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Beyond a Zero-Sum Game

Faith and Flourishing: A Q&A with Dr. Aasim Padela

November 15, 2016 • By Dr. Aasim I. Padela Faith and Flourishing:  A Q&A with Dr. Aasim Padela

Well-being, health, fulfillment, and what it means to flourish are all concepts that weigh heavily on both religious and medical practice, yet it’s rare that the two areas are brought into conversation with one another. In Dr. Aasim Padela’s recent course “Religion, Bioethics, and the Practice of Medicine,” healthcare professionals and medical students discussed the intersection of religion and medicine, and the responsibility that healers have toward their own faiths and the faiths of their patients.  

What was your Enhancing Life course about?

The course that I taught was “Religion, Bioethics, and the Practice of Medicine.” My aim was to bring the fields of religion and medicine into conversation around larger concepts—what does flourishing mean within different religions, and how does medicine, in a broad sense, help individuals meet those goals of flourishing? What I think was interesting is that there are commonalities, as well as differences, in the ways that the Abrahamic faiths define “health”; that there are different ontologies at play between the medical and the religious.. The course was taught to mainly allied healthcare professionals, with some medical students, and the theorization about what the profession means, and how we think about that, was something that they haven’t had the chance to do during their education. Healthcare practitioners often just think about servicing the self-understanding of health that the patient might have, but thinking about it in the larger context—the goals of caring, how can you meet them, particularly when someone might feel that their religious life is more privileged and more important than physical health, how do you negotiate that as a physician? 

What did you have the students do during the course?

There were four core lecturers. So I spoke from the Islamic perspective, and had a Protestant Christian and a Catholic bioethicist speak. We also had a rabbi come and speak around those questions—what does health mean in your tradition? How does medicine service the notion of flourishing in your tradition? What are some challenges, from your faith perspective, where medicine and religion intersect for people of your faith? In between those lectures we had specific discussion sections: one session was about a reading from Dr. Richard Sloane, who largely believes that religion and medicine shouldn’t come together in the healthcare system, so I wanted to get people who practice medicine to reflect on that. Similarly, we had readings from Wendy Cadge, who’s written this book Paging God: Religion in the Halls of Medicine that says that religion is hidden within healthcare but almost always present: we ask people what religious affiliation they have, we have chaplains who think about and help people meet spiritual crises in healthcare, we provide food that has religious connotations for certain individuals—in the healthcare system, the structure does incorporate religion on a superficial level in many different ways, and sometimes people don’t recognize that. So, the course was more of a discussion-heavy project rather than practicum-based. 

What is the public relevance of the material taught in the course?

There are larger conversations around religion and the public space in general, and we’ve had a lot of debate and dialogue in recent years around various aspects about how religion should be accounted for, or shouldn’t be accounted for, in providing healthcare. Issues about conscience clauses which refer to a providers’ ability to influence the way they provide care when they are asked to provide types of care they feel conflicted about, what is the legal scope of that? Similarly, how do you provide care when patients feel that certain treatments conflict with their religious values, or don’t believe that certain types of religious needs are being met? There’s a lot of conversation about this intersection between religion and medicine, and there isn’t a lot of space for that discussion to happen. My course aimed to get at that, with the notion that the reason that we focused on flourishing is that medicine should help people live flourishing lives. And that’s dependent on how patients view their lives and what flourishing means to them. 

Do you have any changes for the next time you teach the course?

We’re taking a more historical approach this year. This year, we’re going to teach a course called “Religious Perspectives on Doctoring & Bioethics.” We were talking in the last course about the intersection of religion and medicine; we’re doing the same here but now really thinking about what the doctor looks like in the context of living a faithful life. Different traditions have histories of what a physician should be, or who it was. It’s the “wise man,” in certain traditions, especially from an Islamic conception—the idea of a person who is administering both to the body and the soul. So we’re going to engage with those historical understandings of what the profession of healing should look like, and bring it back to the conversation with contemporary medicine. We have, arguably then, potentially, a reduced ontology of disease and cure, and a reductionist mode of thinking about helping people live fulfilling lives in the present era. 

How have your experiences—as a physician, and in life—informed the course?

My entire life and intellectual pursuits have to do with the intersection between religion and medicine, so therefore exploring that is something that I like to have people do in classes. I’m an individual who is religiously adherent, and of a minority faith in the US. As a minority faith in America, there are clear times when practices of medicine might seem odd in the context of living a Muslim life. Sometimes for Muslim patients, the same cultural accommodations don’t exist that do for other religious communities. So that notion of how do we develop a healthcare system that attends to the different populations in the United States is always something that I deal with. And looking at this intersection of religion and health is something that I’ve done empirically—I do a lot of research on how Islam influences the health behaviors of Muslim patients, and how it challenges their faith in the healthcare system. I’ve done empirical studies of how being a religious individual attracts discrimination in the healthcare system, mostly for Muslim physicians. I also look to Islamic theology and law for how we can define dimensions of health and healing.