Most of the religious training I received was from Roman Catholic teachers. I was spared the burden of going to parochial school because this education was provided free at my public school. I was introduced to Christianity at 5 years of age and had no other religious training until I was 12 years old. The women providing this timely service apparently feared for my soul and felt that their religion could save me from perdition. Time will tell if they were right. I was assured by friends and relatives that I did not qualify as a Roman Catholic because I had never been baptized. That may be true, but it does not detract from my ecumenical view of the world.
I enjoyed learning about the Catholic Church and can still sing Christmas carols in Latin. I especially enjoyed the Bible reading we elementary grade students did each morning. I had no Bible at home and waited anxiously each day to find out if God would flood the world, if Abraham would kill his son, if the enslaved people could find their way out of the desert without asking for directions. The Bible is filled with cliffhangers. Most people do not realize this if they are more than 9 years old.
Humans have wandered this tiny planet for more than 100,000 years and have no doubt practiced more than 100,000 religions during that time. I do not doubt that the colorful stories, reassuring rituals, sense of community associated with these various religions have provided comfort and delight for practitioners through the ages, just as my grammar school experience added a little color to an otherwise bland educational experience. But, just as these religions have helped get us through strife and suffering, they still too often serve to justify our hate and cruelty.
When I was a medical student, I spent a summer in London, England, at one of the world’s legendary hospitals run by some of the world’s legendary doctors. The food was horrible. The weather was bad, and the British women were not amused by me. Fortunately, a group of Anglican missionaries recognized my pitiful condition and invited me to a discussion group they had each week. Given that my name or slight variations of that name are common in German Lutheran and Dutch Catholic communities, I suspected their intent was to bring me into the Church of England. I was desperate for companionship and hoped to find a woman I could bring into the church of Lechtenberg. There were several attractive candidates at the meeting, but my optimism evaporated as the most attractive of those woman stood up and announced, “As you all know, the topic for this evening’s discussion is the Jewish problem in England.”
This was ironic on several levels. For one, I had been reading (and eventually finished) “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” on my commute to and from the legendary hospital. For another, I felt threatened, rather than excited, by this assembly of hate-mongers. I wondered how my premature departure would be interpreted. I wanted to stand up and advise the assembly that I had already read about the “Jewish problem” on my daily commute, and I did not realize I had time travelled back to 1933 when I entered the meeting room. Partly out of fear and partly out of curiosity, I stayed and listened to the usual nonsense that had justified hate crimes for centuries.
Years later, I was working for a pharmaceutical company in Germany and came across a tour group learning about a very exclusive area of Berlin that had been restored to its prewar glory. The guide spoke English, and so I followed along. He described the architecture of the buildings and described the original owners. “The building to your right was constructed by a highly successful eighteenth century banker… The one next to it was completed by a nineteenth century trader in cotton… Just up the street, that house was completely rebuilt by a famous artist… The one next to it belongs to a wealthy Jew.” I wondered if he simply forgot to mention if the other owners were Lutherans or Catholics or agnostics or atheists. On a similar tour in London, I learned which hotels and department stores were owned by Muslims, but no mention was made of the religious affiliations of non-Muslim owners.
In the United States, there has been a concerted effort to keep religious hate alive. This concerns me as a physician because it, along with racial prejudice, xenophobia, and other hate-based philosophies, affects the allocation of medical resources. When thousands of Americans attacked Congress on Jan. 6, and conspired to overthrow state and national government bodies, I heard no mention of their religious affiliations. I am curious to know what percent identified themselves as Episcopalian, Unitarian, Methodist, Lutheran, Mormon, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, etc. I am curious to know if the faiths they say they adhere to recognize them as representative of their religions. Why wasn’t the group breaking windows and beating policemen and policewomen simply labelled “non-Muslim terrorists?”
Having witnessed the mass stupidity of Jan. 6, I concluded that it is time to retire phrases like “Muslim terrorist,” “Jewish problem,” etc. and merely identify evil people by name. Our constitution, the United States Constitution, specifically bans the application of any religious test in connection with serving in or being served by the government. This was adopted by the Founding Fathers, who were mostly areligious, slave-holding, white men, to protect Christian sects from abuse, exclusion, taxation, etc. by other Christian sects. The Declaration of Independence said, “…all men are created equal,” not that some are more equal than others. (Yes, I know they did not mean it, but at least they thought equality was a good thing for some of them.)
The claim that a religious philosophy can drive men and women to kill or overthrow democratic governments is a hollow defense for hateful behavior. The notion that some populations are more worthy or entitled to medical treatment than others is equally absurd. We live on a small planet. What happens anywhere soon affects everywhere. The right religion is the one that advocates for the health and well-being of all people. I learned that in the first grade.
Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.