Humanism and Significance of Secular Medical Services in Nigeria

As part of the activities marking this year’s world humanist day, humanists are organizing a free medical outreach at the national stadium in Surulere in Lagos. The program is open to the public especially those who are unable to access basic medical care. A doctor and other health officials will be on hand for consultation, to conduct basic medical tests and provide evidence based medical counseling. This article takes a look at the significance of this medical program and its potential to transform the landscape of medical services in the country.

Religion and medical practices have always mixed. Both in its traditional and modern formations, medical care has been linked to some form of religious or supernatural belief. Medicine is believed to have a spiritual dimension and spirits are believed to have healing powers.

Traditional healers often administer medicinal portions from plants with incantations, divinations and rituals. They create the impression that religious elements add to the safety and efficacy of their purported herbal remedies. In addition, patients are often asked to perform some ritual sacrifice or commission the performance of such ceremonies as part of the treatment process. Thus it is virtually impossible to access many traditional medical therapies without being compelled to directly or indirectly engage or endorse some religious process.

Incidentally, this is applicable to the ‘modern’ hospital medical system in the country. Although, marketed as ‘modern’ that is, opposed to traditional formations, the orthodox medical practice in Nigeria resonates with religion, the religious traditions of their owners, mainly Christian and Islamic religions. It must be recalled that Christian missionaries from the West introduced this medical system centuries ago.  They established hospitals, clinic and health centers, which were attached to local churches, as part of their evangelizing infrastructure.

In Muslim-dominated areas, some Islamic organisations later established their own hospitals beside mosques. These hospitals bear religious symbols, and allow Christian and Muslim religious services and prayers for the patients. Even though this is unethical and not medically allowed, doctors and nurses at these hospitals preach and try to convert patients. They compel them to embrace Christianity or Islam, and to seek out some faith based healing as part of the treatment process. The motto of a popular state hospital in Nigeria is: “We cure, God heals”.

So in Nigeria, medical and religious missions mix. This practice, which has been going on for too long, must change. Religion and medicine are distinct faculties. Mixing religion and medical care must stop. This is because the practice is professionally unsound. It violates the right to freedom of religion/belief and the ethics of medical practice. People who are sick go to hospitals to seek medical treatment. They need not be preached to as part of the treatment process. Hospitals are not churches and mosques. Are they? Clinics are not faith healing or worship centers. Patients come to hospitals to access evidence based treatment and medical advice, not prayers, not faith healing or god talk. Religious organizations sponsor medical missions and use them as opportunities to proselytize and convert people on their sick bed. This is totally unacceptable. Patients are vulnerable and are likely to do what they are told to do; say what they are told to say in order to get medical assistance and recover from their ailment. So it is obscene that religious individuals and organisations take undue advantage of their positions are care givers and coerce sick persons to embrace a religion or belief in God. It is distasteful that religious doctors and nurses sometimes use the hospitals as places to force religious talks and prayers down the throat of patients.

Over the years, Nigeria has witnessed this slow and gradual process of medicalization of religion and religionization of medicine and hospital spaces. The general impression is that religion and medicine are not separable. But they are.

This is why, this year, humanists are organizing their first secular medical outreach in Lagos as part of the activities marking the world humanist day celebrations. Humanism provides an ethical and philosophical alternative to religion. This outreach is organized to serve as a medical alternative to the religious and faith based medical missions in the country. It is pertinent to let Nigerians know that they can access medical care without directly or indirectly professing – or being made to profess – a religion or some belief in a deity.

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