In a recent Slate column, Brian Palmer, writing about Christian missionary doctors working in Africa, asks, “It’s great that these people are doing God’s work, but do they have to talk about Him so much?” Palmer is an atheist and in the column he publicly wrestles with his distrust of religious motivations and admiration for those working among the poorest of the world’s citizens, often receiving little compensation for their efforts. Palmer cannot shake his skepticism that Christian missionary medical workers are practicing a poorer form of medicine than their secular counterparts, but in the end arrives at a begrudging respect for the missionary doctors and nurses since they do the work few others seem willing to do. Still, he clearly sees the missionary medicine as an unsatisfying placeholder until better, secular medicine can pick up the slack.
Palmer seems to claim medicine is best practiced when it is free of religious thinking. He merely applies to medicine the old Enlightenment fantasy that all human endeavors — from the physical to the political sciences — would be better off if they freed themselves from theological traditions. But religion has long played a role in Western medicine. Most American medical students still take the Hippocratic Oath in which they swear to Apollo and “call all the gods and goddesses” as they commit to practice medicine ethically. The Christian commitments to love one’s neighbor and care for the sick not only aided in the faith’s expansion in the Roman Empire, they have also given rise to medical schools and hospitals. To remove the theological influence from medicine would be to create a whole new tradition of medical work that would be foreign to the system we have today.
But I do not intend to give an account of the historic theological and religious roots shaping modern medicine. Rather, I want to reflect on the phenomenon that Palmer illustrates — namely, the great amount of medical missionaries in the developing world. He writes:
[W]e are deeply reliant on missionary doctors and nurses. The 2008 ARHAP report found that in some sub-Saharan African countries 30 percent of health care facilities are run by religious entities. That system is crumbling due to declining funding, possibly motivated in part by growing Western suspicion of missionary medicine. We have a choice: Swallow our objections and support these facilities, spend vast sums of money to build up Africa’s secular health care capacity immediately, or watch the continent drown in Ebola, HIV, and countless other disease outbreaks.
A doctor need not be a Christian to sacrifice her own wellbeing in order to help those most in need. Plenty of atheist and areligious doctors work to save lives in rural areas and slums. But it would seem one is much more likely to engage in philanthropic activities if she is rooted in a tradition that encourages such behavior. If we, like Palmer, think it a good thing that doctors and nurses are making sacrifices to help others, we have to begin to ask how are such generous people formed? From where do those values and energies emerge? A tradition that teaches the good life is found in giving away oneself for the sake of others, that doing good works is what we are made for, that in serving others we serve the creator and source of reality (i.e., God), is much more likely to produce altruistic behavior than a tradition that teaches, say, radical individualism and self-gratification are the highest forms of good. It is not a mistake that people who are a part of a community that believes sacrificially loving others is essential to what it means to be human will help their fellow human beings, often at great cost to themselves. That so many Christians are working to help the most vulnerable in the world is to be expected given the God they worship.