Wednesday, February 12, 2014

From Education to Enlightenment

 by Project Interfaith Communications Intern, Chloe Gonzales

“The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.”

- Mark Twain

For most of my adolescent life, I felt like a black sheep among the majority of my peers. Sometimes I felt different because of my interests, opinions, or even my fashion choices, but what made me feel most disconnected from my general peer group was the fact that I technically had no religion. Most people grow up learning about and accepting their parents' religious beliefs, which usually in Nebraska involves some form of Christianity. In America, where many citizens identify as Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, children are usually ushered into their family's religion with rituals beginning as early as infancy. Circumcision for Jewish males typically occurs shortly after birth, Muslim girls begin wearing burkhas or head scarves during puberty, and many Christians choose to have their children baptized at a young age and send them to Sunday school. Unlike many of my peers, my religious education began not from the time I was born, but instead when I was a curious teenager.

Though my parents identify as Christians, as a child, I was never officially taught any religious stories or scripture. The only Biblical stories I knew were the popular ones like Noah’s Ark and The Nativity Story, and the ones I saw depicted in television shows and movies, like the Dreamworks animated film The Prince of Egypt, which told the story of Moses. Even when I did hear these stories, I didn’t fully comprehend that followers of certain religions believed these stories to be true. I enjoyed them because these stories came to me like any other fairy tale in a story book; no one ever taught them to me as truth. In a state like Nebraska, where a large percentage of residents identify as Christian, not knowing much about God or Jesus made me feel ignorant and alienated. If people asked, I shyly identified myself as a Christian, not really even knowing what it meant to be one. I didn't understand why no one in my family thought it imperative that I be taught about a religion I was automatically expected to practice.

As I entered high school, I was constantly being told to learn about subjects that appealed to me so I could further study them in college. Like many of my classmates, I was also becoming more and more concerned about learning who I was and becoming the kind of person I wanted to be. I began researching different religions on my own during my first two years of high school, and finally got the chance to enroll in an introductory world religions class. I became interested in many Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, and in class I learned more about Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, religions that so many people I knew practiced. To say I was interested is an understatement; for once in my life I felt like I was actually somewhat knowledgeable about the world around me.

During high school I also took classes on sociology, psychology, and anthropology, which fed my curiosity about culture and humanity. After high school, I started attending college and declared sociology as my major, with a minor in religious studies. All of the social science classes I've taken have only made me even more interested in the world around me - I'm intrigued by society; how it works and its effect on individuals, and I'm especially passionate about religion and its impact on culture.

I originally began this quest to find answers about what I really believe in, but instead I've found that I'm more interested in what others believe. I've learned that I'm passionate about understanding and appreciating different cultures, societies, and religions. I still do not identify with any religion specifically, but I do have religions which I base my beliefs from, such as Unitarian Universalism and agnosticism. I respect and admire many different religious leaders, such as Pope Francis and the 14th Dalai Lama. I've discovered that the most important thing for me personally is understanding and being compassionate towards others, which is a universal message in many religions. "Love thy neighbor," from Judaism; "A man obtains a proper rule of action by looking on his neighbor as himself," from Hinduism; "Seek to be in harmony with all your neighbors; live in amity with your brethren," from Confucianism; and "No one is a believer until he loves for his neighbor, and for his brother, what he loves for himself," from Islam. Through all of our differences, it seems we can still find common ground, and I can find my own kind of enlightenment through education.

Chloe is thrilled to be Project Interfaith's Communications intern. She first learned about the organization from an introductory world religions course while in high school. Chloe was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska and attends the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she is working towards a degree in Sociology with a minor in religious studies. Chloe's passions include the social sciences, film/television, writing, fashion, and of course, pugs. In her spare time, Chloe enjoys reading, watching Netflix, and spending time with her friends. She hopes to gain plenty of experience through Project Interfaith to do further work with non-profit organizations in the future.

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