The Question of Atheist Hospitals
This article challenges the notion that organized religion is necessary for establishing
hospitals. The old challenge, "How many hospitals have Atheist built?" is debunked
through a brief presentation of the facts.
By Doug Ittner
Conversations with Christian apologists often turn up the question, "How many
hospitals have Atheists built?" The question is directed towards a justification
of organized religion as a preferred establishment over Atheism. The assumption
of the answer is zero. The question is not a new one; Col. Robert Green Ingersoll
attacked the issue in his essay, "What Infidels Have
One hundred years after Christ had died suppose someone had asked a Christian,
What hospitals have you built? What asylums have you founded? They would have
Suppose three hundred years after the death of Christ the same questions had
been asked the Christian, he would have said "None, not one." Two hundred years
more and the answer would have been the same. And at that time the Christian
could have told the questioner that the Mohammedans had built asylums before
the Christians. He could also have told him that there had been orphan asylums
in China for hundreds and hundreds of years, hospitals in India, and hospitals
for the sick at Athens.
To be fair to the Christian apologist, perhaps the question should be directed
more towards modern times, after Christianity has been well established. America,
as Christian historical revisionists have claimed, was established under
Christian principles and is therefore a Christian nation. Therefore it makes
sense to conclude that a Christian nation would build hospitals faster than a
colony of ants could build an anthill.
The oldest American hospital in existence is New York's famed Bellevue hospital,
established in 1736. The hospital, initially a six-bed hospital, was not createdby
any religious institution but was a municipal hospital created by a secular, non-religious
The city was filling a gap left by the lazy religious institutions who were
apparently failing in their mission to care for the sick and ailing.
Bellevue wasn't the first American hospital though. The first American hospital
was created as a result of a business venture. Master Jacob Hendrickszen Varrevanger,
surgeon to the Dutch West India Company, created the first hospital in the same
region. New York wasn't in existence at this time; the area was referred to as
New Amsterdam, and the year was
The religious weren't in any rush to create any institutions for public welfare.
Ben Franklin, inventor, ambassador to France and Founding Father managed to find
more time than the entire American religious industry to develop the first fire
department, public library, and even another hospital (founded in
The first university was created in Franklin's town of Philadelphia as well.
America's first university was not religious either. Rather than being another
center for educating clergy as in old European universities, this university
(University of Pennsylvania, established in 1751) would train students for careers
in business and public
Religious missionaries were apparently too
busy caring for people's afterlives rather than their lives on Earth.
Surely after 200 years of America's signing of the Constitution the religious
industry has developed a system of hospitals throughout the United States. In a
sense they have. Hundreds of hospitals bearing a connection to some religious
institutions dot the American landscape. The largest and best known of these is
the Catholic hospital system. Surely a hospital with a Catholic affiliation must
mean the hospital is truly a religious hospital founded and financed by the
Catholic Church. Alas, even this is not the case; Catholic hospitals are merely
public hospitals with a Catholic label and fewer health services.
In America, as of 1999, 13% of all hospitals were religious (totaling 18% of all
hospital beds); that's 604 out of 4,573
Despite the presence of organized religion in America, the Church has managed to
scrape together only a few hospitals. Of these 604 hospitals many are a product
of mergers with public, non-sectarian hospitals. Not all of these 604 hospitals
are Catholic; many are Baptist, Methodist, Shriner (Masonic), Jewish, etc.
Despite the religious label, these so-called religious hospitals are more public
than public hospitals. Religious hospitals get 36% of all their revenue from
Medicare; public hospitals get only 27%. In addition to that 36% of public funding
they get 12% of their funding from Medicaid. Of the remaining 44% of funding,
31% comes from county appropriations, 30% comes from investments, and only 5%
comes from charitable contributions (not necessarily religious). The percentage
of Church funding for Church-run hospitals comes to a grand total of 0.0015
The claim that the religious build hospitals gives the illusion that the religious
are more charitable than the secular, non-religious. With hospitals, at least, that
isn't the case. Every hospital writes off a certain percentage of medical revenue
as charitable care. The religious hospitals aren't the least charitable of hospitals,
but they're close to it. For-profit hospitals provided, on average, only 0.8% of
their gross patient revenue as charity care; religious hospitals came in with 1.9%.
On the other hand the secular non-profit hospitals had 2% and the godless secular
public hospitals provided 5.1%. 
It's only been 200 years since America was founded, perhaps in another 200 years
the religious will catch up to the secular government in providing charitable
medical care. It gets worse for the religious institutions though. Religious
hospitals provide fewer medical services than the secular hospitals. The Catholic
hospitals, despite being publicly funded hospitals, refuse to provide certain
medical services on religious grounds. Many Catholic hospitals refuse to provide
infertility treatments, birth control, abortion and emergency contraception to
rape victims. It is the position of the Catholic church that, "A female who has
been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from
the sexual assault."  That means
it's a woman's responsibility to get her rapist to wear a condom.
Catholic hospitals have directives opposing informed consent to patients regarding
side effects of potential harmful health care decisions as well as policies preventing
euthanasia (whereby a terminally ill patient must be kept on life support despite
the patient's demands to end treatment).
Catholic hospitals aren't alone in promoting their religion in the medical field.
Mormon hospitals will refuse sterilization to women who have had less than five
children or are younger than 40 years of age. Seventh-day Adventist hospitals
won't serve meat or caffinated beverages in their cafeterias. Southern Baptist
hospitals won't provide abortion services. 
Robert Ingersoll's response to the question, "What hospitals have Atheists built?"
is surprisingly relevant over a hundred years later. Despite European Christians
being on the American continent for hundreds of years, they have been lacking in
providing the medical charity they are credited for. The answer to the question
"How many American hospitals have Atheists built?" is "All of them."
Of the 13% of religious hospitals, all of them are maintained by public funds.
Those public funds are not paid for exclusively by the religious, they certainly
aren't supported by American churches. If the religious hospitals were to be truly
religious and separated from secular governmental subsidies they would collapse.
The question that the Christian apologist should be asked is, "Where are all the
truly religious hospitals?" Slapping a Catholic or Methodist label upon a hospital
wall isn't sufficient enough to create a truly independent, private religious
hospital free from Atheist support.
1 Ingersoll, Robert G., The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll,
Louisville, Bank of Wisdom.
2 Knights, Edwin M., "Bellevue Hospital," History Magazine, Dec./Jan. 2000.
6 Uttley, L. J, "No strings attached: Public funding
of religiously-sponsored hospitals in the United States," Mergerwatch, 2002, p.10.
7 Ibid, p.13-15.
8 Ibid, p. 18-19.
9 Ibid, p. 23.
10 Ibid, p. 24-25.
© 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.