Religion and medicine

I’m an atheist—and a student at a Christian medical school

Initially nervous about studying at a religious school, Jordan E.K. Hitchens, OMS II, shares the surprising revelations she’s had there.

I never really saw myself as closed-minded about anything except for eating at chain restaurants. They’re overpriced, and local independent establishments offer fresher ingredients and more character, in my opinion.

But when I made the journey from the bustling DC suburbs to rural North Carolina for medical school, I realized I was indeed closed-minded about something else: Christianity.

Before medical school, I studied international relations and African studies in London and California. It wasn’t until I began working in an HIV/AIDS clinic that I had the “Aha!” moment most future physicians say they have. I then completed a post-bac in prehealth studies, worked as a medical assistant for a year, and applied to medical school.

In 2013, just days before classes started, I got the call. I learned that I would be attending the Campbell University Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine in Buies Creek, North Carolina, a new school whose mission statement included teaching medicine in a Christian environment. Amid my elation, I also felt uncertain. How would I fit in at a Christian school? How would religion affect my education in the science of medicine?

Culture shock

The first year of medical school was so much harder than I could have ever imagined. And don’t let anyone tell you that the second year is easier. Sitting in class with 161 other highly qualified students, I felt so out of my element as our professor talked about the catecholamine synthesis and tyrosine catabolism pathway. I had just only come to the realization that anything that ended with -ase was an enzyme. I needed to quickly shift my muscle memory of the classroom from discussing political theory to speaking the language of pathophysiology, and I had a lot of catching up to do.

Jordan E.K. Hitchens, OMS II

On top of all the schoolwork, I was dealing with the culture shock of moving to the South and an internal struggle of feeling like a complete outsider.

I come from a fairly diverse religious background. My mother is Jewish by heritage, my father is the son of a Methodist minister, and I was in a long-term relationship with a Senegalese Muslim. Yet, I have never been religious. My childhood household was completely secular. We celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah, mostly for the gifts and the excuse to cook matzo ball soup and lamb.

At CUSOM, I felt like I stuck out like a raven in a sky full of doves. Many locals—my future patients—in Harnett County, North Carolina, are Christian. So are many of my classmates. I was surrounded by members of a club that I wasn’t part of.

At our first-year orientation, our dean, John M. Kauffman Jr., DO, relayed his own definition of learning medicine in a Christian environment. To him, Campbell provides a learning space that encourages “everything that’s good about being Christian.” I thought to myself, “Well, isn’t that convenient? What about the bad aspects of Christianity? We’re just going to overlook them?”

When I visited him in his office to discuss this very concept, he pointed to a poster on his wall of the golden rule—you know, the Biblical statement that instructs people to treat others the way they want to be treated. The poster featured similar dictums from all the other major world religions, such as Islam and Buddhism, suggesting that the different faiths are more similar than people might assume.

Dr. Kauffman spoke about how the goodness of Christianity includes the “fruit of the spirit,” which the apostle Paul wrote about in his letter to the Galatians in the New Testament. These manifestations of a good Christian life include love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

A common goal

The profession of a doctor is one of servitude, Dr. Kauffman said. He spoke about caring for your fellow man (and woman!) and loving all others without judgment. I had another “Aha!” moment: I realized that our different worldviews overlapped much more than I initially had thought. Dr. Kauffman, a Christian, and I, an atheist, share a common life goal: to take care of others and put their needs first.

As physicians, we must be prepared to aptly tackle whatever comes up during our shift. Physicians should be ready to treat whoever walks, rolls or runs in with a deep level of compassion, Dr. Kauffman stressed.

I used to think being open-minded meant being especially sensitive toward alternative lifestyles, marginalized people, outsiders and the destitute. But now I understand that to be truly open-minded, I must expand upon that definition to include anyone different from me. One must approach each and every person from a place of empathy and acceptance.

Medical school is about gaining the knowledge and skills to care for your future patients in the most effective way possible. As a nonreligious student learning in a Christian environment, I’ve had the opportunity to pick up an extra skill I may not have otherwise gained. I have been taught the importance of incorporating faith into the care of religious patients. At CUSOM, students are instructed on how to delicately ask questions about spiritual health in our complete medical histories.

I will be let loose in the wards soon, in a community where many patients share the religious beliefs of my school’s founders. I am now able to better navigate personal questions about religion, whatever spiritual background my patient may have. This new awareness will allow me to better relate to and care for my patients.

Osteopathic physicians recognize the innate interconnectedness between mind, body and spirit. Although I have previously personally struggled to reconcile how religion and medicine can live harmoniously together, I understand that the holistic needs of the patient must direct the partnership between physician and patient. As a physician, I’m responsible for addressing my patient’s mind, body and spirit regardless of the doctrine we each individually follow.

All medical students spend significant amounts of time outside their comfort zone. We are grilled in the intensive care unit, we study harder than we ever thought we could, and we learn to carefully perform invasive, immodest exams. But as an atheist in a Christian school and community, I’ve spent a little more time outside my comfort zone than I expected. I hope all of my classmates also have the opportunity to work extensively with patients of different backgrounds from their own. The experience would be as good for them as my time here has been for me, I think.

Learning to stretch my view of the world has been a humbling experience. I’ve realized that life continually provides you with opportunities to self-reflect and grow your own worldview. You just have to be receptive to change and willing to tackle challenges head-on. To that end, I am meeting some friends at the Olive Garden tonight. Just kidding, I’m not ready for that yet. Instead, we’re heading to a new mom-and-pop pizza place down the street.

19 comments

  1. Great article. I am surrounded by people of different religions or no religion. I’m an ESL teacher and routinely have students that are Atheist, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, etc. I’m also a Real Estate Broker with a large number of non-native clients of different religions too. I’ve found that my friends, family, co-workers, clients, and students basically converge in the end….we are all people. Visually it’s a chart with diverging answers and lines – greatly skewed at times – but converging in the end. I too graduated from Campbell University – twice actually. While working on my MBA, my assigned partners were also from around the world – mostly from Thailand and one from Saudi Arabia. It’s sad that there is a preconceived notion about attending a University affiliated with any religion. We are the world. ..a mixed up hodgepodge of all types. I love that.

  2. I would like to thank David Whiteman for posting this most interesting article. I found it touched on an important subject in todays society. Congradulations Jordan E.K. Hitchens for this message.

  3. Jordan,
    Thank you for this essay. I am a Christian who teaches at a secular, public university. I applaud that you have shared the lessons you’ve learned. As we teach students to open themselves to beliefs and customs of others in order to better meet the holistic needs of each patient I hope that I can capture the spirit in which you shared your experience. Thank you.

  4. [Please refrain from bringing up morality discourses as I have personally been able to fully reconcile my homosexuality with my faith. I believe in God who loves and created me as I am.]

    I was wondering if anyone here who attends or have attended faith-based schools (CUSOM, MU-COM, etc.) had a student, staff, or faculty who was openly gay. How do you think they were received by the school? Welcomed? How do you think their well-being and self-efficacy fared as they worked and studied alongside students and staff who may have viewed his or her life(style) as wrong? Any answers to these questions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

  5. Funny, I started medical school in Pomona (COMP) in 1987 as an agnostic, finding myself surrounded by the faithful. I thought I was OH-so superior to them and their closed little minds. Atheists/agnostics are like that. Arrogant. Closed-minded. Lacking insight. Missing the obvious.

    I never realized that my discomfort around christians may have had more to do with something missing in ME than what I was thinking I was seeing in THEM (it’s called “projection,” you’ll learn about it in your Psych rotations). Well, I did, just took me a while.

    Fast forward nearly 30 years and I’m a born-again christian who can ONLY see God’s hand in every step and misstep in my life – and there were and ARE so many of the latter I could die from embarrassment – and am perpetually amazed at how many atheists I meet on a day to day basis. Then I recall how I was just a few years ago.

    Well, how old was Saul of Tarsus when he was enlightened en route to Damascus?

    It takes some longer than others.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. COMP or now western, was a life changing experience not only learning hard science( English major) but experiencing different religions – Mormon and Islam and Buddhism in very close quarters….. Class of 161. I was also fortunate to find strong Christian women who surrounded me with love, support and scripture when I floundered. Without our Thursday night potlucks, I would not be the doc that I am today.

  6. Thank you for this insight. Your article produces in me an important response that is based on my study of osteopathy and Dr. Still. It is important to realize that Dr. Still did not accept his father’s religious paradigm, but he did receive his father’s influence through medical training. Yet Dr. Still was a very spiritual person, nevertheless rejecting organized religion. Read Dr. Still and understand that spirituality, not religion is at the foundation of osteopathic philosophy. The wholeness of of body, mind and spirit is the foundation of our philosophy. Spirit can be compatible with atheism.

  7. Thanks Jordan … from a Black brought up in the midst of racism … learned how not to hate but love the good found in all people and that sickness and health have no bias we must care for them all.

  8. Really cool and thoughtful article, Jordan. As a Christian, I have to say that the most caring person I have ever worked with is my current nephrology partner, a wonderful Hindu woman. (and an MD no less!) As you point out, we all have much to learn from each other

  9. “I used to think being open-minded meant being especially sensitive toward alternative lifestyles, marginalized people, outsiders and the destitute. But now I understand that to be truly open-minded, I must expand upon that definition to include anyone different from me. One must approach each and every person from a place of empathy and acceptance.”

    So well put! Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts.

  10. As a Christian who teaches at a Christian osteopathic medical school, I have students from many different faiths and national backgrounds. I approach everyone through the parable of the Good Samaritan. In context, the parable is a very intercultural story. A lawyer had just answered Jesus’ question about what the greatest commandments were, namely to love God … And to love your neighbor as yourself. As all good lawyers do, this one then asked Jesus for a legal definition of neighbor, so he could go carry out the commandment. Jesus’ answer was the parable. The story (Luke 10:25-37, for anyone who cares to see the original account) depicts someone from a despised race tending to a victim of assault, battery and robbery. The point of the story, of course, was that ANYONE is your neighbor. The Samaritan didn’t ask how the victim got there, what he was doing beforehand, what his religion was, what his sexual orientation was, what his economic status was, or anything else. He just felt compassion for him and took care of him. Jesus told the lawyer to go and do what the Samaritan did. This is much more than just tolerating our neighbors. It is loving them, becoming part of their lives and ministering to them and their needs. It doesn’t mean agreeing with them or encouraging destructive lifestyles, but it does mean accepting them as people, created in God’s image, who are part of our broken world, that Jesus, and, by extension, his followers, came to heal and redeem.

  11. With a merger seemingly finally eminent between the MD and DO professions, one might question if this is the best time to build yet another DO school where the cost of attendance is $70,000 per year! Add that this new DO school is in a state with very well respected and established medical schools such as UNC, Duke, and Wake Forest and it just makes one wonder if Jerry Wallace DO School’s purpose is to graduate DOs for “rural medicine” or is it another DO “franchise” school in in for the money? If you want a “Christian” medical school, why not attend Notre Dame Medical School?
    Robert J. Blok, Sr., D.O., F.A.O.C.A
    Colonel, US Army Medical Corps (Ret)
    Professor of Anesthesiology-VCOM
    Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology-WFU
    ACOS-Hefner Veterans Affairs Medical Center

  12. I found myself thinking about the way you began and ended your article. By this I am referring to your stated reluctance to eat at chain restaurants and joking about eating at the Olive Garden at the end of your article. You wrote that you were not quite ready for that yet. When I read those words, I recalled that one of the last things that Jesus did with his friends was to go to an Olive Garden of sorts. It was a garden on the Mount of Olives where he agonized before his execution. Very few of us are truly ready to go to that sort of an Olive Garden.
    Keep up the good work.

  13. Congratulation on this accomplishment!
    There is more to come from you Jordan, best wishes to your further education towards becoming a Doctor!

  14. Catching up on the mountains of reading I ran across this article. Very well done Jordan. I can only echo the words of Dr. Lee. The Spirit of Osteopathy is not about religion. A faith based osteopathic medical school may make it easier to discuss this overlooked topic. Unconditional love and a desire to serve our community to restore the health thread that lives and breathes in us all is espoused/ practiced by physicians. Keeping that intention at the forefront when dealing with unfamiliar, and therefore often uncomfortable situations can be challenging. Thanks for opening this dialogue

  15. Interesting article. Most Jewish thought dating from Roman times is that if you are born of a Jewish mother you are Jewish by birth if not by choice.
    To me, retaining the Jewish identity and culture in a vastly non Jewish nation is important, at least on a historical basis.

  16. I recommend you read two books, Who Moved the Stone? by Frank Morison and The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. Both were atheists/agonostics who did investigative reporting and had to follow where the facts led them.

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