Physicians are true believers

Published on: 

Their religious convictions are stronger than ever, our survey finds.


Getting Personal

Physicians are true believers

Jump to:Choose article section...Physicians who believe in a supreme beingAre you active in your house of worship beyond attending services?Importance of religion in doctor's daily lives

Their religious convictions are stronger than ever, our survey finds.

By Anne L. Finger,
Senior Editor

There's no conflict between religion and science in the minds of physicians responding to our lifestyle survey: 86 percent say they believe in a supreme being. That places physicians right in step with the American public: 86 percent of Americans told Gallup pollsters in 1999 that they believe in God (and an additional 8 percent in the Gallup survey expressed belief in a universal spirit or higher power). Both surveys are consistent with findings about Americans' religious beliefs over the past 40 years, says Mark Chaves, associate professor of sociology at the University of Arizona.

"It's been about 90 percent for a long time," he says, "and it hasn't gone up or down much." Actually, our physician respondents registered a solid increase over the 74 percent who professed such convictions when asked a similar question 21 years ago.

"I have a hunch religion is a more important element in medicine than most physicians say," observes a Midwestern psychiatrist. "It's just not something people want to talk about. But spirituality is a support when all else seems to fail. Now that we're busier and busier—and receiving less and less support and appreciation—spirituality allows us to regain our composure."


Although doctors profess their faith in substantial numbers, just 42 percent say they're active in their place of worship, and even fewer (40 percent) find religion very important to their daily lives. Here, too, physicians' attitudes are aligned with the public's. According to Chaves, "More people express interest in religion than are organizationally active."

Protestants and Catholics were more likely to believe in a supreme being than Hindus, Islamics, and Jews. Nonbelievers comprised a majority only among physicians who don't identify with any religion: 53 percent said they don't believe in a supreme being. Twenty-one years ago, the youngest physicians were the least likely to acknowledge a sovereign power. Today, the opposite is true. The youngest physicians have a higher percentage of believers than doctors in any other age range.

Among the specialties, the highest percentages of believers are in family or general practice, pediatrics, and anesthesiology. Psychiatrists and radiologists tend to be the most skeptical.

How do our respondents identify themselves? Thirty-five percent are Protestants; Roman Catholics account for 26 percent; Jews, 15 percent; Hindus, 4 percent; and Islamics, 2 percent. Ten percent belong to other religions, and 7 percent don't identify with any specific faith.

Like most people, physicians tend to choose mates whose religious beliefs are similar to their own. More women than men find religion very important in their daily lives (46 percent to 39 percent). Physicians who are married or living with a mate deem religion more important than those who are divorced, separated, widowed, or single. Few unattached doctors seem to be seeking mates at church picnics: More than 80 percent say they're not active in organized religion—a percentage exceeded only by those who say they belong to no religion at all.

The findings about marital status don't surprise sociologist Chaves. "Organized religion continues to be set up for traditional family or household situations," he says.

Among the specialties, 50 percent of FPs and GPs say religion is very important to their daily lives (the highest percentage among the specialties we polled). In contrast, a recent Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans stress the day-to-day importance of religion.

Orthopedic surgeons are the least likely to find religion very important: Only 29 percent say religion is central to their lives. John B. Dorsey, an orthopedic surgeon in Mission Viejo, CA, who starts every day with a prayer and prays with his patients, doesn't understand why his fellow orthopedists aren't more strongly drawn to religion. "Most doctors I know aren't as vocal as I am, maybe because religion is a private thing with them. But I think God wants us to speak out—and orthopedic surgeons usually have the biggest mouths!" Dorsey is someone who puts his money where his mouth is: He tithes on a regular basis. "If you give, you will receive," he says. "You can't outgive God."

When physicians believe religion is very important, that tenet affects the way they practice. "I believe spirituality can make us better physicians by giving us a sense of optimism and hope," says the Midwestern psychiatrist. "If we can convey that to our patients, it will help in the healing process." What's more, he adds, praying for a cantankerous staff member or patient enables him to stop demonizing the person, and to see him or her as another suffering human being, worthy of compassion.

Of those physicians who are active in their house of worship, some are deeply involved. Pediatric cardiologist Sudhakar V. Rao of Warren, OH, is a fully ordained Hindu priest. He performs weddings and other religious services wherever they're needed—free of charge. He also gives lectures and speeches at interfaith meetings on approaches to furthering world peace and ending hunger. "We're doing our own work on these global problems right here," he says.

Rao isn't alone. When we asked physicians if they were involved with community service activities, many mentioned church-related efforts. And many also cited projects of the type that are often described as "the Lord's work": free clinics, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, Habitat for Humanity, and similar charitable acts.

Physicians who believe in a supreme being

Are you active in your house of worship beyond attending services?


Importance of religion in doctor's daily lives

By gender . . .Very importantSomewhat importantNot too importantNot at all important
All physicians40%30%19%11%
Marital status . . .Very importantSomewhat importantNot too importantNot at all important
Married, or living with a mate41%30%19%10%
Divorced, separated, or widowed37271918
Age . . .Very importantSomewhat importantNot too importantNot at all important
Younger than 4040%34%18%9%
60 and older42281811
Religion . . .Very importantSomewhat importantNot too importantNot at all important
And specialtyVery importantSomewhat importantNot too importantNot at all important
Emergency specialists36331912
General surgeons39361213
Orthopedic surgeons29262618


Anne Finger. Physicians are true believers. Medical Economics 2000;19:160.