Wednesday, 8 April 2009

NHS funding religious discrimination

The National Health Service spends around £40m a year on hospital chaplains. I have no doubt that many religious people take great comfort from their presence at a difficult time. I have no doubt that the job is emotionally demanding and requires special training. But their being funded by the already financially troubled NHS should astonish everyone. It's a testimony to the grip religion has on the population that more people - including the religious - are not outraged.

First, there is no equivalent service for the non-religious. If, as NHS trusts are claiming, chaplains are an essential part of hospital care, then are hospitals not failing in their duty of care of non-religious patients? If they are not essential, then why is the NHS paying for them in the first place? Needless to say, churches are tripping over themselves to point out that the chaplains are there to care for the non-religious as well. The phrase I've seen crop up most often is "we provide religious and spiritual care." Unfortunately, I do not possess a spirit as there are no such things as spirits. I'm therefore at a loss as to how somebody might care for it.

Second, I'm at a loss to explain why the cash-strapped NHS should pay for this service, when by their own admission, this is what churches are for. All the hospitals I know are surrounded by churches, synagogues, mosques etc. that are packed with priests of various kinds with a mandate to minister to the sick. They are registered charities and so their staff are indirectly paid for by the people who wish to use their services. Why on Earth should the NHS - and ultimately the taxpayer - foot this bill?

It's another example of almost unconscious privileging of religion. There's no reason to expect that priests have any more expertise than a random person off the street and yet they defend their tenuous position by claiming they are there for patients of all faiths or (literally) god forbid, none.

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