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Into the Unknown (Rough Draft)

I vividly remember my childhood days spent at Christ the King School in Pleasant Hill. I

remember my friend group’s secret codes and our favorite places to play. I remember the themes

of seasonal plays and the smell inside the gym and the voices of teachers I loved and hated.

Throughout elementary school, much of our learning was centered around ​God​, a

mysterious entity that carried almost daunting ​implications at the time. Our curriculum took the

shape of a ladder. Starting with basic prayers like “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” as

kindergarteners, we climbed the rungs year-by-year—passing the Stations of the Cross in third

grade and The Beatitudes in fifth—as we gradually got closer and closer to the ever-mysterious

God in every single step.

At the top of the climb, we graduated eighth grade and had a nice reception with priests

and sisters. The teachers gave speeches and everybody shook hands and we—the students—were

“thrown out into the real world” as the administration called it.

They advised us to act in the “ways that God had intended”.

I never got around to knowing what they truly meant.

The ways that God had intended.

***

In 2015, I transitioned from eighth grade into a much bigger sea (​another ​Catholic

school), and found myself spiritually lost. While I knew the technical aspects of my religion, my

true faith’s presence was absent in my life. This clear divide between my “beliefs” and actual

actions forced me to look introspectively at such a seemingly large part of my identity. While I

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had attended a Catholic school and weekly mass services almost without fail for nine years, I

could not answer the most basic questions about my faith.

What is my ​relationship with the God that I pray to? Why should I fast on Fridays? How

has the church impacted me?

Forget what they say it is supposed to do!,​ I thought. More than anything, more than the

dogmatic, technical, pedantic aspect of my religion, I wanted my faith to actually impact me

spiritually.

So, in 2016, I joined a bi-weekly formation group of about one-hundred other teens on a

journey of finding spirituality through religion (Catholicism). Although we still covered the

dogma of the catechism, we focused more heavily on experiential impacts of our faiths: how

religion had affected us individually.

Through this program, I was able to examine my faith more closely and eventually

answer the questions that I had been so unsure about before.

Most importantly, through my faith, I found an extra help for discernment. I can now turn

to the teachings that I used to blindly follow and recognize their implementations in my everyday

life. While I may not necessarily agree with all teachings of Catholicism, my faith is still one of

the largest parts of my identity and the main influencer of my actions.

Although I was able to find a personal connection to my religion through a specific

program, I know that this is not the case for everybody. This realization has led me to heighten

my level of curiosity regarding the implications of religious membership on those that practice it

and ultimately pose the question: How does religion manifest itself in an individual’s character?

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Religion has always served among society’s chief moral informants. Ever since the dawn

of time, civilizations have turned to words from the divine to mold their compunctions and

definitions of good and evil. In Ancient Greece for example, citizens acted in ways that they

believed would please the gods and give them favor in the afterlife (Alexander). Later, in Rome,

brilliant scientists and philosophers were shunned, silenced, and even killed under the of pretexts

of heresy; potentially groundbreaking discoveries—such as Galileo’s dissertation on

heliocentricity—were simply disregarded because they went against the teachings of the Church

and thus were absolutely unacceptable (Wolf). As Christ the King Catholic Parish Youth

Minister Rick Lejano describes it, the primary “textbook” purpose of religion is for people to

“use [it] as a gauge for how we should be treating other people”. Note—this definition is not

only the purpose of merely Catholic religion; the purpose of Judaism, for example, is to “strive to

make the Torah real in our lives” (Eron). Essentially, religion is meant to influence our morality

and tell us what is right and wrong: but is this intention actually the case?

According to a Pew Research Group study, about sixty-six percent of the people in the

United States identify as religious (Smith 13). Thus, it would make sense that—assuming

religion’s prime purpose is to head discernment—a majority of the nation would consult their

faith as their primary informant of morality, right?

Findings from the same study actually display the opposite of this notion. Of religious

adults in the United States, 45% say that they use “common sense” to guide their definitions of

right and wrong, significantly higher than the 33% that look towards religion to shape their

compunctions (Smith 64). To further display this point, while all Abrahamic faiths condemn

abortion, fifty-three percent of adults in the United States say that it should be legal in all cases

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(Smith 34). While none of the most popular religions are in support of gay marriage, fifty-three

percent of religious adults are strongly in favor of it (Smith 8).

What causes this separation between the teachings of religion and the beliefs of religious

people? To answer this question, we must start at the nature of religious teachings. Religious

teachings, specifically those of the Abrahamic faiths—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—can be

categorized as deontological: there is an absolute moral right and wrong that should be followed

regardless of whether or not those actions necessarily bring forth mass happiness (Rousseau). As

Father Mario, associate priest at Christ the King Parish describes it, “There are things that are

morally wrong, and there are things that are morally right. Leading a Catholic life, having an

informed conscience through the teachings of the Bible should lead you to what is right all the

time”.

Indeed, this characteristic of religion can be easily observed throughout the divine texts.

Take the Ten Commandments for example: “Thou shalt not kill” (The Holy Bible). Look at the

teachings of the catechism for example: “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not

cause the newborn to perish” (Paul). These orders definitely leave no room for interpretation.

Either you commit the action that is right, or you don’t—there is no in between.

But what if you’re killing an intruder to save your family? What if you’re killing a tyrant

to end a war? What if abortion is necessary to save the mother? What if the woman was raped

and didn’t want the child?

Why is there no room for error?

Why isn’t justness up for interpretation?

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The questions above are all parts of the reason that many choose to act in ways and

believe in ways that their religion does not support; most adults in the United States (roughly

sixty-four percent) believe that morality—unlike what religion teaches—​is ​open to interpretation

(Smith 67). As Rick Lejano puts it, the “by the book”, closed-off nature of religion often serves

as a turn off for adults towards following religious teaching. Most people see this deontological

nature as an acute flaw of religion, and choose to disregard it.

Thus, rather than acting in accordance with the accepted practices of the faith, the

75-percent-religious-adults in the United States have chosen to act in more liberal ways

regarding morality. Rather than the expected value of deontological—after all, most of the

United States ​does identify as religious—American society can actually be categorized as a

different type of morality: ​utilitarian (​ Parrish).

To explain this term, we can look at a classic ethical hypothetical that is used to identify

utilitarian from deontological individuals:

“A runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward five workers who will all be killed

if the trolley proceeds on its present course. Adam is standing next to a large switch that

can divert the trolley onto a different track. The only way to save the lives of the five

workers is to divert the trolley onto another track that only has one worker on it. If Adam

diverts the trolley onto the other track, this one worker will die, but the other five workers

will be saved” (Thomson).

In this situation, a utilitarian would flip the switch because their “perspective dictates that

most appropriate action is the one that achieves the greatest good for the greatest number”

(Crockett): saving five and killing one. A deontologist, rather, would refrain from flipping the

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switch because it would cause his direct involvement in “killing an innocent person”, something

that is morally impermissible under any circumstance (Crockett).

If we look at the accepted values and practices of Western society, specifically American

society, it is not hard to notice that these civilizations—although they identify as heavily

religious—tend to lean more utilitarian. Utilitarians morally permit euthanasia because it “ leads

to the happiness of the individual and society” (A) while deontologists believe that it is morally

impermissible because it involves a second-party directly constructing the means and methods to

kill another individual (Brassington).

One potential explanation for this notion, for this heightened level of utilitarianism in the

United States, can be attributed to the entertainment industry: “The media encourages

utilitarianism. They encourage a life without moderation, a life without sacrifice, a life where the

end justifies the means if the end can provide the greatest amount of people with an illusion of

happiness” (Parrish).

So, if the primary purpose of religion is to guide morality, and it is not being used to

guide morality (it is being pushed aside for other agents such as the entertainment industry), then

what does it actually mean to those that practice it? ​How does it manifest itself in an individual’s

character?

The answer to this question is anything but definite. Although—as we covered

earlier—the ​intended p​ urpose for practicing religion is to influence morality, the facts and

behaviors gathered from society display that it is not chiefly used for that motive. Rather,

motives of religion differ from person to person.

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Christ the King Minister Lejano, for example, while he openly “disagrees with some

things the Church says”, still uses religion to influence his actions. He says that the most

important part of religion in his life how it has taught him how to treat the poor: “that’s

something that I pull directly from Catholicism...not from my own form of morality, but from

Catholic morality”.

A Northgate senior that requested be made anonymous has different persons for

practicing religion: “religion is not about rules, it’s about relationships...there is nothing more

enticing to me than a Savior who offers salvation that isn’t determined by performance...by a

savior that offers unconditional love”.

And other motives—aside from relationships and morality—exist as well. I practice

because I feel that it gives my life purpose; my sister practices because the stories of the Bible

give her inspiration; another source that requested to be kept anonymous stated that they didn’t

even know why they practiced religion: “to be honest, it’s never been a big part of my life. Like,

I went through the motions but I’ve never really known like ‘what for?’”.

The point is this: religion is a concept that is too complex to assign general

characterizations. It’s vast. Made up of many parts. Present in different cultures. Affected by

time. Altered through oral passing. Perpetually challenged and questioned.

There will never be a singular motive to answer the question: it doesn’t manifest itself the

same ​in each person’s character. But maybe that’s okay.

***

Can one fully describe the universe, with its millions of gears and parts? Can one

adequately explain its functions, its tenfold of mentalities, its multitude of Gods? Does a tenet, an

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adage, a lesson of Steinbeck or Christ come to mean the same—travel ​untouched​—as it spreads

from mouth to mouth, from mind to mind?

Perhaps an algebraic proof, a property of gravity, a coefficient of “x” can maintain its

identity through time unscathed; but can the same be said of all things? Can a specific morality

for instance, come to be ​proven as perpetually correct, just as the roundness of the Earth has been

proven by science?

Is there a fit-enough moral informant, like a Hawking to the cosmos? Is there an ethical

authority, like Isaac Newton was to physics? Is any shaman, sister, Allah, or Torah alike ​truly

qualified to judge me on the merit of my choices? Qualified to influence ​me o​ n the just-ness of

my actions?

Maybe questions like these are meant to remain unanswered, only understood. Maybe our

universe—its millions of mentalities and tenth fold of moralities—is meant to stay, at a

metaphysical level, undefined. Maybe morality ​can’t be compared to gravity; maybe there ​will

never b​ e a proven​ r​ ight or wrong. But maybe that’s how it’s meant​ ​to be.

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Works Cited

A, James. “Utilitarianism View on Euthanasia.” ​Liberrimus​, The University of Texas, 4

Oct. 2016, sites.dwrl.utexas.edu/liberrimus/2016/10/04/utilitarianism-view-on-euthanasia/.

Alexander, Caroline. “How the Greeks Changed the Idea of the Afterlife.” ​National

Geographic,​ National Geographic, 8 June 2016,

www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/07/greek-gods-ancient-greece-afterlife/.

Brassington, Iain. “Killing People: What Kant Could Have Said about Suicide and

Euthanasia but Did Not.” ​Journal of Medical Ethics​, vol. 32, no. 10, 2006,

doi:10.1136/jme.2005.015420.

Crockett, Molly. “The Trolley Problem: Would You Kill One Person to Save Many

Others?” ​The Guardian​, Guardian News and Media, 12 Dec. 2016,

www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2016/dec/12/the-trolley-problem-would-you-kill-o

ne-person-to-save-many-others​.

Eron, Lewis. “The Goal of Life.” ​Reconstructing Judaism,​ Reconstruction Judaism, 2015,

www.reconstructingjudaism.org/dvar-torah/goal-life​.

Feliciano, Jack, and Mario Rizzo. “Interview with Mario Rizzo.” 9 Mar. 2019.

Feliciano, Jack, and Rick Lejano. “Interview with Rick Lejano.” 3 Mar. 2019.

Parrish, Emily. “Are Utilitarian & American Synonyms?” ​Bear Market​, Bear Market, 10

Dec. 2015, bearmarketreview.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/are-utilitarian-american-synonyms/.

Paul, John. ​Catechismus Catholicae Ecclesiae​. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.

Rousseau, Jacques. “Moral Absolutism: Deontology and Religious Morality.” ​Synapses​,

6 Mar. 2016, www.synapses.co.za/moral-absolutism-deontology-religious-morality/.

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Smith, Gregory. ​U.S Public Becoming Less Religious.​ Pew Research Group, 2015, pp.

1–201, ​U.S Public Becoming Less Religious

The Holy Bible.​ Zondervan, 1​ 984.

Thomson, J. J. ​ Killing, letting die, and the trolley problem.​ The Monist, 1976, pp. 59(2),

204 –217, ​Killing, letting die, and the trolley problem​.

Wolf, Jessica. “The Truth about Galileo and His Conflict with the Catholic Church.”

UCLA Newsroom,​ University of California, 22 Dec. 2016,

newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/the-truth-about-galileo-and-his-conflict-with-the-catholic-church.

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