A secular witch-hunt in western England

In backing the suspension of a nurse who offered to pray for her patients, New Atheists have become the new inquisitors.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Atheists would no doubt point to the medieval witch-hunts as proof of Christianity’s inherent unenlightened oppressiveness and irrationality.

Indeed, in his book The God Delusion, Professor Richard Dawkins, the crème de la crème of the New Atheists, repeated the rather hackneyed argument that religion has, throughout history, been the root of all manner of evils, including crusades, wars, terrorism – and witch-hunts.

Lately, however, it seems that secularists have become the new inquisitors.

This week, the UK National Secular Society (NSS) backed the North Somerset Primary Care Trust’s decision to suspend a 45-year-old community nurse and mother-of-two, Caroline Petrie, for offering to pray for patients. Apparently, putting a good word to the Lord on behalf of an ailing stranger now counts as heresy.

Where the Church once laid down the law on what was sinful and persecuted non-believers, banishing them from public institutions, today Christians can find themselves subjected to disciplinary hearings and even risk getting sacked and excluded for being open about their faith or promoting Christian values. For example, Christian colleges in Oxford were recently threatened with the loss of their university status because the education that they offer is not ‘inclusive’ enough. Several universities have tried to ban Christian student societies for similar reasons.

For her part, Petrie, who became a Christian 10 years ago after the death of her mother, is being tried for the crime of failing to comply with a Nursing and Midwifery Council code, which states that ‘you must demonstrate a personal and professional commitment to equality and diversity’. In other words, if you work in the National Health Service, thou shall not risk causing offence.

Petrie has not taken blood tests with rusty needles, administered the wrong drugs, turned up drunk at work, breached the code of silence or felt up her patients. She simply offers patients prayers for an easy recovery. Yet she has been suspended, is being subjected to a disciplinary hearing and could be sacked. Florence Nightingale must be turning in her grave.

In a statement, the Primary Care Trust in North Somerset, western England, said they have had two separate complaints from a carer and a patient about Petrie. So exactly what were the circumstances surrounding her ‘misconduct’?

In October last year, a male patient’s carer reported Petrie to the hospital authorities after she offered the elderly man a prayer card. Petrie was told to go on a diversity and equality course. Yet her religious zeal was apparently not broken. Two months later, it emerged that she had offered to pray for a 79-year-old patient, Mrs May Phippen, after having dressed her legs during a home visit. Mrs Phippen politely declined the offer and Petrie did not push the matter any further. Mrs Phippen mentioned the incident to another nurse, but has since insisted that she was not offended, but merely taken aback by the question; she does not believe that it warrants Petrie’s dismissal.

Unfortunately for Mrs Phippen, the NSS’s public backing of Petrie’s dismissal has helped make her leg sores national news. Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, said it was inappropriate for health workers to ‘evangelise’ and use their workplace as an opportunity to ‘spread the word’.

Naturally, any medical practitioner’s priority should be their patients’ health and wellbeing and they should be professional enough to put their personal beliefs to one side, if so required. They should not discriminate in who they care for and they should not refuse anyone care on the basis of religious principles.

But Petrie did not refuse to look after these elderly patients when they told her they did not wish to be prayed for. She has not denied anyone an abortion or a blood transfusion or refused to dispense medicines. She simply offered medical care, professional service and compassion.

Of course anyone who does not believe in the healing powers of prayer or has little time for religion has the right to decline such religious gestures as Petrie’s, even though she herself sees prayer as a ‘valuable part of the care I give’. Personally, living in south London, in the middle of the city’s bible belt, I regularly have to tell Jehovah’s Witnesses to stop bothering me. Being woken up on a Saturday by promises of redemption is certainly annoying, but that’s life. And besides, my local evangelists seem to have paid heed to my repeated requests never to ring my door bell again – I haven’t seen them for months.

Undeniably there are more sophisticated ways of asserting secularism over religion. And one would hope that an organisation such as the NSS, which represents the interests of atheists, agnostics and other non-religious groups, would do just that. Yet today’s New Atheists show little willingness to engage with religious views, and with people who express them openly, instead preferring to expunge them from the public sphere.

While Britain’s outdated blasphemy laws have thankfully been abolished – something the NSS campaigned for – atheists are now deferring to secular arbiters, like diversity and equality regulators, to administer verdicts on people they view as modern-day heretics.

The NSS may not be dragging nurses to the stake or advocating slow and painful torture for religious believers. But its official backing of Petrie’s suspension shows that it is all too willing to back the public hounding of someone who went against the prevailing dogma of offence-avoidance and ‘respecting diversity’.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild was not jumping on the atheist bus. ‘Catholic atheist’ Michael Fitzpatrick was repelled by Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, and critiqued the secular intellectuals who are baiting the devout. Dolan Cummings wanted to be counted out of atheism’s creed. Neil Davenport argued that it’s not the devout who are the real enemies of reason. Or read more at spiked issue Religion.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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