updated 6/23/2005 11:42:26 AM ET 2005-06-23T15:42:26

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.

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In the survey of 1,044 doctors nationwide, 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.

“There’s certainly a deep-seated cultural idea that science and religion are at odds,” and previous studies have suggested that fewer than half of scientists believe in God, Curlin said Wednesday.

Most doctors surveyed believe in God and afterlife
A previous survey showed about 83 percent of the general population believes in God.

But while medicine is science-based, doctors differ from scientists who work primarily in a laboratory setting, and their direct contact with patients in life-and-death situations may explain the differing views, Curlin said.

Important to end-of-life issues
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 do not 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 are more varied than among the general population, the survey found. 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; and Muslim — almost 3 percent vs. less than 1 percent.

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