There was Father A., his insides packed full of that foul fluid they make you drink, lying on the doctor's couch in anxious anticipation of his first colonoscopy. It wasn't a banner day by any means. Nobody, we expect, relishes the idea of having a camera stuck up his tuchis. Moreover, a failed sigmoidoscopy some years earlier, performed by a different physician, had been one of the memorably unpleasant medical procedures of Fr. A.'s adult life.
This promised to be a better day. The environment was tranquil, the doctor seemed calm and undistracted, and -- best of all -- colonoscopies are performed upon fully narcotized patients, a fact which by itself made this day sunnier than that of the infamous Flexible Sig. Fr. A. calmed his anxieties and tried not to think about the gallon of antifreeze distending his tummy.
Then the anaesthetist sat down, and introduced himself. "I'm Dr. So-and-So," he said, flipping through the papers on a clipboard. "And you're Mr. ... Anonymous ... and it says here that you're ... oh, look at this. A member of the clergy? Is that right?"
"How interesting," Dr. So-and-So continued. "I'm an atheist myself."
"I was raised Catholic," he said. Or maybe Presbyterian, or Methodist; we don't remember, because we didn't care the least little bit. Our attention was entirely taken up by thoughts of antifreeze and miniature cameras. So far from prepared for a theological discussion were we then that we could likely not have distinguished between the variata and invariata, much less parsed a Greek verb. Our god was, for the moment, quite literally in the belly.
So we responded to Dr. S&S's remarks with no more than the merest of polite grunts and murmurs, of the kind meant to show as little interest as possible. The doctor continued, however, as though we had been rapt with fascination.
He had rejected Christianity, he said, because he was a man of Science; faith had no answers for him; the Scriptures seemed to contradict themselves; believers seemed to him like desperate children -- we're sure there was more but, as he performed his duty, we fell into the blessed respite of unconsciousness.
We awoke with a clear head and a clear intestine; both doctors had done admirable work. But the memory lingered, of the anaesthetist offering his unsolicited arguments against religion -- witnessing, in evangelical jargon -- to an anxious and incapacitated patient.
This was not an isolated experience. Not too long before, we had paid several visits to a cardiologist who did the same thing. He was jolly and well-read and possibly a little bored with his work, but he was also very keen to make sure that we knew just how contemptible he found religion in all its forms, and how laughable he found a belief in God.
Mind you, we do not show up to the doctor's office in a cassock. Not so much as a cross or WWJD bracelet (the initials, of course, for Wow-Wee it's John Donne). We don't distribute tracts or recite the Angelus. All we do is fill in the little space on the forms they give us. And yet a surprising number of physicians, over the past few years, have seemed to feel that the moment of a medical procedure is just the right time to promote their opposition to Christianity.
It's not, if only for practical reasons -- patients have other things to think about, and wish that their doctors did as well. The place for religious arguments, if there must be a place, is a cocktail party, or a lecture hall. Or perhaps one's memoirs. Or, if they wanted, they could team up with their fellow anti-religionists and spend Saturday ringing doorbells and passing out newsletters. It seems to work for the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Still, this is a sign of the times. We have reached a point in history when, like Christian missionaries in Africa handing out medicine along with their Bibles, atheist missionaries in America now witness to their unfaith as they distribute medicine.