A New Beginning: Medicine and Faith

You might have noticed that I recently changed the name of this website to Medicine and Faith. Why did I do that? The short version is because I like the new name better. The longer version is at the end of this post.

Faith is Everywhere

Medicine and Faith

Having faith means believing in something even when you don’t have all of the answers. This principle is traditionally applied to religion or spirituality, but it also applies to other endeavors or knowledge sets, including science.

Consider my work day, for instance. Traveling by automobile from my home to my clinic utilizes countless bits of knowledge about the natural world, including gravity, friction, combustion, electricity, etc. I believe in these scientific principles, but I don’t fully understand them all. The fact that my car gets me to work is good enough for me, and I simply take it on faith.

When I arrive at work I spend my day diagnosing and managing neurologic diseases. It took me years to learn the knowledge and skills of my profession. The textbook descriptions of neurologic circuits are based on centuries of observational and experimental work by anatomists, physiologists, and neurologists. I have not dissected all of those circuits myself, but I believe the diagrams because I have seen their practical value in my clinic.

And then there’s MRI, the amazingly useful diagnostic tool that no one really intuitively understands. But it works, and I know that it does. I don’t have to understand all of the physics and mathematics of how it works in order to use it to help my patients.

Belief is Medicine

Believing that something will help you is sometimes enough to make it actually work. In medicine this phenomenon is known as the placebo effect. Patients who use ineffective treatments sometimes get better anyway, through the raw power of the human mind.

In order to prove that a new drug really works through a biological mechanism you have to design a trial so that you can subtract out the placebo effect. A typical way to do this is to give the study drug to half of the subjects and an inactive placebo to the other half, but neither the study subjects nor the study investigators are allowed to know which treatment they are on. Such a design is known as a double-blind placebo-controlled trial, and it is the gold standard in evidence-based medicine.

I prescribe medications to cure illnesses and to ease symptoms, but I’m not the one who performed all of the clinical trials on these drugs. No one has time to even read all of the studies, let alone to replicate them. For the sake of efficiency I must take it on faith that the drug works the way it is reported to. There is no other rational choice.

Believe in Truth

Human beings are quite capable of believing in things which are not true. But our actual goal should be to believe in those things which are true, with hope that we will realize the benefits of that belief. For instance, believing in the power of a parachute can save your life. But if you jump out of an airplane at 10,000 feet with only a bicycle to help you, then it really doesn’t matter how much you believe that it will. You have misplaced your faith, and your collision with reality will be hard.

Religious faith also needs to be placed in things which are actually true. Belief in a fictional god will not help you on the day of judgement. Salvation is through Jesus Christ, and “there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Nephi 31:21).

Our faith doesn’t need to be perfect in order to be effective. We don’t have to understand everything about God or the reasons for all of his commandments before we choose to follow him, any more than I have to understand everything about how my car works in order to drive it.

What was Wrong with the Old Name?

Latter-day Doctor was an okay name, but I must admit that I never really liked it or felt like I identified with it. Sometimes I would tell people about my blog, but I was sort of embarrassed about the name.

The only thing that made Latter-day Doctor better than the previous name was that it didn’t use the “M-word.” When President Nelson emphasized our need to use the correct name of the Church, this new blog name seemed like a quick and natural way to transition away from the old name without really changing the sense or meaning very much. But it still felt too presumptive, like I was aspiring to speak for all of the Latter-day Saint doctors in the world. And when President Nelson further clarified that the real point of the name emphasis was not to diminish the name “Mormon” but to magnify the name of Jesus Christ, I realized that my hastily-rebranded website didn’t really do that.

Regular readers will be aware of my brewing ambivalence about being a blogger. For the last six months I haven’t really felt connected with my purpose here, and I came close to pulling the plug on the whole site at least twice. As the new year dawned my enthusiasm for the Latter-day Doctor blog was approaching a sunset.

An Idea

But then one night I had a flash of inspiration as I was drifting off to sleep. For the last few years I have been describing the subject matter of this blog as being about medicine and religion. But I don’t write so much about the organization of large-scale systems of worship; what I describe mostly is how belief in God informs my personal actions and family decisions. That is to say, I write more about faith than I do about religion.

So why not call the site Medicine and Faith?

The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It is a better description of what this site is really about, and more people are likely to understand what it means at a glance. Also it completely leaves behind the baggage I described above, so that I no longer feel like I have to somehow represent the Church or its members who are doctors. Instead I can just write about what I believe and how it blesses my life, which is all I want to do anyway.

Conclusion

Finding and believing in truth gives us hope for a better world, and motivates us to love and serve one another so that we can make that better world a reality. I want to embrace the truth wherever I find it, in medicine and in religion.


Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

2 Comments

  1. It’s a good move to Medicine and Faith. You are entitled to your faith and practice in medicine. I hope you keep writing, Alan. Your essays make me think and remember things that I need to remember. It’s true that science relies on both faith and logic.

    Like

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