Friday, 27 May 2011


It is with great delight that I can announce I've been featured on Episode 86 of The Pod Delusion talking about Dr. Richard Scott, the Margate GP from Bethesda Medical Centre who has been rapped for talking about God with a patient. The Pod Delusion is a weekly news magazine podcast which often discusses politics, science, culture and philosophy. It's out now – so you can listen to it below or download it here.

I've been a keen listener of The Pod Delusion for quite some time, so it was a genuine honour to offer my take on Dr. Scott's story. I discussed how I understood why people would disapprove of his actions but that I defended his right to religious freedom, and felt it was unfair to bulldoze his reputation as a doctor merely in the name of promoting secularism. However, my view does seem to be at odds with fellow contributor Salim Fadhley, who interviewed Naomi Phillips at the British Humanist Association, and the podcast appears to make a couple of sarcastic quips which I interpret to be digs at my expense.

Even host James O'Malley introduced the story by saying ironically: “Personally I can't see anything wrong with people in a position of trust using a situation where their patients are in a state of emotional or physical frailty to push their religion on people. But apparently this is controversial.” If that doesn't automatically discredit my opinion before I've even started, I don't know what does. In any case, I do agree that Dr. Scott made a severe error in judgement in bringing his faith into the medical consultation room - it's just I obviously feel differently about the rebukable extent of Dr Scott's actions. 

Malley later said: “Do remember there is no room for nuance in this debate, you have to pick a side.” Hmm. I was under the impression that my interpretation of Dr. Scott's story was quite nuanced, exploring valid points on both sides of the argument, before concluding by advocating religious tolerance rather than being reactionary and potentially alienating people of faith. I also took issue with the fact that Salim Fadhley appeared to paint my piece as arguing there's an "evil secularist conspiracy to exclude religion from all aspects of public life" so I sent him an e-mail in which I wrote (paraphrasing):

My initial suspicion was that this story was an overreaction, caused mainly due to an aggrieved parent, and not the patient themselves, which should automatically ring alarm bells to anyone. My points about secularism are due to my anxieties about whether - though a virtuous cause (and like I said, I do support secularism, and the good work the British Humanist Association are doing) - there's a potential danger of it alienating people of faith if invoked heavy-handedly in a way which provokes religious outrage. Ideally, it shouldn't in my view, but judging by Dr Scott's appeal, that's exactly what it seems to have done.

I appeal to 'moderates' of any faith and I certainly don't believe there is a 'conspiracy' against them. But if secularism leads to paranoia to the point of giving credence to evangelists who make persistent holy crusades for 'religious freedom' in the courts thanks to the likes of the Christian Legal Centre, then I'm more tempted to take a less reactive conclusion to this story in the hope that I could find a middle ground which doesn't offend religious people's sensibilities too grossly, while at the same time honouring secular humanist goals. That may be a futile endeavour, on my part, but I'm afraid that's just my nature.

My goal is tolerance. Even Michael White, the Assistant Editor at The Guardian, wrote an article in which he appeared to echo my point exactly:

OK, religious conversation may not be what you want to hear from your GP – but it's not waterboarding, and the doc has been doing it for 28 years without any previous trouble.

The problem here seems to lie with the GMC. It's OK to complain – there are always people who take offence at very little provocation – and such complaints should be treated seriously even if they are obviously nonsense.

Was this one nonsense? We don't know. Perhaps it is Scott who is being the nuisance, seeking to make a martyr of himself and his faith. I suspect not, because there has been a steady stream of cases in which the wearing of crosses, and other acts of public Christian symbolism, have been ruled out of order by public officials and by firms.

It all strikes me as showing both a lack of common sense and of tolerance. If we let Sikhs wear turbans and some Muslim women wear face-covering veils – and I think we should – we should not get excited about a few crosses or a Kent GP's suggestion that the Bible may be more rewarding than a copy of Nuts magazine and a six-pack of Red Bull (if that's what he did say).

Michael White also spoke of "secular folk" and the notion of intolerance, saying:

“Well, you may say, Christians were sometimes pretty intolerant when they had the upper hand – squire and parson stuff in the local magistrates courts – and you'd be right. But should secular folk be intolerant now the condom is on the other foot? I'd say no.”

That's exactly where I'm coming from. If secularists appear intolerant, then I personally feel that undermines their cause, in much the same way as religious people undermine their cause by being intolerant too. If people become intolerant, in any walk of life, there's a risk of becoming illiberal or bigoted, which only gives those with reactionary opinions a high horse to ride upon, so I think we should cut Dr. Scott some slack in this instance. It's not like he 'prescribed prayer' instead of prescribing warfarin, is it?! Let's see if the listeners of The Pod Delusion enjoy deriding me as a crank!


  1. Many Many GPs in Thanet are known to be very religious and discuss these matters at length in the consulting rooms.
    As an athiest I find it strange that so many intelligent well educated people are so devoted to their imaginary friend.
    I find it annoying that religion is unavoidable at schools where the idea of god is taught as if it is fact rather than a quaint myth.
    Having said all that I am also for tolerance.
    Religion is important in many people's lives (I suppose a comfort like having a pet dog).
    And religion has played an important part in shaping the world we live in whether for good or bad.

  2. I completely agree, Deborah, and I too find it strange that intelligent well educated people cling onto faith in an intangible deity, but I suppose that's their prerogative. I myself am an agnostic and don't practice religion, as I don't think theological arguments can be proved either way, and I too feel that religion shouldn't be taught as 'fact' in schools.

    Dr. Kelly did make a mistake in discussing his faith in the consultation room, but I don't feel that is a crime which justifies booting him out of a job. I guess that's why I defended him. What next? If a GP isn't allowed a Bible and a rosary on his desk, will we be telling Sikh doctors to not wear their turbans? That's a slippery slope, so I felt it was worth getting matters into perspective.

  3. Luke, is Dr Scott being "booted out of a job" though. From my understanding of the case, and it might be an imperfect one, the GMC received a complaint from a patient and then sent Dr Scott a formal warning. Dr Scott has chosen to contest it and I actually support him over this but the story has then been pushed by various christian groups and picked up by the media as an attack on christians.

    Do we know the contents of the GMC's formal warning or of the outcome of the tribunal? And is this really about intolerence or just the GMC doing their job? I'd also add that it sounds very much like the sensationalist press and uppity christians stirring things up.

  4. 15:25 - I agree with you, and it's probably a mixture of all what you've just mentioned above, from the media sensationalising the matter to both Christian activists and radical secularists making a mountain out of a mole hill. The issue Dr Scott appears to take with the GMC's warning is that it will be marked on his GP record that he "harassed a vulnerable patient." It wasn't even the patient who complained - it was the patient's mother. I doubt Dr Scott even meant to cause any harm by discussing his faith, even if it probably was rather foolish of him to do so, so that's why I thought I'd defend him. It seems overkill to chastise him unduly.

    As for the "booted out of a job" statement, it's no secret that the press has been stressing that Dr Scott 'faces losing his job'. Whether this is hyperbole on the part of impassioned hacks and headline-seeking journos is a matter of opinion. But even as an non-religious person I'm of the view that this story has probably been blown out of all proportion by those on either side of the argument who have ulterior motives. To take a more considered and sensible view is all I intended to do.

  5. Robert Williams27 May 2011 at 17:52

    Luke, I think you will find that the modern day teaching of Religious Education (or Philosophy and Ethics from GCSE upwards) is more about seeking to understand the concepts of the various religions or faiths rather than portraying any one or all as fact. It is about promoting philosophical thought processes and arguments and all part of developing the student's mind.

    Actually, it is not a bad subject to take at A level and can help considerably towards reasoning and expressing and reflecting such in essays.

  6. I did Religious Education at secondary school, Robert, so I know of its value, but I'm more referring to the risks posed by a new 'free school' set up by Everyday Champions Church in Newark, Nottinghamshire, which wants to include creationism as part of their curriculum.

    Since faith groups are leading the way in setting up 'free schools' I think people have a right to be concerned about what (and how) children are likely to be taught in such schools. That, in itself, is a worry.

  7. Robert Williams27 May 2011 at 20:10

    Well, Luke, it is perhaps a shame that other groups do not seem to have the energy or inclination to set up schools, but we should not knock the churches too much for they have long been at the forefront of education in this country and elsewhere. Without them many of our forefathers would have had no education at all.

    Personally, I don't have a problem with creationism as long as it is treated as an illustration, or fable if you like, and not taught as historical fact. I am sure much of Genesis is intended that way. Even in the New Testament, Christ used stories to get across his messages and we should not get too worked up because there wasn't really a Prodigal son or there is no proof of his existence.

    Part of the trouble with the anti-religious folk is they demand the hard evidence when, as you well know, religion and faith are nothing to do with proof.

    I learnt about the biblical version of creation as a child, but, like fairies and Father Christmas, I got it into its proper place as I grew older. Sometimes we adults treat children as idiots. They are not and they have intelligent enquiring minds that ask more questions and demand more evidence than we grown ups often do. I think you worry unnecessarily.

  8. Luke. It's all very confusing. We have militant atheists of the Dawkins variety who appear to wish to introduce some sort of secular Inquisition, complete with modern day Torquemada, and militant religious types, who preach creationism as a given. Dr Scott has certainly done a great deal less harm than the MMR doctor, an advocate of science; and it took the GMC a very long time to deal with him