint from the patient, and wasn't a repeated case.

Even if you disagree with me on this point, surey we can agree that there are far bigger threats than this? Getting worked up about this case just makes us look shrilland hypersensitive -the type of people who always insist on their rights, rather than accept that in a plural society, there's always going to be some clashes, so we deal with them propotionately.

Laird Wilcox said...

As a lifelong agnostic and secular humanist I'm sometimes embarassed by the stridency and fanacicism by the proponents of "tolerance." If somebody is offering to pray for you it merely shows that they want to be helpful in their own way and not some plot of force their religion on you. It's not what I would do, but that's OK. Time to lighten up here, guys, and leave the witch-hunting to someone else.

Joe Otten said...

Does this trust not also employ hospital chaplains? Whose job it is to do just what this nurse did?

Is this, in fact, a demarcation issue? I think we should be told.

Richard said...

"If somebody is offering to pray for you it merely shows that they want to be helpful in their own way and not some plot of force their religion on you."

Yessss... except that isn't all that she was doing. She was also issuing prayer cards and encouraging people to pray. Not sure it's quite the same thing.

"She was clearly wrong in what she did, but there's a process in these things. Informal warning, verbal warning, written warning, final written warning. This was an overreaction."

Yes, indeed.

Jackylhunter said...

I was under the impression she had already been warned about offering prayers for her patients. She ignored this and consequently was suspended.

Now most grievance and disciplinary procedures do have a number of stages - informal, verbal warning, written warning, dismissal etc. However, that doesn't mean you have to start at an informal warning and work your way through. More often the case is that the procedure can be invoked at stage. This is to reflect the seriousness of the issue.

Suspension is a cooling off period, so both employer and employee can consider what has happened without prejudice. It does not automatically infer guilt of wrong doing.

Acts of Gross Misconduct, usually result in a dismissal from employment. It would not be unusual that failing to carry out a reasonable request of the employer, would be considered gross misconduct and therefore subject to dismissal.

The nurse ignored the earlier warning and therefore could have easily faced dismissal for ignoring a reasonable request. Ie not following her employers policy regarding prayers for patients, which had previously been made clear to her in her warning.

Of course, this all hangs on whether her employer has a half decent procedure and whether they followed it or not.

So I doubt its a secular witch hunt, but more the religious backlash which has clouded the issue.

But if you work in the public sector you have to keep your personal views to yourself. Funnily if a christian doctor refuse to treat a homosexual man who was very ill, do you think the argument would be the same?

I think also the suspension "without pay" is a side effect of being a "bank" nurse, she only gets paid for the work she does... she wasn't working therefore isn't actually entitled to pay. Equally so she probably isn't entitled to sick pay or holiday pay from the trust either.

sesaworuban said...

How should a secularist respond?

The same way they respond to other issues, if it interests you, try to find out as much information as you can, weigh up the evidence and make your own individual decision.

Interestingly, I've been following this through doctors' blogs as well. The general view has been that there's far more to the story than has been revealed and that she might have deserved it for more than just the praying thing.

George said...

The NSS responds to Rothschild here...

Merseymike said...

These people who can't behave professionally and keep their religionism out of their professional work are not fit to hold such posts