Friday, 27 May 2011

Doctor Jesus - Government Approved

Two linked stories about religion and health this time.

Dr Richard Scott has been disciplined by the General Medical Council (GMC) for bringing Jesus into the surgery after the mother of a patient complained that Scott preached at her son during a consultation. Scott believes that where Western medicine ends, Jesus can step in. He claims he has seen Jesus curing people and that 'there is a place for Jesus in the surgery'. He also believes that homeopathy works - there is about the same amount of evidence for both of these practices. None.

He describes the 'faith approach' as 'an optional extra' but it's one patients have to actively opt out of.

The Bethesda Medical Centre in Margate where he practices is run by six Christian GPs. The website states: The 6 Partners are all practising Christians from a variety of Churches and their faith guides the way in which they view their work and responsibilities to the patients and employees. The Partners feel that the offer of talking to you on spiritual matters is of great benefit. If you do not wish this, that is your right and will not affect your medical care. Please tell the doctor (or drop a note to the Practice Manager) if you do not wish to speak on matters of faith.

NHS patients should not have to opt out of being preached at. Many people go to the doctor in a vulnerable state and may not feel confident enough to challenge him or her as the balance of power is very much with the doctor in that situation. There is a very big difference between practising medicine and practising Christianity.

Not only did he prescribe a dose of Jesus, he tried to convert the patient whose mother complained, telling him that 'he might find Christianity offers more than his current faith', suggesting the patient went to Scott's church or its Alpha courses. Presumably he's done a randomised, placebo-controlled, peer-reviewed experiment to prove this. He is supposed to be a scientist, after all.

The GMC is very clear that doctors 'must not impose their beliefs on patients, or cause distress by the inappropriate or insensitive expression of religious, political or other beliefs or views.' If the patient wants to lead a conversation about faith then that's a different matter but even then, the doctor should keep his or her views in the background. Even the UK College of Healthcare Chaplaincy, an entirely religious body, describes proselytising as 'spiritual abuse' in its 2005 guidelines.

Scott is not deterred. He believes that the GMC's ruling is further evidence of 'Christians being hammered at work' and is appealing the decision, backed by the Christian Legal Centre who are always quick to jump on any case where they think that Christianity should take precedence over all other rights. You can see a clip of him talking here.

Scott also spoke about referring women to a local Christian abortion counselling centre. It's not surprising that he and an increasing number of others think it is their right to force their beliefs onto people in the workplace and in therapeutic settings. There is an increasingly foetid climate of religion demanding exemption from laws and guidelines. The Government is fuelling this state of affairs by welcoming hard-core believers into health care services with open arms - despite the fact that over 70% of people in the UK (Including reasonable, rational believers) support abortion and contraception.

The new sexual health forum set up to replace the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV will include the Life organisation - but not the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. Life is also a member of the new Sex and Relationships Council recently launched in parliament and endorsed by education secretary Michael Gove - all nine members of this group are either pro-abstinence, anti-abortion or both, including the Silver Ring Thing.

Life said that all members of the forum want to reduce the number of abortions and their motives are secondary. This is disingenuous at best. Life's mission, according to its website 'is to uphold the utmost respect for human life from fertilisation (conception) until natural death' and that it fulfills this mission by 'Offering non-directive counselling and information on pregnancy, pregnancy loss and abortion.' It's hard to see how it can be both pro-life and non-directive.

One of its aims is 'challenging governments and policy makers to adopt policies which reflect and uphold the utmost respect for human life from fertilisation until natural death'. They are opposed to abortion even after rape. The apparent reason for having them on the forum is to bring 'balance' but presumably this means balancing scientific evidence with a position that is neither scientific nor evidence-based.

As if this weren't enough, MP Nadine Dorries thinks that teaching abstinence - but just to girls - will solve everything, including child abuse. And in Richmond, the Catholic Children's Society has been given a contract to advise schoolchildren on contraception and pregnancy.

The abortion rate for under 18s has fallen so this is no time to revisit the Dark Ages of ignorance, judgement and prudery. Virginity is not a precious gift from God. Some of us are getting very weary indeed of saying that abstinence has been proven over and over not to work. These hard-core religious groups claim to be pro-life but it's not the life of women and young people they care about.

More of the Doctor Jesus series here, here, here and here.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Sex and Secularism

A new report called Sex and Secularism is, inevitably, being promoted as 'Atheists have better sex!' but, also inevitably, it's a bit more complicated than that.

The report, by Darrel Ray and Amanda Brown, is based on a survey of 9500 completed questionnaires by people over 18 who had 'lost' their religion and become secular/atheists. Most of the respondents were American but the survey covered 94 countries. Nearly one in five respondents were ex-Catholics but 20 religions and denominations were represented.

The report counters the possible objection that respondents were not really properly religious in the first place and details the struggles many had before losing their religion. Getting accurate, honest information about sex is harder than running a survey on which supermarket people use and there are ethical issues around this kind of research too. The findings are based on self-reporting by a self-selected group but significantly, they are consistent with data from a wide range of other research.

One quibble though is that the authors confuse/conflate atheism with secularism.

The central finding of the research was that religious people do pretty much everything the non-religious do but they feel much guiltier about it. People who grew up in the most religious homes reported feeling guilt nearly 80% of the time compared with 26% of non-religious. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. But they kept doing what they were doing anyway. Biology trumps doctrine every time.

Many religions see human nature as something bestial to be tamed, risen above or battered into submission. Sex is a necessary evil to keep the human race going but it would really be an awful lot better if we could do without it. It's not just Catholics who have a hard time squaring nature and faith according to the survey: Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostalists and Baptists have it worse while Unitarians and some Jews have a better time. One interesting little note is that people leaving New Age religions also report better sex after so tree hugging and tantric crystals aren't necessarily the path to good sex.

Despite many religions preaching the evils of masturbation, the message doesn't seem to be getting through. The Bible has the cautionary tale of Onan, damned because he shed his seed upon the ground. It doesn't have anything to say about women masturbating, perhaps because we're not wasting any eggs or perhaps because the writers of the Bible were all male and couldn't conceive of a woman having pleasure without a man. Assuming we're allowed to enjoy our bodies in the first place. Which we're not.

The survey found that 87% of the non-religious were masturbating by age 15 and 93% by age 18 (I'm rounding the percentages). Of the most religious, the figures are 83% and 90% - very little difference even though a fifth of them had been 'shamed or ridiculed' by their parents about it.

48% of the least religious had started petting by 15 and 84% by 18. For the most religious, it was 44% and 81%. (Petting is kissing, rubbing and touching - you may be old enough to remember when swimming pools had signs saying 'No running, no bombing, no petting').

Then the survey asked about oral sex - for some people a substitute for the 'real thing' to avoid pregnancy although still a potential source of STIs. For the non-religious in the same age brackets, it was 20% and 63%, for the religious 19% and 55%. What the survey doesn't say is whether boys are giving as well as receiving.

The religious start using porn a little later but their use was almost the same as the non-religious by age 25. The report found that the most religious US states and those with the most restrictive sexual legislation have the highest porn use.

The religious also fantasise nearly three times more than the non-religious and are nearly eight times more likely to feel they are doing something wrong. It's probably no surprise to many people that all these things are going on but the rates of incidence are more than might be expected. Which must make for some interesting sessions in the confession box and an awful lot of penance.

Finally, 18% and 62% of the non-religious had intercourse and 16% and 53% of the most religious. By age 21, it's 88% non-religious, 84% religious. So although they may be starting a little later, the religious are soon making up for lost time. The report also states that 95% of Americans have sex before marriage and it seems unlikely that the remaining 5% are all Baptist ministers. This of course raises the issue of hypocrisy, making very many allegedly upright religious people nothing but whited sepulchres.

One concern raised by this data is that the more secular got far better sex education than the religious. Instead of getting fact-based information, young religious people are getting far more knowledge from personal experience, porn and the internet. Sex education isn't all it could be but religion doesn't make it any easier for young people to get the facts or to explore and enjoy their sexuality safely.

The findings also reinforce existing data that abstinence teaching doesn't work; it delays first intercourse by a few months at best and increases the incidence of unprotected sex.

As a side bar: The Guttmacher Institute's survey of American women found that contraceptive use by Catholics and Evangelicals, is the widespread norm, not the exception, and only 3% of married Catholic women use natural family planning (the rhythm method) to avoid pregnancy.

So instead of teaching/forcing people to avoid any sexual activity, all that the strictest forms of religion do is breed ignorance, guilt and hypocrisy. You'd think they'd call in some marketing experts; any other corporate body that found its product was failing to reach its target market would rebrand and repackage, and find a new USP. The trouble is that sex has a much deeper market penetration than any religious message.

Back to the survey: the good news is that, after leaving their religion, guilty feelings about all things sexual decline very quickly and 60% of the formerly most religious felt every aspect of their sex lives had improved while 28% changed their sexuality. The assumption that a highly religious anti-sex upbringing will scar you for life doesn't appear to be true.

All of this is probably no consolation if you're a non-believer (or a secularist) with a lousy or non-existent sex life but at least the possibility of having much better sex is some consolation for burning in hell for all eternity.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Good Girls Don't

Nadine Dorries MP has introduced a Bill proposing that girls between 13 and 16 get extra sex education. Specifically, that they are taught to practice abstinence. Chris Bryant MP adeptly took her argument apart but she won the vote by 67 to 61.

She started the debate by blaming the 60s, which is a sure guide that someone doesn't know what they're talking about. She then said that her Bill is about 'empowering girls'.

How does she propose to do this? Firstly, by misusing statistics as evidence that sex education isn't working. She says quite rightly that Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. She doesn't say that this has begun to fall. The latest data from the Office for National Statistics show teenage pregnancies are at their lowest rate since the early 1980s with the rate among under 18 year olds falling by 13.3% since 1999.

Then she switches to the tabloid-style tactic of seven year olds being taught to put condoms on bananas. Most seven years olds I know would eat the banana before the teacher had even got the condoms out. If that was actually happening, of course.

As the Sex Education Forum say: 'For children aged 3-6 years teaching is centred around issues like, ‘where do babies come from’ ‘why are girls’ and boys’ bodies different’ and ‘which parts of my body are private’. Learning about friendships, families, and changing bodies are also central to primary SRE'.

Dorries, like her friends in the tabloid press, conveniently ignores the 'and relationships' part of Sex and Relationships Education (SRE)

Instead, her Bright Idea is to teach teenage girls about the joys of abstinence - despite the fact that all the evidence shows abstinence teaching doesn't work and in some cases makes things worse as it leaves teenagers unprepared when they do inevitably have sex - as I've written about before.

Dorries has close ties with the group Christian Concern for Our Nation and her politics are highly influenced by her hard-line Christian beliefs. I looked at the latest round of religious propaganda about SRE here. Not surprisingly, organisations like the Christian Legal Centre and Christian Concern support her Bill.

Her Bright Idea applies only to young women. Not only are they the 'victims' of a sexualised society, they must now be the gatekeepers of teenage boys' sexual appetites. Just because this Bill was introduced by a woman doesn't mean that it isn't sexist.

Of course plenty of Christians are not misogynistic but the hardliners' idea of empowering women is to make sure that they walk up the aisle a pure virgin and even then only have sex to make more good little Christians.

It's not only sexist, the implication is that boys are little animals who can't control themselves and shouldn't even be expected to try. This is not a million miles away from the thinking that makes women cover their entire bodies so that men aren't distracted by lust.The more resourceful boys will just come up with a list of things to do with girls that 'don't count'.

It also denies young women the opportunity to explore and enjoy their sexuality fully equipped with the information they need to make safe choices. Because nice girls shouldn't even be thinking about sex. Sex is demonized as a dark and dangerous thing, trying to scare young women away from it. Dorries ignores the fact that some girls might be lesbians or bi. How will abstinence teaching work when they can't be scared off with the Big Bogey Man of pregnancy?

Today's news that 59% of parents don't want young children taught about sex isn't surprising given the amount of misinformation in the media and people like Dorries. When parents were asked at what age it was appropriate to teach sex education to children in schools, by far the largest number of parents (48%) said 13 or older.

The Sex Education Forum points out that 'there is strong evidence that young people who have sex education that starts early and covers a broad range of topics are less likely to have sex at a young age, have fewer partners and are more likely to use contraception or condoms'. Holland, France and Germany have much lower rates of teenage pregnancy. They also start sex education earlier than we do. Education is not the only factor in reducing pregnancy rates but this fact does seriously undermine Dorries' argument.

It's true that sex education in the UK is patchy. The law currently requires only that young people are taught the biological basics, schools are allowed to teach according to their (religious) 'ethos' and parents can opt their children out. There's a long way to go but hopefully when Dorries' Bill gets its next reading, more MPs will bother to turn out to vote it down. It is, as Chris Bryant said, 'the daftest piece of legislation that I have seen'. You can see which 67 MPs thought this Bill would be a good idea here.