Religion In The Waiting Room by Richard J. Goss (Jan/Feb 1995)

I live in Rhode Island, and the nation’s smallest state may or may not be representative of the other 49. Nevertheless, I wish to alert those in other parts of the country to what is going on in doctors’ offices here in “Little Rhody,” because if it is a widespread phenomenon we have a serious problem on our hands.

Now that I am getting up in years, I find myself spending more and more time in doctors’ waiting rooms. In 5 out of 6 of them in which I have been obliged to wait in the past year, I was dismayed to notice books promulgating the fundamentalist Christian religion.

These evangelical publications are from the Seventh Day Adventist Book Store in South Lancaster, MA. They usually carry a bright orange sticker saying “Office Copy. Do Not Remove From Waiting Room.” The most common book is “The Bible Story” by Arthur S. Maxwell, but sometimes one finds “Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories.” The latter contains tales of angels, heaven, the resurrection, and how prayers are always answered. Written in simplified language and lavishly illustrated, these books are clearly targeted at children. Because they are placed selectively in doctors’ offices, they are obviously intended for a readership likely to be sick and vulnerable.

Medical buildings usually display “No Soliciting” signs, but this does not deter whomever distributes these religious books from soliciting converts among the doctors’ clientele. They would seem to be taking advantage of physicians and dentists, many of whom are apparently unaware of how they are being used.

The first time I encountered one of these books I dismissed it as an exceptional case. The next time I became suspicious. When it happened three times in a row, I knew there was a pattern. As James Bond said, “Once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence, three times is enemy action.”

Nevertheless, data from only half a dozen doctors’ offices was a pretty small sample. Ever the scientist, I took the trouble to check out 100 waiting rooms from one end of the state to the other to see if my preliminary findings were indicative of a general trend. Forty-two percent of them contained religious books. Inasmuch as many waiting rooms served multiple physicians, a very large number of the state’s doctors are unwitting partners in this kind of religious proselytization.

It is well known that evangelical Christians consider it their sacred mission to save as many souls as they can. But in their overzealous efforts, is it moral to prey upon the young and the infirm? Religion in general is not well served by this kind of intrusion into secular life. However pure they may believe their intentions to be, could there not be a hidden agenda? The answer lies right inside the front covers of their books.

Each one of these volumes contains a packet of business reply cards you can send in to find out now to obtain 10 volumes of “The Bible Story,” 5 volumes of “Uncle Arthur’s Bedtimes Stories,” and 5 volumes of “My Bible Friends.” If you think these books are free, think again. For only $427.50, you can purchase the entire lot. And there is no sales tax because they are sold by a tax exempt church.

Clearly, if the doctors of Rhode Island are unaware of what is going on, then they are being snookered. They are allowing their waiting rooms to be used to sell religious merchandise to their patients, a dangerous precedent that might also appeal to politicians, drug companies, and miscellaneous sales reps (not to mention other religions out to seek converts). Some medical personnel adamantly turn away anyone who approaches them to deposit material in their waiting rooms. Others, however, feel they are doing their patients a service by providing messages of hope or consolation. There seems to be a common misconception that just because something is religious it must therefore be moral and good.

Loaded with Sunday School stories, these volumes promote the literal interpretation of biblical myths. What every thinking person knows is only make-believe, these books promote as factual truth. One finds that Jesus really did come back to life – after 3 days of rigor mortis and autolysis. We are told that Noah’s Ark actually carried specimens of each and every species of animal that now populates the earth – in a space no larger than a football field. And we are all supposed to be descendants of Adam and Eve–somehow begat without incest!

Naive young patients might understandably conclude that their doctors really believe the supernatural legends of the Bible. They might even be led to feel that if a woman could be regenerated from a man’s rib, then their surgeon might at least be able to induce missing body parts to grow back complete. When religion and medicine mix, the result is faith healing. Therefore, isn’t it prudent to keep religion in church where it belongs?

I would hope that my doctors were men and women of science, not superstition. Whether they are personally religious or not, their patients surely have the right to expect them to practice their medicine ethically and in accordance with established procedures. Yet by allowing antiscientific books in their waiting rooms, books that negate much of what they learned in college and medical school science courses, are they not violating the principle of truth in advertising?

Doctors ought to monitor their waiting rooms more carefully, and not just leave it up to their receptionists. Shouldn’t they consider replacing the religious tracts with quality books on, say, pioneers in medicine, marvels of nature and modern science, or health care and preventive medicine? Such books as these will tell their patients that they consider the principles of science more reliable than superstitious tales from ancient times. After all, what is displayed in their reception areas reflects their attitude toward medicine–and their patients.

If your doctors tolerate these religious transgressions, why not let them know how you feel about the misuse of their waiting rooms? You can even hand them Xerox copies of this article.

Foundation member Richard J. Goss is Professor of Biology emeritus, Brown University, Rhode Island.

Freedom From Religion Foundation