Sunday, March 27, 2011

Wishing For a Speedy Recovery...Or Not

Two names that are well known in skeptical circles have been in the news recently for medical reasons. Outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and Hitch 22, has been battling esophageal cancer since last year and has now enlisted the help of Francis Collins, a prominent Christian scientist. And from an article that sounds like a press release from her publicity agent, we learn that "world famous psychic, author" Sylvia Browne had a heart attack last week and is recovering in a hospital in Hawaii.

Other than the obvious jokes like "I guess Sylvia didn't see this coming,"1 I can't work up much emotion about her illness. Unlike those who pay big bucks for her "readings" or "salons," I don't think she has any "psychic" talents whatsoever. In fact, I consider her downright harmful because she hands out "medical" advice that's she's in no way qualified to dispense, and she spews both false hope and unwarranted grief to those seeking news of missing loved ones.2 A heart attack in a woman in her seventies who smokes and has used a wheelchair (offstage) for years is no big surprise, and while I'm not hoping for her death, I do hope that she's sidelined for a good long while. She's caused enough pain to others already.

On the other hand, I wish Christopher Hitchens all the best with his new treatment. I guess there's supposed to be some irony in the fact that one of the "four horsemen" of the "new atheism" movement3 has turned to a doctor who's an outspoken Christian,4 but an atheist going to a Christian doctor isn't news; that happens every day. Depending on where you live and/or what your insurance covers, you may not have a lot of choice in healthcare providers, and while my insurance company's web site has a "search" feature that lets me look up doctors by specialty, gender, or language, there's no option to search by their religion. This hasn't been a big deal for me personally (probably because I so rarely go the doctor in the first place), but I'd be willing to put up with things like Christian magazines in the waiting room or "Have a blessed day" from the front-desk clerk so long as the doctor knew his/her stuff.5

The real news in the Hitchens/Collins story isn't that Hitchens and Collins disagree about religion. They both knew that already; they've debated each other about religion in the past and are now friends. The real news is that Dr. Collins' team tested Hitchens' DNA and found a mutation in the cancerous cells. That mutation is known to respond to an existing drug, so Hitchens now takes one tablet of the drug daily instead of enduring other, more grueling treatments. If the drug works, as I sincerely hope that it will, I trust that Dr. Collins will take some credit for that and not play down his own efforts by declaring any success to be "a miracle from God."

1 Browne has written that she's "not psychic about [her]self."

2 For details, visit the web site created by Robert S. Lancaster. It's a bit out-of-date due to Robert's own health issues but has plenty of examples of the kind of havoc that  Browne wreaks.

3 The other three "horsemen" are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. As far as I'm concerned, "new atheism" (often referred to disparagingly as "Gnu Atheism" by Jerry Coyne) is the same as "old atheism" except that we "new" atheists tend to be more open about our lack of belief.

4 Francis Collins is the former head of the Human Genome Project, the current director of the National Institutes of Health, and the founder of the BioLogos Foundation, "a group of Christians...who are concerned about the long history of disharmony between the findings of science and large sectors of the Christian faith."

5 What I couldn't tolerate—and I've no idea how often this actually happens—would be a physician who deliberately withheld relevant information because it conflicted with his/her personal beliefs. For example, I suppose that most teenage girls have heard of emergency contraception (the "morning after pill"), but there must be some who haven't. If one of those unlucky girls had unprotected sex (because a condom broke, or because of rape, or whatever) and went to a healthcare professional, she'd have the right, in my opinion, to know that emergency contraception exists, even if she had to go elsewhere to get it. Whether to take it would be her decision, not the doctor's, but she'd be entitled to know all her treatment options.

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