A Teenager looks at: Teenagers and Religion in the Secular World
I’m seventeen years old. Female. Jewish. Growing up in the American South. As a high-school junior, my time is split between school work and an overload of extracurricular activities. I run track and perform in the school musical. I stress out about grades and test scores. Life is so busy all the time. Everyone’s pace is lightning fast as we all try to fit in our sports practice, chemistry lab, musical rehearsal, and dinner all in one night. There is so much to get done all the time. Meanwhile, I have needed to set aside time to prepare for leading Rosh Hashanah services, or attend a Jewish Youth convention. Where does that fit in? And I don’t just mean in the schedule.
When I write an English or a history paper for school, I am always asked to have a nuanced thesis. My writing should wrestle with the prompt. I should feel no pressure to have a clean answer. The answer is best if it is layered and complex. But outside of school this thinking is not required, nor encouraged. Although high school is a period of self-discovery with changes in friends and interests, I find it is seldom treated as such. There is an extreme pressure on teens today to already know what they think. In the rush to get into college, there is pressure to decide what you are interested in and to make course, activity and club commitments for your resume. But to me, religious life is much like writing an English paper. I wrestle with it. I’m not sure I get it or agree with all parts of it, but I am trying to piece it together. Religion is a lengthy, personal, and spiritual exploration. Its rules and philosophies exist on a different trajectory from the everyday routine of school and extracurriculars. In an increasingly secular landscape, how do teenagers fit religion into their day to day lives? How do teeangers balance secular and religious identities? Ultimately, how does any teen of any or no religion form an identity which goes beyond their resume?
Juan Alex is a senior at Carrboro High School. When I meet with him, he is wearing a t-shirt and long board shorts. Over his shirt is a Saint’s medallion, a small, silver oval engraved with a portrait of The Lady of Guadalupe. Juan Alex is Catholic. We sit down and begin chatting. Where do you go to school? What classes are you taking this year? What grade am I in? I’m a Junior and, oh yeah, it’s rough. He is amiable with a broad face and smooth smile.
For him, this is a rare occasion; talking about religion with someone who is not Catholic, but is his own age. Because, as he tells me, he doesn’t talk about religion a lot at school. His friends come from all sorts of religious backgrounds. They are Jewish, Catholic, Atheist, Agnostic, Buddhist. I look pretty surprised as he describes his religiously diverse friend group. “That’s impressive,” I say. He smiles, “I know. But, I mean it didn’t happen on purpose. We all met each other without religion, does that make sense?” he adds.
Juan Alex met his group of friends through the theater tech program at school. They all got to know one another while building sets, hanging lights, and sewing costumes. “We are all people who come together for people, you know?” he explains to me. To Juan Alex this network of friends is incredibly important, but fragile. The religions of the group differ greatly and so do the politics. In a liberal city, Juan Alex holds some unpopular political views. He attended the “March for Life” this year and holds uncommon opinions on abortion for Carrboro. He has learned not to talk about his political views, to keep these thoughts to himself. Sharing these views elicits harsh responses from some of his peers. The debate can get pretty heated within his own friend group, so they don’t talk about it.
When I began my interview with Juan Alex, I asked him my first question; how does religion manifest itself in your life? How does it come up? His immediate response was — the news. “The news?” I said. But I get it now, politics, the news for him ties into religion. It influences what he says and doesn’t say, every day. Juan Alex is not a kid who struggles to comprehend or understand his religion. He is deeply rooted in his Catholic morals and beliefs. They guide him. But he does struggle in balancing his religious beliefs with his secular identity. In order to be amiable, theater set-building Juan Alex, he must distance himself from his Catholic beliefs . What does that mean about Juan Alex’s identity as a young adult? He’s both Catholic and Carrboro. Catholic at home and Carrboro at school. But is there a space where can he discuss both?
For some teens, religion hardly comes up at all at school or outside of the house. Jasmina is my age. She attends Riverside High School and I’ve known her almost my whole life. We grew up going to Hebrew School together at Synagogue. I don’t see her as much nowadays, both of us running around on these crazy high-schooler schedules, but we did get a chance to talk for a bit over bagels.
Jasmina associates her religion with her childhood, memories of her first friends, and her family. Every Friday night she and her family celebrate the Jewish Sabbath with a Shabbat dinner. They light the Jewish candles, have some Challah, and sit down to a good meal. Religion for her is embedded in a comfortable routine. Really, she doesn’t think about religion at school at all. Her friends are mostly non-Jewish and they seldom talk about religion, not out of discomfort — it just never comes up. Also, Jasmina says, even though being Jewish in Durham or the South isn’t common, she’s used to being unique. She is Latina, adopted with two mothers, and an aunt to three lovely boys. She is used to feeling and knowing that she is different, but this doesn’t bother her. It’s a fact of life, the waters and culture she grew up in. And she really does navigate all these identities like a pro. She is always smiling, laughing, or cracking a joke. For Jasmina, religion has hardly any conflict with her secular life. But she also experiences her religion in a cultural, lifestyle sense. She is unlikely to get in an ideological debate with a peer, because she doesn’t experience her religion in its ideology.
So, does this mean the more “religious” you are, the more difficult it is to function in your secular life? Isabel has long red hair. She is a poet, musician, activist with an easy smile and a deep love of Gilmore Girls. I attended middle school with her at Emerson Waldorf. She currently lives in Efland, North Carolina* where she is part of the thriving Baha’i community. The Baha’i Faith is based on the teachings of the prophet Bahá’u’lláh which preach the ideas of Human Unity, World Unity, the value of Youth, and service. The Baha’i Faith originated in Iran in the late nineteenth century. She has a good perspective on practicing a little known-eastern originating religion in rural North Carolina. On the one hand, “there are a lot of churches in Efland [so]we feel out of place. But on the other hand, everyone goes to church so being religious at all is [just] tradition, not something weird”.
When we spoke Isabel had just finished up a Baha’i youth camp, where she and other Baha’i teens spent their days studying prominent Baha’i writings, the scriptures of other religions, and simply hanging out and chatting. She says the conversations of the day would range from “What is everyone’s favorite movie?” to, “I mean really, how will we solve racial injustice and gender inequality?” The latter conversations were grounded in their studies. The Baha’i Faith’s central value of Human Unity or World Unity encapsulates themes of racial and gender equality and therefore holds great relevance to current social and political issues. In eighth grade, Isabel led a workshop to raise awareness on racial injustice. Empowered by Baha’i morals and ideas, she successfully informed her peers on the issues of systemic racism and white privilege. Her religious beliefs have enhanced her ability to achieve success in her secular life. They have propelled her to become a leader among her peers.
However, on a cultural, lifestyle level, her Baha’i upbringing presents some challenges for “fitting in”. As a Baha’i, one must abstain from all alcohol and any kind of recreational drug use. Isabel takes this to heart. But, in a high school, this rule complicates some social settings. She does not attend parties if she thinks there will be drugs or alcohol and tries to hang around peers who have similar attitudes towards such substances. And on another level, in order to put more hours into her service, she has decided to withdraw from Emerson Waldorf and go to school online.
Isabel experiences the opposite of both Juan Alex and Jasmina. In contrast to Juan Alex, Isabel’s religious ideals aid her in her secular life. And unlike Jasmina, the cultural experience of her religion complicates her secular life. It seems natural to assume that Juan Alex’s orthodoxy would make it harder for one to “fit in” than Jasmina’s cultural experience of her religion. However in Isabel’s case, her orthodoxy propels her in secular settings. It is the cultural experience of her religion which makes it harder to fit in. We cannot conclude on the basis of an individual’s orthodoxy that it will be easier or harder for religious teens to navigate secular life.
“So do you believe in fate?” I ask ninth grader Theo. Theo is lanky. He wears glasses with rectangular frames and his nails are painted; alternating between a neon green and metallic blue. He takes a second to think. “I mean we still make our own decisions,” he continues, “but whoever, whatever is out there lets it play out in different ways.” I asked him if he’d read Macbeth.
Although only in ninth grade, it seems Theo has his core beliefs figured out. He is agnostic, which he says is confusing to most of his peers. “Are you an Atheist?” people will ask him. “No” he’ll reply. “But you are not Christian?” they will confirm. Sometimes, he says, “I just tell people I’m Buddhist.”
At age eleven Theo began doing his own personal prayers. Totally self-driven, each night he gives thanks to a higher power. He acknowledges that everything happens for a reason and prays for blessings. He has built himself a spiritual routine. His prayers are directed to a few figures, including several Buddhas and Amma, the hugging Saint. Amma is a spiritual figure who preaches love and kindness. She asks thought provoking questions of Hinduism and travels the world teaching and embracing all. She has also started countless projects in environmentalism and public health.
In part, Theo has grown up with all of these beliefs. He has attended several Satsangs– get-togethers with Hindi Bajan prayers and delicious Indian dinners. He has been to a Buddhist retreat and many annual events for Amma in Washington, D.C. He is very comfortable with his meshing of spiritual beliefs. He draws on Buddhist and Hindu thought to create a philosophy that guides him every day. He should focus on his own actions, on what he can control. If he can do this, then he will cause no harm to others and make nothing worse.
Like his practice, Theo’s philosophy is neither Hindu nor Buddhist. It is his own unique way of thinking derived from years of careful thought and self-reflection. Because, as Theo will tell you, he does not believe in blind faith. In his opinion, “all religion should be logic based. […] You should not just do what you are told.” He has come to this sentiment by reasoning through the best ways to live. He has considered; what can he glean from Hindu thought? Buddhist thought? Scientific theories? And has then proceeded to meld these philosophies with his own personal experiences. His “control-what-you-can-control, do-no-harm” philosophy is not random. Theo sees this conclusion as reasoned, rational, even scientific. The atoms that created the Big Bang were formed in a specific way. So everything that has occurred after the Big Bang is reacting just the way it was meant to. Hence, my earlier question to Theo about fate.
Sam would agree with Theo on the theme of logic. But that might be about it. Sam is a high schooler, politically vocal and always concerned with current events. He requested that a pseudonym be used for this article, so for the purposes of this piece he will be referred to as Sam. Sam has grown up in a culturally Jewish family. They celebrate the major holidays, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover. But he himself, doesn’t agree with the whole “Jewish” thing, actually the whole “religious” thing — well, really, religion at all. Like Theo, Sam has his opinions thought out, completely. In Theo’s case, he has only his own personal philosophy figured out. As he says, “I have figured it out for me, not anyone else.” All of Theo’s musings and ideas are directed at no one but himself, developed and utilized internally. Sam’s philosophy is not about himself. It’s a commentary on society.
In starting the interview, he gets right down to business. “Religion is completely toxic to society. It’s exclusionary. Causes unnecessary division and has started many, many wars.” Sam knows his views are extreme, but that does not make him doubt his ideas. Besides his problem with the historical track record of religion, Sam too dislikes the idea of blind faith and craves logic. The reasoning of religion does not make sense to him. The idea that one could trust an ancient text, take it as fact, is anathema to him. He understands the the Bible holds valuable lessons, but “every book does, too.” He thinks of “scripture like literature –like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.” Both he and Theo want logic and reason to be a part of anyone’s religious, spiritual, and philosophical journey. The faith part is hard to comprehend. And yet even though they share this common goal, they have ended up with radically different outlooks. Theo takes inspiration from some faiths and Sam rejects faith as a construct. Sam is Atheist to Theo’s agnostic. Theo believes in a higher power and Sam believes in none. Sam is firmly Atheist, but doesn’t think he can tell people. He believes others would be offended by this supposition. So unless asked, say by a seventeen year-old girl to do an interview for an online magazine, he keeps his thoughts to himself.
Where does that leave us? Sam, the left-wing Atheist doesn’t feel that he can talk about his opinions on religion. Theo cannot describe his agnosticism without serious confusion and questioning from his peers. And devoted Catholic, Juan Alex knows not to mention his faith outside of Church and family. All three kids, religious, anti-religious, and ambivalent cannot bring up their faiths or their thoughts on faith. When did our society become too wary of the religious conversation to even have it? And how are teens supposed to grow into themselves — write out their identities in college essays, job applications if there is no room to talk about what matters most to us?
This article covers only an infinitesimal percentage of the range of religions and religious views that exist among teenagers in the Triangle, North Carolina, the greater American South, and the world. Not every interview I made, found its way into the piece, but I would like to thank everyone who met with me and shared their thoughts and experiences regardless. Furthermore, I did not have the time to collect as many interviews I would like. This project could take years.
However, in this small sample size of five teenagers, there is a wide range of religious views and views on religion. This article covered the perspectives of Catholic, Jewish, Baha’i, Atheist, and agnostic teens. These are all teens one could meet in the Triangle — at your school, gym or summer camp. The “religion” conversation is difficult — yes, but the conversations I had are proof that dialogue and exchange are possible — at least here, in Durham. It is true that one could not ask these questions for publication anywhere in the world, the country or the state. But, perhaps, one should take advantage that we can start this conversation here. Durham and the Triangle are home to teens exploring their faiths and their views on faith. I hope this piece shows that teens deserve a space to have the religious, the spiritual conversation — so that it is not all about their resumes. This is my nuanced thesis, like the ones I’ve learned to write in school.
*Isabel moved from Efland to Hillsborough in late 2019.
Mira Pickus is a junior at Durham Academy. She is co-editor of the podcast club and helps to run the school’s recycling program. She enjoys theatre, writing, reading and watching Friends.