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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

IMG_0694

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

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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.

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.

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(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.

First interview! Meet Colin Bradley

Interview 1: Colin BradleyName: Colin Bradley

Age: 20

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.

To watch the entire interview, CLICK HERE

Initial impression: religious ambivalence

After spending almost two weeks in Copenhagen, I think it’s a good time to establish some of my initial impressions about religious life among my peers. Keep in mind that I have not conducted any formal interviews yet; these will come in time.  But from my casual conversations with my fellow American and Danish friends, here is what I’ve gathered:

Young adults in both Denmark and America are largely ambivalent about religion.

Of course, this conclusion depends a lot on how exactly you define “religion.”  For me, it embodies two basic principles: 1) a belief in some sort of higher entity, particularly a divine one; 2) and a genuine, consistent attempt to follow and understand that entity.  Is my definition adequate?  Too vague?  Unsubstantial?  Comment if you wish – this is vital!

I’m pretty confident that there is not a single practicing religious person in my entire kollegium.  I certainly haven’t asked everyone about their religious beliefs (not exactly an ice-breaker kind of question).  But my general impression is one of marked irreligiosity:

“I was raised as a so-and-so, but once I went to college I stopped paying attention to all those traditions.” “I think there might be a God, but I don’t really participate in any formal worship.” “I’m pretty much an atheist right now.” “I don’t really know, sorry.” “I go to Church maybe twice per year; it is more of a cultural thing, anyways.”

50 Americans in my kollegium, and I have yet to talk with someone who strikes me as a “religious” person.  Danes respond to me in the same way.

I think my conclusion is shaped by my new environment.  Coming to Denmark has really shaken my perception of religion among young adults, partly because I’m interacting with a different, more diverse group of young adults.  At home, Georgetown has a very diverse student body; but as a practicing Catholic, my faith has undoubtedly shaped my social network.  Many of the classes, clubs, and organizations in which I partake are filled with people who are already inclined towards religion.  For this reason, I had a more optimistic view of the prevalence of religion among America’s college youth.

DIS is a bit different.  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 backgrounds and cultures.  Various majors and interests.

A lot of diversity, but not much religion.

Politics and religion holding hands – at least historically

Today was the first day of classes, so as much as I would love talking about all of the exciting things I did over the past few days, I think it’s time to get scholarly!!

Religion: it’s one of the things that fascinates me the most in Denmark.  Though Muslims are one of the fastest-growing populations in Denmark, over 90% of Danes are Lutherans.  I’m paying most of my attention to the Lutherans – who, though they pay taxes to the church, attend baptisms and marriages in the church, and would probably identify as “Christian,” do not actually believe in the theological underpinnings of the Christian faith. (At least, this is the stipulation; see the Research page for more info).

As the semester goes on, I will share personal experiences, interviews, and observations that can help me uncover this issue.  Yesterday was the first of such encounters.  While touring the Amelienborg Palace (home of the Danish royal family), I had an interesting discussion with Stefan, our guide:

nice pants

(by the way, nice pants)

Stefan explained how religion is an integral part of the Danish identity.  Beautiful cathedrals are scattered throughout Copenhagen; religion is a defining part of Danish art and architecture; according to the constitution, the ruling monarch must be a member of the Danish National Church (it is essentially illegal for the royal family to be anything but Lutheran); monarchs are coronated inside churches, and baptize their heirs.

Indeed, there is a strong historical bond between political and religious authority in Denmark.  This relationship is reflected in the design of Amelienborg.  As Stefan explained, there are 3 main “pillars” of the palace – the House of God, the King, and Eternity, which are symbolically aligned through the center of the Palace.  God comes first, represented by Frederik’s Church, seen in the background.  The King (Frederick V, who built the palace) sits on his horse in the middle of the square, looking up towards the church (drawing his power from God):

Royal palace - God then king

Behind the King is “Eternity” – before the Opera House was built, it was a vast, open space that reinforced the presence of God’s divine, infinite nature (and also mankind’s hope of reaching eternity):

Royal palace - King then eternity

Religion is certainly a part of the “Danish ethos,” as I like to call it.  It is part of their historical and cultural identity.  It is tradition.  Christianity seems deeply intertwined with political power.

Whether it is theological is another question altogether.

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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