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Secularism needs a distinctive medical voice

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 30 November 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7658
  1. Colin Brewer, research director of the Stapleford Centre, London SW1W 9NP
  1. brewerismo{at}

Historically, doctors have been prominent sceptics about benevolent, interventionist deities, perhaps because, more than most people, they see the nastier side of life and the randomness of disaster. Medieval scholars quipped, “Ubi tres physici, ibi duo athei” (“Where there are three doctors, there are two atheists”), but from ancient Rome’s adoption of Christianity until fairly recent times, expressing such doubts was dangerous. Leading clerics who complain that so called new atheists like Richard Dawkins are disrespectful about their faith forget monotheism’s savage history. Ordinary British Protestants hanged the Edinburgh student Thomas Aikenhead for atheism in 1697. Ordinary French Catholics burned the physician-philosopher Lucilio Vanini—after tearing out his tongue—for merely questioning theism. Noting Vanini’s fate, the French priest Jean Meslier, modern Europe’s first published atheist, wisely waited until dying in 1729 before revealing his excoriating Testament. Some Victorian atheists, sensing post-Darwinian Britain’s steadily increasing distaste for imprisoning sceptics, felt able to be much ruder than Dawkins.

The Liverpool physician Matthew Turner was Britain’s first surviving public atheist and only in 1783 did he risk declaring himself, but unbelievers are still vilified by religious leaders. Popes, archbishops, and imams …

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