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Pre-departure thoughts: coursework, expectations, hopes and fears

Only a few days left until my departure for Copenhagen!  I can’t believe how fast this last week has come up.  I began the whole application process over a year ago, fumbling through my options and creating quite a headache at the study abroad office.  I started with Ukraine, jumped to London, considered Australia and Scotland, and even thought about South Africa.  I asked a million questions and spent hours on Google researching my possible destinations.

With about a month left until the deadline, I stumbled upon Copenhagen.  I didn’t know much about Denmark.  I’ve heard about it a few times before – its egalitarian society, low crime rates, high taxation, utopian aspirations.  Sounded pretty interesting, and it was somewhat off the beaten path.  As the days went by, I realized how perfectly Denmark fit into my course work.  I’m particularly interested in religion/politics; Denmark provides a fascinating case study where religion supposedly plays an insignificant role in daily life, and I’ll be conducting some research on this issue while abroad.

I’ll be taking 5 courses: Humanitarian Law & Armed Conflict (my “core course”), Kierkegaard’s Authorship (Copenhagen’s famous existential thinker), Muslims in the West (a sociological approach), EU-US Relations, and Danish Language & Culture.  When I’m not reading or studying, I plan on exploring as much as possible, both in Copenhagen and beyond.  DIS (Danish Institute of Study Abroad – the program that is organizing my whole semester) provides many immersion opportunities, and I am even going to Bosnia and Herzegovina with my core class to study the Yugoslavian civil wars.

I will be living in a dorm-style apartment with one other roommate and several other Americans living on my floor, and together I think we’ll all be able to handle the proverbial “culture shock” a little better!  To be honest, I’m quite nervous going abroad, and though I’m really excited to go to Copenhagen, I’m not even sure if I want to leave Georgetown in the first place!  I really have it all on the Hilltop – a solid friendship network that’s already 5 semesters strong, world-class faculty, a gorgeous campus, and all of the perks of living in the political capital of the world (I think rather highly of DC!).  I could not imagine being anywhere else but Georgetown.

Why in the world would I want to leave it all?  For a city on the other side of the world filled with new strangers, new laws, new food, new culture?   It’s certainly a leap of faith – and a giant one at that.  There’s a lot of risks involved, especially compared to a place like Georgetown, where everything is just so familiar.

What exactly am I nervous about? About making new friends in a culture where people are supposed to be relatively private and keep to themselves; leaving old friends behind in the States; the dark winter months, where the sun rarely comes out during the day; new social norms that may take some time to adjust to; commuting to class every day on the public buses and subways; meeting my “visiting family” for the first time.

A lot of friends ask me why I’m leaving.  I ask myself the same question, and I can’t really give a definite answer.  The risk itself must be compelling.  DC is great, but there’s just so much more out there to see, so many more people to meet, so many more things to do.  Sure, I’ll be tossed into some cold water.  There will be plenty of mistakes and unexpected moments along the way.  I will unintentionally say something stupid in Danish and get lost downtown more than a few times.

But when I come back in May or August or whenever, I bet I’m going to say it was all worth it.  I’ve always been more of the optimistic type, so let’s roll the dice.  I think they’re weighted.

Religion and Denmark: My Initial Analysis

GodAt Georgetown last semester, I wrote a research paper about the influence of religion on Danish politics and society: Full Text Here.

Below are some excerpts of my work:

page 1 (introduction)

How one meets death, the meaning of tragedy, the nature of obligation, the character of love – these recurrent questions which are, I believe, cultural universals that are asked in all societies where men have become conscious of the finiteness of existence…Men may expand their technical powers. Nature may be mastered by scientific knowledge. There may be progress in the instrumental realms. But the existential questions remain.[1]

Such is the claim of Daniel Bell in Return of the Sacred.  Indeed, the existential questions remain the focal point of man’s consciousness, as he struggles to answer profound questions about the meaning and direction of life.  Certainly, not all men think about such questions.  But many do, and they often feel the need to look outside of themselves to find the answers.  As Bell writes, the individual is limited by the very “finiteness of existence,” and questions of life, death, tragedy, and love exist on an infinite domain that transcends the short life span of a human being.  Individuals live and die every day, but existential questions persist for eternity.

Yet the answers – assuming that there are answers to begin with – not only compel man to look out, but to look up.  Men look up to a higher entity, one which has control over humanity and can serve as the all-encompassing source of knowledge and meaning.  This eminence is the very essence of religion.

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page 3 (the “secular age”)

Indeed, discussions about “secularization” and decreased “religiosity” are fundamentally flawed.  There is no such thing as “secularization,” as least in the sense of decreased religiosity.  Certainly, men may stop believing in the supernatural God, but they continue to believe in another earthly one.  Forever seeking for answers to eternal questions, there is no “secular age” for man.  He remains committed to religion: he will continue to look outside of himself, though what he finds may not be outside of this world.  The search for meaning is an incessant, inevitable struggle; as Tocqueville describes it, “The nature of man is sufficiently revealed for him to know something of himself and sufficiently veiled to leave much in impenetrable darkness, a darkness in which he ever gropes, forever in vain, trying to understand himself.”[2]  By their very nature, humans will always look up and worship something, whether it be money or sex or God.  In the case of Denmark, they worship themselves, idealizing their egalitarian society that is supported by the all-inclusive welfare state.

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page 9 (ultimate good)

Proud of their shared heritage and history, men are willing to sacrifice their individuality for the sake of the common good.  To this end, they prefer a strong state that can enforce equality and consolidate individual differences.  The Danish government, which taxes its citizens heavily and redistributes it to eliminate material disparities, is the ideal embodiment of this principle.  However, such policies create an imbalance; as Tocqueville affirms, “each individual is isolated and weak, but society is active, provident, and strong; private persons achieve insignificant things, but the state immense ones.”[3]  The state is the highest authority, the distributor of resources, the caretaker of needs, and the ultimate source of goodness and justice.

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page 11 (ultimate good – personal anecdote)

I think it’s a long time to be here on the earth, more than 80 years very often, and – have a nice time, and in some cases make a difference…not only for yourself but for other people, for your family.  And have good relations and meet beautiful music and literature and so on – and for me – I don’t understand the people who say, “Well what else? What’s afterwards?”[4]

For many Danes, there is nothing afterwards; but this belief does not render them abject heathens.  Certainly, they may not believe in the supernatural; but that does not prevent them from looking up to humanity and believing in the real goodness of their own society.  When asking about the worth of life and death, man judges himself in relation to society.  He looks up to the common good as the highest good, and it becomes his religion.

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page 13 (“cultural religion”)

Danes may lack the belief in a divine God, but vestiges of supernatural religious culture remain…Most Danes still baptize their children, experience confirmation, pay taxes to the church, and get married in churches.  However, they do this not because they believe in the dogmas and theological principles of the Christian tradition.  Instead, it is mostly a cultural activity; people continue to belong to a faith they don’t believe in because it is an ingrained part of Danish society:

Millions of people eat or refuse to eat certain foods, they sing songs or recite prayers, fast or feast, baptize or circumcise their children…not because of any deep belief in the other-worldly, or to please or placate God, or to ensure their immortality – but because it feels special, or because it gives their lives a sense of rhythm and poignancy, or because it brings families together, or because it makes them feel like they are part of something grand and auspicious…or simply because of cultural inertia, in other words, ‘that’s just what we do.’[5]

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page 16 (conclusion)

Thus, religion is ambiguous, and man is sufficiently opaque.  A sociologist cannot measure “religiosity” in the same way that a biologist can measure the number of molecules in drop of water.  Zuckerman, the sociologist, is troubled by the necessity for subjectivity.  He must define what he means by “religion,” what are the parameters for “religiosity,” and what his subjects mean when they talk about their faith.  This makes characterizing Denmark as “less religious” problematic.  As I have explained, his definitions and parameters – which are the foundation of his entire argument – are flawed in my estimation.  Religion is not solely about the supernatural; certainly, the supernatural can be an important aspect of religion, but it is by no means exclusive to the definition.  Rather, religion is simply the process of looking outside oneself, reaching upwards to a higher entity that can impose a sense of order and meaning on life.  Tocqueville’s philosophy best supports this logic, as he defines religion by its ability to pull man out of himself:

Every religion places the object of man’s desires outside and beyond…and naturally lifts the soul into regions far above the realm of the sense.  Every religion also imposes on each man some obligations toward mankind, to be performed in common with the rest of mankind, and so draws him away, from time to time, from thinking about himself.  That is true even of the most false and dangerous religions.[6]

Not only does man exit his tiny self, but he finds solace in a higher calling, which binds his community together and drives him towards a common goal.  In traditional religions like Christianity and Islam, the soul is naturally lifted towards the heavens, which promises the spiritual salvation of mankind.  But in Denmark, the soul does not climb quite that high, as it rejects the supernatural.  Rather, it finds its religion not in the individual man but in mankind, incorporated into a unified society and supported by both the selfless acts of individuals and the policies of the all-inclusive welfare state.

Neither the earthly nor the supernatural religion is more “correct” than the other, although Tocqueville warns that some can be “false and dangerous.”  Perhaps the Danes fall into the latter category.  Refusing to unleash their minds toward the heavens, they set limits on what humanity can and cannot achieve, and are wary when someone tests those limits.  In a similar vein, Daniel Bell reflects how “we are now groping for a new vocabulary whose keyword seems to be limits: a limit to growth, a limit to spoliation of environment, a limit to arms, a limit to torture, a limit to hubris – can we extend the list?”[7]  In finding meaning within the confines of this earth, the Danes may indirectly cause the stagnation of their own society.  How far can they grow, how much happiness can they attain before they reach the limits of their earthly heaven?  Will they be forever satisfied with what the God-in-time provides them?  Indeed, men are finite beings; but that does not mean they will ultimately settle for finitude.


[1] Tocqueville, 487.

[2] Daniel Bell, “The Return of the Sacred,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 31, No. 6 (1978): 33.

[3] Tocqueville, 703.

[4] Zuckerman, 41.

[5] Zuckerman, 155.

[6] Tocqueville, 445.

[7] Bell, 55.

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