Sloan: Don’t Prescribe Prayer (August 2000)

In a “sounding board” essay in a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, Columbia Medical School psychologist Richard Sloan and associates answer their title question “Should Physicians Prescribe Religious Activities?” with a resounding “no.” Sloan, who addressed the 1999 national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (see Freethought Today Jan/Feb 2000), previously cautioned the medical world against the push to prescribe prayer in an article in last year’s Lancet.

The new piece calls evidence that religious activity fosters health and longevity “generally weak and unconvincing, since it is based on studies with serious methodologic flaws, conflicting findings, and data that lack clarity and specificity.” Sloan specifically cautions against studies linking church attendance with improved health, but saves his strongest caveat for the ethics of physicians meddling with patients’ religious beliefs:

“Physicians and patients alike are on dangerous ground if they believe that advice about religious matters has the same medical support as a recommendation for antibiotic treatment. Such assumptions can have a coercive effect, and they raise ethical questions about patients’ autonomy in matters of religion.” Sloan also points out: “Religious practices can be disruptive as well as healing. . . . Engaging patients in conversations about religious matters is not a simple process. The medical literature on religion as a source of comfort tends to assume a Christian context.”

To access the essay online, go to:

Freedom From Religion Foundation