“Where Will You Spend Eternity?”: My Experience with Religion at the Doctor’s Office

Evangelical Christians have a phenomenon known as the Conversion Story, and these stories are used to illustrate how one used to live an empty life of sin before they prayed a bunch and “found” Jesus. The more gruesome the story, the better the conversion. Similarly, I have a Skeptic Conversion Story about my experiences with religion and how I managed to break free to embrace science and reason.

I grew up in the Bible Belt (for non-Americans, this is the ultra-religious southeastern part of the US, also known as the Stroke Belt for our love of fried cuisines). Religion used to be part of my daily life, whether I liked it or not. My household wasn’t overly religious, although we went to church regularly and prayed before dinner (which is how I learned to pray in less than 5 seconds). In my town, there was a church on every corner and giant crosses in people’s yards declaring JESUS SAVES. Occasionally I would pick up what looked like a $20 bill on the street to find out it was just a cruelly-placed Bible verse. But I thought there were certain safe-havens of science, like my doctor’s office. I mean, there were still Bibles in the waiting area, but to me that was normal.

Well I guess real money has God on it too
I had been seeing the same doctor who had delivered me as a baby, so I trusted his authority. When I was 18 years old, I had a pre-college physical exam and my mom asked the doctor if I needed a gynecological exam too. He looked at me straight in the eyes and said, “That depends. Is Mary planning on having sex before marriage?” If Mom wasn’t there, I would’ve said something different, but instead I just said, “No.”

This interaction made me uncomfortable, but I knew another young women who didn’t get her first exam until she was married (at the age of 18), so I figured this was also normal. But in the back of my mind I made a note to change doctors once I moved away to college and find one who would give me something other than a “pre-marital” exam.

Why buy the cow when you can get the premarital sex for free?
A few years later, I was about to graduate college and I wouldn’t be on my parents’ (or any) insurance for a while, so while I was visiting my hometown I decided to schedule a physical just to make sure I didn’t need any last minute medical procedures while I was uninsured. I remembered the uncomfortableness with my childhood doctor, so made sure that I was seeing a different doctor that day.

The physical was uneventful, except for when the physician made a remark that I had gotten my good looks from my mom (good thing I had a paper thin gown on!). A week later, I received my results in the mail and as I nervously opened the bulky letter a badly-photocopied pamphlet fell out. The words on the front said: Where will you spend eternity?

Front of the pamphlet

Back of the pamphlet

(Click on the pics for the pamphlet in its fullsize glory)

I was thinking, “Oh shit, what showed up in my scans?” But there was nothing, I was a healthy young woman. I scanned through the rest of the pamphlet and it was the typical Christian bullshit about saving my soul, except it was from my Doctor’s office.

Then I saw the office motto: Serving Christ Through Medicine. The whole time I had been seeing religious doctors and I had no idea—until it dawned on me that maybe it wasn’t normal for a waiting room to be full of Bibles and children’s Bible Story books. Or how it was weird that Veggie Tales was the only DVD they would allow in the children’s section. Or how the doctor’s office played the local preaching radio station instead of generic music. Or all the prayers framed on the walls.

I asked my parents if they had ever received such a pamphlet with their physical results, and they said no. So I thought back to anything I may have said, and all I can think of is that I had mentioned that I had a health exam at a Planned Parenthood. Ding ding ding! Clearly my choice of cheap healthcare indicated what a dirty hell-bound whore that I was.

The Whore of Babylon and the Pope astride the seven-headed beast. Or as I call it: Friday Night.

I never took any official action about the pamphlet. I was young and I didn’t know of anything I could do at that point. It’s been almost seven years and my childhood doctor has since retired, although the practice remains. I have told others about my experience to at least warn them about it, but most people in my hometown don’t care and in fact would like a doctor who prays with them before an examination. But the experience has made me angrier over the years and is part of the reason I don’t live anywhere near my home state.

It wasn’t just this one moment that made me a skeptic, atheist, or feminist, but that experience of being told by a doctor that I was going to hell added to my Conversion Story and galvanized my developing beliefs. Unfortunately, my story is not unique. If any of you have been to doctors who have used religion in their practice, I would love to hear your experiences in the comments.

Picture Sources: 1 2 3 4


Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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  1. I expect Americans are tired of hearing this (or arguing about it), but as a Brit, the idea of someone being without any health insurance in an advanced democracy like the US utterly shocks me. The pamphlet is bad enough, but that's the really offensive thing in this story.

      1. Um, a represontational democracy as of 17 September 1787?
        I'm confused, would you prefer that every person* cast a vote on a bit of pottery or by yelling??
        * "Person" not to include: women, slaves, people who don't make enough money, and pretty much anyone else not in the club.

        1. Edited to add:
          To be sure, as of 1787 most of the groups that I pointed out in the second part did not have any vote or reasonable representation until *much* later in the U.S.A. I am certainly not defending that history. However, to imply that we are not now a democracy seems rather weird.

          1. koberulz: "The US is not now, nor has it ever been, a democracy."
            Just to clarify, do you mean that the US is a republic and not a democracy, or are you saying it is not any form of representative government?

          2. Aaaaargh, this is my prime source of nerd rage, I swear. Look at this list:
            You will notice that there's not a single democracy in the entire world. That's because democracy is not actually a system of government, so there is absolutely no contradiction between being a constitutional republic and a democracy. One can make an argument about  constitutional monarchies, but that's definitely on the margin (the UK and Sweden being quite often seen as democracies despite having royalty).
            The US was called the "Arsenal of Democracy" for a reason during WW2 (because it sounded good, natch). To find out whether something is a democracy or not, you go to Vanhanen, Polity IV, Freedom House, and any other number of studies.
            People arguing against "the US is a democracy" is not a brave warrior against mob rule, I'm sorry.

  2. Waay back in the mid eighties, while I was in high school, I got pretty sick.  Since we had just moved to the area, central Arizona, we went to the doctor our local relatives used.  Although I don't remember any staff being preachy, the waiting room was full of bible verses and religious materials.  Not uncommon for that area.
    His diagnosis, with no blood tests, was clymidia.  I'd never heard of it, but he explained it was recently discovered STD that affected women (I'm male).  I told him I was still a virgin, so he said I probably got it from a toilet seat (said with a tone indicating that he didn't really believe me).  He prescribed phenaphen with codiene.   Two pills every 4 hours.
    I week later I was back, even sicker, and he changed the diagnosis to a liver problem, I don't remember what, and prescribed phenaphen with codiene, 2 pills every 4 hours.
    I week later I was back.  I don't remember the diagnosis (I was pretty catatonic by then), but the prescription was phenaphen with codiene, 2 pills every 4 hours.
    I finally convinced my mom that maybe we sould try a different doctor, who told said stop taking the medicine, and I got better pretty quickly.  Only later did I learn that phenaphen is simply tylenol.  All those heavy diagnoses, and all he prescibed was high doses of an addictive painkiller.  But he was a good Christian…

  3. Good grief.  Even growing up in Abilene, Texas (which, at the time, boasted more churches per capita than any other city in the nation.  Also the highest teen pregnancy rate.), I never saw that.  However, a few years ago I was looking for a dentist in my new home of Austin.  I found one on my insurance plan, and walked in to find praise songs being piped throughout the clinic, staff wearing scrubs embroidered with an ichthus, and a lobby strewn with bibles and  – I'm not making this up – Glenn Beck books.  I found another dentist.

  4. 1986. Western Michigan.  My senior year in college.  I'd been put on Accutane for clearing up my skin by a doctor where my parents now lived but needed to be followed up monthly locally since the drug is pretty toxic.  The prescribing protocol is that female patients must be prescribed birth control because there is a 100% chance of birth defects. 
    My first visit for follow up to the dermatologist my brother had seen when my family had lived in town and he informs me that of course he won't be prescribing the Pill because "you come from a good family, you won't need it."  

    In fact, I didn't need it but what doctor should be able to sleep at night knowing that he'd set up me up for mandatory potential abortions should I have "got caught"?

    1. Before I saw my doctor for my physical, I saw him for something else and I lied about being on birth control because I knew he would judge me. What kind of healthy patient-doctor relationship is that? I was really happy when I moved to up to New England and found new doctors.

  5. Coming from the east coast, this reads like a horror story! We've had our share of bible thumpers, but I can't imagine a world where even the scientists are mad…

  6. I remember there being a children's book of Bible stories in an office we went to…I think it might have been the dentist. I was pretty young, so I can't remember too much. I remember hating the book though, it was badly written and the art was terrible.

    1. I think my doctor's office had the same books. Although I think there were some Highlights magazines that I usually read instead.

    2. I think that every doctor or dentists office I ever went to in my childhood had those awful bible storybooks in the waiting room.  Is there some organization like The Gideons placing them there?  Those things and Highlights magazines were the only kid-type reading they ever had available, so I learned really quickly to bring my own books with me.

  7. Oh, thank goodness you're in New England now. What a creepy remark by the doctor and now it's even worse with hospitals fighting to deny women the morning after pill if they want to shove their religion in your face.
    Interestingly I was asked at a large local hospital ER (in Western Mass, about as liberal as you get) if I had any religious practices to which the hospital needed to be sensitive. I asked what they meant and the nurse said some families, Latin Catholic, Native American, Muslim etc had found hospitals especially with very sick patients violated their religious traditions in some way. 
    I suppose they were just trying to be sensitive, but how about asking me in general what stresses me out instead?

  8. This is a very interesting post.  As family physicians in rural NC it is amazing how much my husband and I have to Hide the fact that we are athiests.  If the word gets out  we could be out of business.   Of course our waiting room has no framed prayers, no religious symbols.  If a patient complains we reply that we serve patients of all religions so we try not to offend anyone.  We may have a larger than average homosexual clientel simply becuase we don't care who you want to have sex with.   We are frequently asked what religion we are… my male physician spouse says he doesn't discuss religion with patients, I admit that I was raised catholic but was offended by their stance on birth control since I prescribe it for a living.  I think it is poor form for ANY physican or therapist to Ever make a patient uncomfortable and I am sorry you had such an experience. 

    1. I can totally believe that people would complain about the lack of religion at the doctor's office. I know people that would prefer it if everything was about religion. Hell, even the local non-church businesses would have the occasional Jesus declaration on a sign.
      Not only did the doctor make me uncomfortable about my religion, but when he remarked on my attractiveness I was really grateful that I had requested that he not do a gyno exam on me, thus I still had some underwear on and a tightly-cinched paper gown. Ugh, thinking about it again gives me the creeps.

  9. I can't help but be reminded of the infamous Jack Chick tract in which a doctor discovers that a young girl has been raped by her father and a neighbor. The doctor prays with the guy and then he's not a pedophile anymore. No need to call the police, he's cured now.
    I can't help but wonder if that tract doesn't reflect the reality people used to face. It's hard to imagine, but the laws against having sex with children are relatively new, and really only started to be enforced within Jack Chick's lifetime.

      1. That's the one. They've changed the plot a bit from the original tract. Here's what you're missing: The guy gets caught by a doctor that prays with him rather than calling the police, the epilogue shows the power of Jesus curing this man of his pedophilia and the doctor clearly states that the thing that's tearing this guy's family apart isn't child rape, it's pornography.
        What's most disturbing about that tract is really only appreciated when you've read most of his other tracts. Nothing anyone ever does is ever excused. People are gay specifically to offend people that aren't. Even people that do good works are portrayed as opportunistic jerks. But this one guy in that entire body of work seems to be completely blameless. He's got all sorts of excuses, the economy is bad, he doens't have a job, his wife is a terrible harpy that seems to hold down a demeaning job where she is constantly sexually harassed specifically so she can throw it in his face during an argument, and he reads porn. The tract never explains how the porn forces this guy to rape the child, but it's pretty clear that the pornography and not the man that viewed it committed the real crime.
        The tract also seems to carefully avoid a moral condemnation of child rape. When the guy outright asks if he's going to hell for raping the kid the doctor corrects him. He's going to hell because Eve ate the apple. He also never actually apologizes to the child or even God for doing it. It's a disturbing window into the period of time when the culture didn't think it was anybody's business but God's if a man was molesting his child.

  10. Mary, I lived in the South and don't think I told the truth to any doctor outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic until I was in my twenties. Your experience sucks and does not surprise me.

    1. Isn't that sad? I was going to lie about having been to a PP, but then I decided to be truthful and look at what happened.
      One of the reasons I didn't report it to the state was that my parents did not think it was weird at all that the doctor sent me this, and they wondered what I had done to deserve it. I just didn't want to go through that on a larger scale at the time.

  11. This is crazy.  I live in Canada.  When I was barely 16, I trotted into my family doctor's office with my then-boyfriend and asked to go on the pill.  I was young and stupid, but not irresponsible and I wanted double protection (condoms and backup) to make sure that there was no way I would get pregnant. The doctor asked no questions, except to inquire if I was already sexually active (not), suggest that we also use condoms (already the plan), and requested that I return in 3 months for a pap smear. The relationship and sex life that came with it was short-lived and unpleasant, and I ended up abstaining for the next 5 years after those first few months, but I am eternally grateful that I had the option of seeing my family doctor for birth control without fear of judgement, reprisal or him telling my parents. I learned what I needed to know about sex, and managed to come through the experience intact with no unwanted babies or STD's.  Mostly WIN, if you ask me.

  12. While I think in more liberal areas of the US, religion and medicine aren't mixed as much, sexism definitely still exists.
    My girlfriend (we're unmarried with kids) refuses to go to male doctors anymore because she feels like they don't really listen to her issues with an attitude of "that's cute little girl, but I'm the doctor, I know best".  And we live in Chicago, a mostly liberal town.  So I think even if religion doesn't exist, women still can have quite the hard time getting unbiased medical care.

  13. As a patient, I'm grateful I've never had this experience. As a doctor, I think that my religion (or lack thereof) has absolutely no place in a doctor patient relationship. I haven't had any patients ask me directly what I believe, but I don't know what I would tell them since I tend to be rather private anyway. I did do my residency in a catholic hospital and can happily say that it in no way affected my ability to care for my patients the way that I wanted. Samples of oral contraceptives were readily available in the clinic and I was never admonished for prescribing them.

  14. Mary, I'm a little hesitant to bring this up since you didn't mention it, but did you encounter any of this during your recent medical experiences, either regarding your dad or after your car accident?  (I hope I've been vague enough to respect your privacy.  If not, my deepest apologies.)
    Our latest Book Club (and inaugural Skepchick Book Club) book is about an organized attempt by the Christian Right to infiltrate the public school system in order to propagandize innocent children before they have a chance to learn any critical thinking skills.  Is there a similar campaign to infiltrate the health care system and attack people while they are most vulnerable, or is this just a manifestation of a pervasive culture?  Should I just shut up before I give them any ideas?

  15. As a physician in Appalachia I am inclined to believe that older doctors are slightly more likely to bring religion into the visit than newer doctors.  I have not recieved any propaganda from the Christain Right  about adding religion to my practice.   The medical publications encourage  asking patients about beliefs only so that you can refer them to an appropriate support system.   When I graduated from my residency training 12 years ago there was 1 doc out of 15  of us newly trained folks that prayed with his patients. 

  16. So, if your physician is a certain kind of Christian, you won't get a gyn exam unless you are married?  Because nothing goes wrong with your reproductive system unless it's in use?  I'm wondering if I should have refused surgery for an asymptomatic ovarian cyst.

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