A survey examining religion in medicine found that most U.S. doctors believe in God and an afterlife -- a surprising degree of spirituality in a science-based field, researchers say.
In the survey of 1,044 doctors nationwide from a variety of specialties, 76 percent said they believe in God, 59 percent said they believe in some sort of afterlife and 55 percent said their religious beliefs influence how they practice medicine.
"We were surprised to find that physicians were as religious as they apparently are," said Dr. Farr Curlin, a researcher at the University of Chicago's MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics.
A previous survey found that 83 percent of the general U.S. population believes in God -- more than physicians in the current survey. But 46 percent of doctors surveyed said they were regular churchgoers, compared with about 40 percent in the previous general population survey, Curlin said.
"There's certainly a deep-seated cultural idea that science and religion are at odds," and previous studies of scientists have suggested that fewer than half believe in God, Curlin said.
But while medicine is science-based, doctors differ from scientists who work in a laboratory, and their direct contact with patients in life-and-death situations might explain the differing views, Curlin said.
"The commitment to take care of those who are sick and those who are weak and those who are suffering is really central to most major religious traditions" and medicine also appeals to people "who want to exercise that calling," he said.
The study is based on responses to questionnaires mailed in 2003. It is to appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine and was released online to subscribers earlier this month.
Dr. J. Edward Hill, president of the American Medical Association, said religion and medicine are completely compatible, as long as doctors don't force their own beliefs on patients.
Belief in "a supreme being ... is vitally important to physicians' ability to take care of patients, particularly the end-of-life issues that we deal with so often," said Hill, a family physician from Tupelo, Miss.
Religions among physicians apparently are more varied than among the general population. While more than 80 percent of the U.S. population is Protestant or Catholic, 60 percent of doctors said they were from either group.
Compared with the general population, more doctors were Jewish, 14 percent vs. 2 percent; Hindu, 5 percent vs. less than 1 percent; Muslim, almost 3 percent vs. less than 1 percent; and Buddhist, 1 percent versus less than 1 percent.
Curlin said that likely reflects the prevalence of foreign-born doctors.
The survey was mailed to 2,000 doctors and was resent up to two times to those who didn't respond. Overall, 63 percent of doctors responded to one of the mailings.
While mailings are considered less reliable than other survey methods, Curlin said he found evidence that religious doctors were no more likely than nonreligious doctors to respond.