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Doing theology in medical decision-making
  1. John Brewer Eberly Jr1,
  2. Benjamin Wade Frush2,3
  1. 1 Department of Family Medicine, AnMed Health Family Medicine Center, Anderson, South Carolina, USA
  2. 2 Department of Internal Medicine, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
  3. 3 Department of Pediatrics, Monroe Carell Junior Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr John Brewer Eberly Jr, AnMed Health Family Medicine Center, Anderson, SC 29621, USA; brewereberly{at}

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Introduction: theology in the examining room

Religious considerations in medical decision-making have enjoyed newfound attention in recent years, challenging the assumption that the domains of biological and spiritual flourishing can be cleanly separated in clinical practice. A surprising majority of patients desire their physicians to engage their religious and spiritual concerns, yet most never receive such attention, particularly in cases near the end of life where such attention seems most warranted.1–3 As physicians Aparna Sajja and Christina Puchalski recently wrote in the AMA Journal of Ethics theme issue on ‘Religion and Spirituality in Healthcare Practice’, modern medical training is ‘falling short of preparing physicians to help patients with the metaphysical needs of their illness’.4

It would seem then that both patients and physicians might challenge the conclusions proffered by philosophers Jake Greenblum and Ryan Hubbard in ‘Responding to Religious Patients: Why Physicians Have No Business Doing Theology’, in which they claim that physicians ought not to engage religious reasoning for medical decisions. Their conclusion relies on two core arguments: a ‘public reason’ argument and a ‘fiduciary argument’, both of which contend that theology and religious considerations have no place in medical reasoning.

We find that two central errors undergird these arguments. First is the fraught notion of an epistemically and ethically normative public reason, and second is a fundamental mischaracterisation of the fiduciary nature of the patient–physician relationship and the nature of medicine itself. In response, we argue that all physicians essentially ‘do theology’ and that, rather than divorcing theology from medical practice, clinicians should make it their business to do theology well.

Placating public reason

To support the exclusion of religious reasoning from medical decision-making, the authors open with a ‘public reason argument’, suggesting that physicians serve in roles closely resembling those of public officials. As such, the physician as public official ought to limit himself …

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  • Contributors Both authors made substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; the acquisition, analysis or interpretation of data for the work; drafting the work; revising it critically for important intellectual content; the final approval of the version to be published; and agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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