Thursday, July 02, 2009

National Secular Society: Foot, Aim, Fire

It was a surprise to discover earlier this week that the NSS accepted a key argument against euthanasia, give that they campaign in favour of it. But the heat is possibly getting to them. Consider this motion, of which parts 3-5 were rejected by the British Medical Association yesterday:

That this Meeting:
(i) recognises that the NHS is committed to providing spiritual care for patients;
(ii) notes the position on inappropriate discussion of faith matters in GMC Guidance on Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice;
(iii) while welcoming the constructive and necessary advice in the document "Religion or belief", is concerned that some paragraphs suggest that any discussion of spiritual matters with patients or colleagues could lead to disciplinary action;
(iv) believes that offering to pray for a patient should not be grounds for suspension;
(v) calls on Health Departments to allow appropriate consensual discussion of spiritual matters within the NHS, when done with respect for the views and sensitivities of individuals.

and this interpretation from the NSS (Ht Doug Chaplin)
Doctors have voted down a Christian motion at the BMA conference that would have given carte blanche for religious medical practitioners to “share their faith” without restraint.

Ok, read the motion again. "Consensual" "respect for the views and sensitivities of individuals", "offering to pray". As Mike Peatman points out, that's not carte blanche in any translation of the French. Either the NSS haven't read the motion that the BMA were debating, or they have chosen deliberately to misrepresent it.

Now this poses a couple of problems:
- One of the supposed assets of secularism is its application of reason to the facts. It doesn't reflect well that the most-quoted secularist organisation (though they're oddly secretive about total membership), neither has a grasp of the facts here, nor presents them in a reasonable way.

- The NSS prides itself on sending submissions to the government on various pieces of legislation. However their reputation for distorting/ignoring the facts must undermine the credibility of any of this. If the NSS wants to be taken seriously, it should try a bit harder to establish a reputation for truthfulness. Alternatively if they just want to play yah-boo rentaquote, then they shouldn't complain when faith groups arguments are taken more seriously than their own.

It's also nice, but surprising, to discover that the NSS recognises the reality of spiritual health:
“Sick people want doctors to take care of their physical health and a clergyman to take care of their spiritual health. Doctors and nurses have enough to do without burdening themselves with the need to pray with patients.” (Terry Sanderson).

That's really good news, as its a basis for discussing the best way of meeting the spiritual health needs without resorting to headline-grabbing stuff about hospital chaplains, which really doesn't lead to constructive debate.

Update: the National Secular Society has never published its membership figures - you might wonder why, I couldn't possibly comment. Starcourse however has done some maths and estimates that NSS membership is still around the 7,000 level quoted in 2007.


  1. As I've pointed out elsewhere, the NSS didn't accept a key anti-voluntary euthanasia argument at all. It said that doctors could discuss religion so long as the issue was raised by the patient. By analogy, this would be exactly the traditional voluntary euthanasia objective, wouldn't it?

    What's interesting here is that you've targeted the NSS, and have given much less space to the fact that the BMA conference rejected the key parts of the motion. But I guess the NSS is an easier target than the concerns about the motion that presumably led practicing medical people at the BMA to reject the attempt to loosen the rules. Perhaps the NSS's concerns were shared by, like, actual doctors? Why not consider what that means?

    So when you complain, "if they just want to play yah-boo rentaquote, then they shouldn't complain when faith groups arguments are taken more seriously than their own.", I can only observe what the result of the vote was, ie. the NSS having its cake and eating it, eh?

    It's quite hard, of course, to present the NSS as lying firebreathing atheist monsters, when in fact the NSS position is that if patients want to discuss religion with their doctors, then they can (although that could still be a can of worms - will Christian patients seeing atheist doctors be asking for a second opinion?!).

    The NSS just thinks that it shouldn't be the medical professionals who are raising the subject unbidden. It's not exactly Albania under Hoxha, is it?

    As for the point about "carte blanche" and "consensuality", the key point in the motion was the one that proposed to remove the threat of suspension against those who offer to pray for patients (as opposed to those who are asked to do so by the patients). You can disagree with the NSS interpretation of that, but the claim that it's completely unrealistic is not credible. Read the papers, we've seen the cases, we know the issues.


  2. Thanks for commenting Dan, a few points in response:
    - The NSS comment accepted that patients can feel under pressure to do something that they don't want to do. That's a point made by opponents of euthanasia. If it's made into an option on the NHS, and offered by medical staff, then there's a possibility that patients will feel some pressure towards considering it. It's not as simple as a 'free choice', and the medical advice given by a doctor can have a large effect on the decision.

    - Part of the steer given to the conference by the chair of the ethics committee was to reject the motion because it was too vague, though I sensed that they were rejecting both the motion and the sentiment. Fair enough - I was in two minds about the Caroline Petrie case, though I also think her NHS trust overreacted.

    - Someone offering to pray if the patient wants it is not the same as someone openly proselytising on the ward, but the NSS response to the vote gives the impression that it is. Suspend the latter - definitely. As for the former, I can understand the points raised in the debate, and I think it's helpful to have clarity about it, but it's a world away from someone shoving their faith down your throat.

    - This isn't the first mention of the NSS on this blog, and that's the reason I picked them out. Their response to the BMA vote seems to me to highlight both an inconsistency in their thinking, and their tendency to overstate/misrepresent things. I'm sure I'm guilty of that too, but then I'm not sending submissions to government, campaigning for changes in the law, and promoting a rationalist worldview. If these champions of reason, then I'd expect them to stick to the facts, rather than constantly spinning them.

  3. Point one: The NSS supports voluntary euthanasia at patients' request, and voluntary religious discussion at patients' request. The position with respect to "pressure" is the same in each case, so there is no inconsistency. Your comment here is just a generalised anti-voluntary euthanasia argument.

    Point two: secularists may disagree with Petrie's actions without supporting the particular action taken by her employer.

    Point three: I would agree there is a difference between "offering to pray" and "proselytisation". However, to protect against the latter is is probably necessary to rule out the former. Also, I tend to think that Christians haven't thought through the implications. Are people really comfortable with the prospect of going to the doctor and being asked similar questions by pagans, muslims, atheists, astrologers, christian scientists, Buddhists, etc etc etc?

    Point four: You haven't actually established an inconsistency - you just disagree with their stance on voluntary euthanasia.


  4. The NSS response to the BMA vote demonstrates:
    a) a tendency to overstate/spin things in line with NSS attitudes. If you want a factually accurate and unbiased account of religious matters, the NSS website is not the place to go.
    b) an inconsistency in the NSS approach - they accept that sick patients have both spiritual and physical health, and that they have needs in both areas. How is it that a secular organisation is happy with the concept of 'spiritual health'? That's an inconsistency, isn't it? It also doesn't square with their attacks on hospital chaplaincy.

    I'm not sure of all the facts of the Petrie case: the Christians I know who would offer to pray for someone usually only do so with people that they know reasonably well, and had some kind of ongoing relationship with. I don't know if Petrie was a regular visitor to the lady in question - if it was just a one-off visit, then I would also be concerned about her actions.

  5. I'd agree that the use of the phrase "spiritual health" is ambiguous. For the NSS, it would just mean "religious well-being" rather than anything aligned with physical health. But an inconsistency? Not really.

    Why doesn't it square with the NSS campaign against *public funding* of chaplaincy? The NSS were quite clear that they were not opposed to patients having religious officials visit them in hospital - only to the public funding of such services. So, no inconsistency.