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Religion and Nationalism in Ukraine

It’s finals week here at Georgetown.  Holed up in a Healy conference room, I’m happy to say I’ve finished my first paper.  Reflecting my interest in religion and politics, my chosen topic of “Religion and Nationalism in Ukraine” piqued my curiosity.  If you’re interested too, here’s a link to my paper.

It covers the role of religion in inspiring the ongoing Euromaidan protests and influencing Russia’s aggressive response.  I conclude with some policy recommendations for the U.S. and Europe.

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When in Rome…see the Pope

“Pray for me.”

Those were the only three words I could understand, a short plea spoken from the lips of Pope Francis himself.

We knew he didn’t speak very much English, and for a few minutes we anxiously waited in the Vatican chambers, wondering when he would arrive and how he would address us.  Watched carefully by two Swiss guards in their circus-colored robes, we paced around the room – some posing by the papal seat for pictures, others gawking at the glorious frescoed ceiling, and everyone very much excited for our private audience with the renowned Church leader.

His words were simple, and his phrase was charged with humility.  Known for taking public transportation, refusing to live in the luxurious papal apartment, and infusing the Church with a call to simplicity and service, here is the holy father acknowledging his own weakness and asking for our support.  Here is a man so full of prayer and blessing and baby-kissing, and yet he is asking me to pray for him.  

How exactly did I get to this place?  Just last week, I was in Rome for the Berkley Center’s Christianity and Freedom Conference, a large gathering of researchers and academics at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome.  It was a rather unexpected trip across the world.  A student assistant had dropped out at the last minute, and I was fortunate enough to take his spot just one week before departure.  Final exams could wait!

In addition to some logistical support, I was charged with bringing over the official Berkley Center camera, making me the unofficial cameraman for my unexpected Italian adventure.  And there I was, standing about an arms-length from the Pope, snapping photos and trying to pretend like I knew what I was doing.  Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

Some photos from the visit:

That's me in the back center in ready position!

That’s me in the back center in ready position!

with the papal seat

with the papal seat

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with Dr. Farr, one of our project leaders from Georgetown

with Kevin and Kyle - two of the guys that put it all together!

with Kevin and Kyle – two of the guys that put it all together!

and some other photos from around the city…

IMG_2115IMG_0246IMG_0275 (2)

finally, reuniting with some Italian friends from Copenhagen!

finally, reuniting with some Italian friends from Copenhagen! thanks to Gianluca and Davide for showing us around

Politics or religion?

No discussion about Bosnia would be complete without reference to my favorite subjects: religion and politics.  As I mentioned in my pre-departure post, the Bosnian War involved three major parties: Bosniak Muslims (majority of Sarajevo and about 43% in Bosnia pre-war), Bosnian Serbs (backed by Serbia, roughly 30%), and Bosnian Croats (backed by Croatia, roughly 15%).  The ethnic mix seems like a powder keg, destined to explode.

It sure exploded.  But why?  The convenient explanation is that different religions cannot get along, especially when they are bound in an uneasy political union.  My initial impression was that Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats harbored an inherent antagonism, rooted in the different beliefs, histories, and cultures that make up their identity.

The religious element is so visceral that it’s hard to ignore.  At Srebrenica, Serb commander Ratkum Mladic proclaimed the following: (warning: contains graphic images)

Indeed, it seems like religion was a huge factor in much of this bloodshed.

Yet, my experiences show that this may not have been the case.  In fact, all of the religious and political leaders that we met argued that the Bosnian War was not a religious conflict.  Serbian Orthodox priest Mitar Tarasic said confidently: “It was not a religious war.  It was just war.  We had conferences and calls for peace, but the politicians would not listen.”  It was a war of all against all.  Bosniaks were fighting Serbs, Serbs were fighting Croats, Bosniaks were fighting Bosniaks, and so on.  You get the picture.

Bosniak students told me they had Croat and Serbian friends, and that the three communities had cooperated for many generations.  The Jewish community leader described how he opened a soup kitchen for all people in Sarajevo, serving 350 meals per day with just 2 pots and 50 liters of water.  When Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1990, it never intended nor foresaw a military conflict.  And their cultures are not all that different.

The conflict was largely political.  Politics is a dirty business – and when mixed with religion, it becomes a lethal combination.  It is a game of manipulating ethnic/religious differences to achieve political goals – in this case, to crush Bosnian independence and reunite it with Yugoslavia (which Serbia claimed to represent).

One student was rather blunt, saying: “We need the older politicians to die.  They are teaching us to hate each other.”  There is definitely optimism for the future; most of the young adults identified not as Bosniaks or Croats or Serbs, but simply as “Bosnians.”  They have put the war behind them, and look forward to building a nation no longer characterized solely by their family backgrounds.

Perhaps the student is being a bit rash.  But the current political system certainly needs to change, for it is defined far too much in narrow ethnic terms.  If you thought the U.S. political system was a mess, think again.  In Bosnia, there are three presidents who rule at once: one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb.  The country is divided into two regions based on ethnicity: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (mostly Bosniak/Croat) and the Republic of Srpska (mostly Serb).  Cantons and cities further divide the country.  The Dayton Accords have essentially institutionalized ethnic divisions.  It is amazing that the country has not blown up once again.

So yes – politics suck, and they have created quite a mess in the Balkans.  Be wary of those who immediately blame religion as the cause of wars and conflicts.  Look beyond it – see who’s controlling the strings, who stands to profit, and what are the ultimate goals.

Going numb in Bosnia

Sarajevo

A single blog post does not do Bosnia justice.  I cannot fully convey my experience in Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Srebrenica unless I took you there myself – I learned too much, spoke with too many people, opened my eyes too wide.  I Skyped with my parents for an hour and a half when I returned to Copenhagen on Tuesday, and even that was grossly insufficient.

To kick things off, here’s a rundown of my itinerary and some of the places we visited (part of my Justice & Human Rights Program):

  • Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Court of War Crimes
  • European Union Delegation
  • Meeting with mayor of Tuzla
  • International Commission of Missing Persons
  • Srebrenica (site of genocide)
  • Meeting with Croat, Jewish, and Serb representatives
  • Dinners, cafes, and parties with local students

Quite a lot was packed into our 5-day trip, and once again I have realized why exactly I chose to study abroad at DIS.  We weren’t there to just sightsee or party at local clubs.  We were there to experience first-hand the issues we had read about in class and seen on TV.  I’ll try to sum up some of the amazing things I learned:

People have some amazing stories to tell.  It hit me like a brick wall; talking with local students – many of them the same age as me – was undoubtedly the most striking part of my experience.  During the Bosnian War (1990-1994), Sarajevo was under siege for four years, surrounded by the Serbian army.  Those who stayed in the city went through hell.  Food was rationed, cigarettes became money (they love to smoke!), and the civilians endured constant shelling and sniper fire.  Just imagine being a young child, maybe five or six years old, and seeing things like…

  • Your father shot in the leg while picking blackberries with him
  • Grandma killed by a sniper while buying bread
  • Having to crawl on your knees whenever you used the bathroom because you could get shot through the window
  • Going to school in your basement
  • Cemeteries, maternity wards, and churches getting bombed
  • Driving through the mountains in a crowded van in the middle of the night, with a older lady in the back crying and screaming as they tried to cross the border (personal account of our tour guide)
  • Not knowing if your Serb or Croat neighbor was going to shoot or save you

I stared in disbelief.  Seriously, are we living in the same world?  Am I actually talking to you right now?   It is amazing what some people have lived through, and how big of a cakewalk my life has been in comparison.  In what was called “Sniper Alley,” marksmen would camp out in abandoned buildings and deliberately target any civilians who were out in the open.  The so-called “Bosnian Romeo and Juliet” – a couple trying to flee across the river in “Sniper Alley” – were gunned down during the night.  Their bodies lay there for seven days.

The river was the main front of the siege, with Serbs holding the left side of the river. Snipers would camp in these buildings

The river was the main front of the siege, with Serbs holding the left side of the river. Snipers would camp in these buildings

There are plenty of reminders.  Next to the Holiday Inn and some new “skyscrapers” are buildings still pierced with bullet holes and broken walls.  Cemeteries roll up and down the mountains.  Amidst incredible beauty, scars remain.

Of course, there were happy stories, too.  The students smiled as they described how they collected artillery shrapnel, rode around in wheelbarrows (mistakenly called “wheelchairs”) and went to the soup kitchen – which was operated by Jews, Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks!  One guy even told me how his grandfather was rescued; dragged out of his home to a firing squad, his Serb neighbor threw him into the long grass of a nearby field when no one was looking, saving his friend from certain death.

Later we took a trip to Srebrenica, the site of a brutal massacre.  8000 Bosniak men were herded like animals and killed, their bodies thrown in mass graves.  Our guide, who was seventeen at the time, was lucky to escape by surviving the “Death March” – as several thousand men fled through the mountains into free territory.  At the International Commission of Missing Persons, we saw the bones of those that did not survive, neatly shelved in white plastic bags in the giant storage room.  I covered my nose and stood in delirium.

gravestones at Srebrenica

gravestones at Srebrenica

The experience was numbing.  It all felt so direct, so shocking, so real.  I’ve been to killing fields before – in Auschwitz, Gettysburg, Normandy.  But this was somehow different.  I’m not just looking at pictures and videos.  There is no historical or generational gap here.  I’m talking to the actual people that lived through this hell, and many of them are my age.  I can relate to them a little bit more.  These are my peers.

And I just keep thinking how damn lucky I am.  I was never afraid of running around or playing baseball outside.  I didn’t go to school in a dark basement.  I was never suspicious that my neighbors would stab me in the back.  I wasn’t going to get snipered in the middle of the street.

It’s amazing what some people had to live through.  I asked a billion questions on this trip, and I want to ask a billion more.

Easter in Vienna

Who knew traveling could be such hard work?  I quickly found that out yesterday, as I arrived back in Copenhagen after 9 days in Sarajevo and Vienna.  When there is so much to do, you want to do it all!

It would be remiss not to start where my trip ended: Easter.  It was unlike any I’ve ever experienced.  I went to two services on Sunday – first, in my Ukrainian Catholic style (this is filmed at the end of the liturgy, when the priest sings Христос Воскрес!…meaning “Christ is Risen”):

After this was over, we walked over to the University Church (Jesuit!) a few minutes away. It was probably the most beautiful church I have ever seen, filled with the most beautiful music I have ever heard.  The pews were so packed that I had to stand in the aisle.   It felt like I was no longer on earth, caught in a sort of other-worldy limbo.  It was so spectacular that I had to fight back tears.  

Here is the closing song; maybe you’ll get a sense of what I mean:

Special thanks to Daniel (who woke up early to come with me to Mass) and Fr. Fields at Georgetown (who recommended the Jesuit church)!

The life of a Catholic in Denmark: my personal midterm reflection

Marble Church - interiorThey say you should never bring up politics or religion.  Well, I do both.  I’ve talked to many Danes – fellow students, professors, bus passengers, my visiting family – about their religiosity, and I get a similar response almost every time.  Either they are more “spiritual” than “religious” (we could debate for hours about what those terms actually mean), or they aren’t anything at all.  I consider them atheist, agnostic, doubting, confused, indifferent.  There are lots of different words to describe their beliefs, or lack thereof.

In fact, I have not met a single Dane who is religious.  Not a single one.  Given my expectations and research, I cannot say that my experience so far has been surprising.  But given my background, it has been somewhat shocking.  My greatest revelation is not about Denmark, but America.  In particular, I realize I have been very isolated over the past 20 years.  I have attended Catholic schools my entire life, and while studying abroad I have become surrounded, for the very first time, by people with views completely foreign to my own.

My shock may come across as a bit silly.  Indeed, I am living in a foreign country, so I will obviously encounter foreign opinions.  I did not gasp when my host brother could not remember the last time he went to church, or after meeting Dane after Dane who admitted they were not raised in any religious context.

But cut me some slack; for the first time, I am not in the majority.  I’m part of a minority that is not just Catholic or Christian, but religious.  Compared to the touted “diversity” or Georgetown, Denmark feels worlds away.  Despite the diversity of the Hilltop – manifested in not only race and ethnicity, but in beliefs and ways of thinking – I still feel a strong religious presence there.  I can spend hours in a classroom discussing Nietzsche’s political theory or debating the ethics of abortion, yet when I step out of class, I am greeted by the statue of John Carroll and the stone crosses on Healy Hall.  I can attend Mass on Sunday in a chapel packed with eager students, where there is often standing room only.  I can talk with my chaplain, sing in the church choir, and volunteer with the Knights of Columbus.  It is all so accessible and familiar.

You can certainly do these things in Copenhagen – there are just harder to find and not well-attended.  I have been to several different churches, although most of the parishioners are immigrants, not ethnic Danes. (Which begs a tangential question: at what point do immigrants become “Danes?”  The concept of cultural integration is much more opaque here than in the States, especially concerning the growing Muslim population.)

It has been a struggle, because as a practicing Catholic, my faith has undoubtedly shaped my social network.  Many of my classes, clubs, and organizations at Georgetown are filled with people who are already inclined towards religion.  Prior to this semester abroad, I was very optimistic about the religiosity among young adults – and maybe foolishly so.

Copenhagen has thrown me a curveball.  I did not choose who would be in my social network in Denmark.  I could not choose who would be living in my kollegium in the same way that I chose to be part of the Knights of Columbus or Catholic chaplaincy at Georgetown.  We are thrown together like awkward freshmen – students from public schools and private ones, religious schools and non-religious ones, different family backgrounds and cultures, various majors and interests.  There is a lot of diversity, but not much religion.

My perception of the world has completely changed.  Things that I have taken for granted for the past 20 years are being challenged like never before.  Perhaps God does not really exist.  Perhaps personal relationships are our ultimate calling.  Perhaps morality can be independent of religion.  And most shockingly, perhaps most people do not actually believe in God.

It is time to find some answers, if there are any.  It all seems a bit overwhelming – but I think that’s the point.

A closer look at Russia

When you travel, you’re supposed to learn.  Taking photos and following tour guides can be so shallow.  Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back and study the country. If you really get to know the place, meet the locals, learn the language, study the history, and grasp the culture, then the experience will be so much more rewarding.

And like in Russia, hopefully you can make some critical judgments along the way.  Here are some that I made about Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

Religion is a roller coaster.  Surprise surprise, Nick is talking about religion again!  Russia’s Orthodox Church is amazing.  Behind all of the shimmering mosaics and icons is a strong, active religious community.  The history is astounding  – Russia went from being one of the most religious nations in the world to one of the least in just a few generations, sparked by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.  After the Cold War, churches opened up again, and the Church-State relations are now as tight as ever.

While in St. Petersburg, we talked to Father Vladimir at the Transfiguration Church.  We discussed the Pussy Riot scandal (his take: don’t disrespect the Church – it exists on a level far above punk rock), his personal beliefs (“If you are a slave to God, you can never be a slave to man”), and the totality of the Orthodox faith (permeates both personal and political life).  A truly inspiring man, and one of my highlights of the trip.

The facade is beautiful.  I already raved about this, but Russia is unbelievable to look at.  The food, sun, landscape, churches, statues, canals, palaces, and colorful streets really gives these cities their charm.

Just be careful if you dig a little beneath the skin.  There’s a memorial to the victims of the “Communist Terror,” but on the other side of Petersburg is a communist rally for Stalin sympathizers.  There was a Pussy Riot protest underneath peaceful church domes.  There’s Bentley’s and homeless beggars.  There’s two sides to the story, and a whole lot of irony.

Communism sucks.  There are parts of Russia that look like a blast from the past.  We visited an old communitarian apartment (the Soviets threw out the rich family that used to live there and redistributed all of the rooms to poorer, working-class families).  The utopian intentions are fluffy, but in reality, all of the common areas looked disgusting.  Broken windows, cracked walls, dirty floors, and a tiny bathroom that was supposed to fit 7 families.  As Russian author Joseph Brodsky says, “If there is an infinite aspect of space, it is not its expansion but its reduction.”  Indeed, about 10 square meters per person.  And whatever you do, don’t complain.

The personal rooms, on the other hand, were clean, finely decorated, and much better kept.  The bottom line: whatever is communal tends to get forgotten.  So much for being comrades, huh?

People are people.  If there is one thing I’ve discovered on this trip, it’s how incredibly small the world is.  This really hit me when I spent a day with Russian students, cooking holobtsi and chatting around the kitchen table.  Speaking in half English, half broken-Ukrainian, we talked about base-jumping, politics, why they were proud of Russia, and hitchhiking across Siberia.   We got really deep on the way back to the metro station at night.  No matter who you are – regardless of your education, your job, your family background, where you live, what you do – you can always talk about life.  Its meaning, its purpose, God.  It seems so general, so gushy.  But everyone is happy to talk about it.

with Olga, Alena, and my other Russian student-hosts

with Olga, Alena, and my other Russian student-hosts

I also tried to overcome the stereotypes about how you think other people look or act or think.  Not all Russian drink vodka (though we learned how to), support Putin, or go to those beautiful Orthodox churches.  People are different, and yet so much alike.  Even the beat-up communist apartment could resemble my dorm room on a Saturday morning.  There’s Bentley’s and beggars in New York City too, you know?  We’re not communists or republicans, students or drop-outs, Russians or Americans.  We’re just people, and we live in a very small, small world.

Interview 3: “To me, it’s like watching a TV show…you essentially ‘subscribe’ to the church”

Name: Jake MitchellJake Mitchell

Age: 21

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)

Interview 2: “It’s all about morality”

Name: Chris BoutelleChris Boutelle

Age: 20

School: Swarthmore College, Junior

Major: Engineering/Economics

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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.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find.” (Matthew 7:7)

When it comes to religion in Copenhagen, all you have to do is look.  It may not be easy to find.  In fact, if you don’t look for religion, you’ll barely notice that it’s even there.

That’s because no matter where you are – America or Denmark, Georgetown or Copenhagen – religion is about making a choice.  You can choose to be religious and make it the center of your life, or you can choose to have nothing to do with it.  Except in extreme circumstances, no one will ever force you to go to church or believe in God.  For all those public displays of belief that we see in Ray Lewis, Tim Tebow, or the Muslim community marching through the streets of Norrebro to commemorate Hussein’s martyrdom, what it all boils down to is a personal choice to participate in the religious community, and to affirm (or reject) a connection with God.

For all of the supposed “irreligiosity” of Copenhagen, I have both sought and found thriving religious communities here.  In the past month, I have attended 3 different services: a Danish one next to my kollegium, a Ukrainian one near Nyhavn, and an English one in Norrebro.  They have varied in size and style, but each is an active, energetic religious community.  Ash Wednesday Mass was packed yesterday in Sakramentskirken.  It was so busy that people were standing in the aisles to receive ashes.  It was probably the most diverse congregation I’ve ever seen – there were DIS students, Danes, Koreans, Africans, Hispanics, Indians, and others.  It felt like the whole world had piled into this little church.  It felt good.

So yes, there is religion in Denmark, even if you have to do some Google-searching and bus-riding to find it.  It may not be overwhelmingly present.  You may not see it out on the streets or on bumper stickers.  You may not talk to many Danes or students that profess a belief in God.

But if you look for it, you’ll see it’s there.

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