School: Skidmore College, Junior
Studying: Business major, English minor
ME: Could you describe your religious background? How were you raised?
JAKE: Sure. My dad is Jewish, he is bar-mitzvahed. Mom was raised Catholic, though her dad was Jewish. Neither of them is very religious, although my dad celebrates all of the Jewish holidays with my grandparents and other family members.
But I was never really religious or raised religious. I wasn’t bar-mitzvahed like my dad. I didn’t go to church or temple as a kid, but I do celebrate Hanukah and Rosh Hashanah with my family – even though I don’t know any of the Jewish prayers or what they’re called.
You’ve got an open floor. What are your thoughts on religion? Can you elaborate on your personal beliefs?
Personally, I would consider myself pretty close to atheist. Religion is not important anymore; it was a way to get through life for our ancestors. I think religion is somewhat good – it teaches morals and what not. But now I think it has too much power. It’s taken too seriously. It shouldn’t have any influence in government or politics.
But if people want to be personally religious, I have no problem with it. To me, it’s like watching a TV show – it’s just something to do. You essentially “subscribe” to the church; you give it money, attend services every so often, join the community.
What about all of the theological aspects of religion? Jesus Christ, Mohammed, other big figures…
I think the Bible is full of a bunch of short stories. They teach very good lessons, and it’s important that people know right from wrong. At first, these stories were used in good faith. But it’s been taken a little too far. Everything has its origins, and there’s some truth to the stories. There’s some truth in faith. But for the most part, it’s pretty ridiculous.
Let’s go abstract – how do you relate to the world? What’s the meaning of life? What’s the purpose? Why do you do the things you do?
The most important thing in life – and its meaning – is relationships. The people you’re surrounded by, your friends and family. And to me that’s the meaning – building great relationships, meeting people, having experiences with them. There’s not one central thing or person that I fall back on, like people do with religion. I guess it would be nice to have something consistent like that. But I think relationships are the most important thing, without a doubt.
How do you cope with things? A lot of people say that religion helps people cope with death and mortality, and it gives them hope. How do you cope with the chaos of life?
Honestly (laughs), I don’t really think about it that much. I know we’re all going to die one day, right? And I just don’t really think about it. Once we die, we die.
My mom, though, is super spiritual. She’s been telling my lots about it. She crosses herself and sees spirits.
So she’s spiritual, not religious – what’s the difference?
She doesn’t go to church or practice anything. It’s not organized – it’s individual. I find it really interesting. My mom is an interesting person. She told me the other day that my dog died – he was 16 years old, a great dog. I was talking with her yesterday, and she said she saw a spirit in the death. She’s been getting into it a lot more recently.
I don’t know if I completely believe her; I do believe here because she’s my mom. But it’s hard to believe that she sees spirits…The human mind is a powerful thing.
So you say relationships are the highest purpose for you. But do you actively think about that, about the higher purpose of life and relationships? Or is it just something you do?
I’ve been thinking about it more recently, but it’s more something I do, because I just enjoy it. I did see this one movie I watched for class which was pretty inspirational. Life is where you take it. Everything in life is created so that humans can exist happily or with purpose.
Most people I’ve talked to in Denmark and our kollegium seem pretty similar to you. Not necessarily atheists, but simply not practicing Catholics or Jews. And a lot of them have been students. Do you think people will get more religious as they get older? That they turn to God as they get closer and closer to death?
I think that’s definitely possible. It’s easy for me to say I don’t believe in God because I’m young, hopefully I’m not going to die soon. I don’t know though. I think our generation is turning more away from organized, practicing religion.
Can you give any examples of that trend?
A lot of my friends are not practicing, and they usually consider themselves agnostic. Also, my girlfriend comes from an incredibly religious family – Irish Catholic. Her parents were not allowed to leave their mother’s house until they got married, that’s how religious they were. She had to go to church every Sunday, but when she was 18 she had the choice not to. So she comes from a very religious family, but is personally irreligious.
Do you think this trend is sustainable? That our generation is not only irreligious now, but that it will remain irreligious as we get older? What makes us different from our parents and grandparents?
First, there’s just so much more to do in life now. As I said before, I think religion was just something to do for previous generations – an activity to get them involved in their communities.
There’s just so much that human beings can do to fulfill their lives right now besides religion – traveling, getting a job or career, relationships. Religion does take up a lot of time, and people are less willing to do that now. Also, people are less willing to believe in the Bible or strict doctrines; it’s just not real to them. And people are starting to believe in the sciences more – they’re getting more factual and real.
Denmark is often seen as this irreligious utopia. Everyone talks about relationships, and how they’re supposed to be the happiest country in the world. Do you agree with that? And do you think they should be a model for America in the future?
Yea, I think Danish society is pretty removed from God – though I haven’t talked to many Danes about this issue specifically. I’ve heard that there are many churches that don’t get used, they’re empty. I think Danish society has really progressed and is Sahead of the rest of the world. I feel like America has always been right behind Scandanavia in general – like with women’s rights, health care. They’re always one step ahead of us.
(for a related report in The Economist, read the February 2nd print edition: The Next Supermodel. http://www.economist.com/printedition/2013-02-02)
School: Swarthmore College, Junior
ME: Can you briefly describe your religious background, especially how you grew up?
CHRIS: I used to go to Sunday school for a couple of years, and my parents went a little bit to church, too. I really don’t know why we stopped. We were Christian – probably Protestant, not Catholic.
So was religion ever really talked about? You did go to Sunday school.
Sunday school didn’t leave much of an impression on me; the only thing I remember was running around outside. My high school was Episcopalian – we had “chapel” class but we never dug deep into religious topics there. We had some scripture studies, but that’s about it.
Why did you go to a religious high school?
It was one of the better schools in the area. I definitely didn’t pick it for religious reasons.
Let’s talk some more about family, which I think has a great influence on how people are raised on what they end up believing in. Were your parents at all religious?
They said they believe in God, but they’re not actively religious. I’m not sure about my grandparents, because I’m not that close with them. We don’t talk much about God; we just celebrate Christmas and Easter together as a holiday, without focusing at all on the religion behind it.
How do you define religion? When I say “God,” what does that mean to you?
A higher being of some kind, but not of the Christian sort. If I were religious, I would be an agnostic, or probably follow deism – basically believing that a God was there in the beginning, but doesn’t play a role in daily life anymore.
So what is God? Why do we have religion? Is God personified in any way?
I don’t think so. Honestly, my personal belief is that all religions are really similar. They have a common purpose – to define morals for society. But you don’t need religion. I believe I have good morals, but I’m not a religious person. I don’t need religion to be a good person. I think others use religion to define and justify the way they act. But the way I act is not based on religion; it’s more of a personal choice.
Let’s take an example: Jesus Christ. To you, he is important not because he is the Son of God, but because he is a good moral role model?
Yes, for sure.
So is there any theological importance? Or is it all about morality?
No, it’s all about morality. It seems too convenient, something to make you feel good at night by knowing that someone is looking after you. I think religion is something society developed to help people cope with things, to help them act correctly around other people.
How do you cope with things? Do you use God at all to relate to the world?
No, I usually don’t think about religion at all during the day. Do you?
Yes, I go to church usually, and participate in lots of community activities in college, too. I pray and ask God for guidance and help – for hard challenges, tests, lots of thanks. I could not imagine what my life would be like without God – whatever that means to me. Part of it is very intangible. And yes, part of it comforts me. But I also believe in the theological aspects, which makes it different than just morality.
But you rarely think about God?
Yea, pretty much never.
What about the greater meaning of life? You know, why are you doing the things you’re doing, why you live.
I’m very deeply rooted in technology; I’m a big fan of using technology to help improve and advance humanity. It’s a dangerous view because it’s so optimistic. But a lot better change can come out of technology than religion or politics. Big breakthroughs push us forward.
So it’s all about science?
Yea, and there’s not enough emphasis on science right now. People aren’t as interested as they should be. Like space exploration – it’s going under because people say it’s a waste of money. People don’t realize how important it is. So many inventions have come out of it.
My “higher meaning” is this forward progress, it’s not supernatural in any way, but it motivates us to work hard and to improve ourselves.
School: University of Vermont,
Studying: Religion major, Economics and English minor
ME: Can you describe your personal religious background?
COLIN: I was born as a Protestant Christian, I would go to church every Sunday with my parents and my brother. We would always misbehave (laughs), we would be laughing in the pews so hard that they would vibrate. Mom didn’t like that.
I really didn’t get anything out of it as a kid, we would have church school after the service and I couldn’t connect with any of the kids, we would do all of these weird activities and me and my brother really didn’t fit in.
In 9th grade I had to be confirmed, and at that time I was kind of a professed atheist. I couldn’t believe any of the miracles or supernatural stuff. But I still had to get confirmed because that meant I wouldn’t have to go to church or that school anymore, and I was really pumped about that.
Later in my life in college, I became more interested in myths and ancient religions. I took a religion class with a 70 year-old with a Orthodox Jewish professor, and he really got me into philosophy of religion. Largely because of him, I became a religion major.
So just to get this right, in 9th grade – that was the point that you convinced yourself and made the conclusion that you were an atheist?
Yea, around that time. Going to church had absolutely no connection for me. Obviously God doesn’t exist, there’s not some man sitting in the clouds. In college I was interested in the meaning behind these religious stories, some kind of higher truth that you can access through religious texts. But all of the miraculous claims, religion at face-value, I kind of denied all of that.
Okay. For you, God may not be a man in the sky. But when I say the word “God,” what does that mean for you?
There are two ways that I can rationalize the idea of God.
One is the personal God; for example, praying. Back home I had a routine, I would wake up every morning and pray. I would say, “hello God, these are all the things I am grateful for, this is who I want to help today, who am I working with today.” In that way, God helps me bring together things that are meaningful to me.
God is like the sum total of everything that exists, everything that’s positive. God is my way of addressing the everything – there are an innumerable amount of infinite connections in the world, and I have been given everything I have. God is like an interconnectedness of every event and everything that happens.
Everything wants to be connected, whether it be gravity or human love or atoms and chemical reactions. It all works together.
You do believe that there is some kind of higher power, a higher force, that exists above the human dimension?
No, I don’t think so. When you say “higher,” do you mean up?
Just something outside of yourself. Outside of the human consciousness. It’s hard to explain. But when you say pray, who do you pray to? Or what do you pray to?
I think there is a level beyond what our sense can perceive. I really believe that the attitude has a profound influence on what happens. When I address God, I’m channeling a positive attitude, and I’m actually trying to make a direct connection with everything outside of myself. You could consider that as a higher power, an infinite otherness in the world that is outside of the myself.
Great. Now let’s jump to another term that is loaded with different meanings – Religion. What do you think of when I say “Religion”?
(sighs) Yea, a lot of religion classes start with trying to define this word. You could say it’s an institution, a personal feeling, etc. What people are trying to get at is a kind of coherent world view that transcends what we take as non-religious. The term religion now can only be understood in relation to the number of people who are not religious.
In many ways, religion is a lifestyle. It’s something that’s developed historical. You can call one “religion” and another “capitalism.” They’re collective mentalities.
But the point of religion is that it connects everything. The concept of God is that there is one connecting force in the cosmos. Non-religious world views do not have this same claim. Religion asks how we can deduce value from the fact that everything has a certain interconnectedness to it.
If I’m reading you correctly, you’re saying that religion has very strong cultural aspects. For example, Jews; many may not believe in all of the theological principles, but they are all very connected in their cultural values and lifestyle choices; what they eat, where they go to school, attend Shabbat, traditions like that.
Yea (nods head).
Okay, let’s talk about Denmark. Do you see religion in Denmark, its effects? How do your first few weeks in Copenhagen differed from your experience back home, in terms of religious life?
There hasn’t really been much difference. There are definitely more Muslims here than where I’m from, so in that sense religion is more prominent.
But for me it really doesn’t matter if someone is religious or not. God and religion and all those words are just words. What matters is how that ideology affects how you act in the world. I use God as a way to connect with things, but I don’t think me and an atheist fundamentally disagree. Do I care objective what claims he’s making? No. I care how religion makes people act, not the written theological arguments about what matters.
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