POSTED ON APRIL 11, 2012:
A snapshot of our city's spectrum of beliefs
"What do you believe in?" When you ask someone that question, you could get one of a million different answers. More and more, people curate their own collection of beliefs, but you may be surprised to discover the similarities between them.
According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey on pewforum.org, 28 percent of American adults left the faith they were raised in, choosing a different religion or, in some cases, none at all. Even those who stick with their parents' beliefs seem to be editing them as they see fit. Interestingly, many people who grew up sans faith have become religious in adulthood. Even now with church attendance declining, it's a very human thing to feel the pull toward spirituality, no matter how you were raised or where you end up.
On his Facebook profile, Shane Gilley's religious views are explained as follows: "Energy and Physics and Psychology." What exactly does that mean? "It's everything that makes up life, really. It's things that you can't see, but are present in everyone and everything," he said. He described the interconnectedness that comes from energy, the physics behind that and how people react to it -- either positively or negatively.
"That being said, I'm a practicing Christian -- who sees a lot of good in Christian tradition, but don't necessarily take everything as the inherent gospel truth -- and a practicing Buddhist as well," he said. "Philosophically, Buddhism appeals to me in a big way. And then Christian tradition really ties me, I guess, to my Western roots, my roots as a kid. And it allows me to practice a positive Christianity, not necessarily a dogmatic, fundamentalist Christianity, which is what I was raised on. ... And it took me a long time to sort of back off on that and decide what I really believed about the universe, which was, 'I don't know what to believe.'"
He is not a "fundamentalist, dogmatic Christian;" however, he believes in what Jesus taught. He said he believes Jesus is "a way to a heaven" -- not the only way. "No one knows what happens after this. I believe we make our own heavens and hells on earth, and I believe that Jesus is a way to a better life on earth," he said.
"I guess my thing is I don't focus on heaven. I believe that something happens [when we die], ... but to me heaven is no longer a goal. The goal, to me, is to make every day worth living, not in a selfish way, but in the way that Jesus or the Buddha taught: being in the moment, being present, being willing to be content where you are right now. And if you can do that, your life's going to be good, and the lives of those around you are going to be good. ... That's what all religions, I think, try to get down to."
He thinks people in general are becoming less religious, but more spiritual. "The Western tradition of finding God is opening up to other techniques, even if they don't necessarily believe the entire religion. ... People are more willing to practice other religious ceremonies," he said. It's now more of a "personal, spiritual activity." According to Gilley, "The older I got, the more educated I got, the more I met people of other faiths or of atheistic beliefs even, I realized that everybody is basically the same."
Most Oklahomans are familiar with Christianity, but what is Buddhism all about?
Siddhrtha Gautama Buddha was a prince about 2500 years ago. "There came a time in his life where he was looking for some sort of deeper fulfillment," Ely Kugo DesJardins of Open Mind Zen said. Buddha wanted to explore how sickness, old age and death affected our lives. After six years of studying, "he came up with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which is the foundation of our practice here."
"The first Noble Truth is that literally life contains the seeds of suffering," Sensei Al Fusho Rapaport said. "The second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by attachment." The third is "there's a way out of the dilemma" and the fourth holds that the way out is by following the Eightfold Path.
"Actually, there's a number of elements in the Eightfold Path similar to other religions or spiritual practices," he said, such as being mindful of how you speak. "It also includes concentration and meditation."
"He figured out how to become liberated from suffering," DesJardins said. Students at Open Mind Zen learn that liberation. "It's a very humanistic practice. It's about investigating into our experience and how we're feeling about life, and finding freedom in that feeling instead of being pushed around by it."
Buddhism adapts to different cultures as needed. It is practiced heavily in places like Tibet, Japan, China and Korea and, while the root of the religion is the same, each region has its own take on it. Open Mind Zen in Tulsa is an Americanized version. "We are founded in the Japanese lineage of Zen, but we're also using more contemporary modalities to more fit the lay practitioners' lifestyle," DesJardins said.
"Zen actually doesn't focus on religion. It doesn't focus on Buddhism even so much. It's a science of mind. It deals with how the human mind functions," Rapaport said. "We're working with what we call the holistic part of the mind or the non-logical part of human experience, where we're ... learning how to fully experience life rather than dealing with life in a more mental way, which is how we usually approach issues.
"The logical part of the mind is put forth in our particular culture and much of our training as being the only way to learn things ... and it's not a real fulfilling way in many cases because logic can't explain love, it can't explain life and death, it can't explain the really big issues," he said. "There's nothing wrong with the logical part of the mind; it's totally necessary. But it's only part of who we are."
"The word Buddha means 'awakened one.' So that's what this practice is, just simply wakening to our innate being," DesJardins said.
People from all different backgrounds have come to Open Mind Zen since they opened last year. As Buddhism gets more exposure in Tulsa, it is expected to grow. DesJardins believes Buddhism is changing in America, becoming more tailored to what we need from it. For example, we can use it to relieve stress, which is a big problem in the U.S. right now. "Ultimately, anxiety and stress are self-imposed," Rapaport said. It comes from how you react to the outside world.
When you meditate, "stress becomes something that you have power to deal with," DesJardins said. If you can become aware of how you're feeling and breathing, you have more control over how you respond in those situations. You are no longer a victim of stress.
Anyone is welcome to attend classes at Open Mind Zen. There are various levels of classes, but a good start for beginners is Mindfulness Practice. Zen Students undergo more formal training. They have Wednesday night meditation, along with yoga classes. On Sundays they meditate and DesJardins usually gives a talk of some sort -- their version of a Sunday service.
Don't be afraid to give it a try. "The benefits are almost unbelievable until you get into it and start to see how one's life can change," Rapaport said. "Anyone can do it if they really want to."
Hard to Define
Jaron Stewart is quite familiar with trying new methods of spiritual practice. In fact, that open-mindedness pretty much defines his spirituality.
"To be spiritual, to me, means to believe in something greater than ourselves and to believe in inspiration and that inspiration comes from somewhere," Stewart said. "To live by that inspiration is to be spiritual."
Stewart was born to a Jewish mother and atheist father. When he was about four years old, his mother joined a Baptist church, so the family became Christian and learned all the New Testament Bible stories. He grew up hearing the stories from the Old Testament and "always had a deep connection to them." He went to church at least once a week and was very active in various church activities. "Whenever I heard those stories, I always felt like the Bible meant basically, 'be good.' And I believe we're born inherently good," he said.
When he was 16, his family started attending a big non-denominational church. "That's when I started kind of viewing the church differently," he said. Among other things that felt "off," Stewart didn't like that "they were very strict about rules and how you were to behave in the church." He also felt uncomfortable with how the money donated to the church was used. Around that time, he started getting headaches in church and stopped going to Sunday services.
Still, at 32 years old, he rarely goes to church, but it's only because of the headaches. "I like church because I love what it represents: a place where people can go to let things out or try to receive things they're looking for," he said.
Obviously, Stewart believes you don't have to go to church to be spiritual. At some point after he stopped going to church, he started praying and meditating more. He started exploring other religions and practices, which he hadn't done before because he had been taught that they were wrong. "I'd go see an acupuncturist and someone at church heard about it and would lecture my mother about how it's devil's work ... and I just didn't feel like it was bad," he said. "Once I experienced acupuncture and it helped me, I felt like it was okay to explore other things.
"Then I just started realizing that all the good things that I liked in those religions, I was already incorporating into my life," he said. "I realized I always kind of meditated, I just never put a name to it ... And I realized when I was in church praying, that was kind of a meditation, or could be."
He started getting into some Native American ceremonies and it "felt like home" to him. "I felt like I had finally gotten back to a place of peace and I felt a very strong spiritual connection to the earth, to the universe, to myself, to my family, to my ancestors, and I didn't have to try to think about it. I just was experiencing it," he said.
Also, he still has a strong connection to Jesus. "That's what I walk with every day, even though I don't really consider myself Christian because I don't like to put a label on being anything. But he's probably my biggest hero," he said. He believes Jesus died on the cross for our sins, but not that He's the only way to heaven. "I believe we live in heaven or hell; I think we make it all here. As we pass on and leave this existence, you just experience what you want to when you leave."
The one Bible verse that has stuck with him through the years is Psalm 37:3, "which is something along the lines of 'Trust in the Lord and do good and you'll dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture'... I feel like that's how I try to live. I trust that there's something watching over us and that if you do good, everything will be alright. It doesn't matter what you believe, where you think you're going to end up; it's all about living in the moment."
Stewart believes we are experiencing a sort of "great awakening" and that Jesus would have wanted it that way. "I think a lot more people are coming back to ceremony ... I think we're all making our own ceremonies of ways to connect with something greater than ourselves.
"I think there is one God, and I think it is love ... However you perceive love, as a being in the sky, or as an earth mother, or as angels or as Jesus Christ, I believe it's all just trying to reconnect us to love."
If Stewart still attended church, he said he would probably go to a Unitarian one because they are so welcoming to everyone. "We have everything from A-Z, from atheists to Zen Buddhists in this church, and everything in between: Jews, Christians, Sufis, really people with lots of different philosophies and beliefs," said Marlin Lavanhar, Senior Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church.
"I would describe All Souls as having one foot firmly planted in the center of our tradition and the other foot dangling off the cutting edge," Lavanhar said. Their tradition is about "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning in our lives." In a lot of ways it looks like a traditional church, but they also infuse many modern elements, from the music to the message.
"The nature of our church is we encourage people to ask questions, to raise their doubts, to debate different ideas. So our church is structured that way. Actually, to be a faithful member of a Unitarian Universalist church is to question different ideas, the Bible, bring science to bear, bring all kinds of disciplines and philosophy and different world religions," he said. All Souls is constantly evolving and shaped by its members.
"Unitarianism began in the 1600's in Europe as a Christian Protestant denomination," Lavanhar said. Over hundreds of years it developed, and now "our church is open to a wide range of beliefs, cultures, traditions, rituals that come from all over the world and all different eras... As we learn new things, the theology and the understanding of Unitarianism evolve. So it's very much continued to change and grow as human knowledge continues to change and grow.
"We're in our 90th year right now in Tulsa, and in 85 of those years we were a mono-cultural church, predominantly -- almost exclusively -- white, middle class/upper middle class," he said. Four years ago, that changed. What was left of the congregation from New Dimensions Worship Center asked if they could worship at All Souls and were welcomed with open arms. This was a group of mostly African-American Pentecostals, and since then All Souls has become a growing multi-cultural church.
"Our church also has been, for decades now, very open to and accepting of gay and lesbian people," Lavanhar said. So when they say they're diverse, they're talking about young and old, black and white, rich and poor, different beliefs, and gay and straight. "We might not all believe alike, but we can love alike, we can act justly, we can build meaningful lives and community together. That's All Souls in a nutshell," he said. It's all about acceptance. When New Dimensions joined the congregation, "it really gave us the opportunity to embody the beliefs and values that we'd talked about for decades, centuries really."
According to Lavanhar, "I think a lot of young people are looking for an inclusive environment. A place where they're welcome, their questions are welcome, their intellect is welcome and their gay and lesbian friends are welcome ... So to be able to be in a place where you can have that kind of freedom to truly be yourself and to bring all of yourself, I think that's been the formula for our success here at All Souls."
Lavanhar has heard that the main line churches are seeing drop-offs in church attendance and membership. "But my understanding is that the non-denominational, charismatic and Bible churches are continuing to grow," he said. All Souls has been steadily growing by a few percent every year. "In the last 12 years we've almost doubled in size," he said. They are planning on moving downtown, and building a larger church.
Committed to Christ
Ashley Foster* knows how hard it can be to find the right church home. She went to both Catholic and Protestant churches as a child, but when her mother passed away she essentially stopped going until she was able to drive herself there.
In high school, she and her friends explored their options, but nothing really stuck. However, "all throughout that time, even if I wasn't involved in church, I never felt like I really slid away from a belief in God," she said. "I think everyone questions things. I think it's only human nature to do so ... but I don't think in my questioning I've ever wavered from a belief that there is one. To me, it doesn't make sense for there not to be a God."
She is a Christian, but has "never been big on traditional church ... I just have never felt extremely comfortable in a really stiff church setting." For instance, she sometimes felt judged on the fact that she wasn't as knowledgeable about the Bible. "That always kind of gave me a little bit of a nervous feeling about going to church. I thought they'd ask me questions I didn't know the answer to," she said. Over the years, she found a couple non-traditional churches that suited her, but she and her husband will be starting a family soon and are looking for a more traditional church again -- one that has a great sense of community.
For Foster, spirituality is "a feeling inside of love and gratefulness for the one who put us here ... Even though I don't always act like it, I consider every single moment on earth a gift. And I feel like that came directly from God. I feel love in my heart from the higher being. No one could try to convince me that God doesn't exist. I totally understand that everyone has their own viewpoint and they're allowed to have that, but no one could change my mind."
Her belief is that the human capacity to love came from a higher power. "Spirituality, to me, I guess is just the definition of love," she said. Human beings will inevitably hurt each other, "but you know that there's something higher that you can trust, that you can turn to in your darkest hour." Even though she has experienced tragedies, she doesn't feel like God has ever left her. "I've been angry and I've questioned. 'Was this God's doing? Did He let it happen?' I don't understand that. But I've realized now that I'm never going to understand.
"God doesn't owe me an explanation. I feel like when I leave this earth and go to heaven, a lot of things are going to come to light and I'm going to understand... A lot of bad things that have happened have turned into good things. I may not have met my husband, I may have moved out of state, if some bad things would never have happened. A lot of things lead up to where you are and where you're supposed to be."
She chooses to focus on what's good in her life and be grateful for it. "I don't believe in an unjust and mean God. The God that I believe in is a good, kind, loving God who cares about us as His kids," she said.
Foster believes "religion is heading towards more non-denominational, more open minded, more 'anyone is welcome.' I feel like some of the traditional churches are not maybe as fast growing as those kinds of churches."
Even though she's still looking for a church home, her focus is on her personal relationship with God. "It's about being thankful and loving and appreciating what you have -- and knowing where it comes from," she said.
Some believe going to church is an extremely important part of spirituality. Religious leaders, of course, would agree.
The Catholic Church, according to Father Mike Cashen at St. Catherine's in Tulsa, was started by Jesus Christ himself and his disciples. There are over a billion Roman Catholics worldwide and hundreds of thousands of other Catholics as well. "The best way to understand the Catholic faith is that it's like a three legged stool," Cashen said. You need the scriptures, the tradition of the church and leadership. "It's a long tradition, obviously much longer than any other Christian tradition because until the 1500's in the West, until the Reformation period, this was the predominant tradition."
Cashen said everyone has their own unique relationship with God. "Spirituality is very important," he insists. Catholics practice spirituality through different forms of prayer, from music to silent prayer, but personal practice isn't enough, according to Cashen, because the church as a whole is the body of Christ. Mass is an obligation "because without all the parts there, we can't function ... We need you as much as you need us."
Within the church there are healers, deacons, teachers and more. Everybody contributes in their own way. There are certain things only the priest can do, such as lead Mass, but there are many other jobs for laypeople. Father Cashen sees many people sell themselves short, often not looking hard enough for their gifts. That's one reason some don't attend Mass.
Confession is also an important part of Catholicism. "If you're praying and asking for purity of heart and the grace of God, you will be able to avoid sin, but because we're human, when you don't, you have a way to work through it with another person who's in the person of Christ," Cashen said. "I go to confession too. Because if I didn't, I'd feel really foolish, first, for telling people to do it and then not going, but because I need to."
He thinks it's a good idea to vary your spiritual practices. "You don't eat the same Italian food every day; you'd get sick of it. Don't pray the same way all the time," he said. "Don't get stuck because that's when we really kind of lose our passion. We're human and we need variety."
Father Cashen has met many people who say they are spiritual, but not religious, and he said this is an intellectual move -- but human beings are not simply intellectual. We are made up of mind, body and spirit. "I love the intellect. I love learning. But it has only gotten me closer and closer to recognizing the power of God to teach," he said. For certain people, "if they can't see it, they want proof ... Jesus knew this was going to be a struggle. The brighter some people are, the harder it is." However, he believes faith isn't as hard as it seems.
"The largest denomination in the county is the Roman Catholic church. The second largest is Catholics that don't go to Mass on Sunday. It's true. And it's a sad reality," he said. "The passion to know, the ability of the mind to choose, the ability of the mind to think, the ability of the Lord to let you be an independent thinker and a person who can choose leads persons to believe that the creation is actually the creator. And that is why people determine 'I don't need that congregation, I don't need that denomination, I don't need that faith life because I've determined for myself,' when in fact the Lord has provided for us a part in whole." When we start thinking in terms of "I," that's when we stray from religion.
Some don't stray but instead change spiritual practices.
"I was raised in a devout Lutheran household ... From that my parents always raised me to, not so much question beliefs, but to study it out for myself," Ken Lane said. Once, when he was about 18, he noticed his Muslim friend wasn't eating certain things during lunch. Lane asked him why and he said it was because of his religious beliefs. "That just blew my mind," he said. He hadn't realized that someone's faith could dictate what they eat. "I immediately felt jealous, and I wanted a faith that required more of me ... I really wanted that structure. I basically threw everything I knew about Christian theology out the window and started with the Old Testament from scratch," he said. By the time he got through it, he knew his faith was going to change a lot. "What I thought to be true definitely wasn't true anymore. So that led me to a path more towards Torah and Torah observance."
One thing that drew Lane to Judaism was that it didn't make him feel like he was never going to be good enough. He said spirituality is an interaction with the Creator and that nobody should be judged on how they do that. Everyone does it differently. "I define spirituality as every individual's quest for the meaning of life and the creator of the universe," Lane said. He views religion as the physical changes people make and spirituality as the internal change that goes on. "We all have the same heart condition, but we don't all express it in the same way," he said.
He believes people have to be drawn to a particular religion on their own. "Nobody's ever converted somebody to religion -- a long-lasting conversion," he said. "You might get someone to go to your church for awhile, but that doesn't mean you've converted them to your faith... I don't go around trying to ever convert people. I just try and live a good life and people take notice that I'm a happy person.
"The Jewish people were called to be a light unto the nations ... Israel is supposed to be kind of a representation of God's mercy on earth. And if we don't practice that, then we're not doing our jobs. That's probably the most important thing."
Sabbath is also important. On that day, they don't work or spend money. "It's a separation from the entire world," Lane said. "It's a time you know you're going to have to relax and study and reconnect with the Creator ... We live in a very fast-paced, material-driven world and it's nice to just stop."
Other Jewish customs include not eating shellfish or pork ("because they're kind of the scavengers of the world") and wearing beards (because the Old Testament says so -- it helps separate them from everyone else.) They also wear tzitzit, tassels that hang from the four corners of their garments which contain a blue strand reminding them of heaven. Lane compared them to the WWJD bracelets that Christians have been known to wear. "When you're in a situation where you feel tempted or if your eyes go looking at the wrong thing, you can look to [the tzitzit] and remember that you're a set apart people, you're different and that you need to have strength and trust in the God of Israel to deliver you from that temptation," he said.
They also pray, of course. "To me, the essence of spirituality is reconnecting with the source and I think the quickest way to do that is through personal prayer -- just talking, meditation. And I think that makes God more real," Lane said.
"Slowly, the world is becoming a little less spiritual -- probably more spiritual, less religious. I don't know if that's a bad thing. There are a lot of people who say, 'I'm more spiritual and not religious,' which I somewhat understand," he said. He thinks it's healthy to "be a truth seeker and really try and find your own path... I would encourage people to be skeptical, but also to not throw out the baby with the bathwater. There's a lot of good out there."
The Islamic Society of Tulsa is just one of those good things. They give to various charitable organizations and have a growing local community. Islam is alive and well in Tulsa, avoiding that decline in attendance mentioned before.
According to former spokesperson for the Islamic Society, Sheryl Siddiqui, Islam is a very simple theology. She said some people convert to it because they are looking for that simplicity or for more discipline. Most of them are in their 20's, evaluating their parents' beliefs and listening to new people and ideas as they are exposed to them.
"I think that many people believe in God, but don't pursue past that. They're comfortable with that idea there's something greater than them, something created them, and they ... just go on living their lives," Siddiqui said. She grew up in a fairly secular New England, where people tried to be good because it was "the right thing to do," while Oklahomans are more likely to say they do it for God.
Everything a Muslim does is for God, and they make sure to connect with Him throughout each day. An hour and half before sunrise up to just a few minutes before sunrise every morning, Muslims are expected to get up, clean up and do their morning prayers. This can take anywhere from 3-15 minutes. "After that, it's generally recommended that we read some Koran at that time," Siddiqui said. "Muslims will try to schedule their lunch hour to coincide with noon prayer (which is not set at noon; it's when the sun is just path its zenith)." There is also a late afternoon prayer, sunset prayer and night prayer. "The day is kind of divided by these five daily prayers, which gives the day a rhythm... It's this constant sense of refreshing oneself, and when we're refreshed we seem to be more optimistic and thankful, and it keeps a person at a much higher level of function than we would be if we kind of just slogged through the day."
The demands can take a toll on young people, just like in many other religions. "A Muslim lifestyle expects more deviation from society's norm. Our kids need to leave what they're doing five times a day; their friends don't have to. So that right there puts a stress on them," Siddiqui said. While most children go through a period of questioning their parents' beliefs, this is especially true for children in Islam. "Our families tend to be closer, knowing that our kids are going to go through that. One of the ways that we try to combat that is to have active youth groups," she said. That keeps a lot of them from falling to the wayside. "During college kids go their own way," but they come back when they start their own families -- something you see in every religion, across the board.
Mahesh Kumar* is a great example of that. "I was raised Hindu ... My family practiced one subset of [it]," he said. "Right around high school I read a lot of books on religion and just sort of listened to different other philosophies." He started questioning the existence of God, but now believes there definitely is one. "I just don't know if there's just one path to reach this God," he said.
He believes in karma, which is one aspect of Hinduism. "That philosophy is that you project this positive energy and you live your life in a 'pure form' -- however that's defined -- then you will be blessed or rewarded," he said. The one problem Kumar has with that idea is that it seems selfish to him. His goal is to be a good person not because of what he will get out of it, but simply because it's the right thing to do. (Sound familiar?)
"I kind of look at religion as a way to teach morals ... Unfortunately, because man runs a religion, they tend to make it a political sort of institution and that's what I don't like about it," Kumar said. Still, he thinks he will return to religion when he and his wife have children. "That religion almost acts like a second set of parents." They will raise their children with Hinduism, but he plans on educating them on other religions and beliefs as well.
While he doesn't worry about it anymore, he did have doubts when he was younger. "If I have been worshipping the wrong God or if I have been going down the wrong path, all I can say is I've done good and I've tried to be as good and live as much of a righteous life as I can, and if I'm faulted against that because I was not worshipping the right God then I'll deal with the consequences at that time."
He said he doesn't really know what spirituality is, but he considers himself "somewhat religious." He prays; he tries to be a person of high moral character, but said "I feel like being spiritual involves a lot more commitment than that."
Kumar goes to temple with his wife when she asks him to. The interesting thing about Hinduism in the U.S. is the temples have such a mixture of people from different sects. "Just because I'm Indian and the next guy is Indian too doesn't mean we follow the same religious traditions at all," he said.
He agrees that spirituality is changing in the U.S. "The coasts are where you see a lot of more agnostics, atheists, things like that -- that's tolerated more there... Even here I think younger generations are not as traditional with their views and they're more tolerant of other people's views as well," he said. "In general, in this age of social media and the internet age, I think people are definitely expanding their viewpoints."
Religion of Respect
Simran Kumar*, Mahesh's wife, was raised in India and lived in a four bedroom house with 20 people, including her mother's siblings and her grandparents. The household had a wide age range, "so we had every level of religious belief that you could possibly think of," she said. Her parents were educated engineers -- teachers with a science background -- while her grandparents were "super religious." Her grandparents got up at five o'clock every morning to bathe and say certain prayers, and throughout each month there were certain religious rituals they had to do. "Being raised in a family like that, you get to see the different things you do based on the same religious belief," Kumar said. Her brother, for instance, doesn't believe in any of the daily routines. "I don't take it to the extent of my grandparents, but I do believe that there are certain things which will help.
"Hinduism does believe that if you say certain prayers, you are closer to God," she said. For her that means connecting to the "supreme consciousness," aka "calming yourself down. And calming yourself down so much that you're in tune with yourself and you can hear your inner thoughts and voices, or that supreme being's thoughts and voices. And now that's a relationship." The point is to regulate your breathing and stop worrying about life, which sounds a lot like Zen Buddhists' meditation. Also, "Hinduism believes in respect. And we give respect to everything," Kumar said. "So having that relationship with God would mean my relationship with every animate and inanimate object around in my life."
She doesn't participate in a lot of the daily practices, like praying three or four times a day, but she looks at Hinduism as a way of life -- not a religion. Because she approached it from a scientific angle, she chooses which rituals are right for her. "I can define where I draw that line," she said.
There are many gods in Hinduism and you can follow any one of them, or even multiple gods. There are three main ones: The Creator (Brahma), the Protector (Vishnu) and the Destroyer (Shiva). Hindus are raised on one of them and "you would never jump ship to any of the others," Kumar said. "Most of the friends I have seen, if they do convert, if they jump ship, they are jumping into a completely other religion and not within the sub-sects."
She worships Vishnu, but said each god has its own purpose. "The Destroyer, I have to be honest, is as important as the Creator is because unless you have the death of the old and the birth of the new, there is no cycle that's going." Those who follow that sect pray for change and acceptance, as well as the removal of negativity. The people who worship Shiva are often farmers, soldiers, or other people who see destruction all the time. Those who worship Vishnu are scholars.
"I have a lot of Muslim friends, a lot of Christian friends," she said. She grew up in Catholic school and has read the Bible and also studied the Koran to some degree. "I think bottom line, having done my half-minded research, I feel everyone's working toward the same goal. As I said, the procedures to reach there are different, the methods employed are different," but they essentially believe the same thing.
"I think you need structure as you're growing up. And religion or a way of practicing religion would give you that structure," she said. "There's a lot of people out there who believe not necessarily in Christianity, Muslims or Hinduism but they believe in a supreme God and they pray to it in whatever way they feel right ... I just feel that as long as there's respect, you can tolerate any religion anywhere."
The Mormon Mission
One religion that is often misunderstood and even disrespected is Mormonism, but in many ways it is similar to Christianity. They do have some different ideas, but still believe in Jesus as the Son of God and have some of the same spiritual practices: baptism, prayer and Bible study. However, they also study the Book of Mormon. "We believe they both teach the same things... We just believe [the Book of Mormon] was written for the people in the Americas," said David Peterson, a practicing Mormon.
"We believe in God the Eternal Father, the Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost. We believe they're three separate. There's no mystery there for us," he said. They believe as he was trying to decide which church to join, Joseph Smith had a vision of God and Jesus -- and they were two different people.
From ages 3-12, children of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attend "Primary" on Sundays, doing prayers and learning how to give two to three minute talks, in preparation for giving speeches to the congregation and the missionary work that they'll do when they get older. The people of the congregation lead the service on Sundays; there is not a pastor or priest.
Baptism is the first step in becoming "saved" as a Mormon and the minimum age for that is eight years old. "A kid by then ought to know right or wrong on their own," Peterson said. Once you have been baptized, however, you still mess up. "You're in a constant process of repenting and trying to do better your whole life, and do good things, which is kind of common in a lot of religions... We believe that faith without works is dead." (Sheryl Siddiqui said the same thing about Islam.)
Mormons have a regular church, where people go until they are "qualified and prepared" to go to temple, which is a sacred place focused on bringing family members to God, including those who have already passed away. "We believe you have to be baptized to be able to live with your heavenly Father someday. And that's an ordinance that requires a body," he said. So, at the temple, they can baptize their ancestors by proxy. This is why they're so interested in genealogy and have an impressive room set up in the church just for finding their ancestors. However, "that doesn't mean they're a member of the church," Peterson said. Along with these sacred baptisms, "there are ceremonies [at the temple] that further explain why you're here, what you're supposed to be doing."
"You get callings in the church," he said. You might be called to be a bishop, a Sunday school teacher or a nursery leader. "Everybody has to be doing something." Currently Peterson focuses on public affairs, but has been the state President in the past, which is the highest level of service within the local Mormon Church.
At 19 years old, a young man's calling is mission work. Young women are sent on their mission at 21. When they go on their mission, the boys serve two years and the girls go for 18 months. They are stationed all over the world, but they don't get to pick where they go. While they're known to knock on doors, they actually prefer to talk to people through referrals.
Church attendance is high in Mormonism and Peterson says it's growing, so they too seem to be avoiding the decline that other churches have seen.
Good Without God
As you can see, most people value spirituality in their lives, but a select few do not. Joey DeLeon doesn't consider himself spiritual at all.
"I was raised in a Church of Christ church, which was very ultra-conservative, very rigid ... When I reached high school, I kind of got more on the evangelical side of things," he said. "When I was in high school, all my friends went to this Assembly of God church and they kept asking me to come. So I finally went and I just kind of kept going because all my friends went." It was a social thing, but he "bought into it to a certain degree at that point."
His journey to atheism began when he took a New Testament class, as he learned how the New Testament in the Bible was formed. "None of the gospels are firsthand accounts. They were all written hundreds of years after Christ supposedly walked the earth," he said. "There are similarities that link all the gospels to having been basically copied from other gospels. So, I started thinking about it and it kind of reminded me of the game 'Telephone' that you play when you're in elementary school ... Playing Telephone, the message never got through."
At that point he considered himself agnostic. He was still "searching for truth" and didn't know what to believe. He transitioned from agnostic to atheist by doing a lot of reading. "I wanted to find some kind of truth, some kind of evidence-based belief system. For the longest time I didn't feel like I needed anything. It didn't matter that I wasn't going to any kind of church or believing anything." But as he got a little older, he started wondering how life really worked, and he wanted answers. He turned to science and books on atheism, and became confident and comfortable with his beliefs.
It took him a while to be able to say, "There is no god," but he simply doesn't believe there's a "solid base" for religion. "Once you start accepting one fairytale or one belief, then it makes you more likely to accept others, and you disregard fact and evidence when it's presented to you. I don't like that view that we can make something up to explain something. That just doesn't feel right to me," he said.
DeLeon has made up his mind. "There will be no death bed recants for me," he said. "I don't worry about it now. I think every day that I have here is a gift. It's just this amazing act of evolution that allowed me to be here. I just try to think about what I have now and know that when I die, in all likelihood, that's going to be it. My consciousness will cease and there will be nothing afterwards. But I'm not going to know, so it's not going to matter."
Everyone's story is unique, but the search for our spiritual selves ties us together. The "truth" may be elusive, but many of our goals are the same: to be good, appreciate the life we've been given, and have a relationship with something "higher" than ourselves. Imagine how much we could learn from each other if we focused on our similarities rather than our differences. Fortunately, that idea is starting to catch on.
Sometimes the journey to our personal answers can be tough, but in the end those answers shape our lives. It's important to find them for yourself. As Ken Lane said, "There's a lot of people that are afraid that if they study too hard they're going to find some truth that doesn't match what they've been doing their entire life, and they won't step out of the box. I applaud those people that do. It takes a lot of courage."
*Some names have been changed for privacy.
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