Rethinking his religion

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Rethinking his religion

I found this article on the New York Times.

The ending of the article was the best part for me, but there was a lot of good stuff in between.

Here is the article in case the link doesn't work.

Rethinking his religion

by Frank Bruni


I MOVED into my freshman-year dorm at the University of North Carolina after many of the other men on the hall. One had already begun decorating. I spotted the poster above his desk right away. It showed a loaf of bread and a chalice of red wine, with these words: “Jesus invites you to a banquet in his honor.”

This man attended Catholic services every Sunday in a jacket and tie, feeling that church deserved such respect. I kept a certain distance from him. I’d arrived at college determined to be honest about my sexual orientation and steer clear of people who might make that uncomfortable or worse. I figured him for one of them.

About two years ago, out of nowhere, he found me. His life, he wanted me to know, had taken interesting turns. He’d gone into medicine, just as he’d always planned. He’d married and had kids. But he’d also strayed from his onetime script. As a doctor, he has spent a part of his time providing abortions.

For some readers his journey will be proof positive of Rick Santorum’s assertion last month that college is too often godless and corrupting. For others, it will be a resounding affirmation of education’s purpose.

I’m struck more than anything else by how much searching and asking and reflecting he’s done, this man I’d so quickly discounted, who pledged a fraternity when he was still on my radar and then, when he wasn’t, quit in protest over how it had blackballed a Korean pledge candidate and a gay one.

Because we never really talked after freshman year, I didn’t know that, nor did I know that after graduation he ventured to a desperately poor part of Africa to teach for a year. College, he recently told me, had not only given him a glimpse of how large the world was but also shamed him about how little of it he knew.

In his 30s he read all 11 volumes of “The Story of Civilization,” then tackled Erasmus, whose mention in those books intrigued him. When he told me this I was floored: I knew him freshman year as a gym rat more than a bookworm and extrapolated his personality and future from there.

During our recent correspondence, he said he was sorry for any impression he might have given me in college that he wasn’t open to the candid discussions we have now. I corrected him: I owed the apology — for misjudging him.

He grew up in the South, in a setting so homogeneous and a family so untroubled that, he said, he had no cause to question his parents’ religious convictions, which became his. He said that college gave him cause, starting with me. Sometime during freshman year, he figured out that I was gay, and yet I didn’t conform to his prior belief that homosexuals were “deserving of pity for their mental illness.” I seemed to him sane and sound.

He said that we talked about this once — I only half recall it — and that the exchange was partly why he remembered me two decades later.

Questioning his church’s position on homosexuality made him question more. He read the Bible “front to back and took notes of everything I liked and didn’t like,” he said.

“There’s a lot of wisdom there,” he added, “but it’s a real mistake not to think about it critically.”

He also read books on church history and, he said, “was appalled at the behavior of the church while it presumed to teach all of us moral behavior.” How often had it pushed back at important science? Vilified important thinkers?

Even so, he added to his teaching duties in Africa a weekly, extracurricular Bible study for the schoolchildren. But the miseries he witnessed made him second-guess the point of that, partly because they made him second-guess any god who permitted them.

He saw cruelties born of the kind of bigotry that religion and false righteousness sometimes abet. A teenage girl he met was dying of sepsis from a female circumcision performed with a kitchen knife. He asked the male medical worker attending to her why such crude mutilation was condoned, and was told that women otherwise were overly sexual and “prone to prostitution.”

“Isn’t it just possible,” he pushed back, “that women are prone to poverty, and men are prone to prostitution?”

He has thought a lot about how customs, laws and religion do and don’t jibe with women’s actions and autonomy.

“In all centuries, through all history, women have ended pregnancies somehow,” he said. “They feel so strongly about this that they will attempt abortion even when it’s illegal, unsafe and often lethal.”

In decades past, many American women died from botched abortions. But with abortion’s legalization, “those deaths virtually vanished.”

“If doctors and nurses do not step up and provide these services or if so many obstacles and restrictions are put into place that women cannot access the services, then the stream of women seeking abortions tends to flow toward the illegal and dangerous methods,” he said.

He had researched and reflected on much of this by the time he graduated from medical school, and so he decided to devote a bit of each week to helping out in an abortion clinic. Over years to come, in various settings, he continued this work, often braving protesters, sometimes wearing a bulletproof vest.

He knew George Tiller, the Kansas abortion provider shot dead in 2009 by an abortion foe.

THAT happened in a church, he noted. He hasn’t belonged to one since college. “Religion too often demands belief in physical absurdities and anachronistic traditions despite all scientific evidence and moral progress,” he said.

And in too many religious people he sees inconsistencies. They speak of life’s preciousness when railing against abortion but fail to acknowledge how they let other values override that concern when they support war, the death penalty or governments that do nothing for people in perilous need.

He has not raised his young children in any church, or told them that God exists, because he no longer believes that. But he wants them to have the community-minded values and altruism that he indeed credits many religions with fostering. He wants them to be soulful, philosophical.

So he rounded up favorite quotations from Emerson, Thoreau, Confucius, Siddhartha, Gandhi, Marcus Aurelius, Martin Luther King and more. From the New Testament, too. He put each on a strip of paper, then filled a salad bowl with the strips. At dinner he asks his kids to fish one out so they can discuss it.

He takes his kids outside to gaze at stars, which speak to the wonder of creation and the humility he wants them to feel about their place in it.

He’s big on humility, asking, who are we to go to the barricades for human embryos and then treat animals and their habitats with such contempt? Or to make such unforgiving judgments about people who err, including women who get pregnant without meaning to, unequipped for the awesome responsibility of a child?

As a physician, he said, you’re privy to patients’ secrets — to their truths — and understand that few people live up to their own stated ideals. He has treated a philandering pastor, a drug-abusing financier. “I see life as it really is,” he told me, “not how we wish it were.”

He shared a story about one of the loudest abortion foes he ever encountered, a woman who stood year in and year out on a ladder, so that her head would be above other protesters’ as she shouted “murderer” at him and other doctors and “whore” at every woman who walked into the clinic.

One day she was missing. “I thought, ‘I hope she’s O.K.,’ ” he recalled. He walked into an examining room to find her there. She needed an abortion and had come to him because, she explained, he was a familiar face. After the procedure, she assured him she wasn’t like all those other women: loose, unprincipled.

She told him: “I don’t have the money for a baby right now. And my relationship isn’t where it should be.”

“Nothing like life,” he responded, “to teach you a little more.”

A week later, she was back on her ladder.