Here’s a famous question about religion and atheism, as expressed in an anonymous letter to the National Review.

Let’s see, we have scores of Baptist Hospitals, Method [sic] Hospitals, Jewish Hospitals, Catholic Hospitals, etc., etc. Each of these have ‘outreach’ programs both here and in the most dismal places on earth, staffed with dedicated medical doctors and nurses. Where oh where are the Atheist’s hospitals, or soup kitchens?

One answer to this question is to ask, as Doug Ittner of American Atheists does: In what way are “religious” hospitals religious? Do they, for example, offer all their treatments for free, as Jesus would have done?

In America, as of 1999, 13% of all hospitals were religious (totaling 18% of all hospital beds); that’s 604 out of 4,573 hospitals…. Despite the religious label, these so-called religious hospitals are more public than public hospitals. Religious hospitals get 36% of all their revenue from Medicare; … they get 12% … from Medicaid. Of the remaining 44% of funding, 31% comes from county appropriations, 30% comes from investments, and only 5% comes from charitable contributions (not necessarily religious). The percentage of Church funding for Church-run hospitals comes to a grand total of 0.0015 percent.

Secondly, consider this. Do Baptist hospitals use Baptist medicine? Not if they want their customers to survive. There is no magical religious medicine that religious hospitals can use, so in terms of medical knowledge, technology and practice, a hospital cannot be better just because it is “religious.” But it can be worse! Ittner again:

Despite being publicly funded … many Catholic hospitals refuse to provide infertility treatments, birth control, abortion, and emergency contraception to rape victims…. Catholic hospitals have … policies preventing euthanasia (whereby a terminally ill patient must be kept on life support despite the patient’s demands to end treatment)…. Mormon hospitals will refuse sterilization to women who have had less than five children or are younger than 40 years of age. Southern Baptist hospitals won’t provide abortion services.

So, there’s nothing particularly religious about religious hospitals, except for the fact that they’ll sometimes refuse to help you. Especially if you’re female.

Ittner concludes that

The answer to the question “How many American hospitals have atheists built?” is “All of them.”

There is a third way to see how misleading this question about “atheist hospitals” is. The following was contributed by an anonymous poster at Positive Atheism:

Churches asking where are the non-theists’ charities? This is a meaningless question, a semantic trick, a red herring, a blind alley we should not be drawn into. There are various musicians’ association charities; why no Non-Musicians’ Charity? There are many black charities; why no Non-Black Charity? There’s a Gardener’s Scholarship Fund; why no Non-Gardeners’ Fund? … Non-theists, along with non-musicians, non-blacks, non-gardeners, contribute as individuals according to their interests, skills, and philosophies.

As is usual in the field of religion, the solution to the problem is to notice that the question itself is badly constructed. We have to keep reminding ourselves that religion does this. It gets us asking the wrong questions. This is one of its defining features. It is designed to confuse.

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