Daily Gazette Roundtable: Religion, Morality, and Social Justice

We asked 6 religious students to describe their views on religion, morality, and social justice. Excerpts of their responses are published here. The views below are the respondents’ own, and they do not reflect those of The Daily Gazette editorial board.

Can you describe yourself to our readers?

Tarzan MacMood ’20: In contrary to my fictional counterpart, I was born in Elmhurst, New York, but was raised mostly in Upper Darby, PA. I spent my high school years in a public school in South Philadelphia, so I have jumped from an urban to a suburban setting to only be immersed in a city again. My family comes from Bangladesh; growing up learning the native language and Bengali culture, I identify as a Bengali-American. I have been a practicing Muslim all my life. My understanding and love for Islam developed as my grandfather simultaneously taught me Bengali, the language my father and grandparents grew up speaking, and Arabic. He would also tell me Islamic stories about Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Isa (pbuh), and other important figures in the religion.

Zena Ebrahim ’20: I grew up in a Muslim family, and have always found myself finding peace and security in my faith. While those who I grew up with usually felt as though their religion was forced upon them and did not find the same comfort in their religion as I did, I really looked towards my faith in the hardest times, and it helped me become the caring person that I am today and has shown me the true meaning of my life.

Michael Broughton ’19: I’m a junior studying linguistics and Arabic. I was brought up in a fairly religious family; my parents and grandparents have been lifelong members of a Pentecostal Christian church.

Rebecca Zhou ’19: I am a Chinese-American Christian on the Pre-med track at Swarthmore College. Currently I’m a junior majoring in Biology, and potentially double majoring in Psychology. I was raised in a Christian household for much of my childhood, and grew up attending a non-denominational Chinese Church. I was baptized in middle school, but I developed a firm sense of my faith even earlier.

Tobias Philip ’20: I am a sophomore at Swarthmore studying Classics. In music and architecture I prefer the baroque, in philosophy the medieval, in poetry the classical, and in religion the ageless—that is to say, traditional Catholicism.

Siddharth Srivatsan ’20: I’m an Indian-American Hindu planning on double majoring in Mathematics and Economics. I’m a sophomore, and I was raised a Hindu, specifically a devotee of Vaishnavism. My grandparents were at home a lot when I was young, and they were fervently religious; even my parents were to a degree, and some of that rubbed off on me, though my religiosity has waxed and waned over the years.

Can you briefly describe your religious view(s)? How and when did you become religious?

Zena: I generally don’t consider myself a strict Muslim, but I do consider myself strict on myself and the way I incorporate my faith into my life, simply because I have seen the difference in my life since I have become a more religious person.

Michael: My religious views are consistent with the core tenets of Christianity. Mankind was created by the almighty God to be perfect, and in an eternal loving relationship with Him. Since then, however, we have willingly turned away from this perfection and decided to live lives that contain sin. God offers us eternal forgiveness from our state of sin, if we accept it by believing that Jesus really is God, and that he really did die and rise again. My faith began to become something I actually owned and wrestled with, rather than something told to me by my parents, as I progressed through my teenage years. And since I began college, my religious views have gained more nuance and complexity as I’ve matured as a person.

Sid: People have a lot of misconceptions of Hinduism, one of which is that the religion is monolithic. Denominations of Hinduism are very similar to denominations of Christianity. Hinduism is a bit of an umbrella term for many different belief systems. There are atheistic Hindus, monotheistic Hindus, and of course, polytheistic Hindus. But I’m a follower of Vaishnavism, which emphasizes a devotion to Lord Vishnu and the many forms he takes on (e.g., Krishna).

Tobias: I believe in the orthodox teachings of the Catholic Church, unscathed by the errors of the mid-twentieth century and on. I believe that the church is apostolic and a divine institution established by Christ, and that extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation), that is to say, one is only just insofar as one is in accord with Catholic dogma.

Have you ever questioned or doubted your own beliefs? If so, what helped you overcome those doubts?

Tarzan: The constant news showcasing extremist groups conducting atrocious acts of terror in various regions of the world left me questioning my faith. I saw my peers persist despite these hardships in defending our religion when many misguided people had one, inflated view of us. Our religion is centrally based on submission to Allah, but there are those who misinterpret His words without thinking about common decency and righteousness. It struck me that Islam is not intended to be taken as a tactic for destruction, but rather a means to connect with Allah and the world. Much of the actions we take as Muslims are to strengthen our bonds to Allah through prayer, recitation of the Quran, etc.

Zena: I’ve never doubted that my beliefs were true, however, I have countlessly come across questions that I couldn’t find the answer to (and still have not found). Ultimately though, I do believe there are things that do not have a known reason, but in the end faith is putting trust in the unknown.

Michael: I encounter reasons to doubt my beliefs almost daily. There are of course the classic tough questions, like “How can a good God allow suffering?” or “Why should your God be the one that offers the only true path?” These questions matter, but there are also other, “smaller” doubts that I grapple with from day to day. What tends to keep me grounded is the large body of logical, historical, and philosophical evidence for Christianity (in an objective sense) and my personal relationship with God, which provides context for otherwise unexplainable experiences I’ve had throughout my life (in a more subjective sense).

Rebecca: Growing up in a very liberal county (and attending an even more liberal independent school), there have always been people who have made fun of or criticized my beliefs. I was and am grounded in my belief in God and Bible, and part of being religious is recognizing that you won’t have all the answers (like in science and medicine), but appreciating this realization with humility. Thinking back on my childhood, I don’t think this teasing (and sometimes mocking) really made me doubt my faith. Instead, I would wonder why other people are so intolerant of Christianity, and why so many people assume things about my religion that simply isn’t true. For example, people assume that Christianity condemns queer and homosexual individuals, which is not at all true!

Sid: For much of high school, I had a lot of doubts in my beliefs. I used to spend a great deal of time watching people like Sam Harris discuss religion, and it really made me question my faith. I considered myself agnostic for some time, then considered myself a deist tied to no organized religion, before coming back to Hinduism. Part of it was definitely my growing up in a devout Hindu household, and learning the stories of the Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana; those memories are powerful, and I felt a very strong attachment to them. But part of it was just seeing the role that God played in my life, and that I felt his hand open doors for me that perhaps might not have otherwise opened. Additionally, I have a very firm belief in Hindu philosophy, independent of the religion itself.

How does your faith inform your view on morality and social justice?

Tarzan: One of the greatest things about Islam is its requirement for me to impart good to this life. We follow the path of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) who, despite receiving a lot of hate from non-believers, forgave his greatest enemies in the name of Islam. I try to understand both the public’s opinion and my religion’s perspective regarding controversial, yet critical issues. From there I make decisions myself about whether I agree or not with either sides–if I go against what is “authentic” in the scriptures, then I know I am the only one to face the repercussions.

Zena: The meaning of life for me is working towards a world of equality. While that seems impossible, I do believe that my personal meaning of life is to help others and give to those who aren’t as fortunate as we are.

Michael: With regard to issues of social justice, I think people would be surprised at how attractive the Bible could seem. Christianity is at its core a message of freedom and eternal joy, so it makes sense that it would have a lot to say about, for instance, freeing the oppressed or strengthening the weak. Issues like mass incarceration, world hunger, and poverty all immediately come to mind for me when I think about my faith’s relationship with social justice. Christianity speaks very strongly against those who perpetuate injustices, and provides tools and motivation that empower the oppressed and their allies.

Rebecca: I believe that there is an objective truth as well as objective morality, which only God knows in its entirety. Since true Christianity is more than just a religion but a lifestyle as well, the more we actively embody our faith, the more our values and morals will become aligned with God’s. I do feel that society in general rejects the Christian concept of sin and objective morality/truth, but I firmly stand by my beliefs and moral convictions. I am fine with being viewed as counter-cultural because Christians are not supposed to conform to popular societal views that oppose our faith.

Sid: Hinduism, at its core, is quite libertarian when it comes to social issues. While ultra-religious Hindus tend to have quite in common with Evangelical Christians (intolerance of other religions, anti-gay marriage, anti-premarital sex, etc.), Hindu philosophy and scripture tends not to concern itself with such matters. As a generally tolerant person, I’d say my views generally don’t come into contention with the zeitgeist, and they generally make for poor conversation since very few people know much about Hinduism. I tend to see social justice issues as human issues rather than Godly ones, and so the way I perceive social justice issues is not through a religious lense.

How tolerant are you in general toward other social groups, such as atheists/agnostics, liberals, conservatives, communists, anarchists, white supremacists, and believers of other religions? How tolerant do you think other people are toward your faith or religious beliefs?

Tarzan: First and foremost, I love being Muslim and believe it is integral to my identity. But I refuse to impose my beliefs and differences on someone else. Your decision to believe my perspective or not is and should not be in my control.I love hearing different perspectives as much as I love opening up about mine. I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with everything though.

Michael: “Tolerant” is an interesting word, and the way it’s used in the question, I feel like it’s a loaded term. I think it’s possible to acknowledge that another person is a fellow human and give them the respect inherent in that fact, without justifying whatever behaviors or beliefs they express that I deem objectionable or illogical. So in one sense I’m “tolerant” of everyone, because I don’t think that any one of us is inherently any better or worse than any other person. In another sense, I can disagree with other people, even to the point of believing that their beliefs are completely misguided. That being said, I disapprove greatly (indeed, I’m “intolerant”) of white supremacists and how they think, especially given my status as a person of color in America. I find their views objectionable and unjustifiable by any standard.

Rebecca: Christians are told to love people, regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, beliefs, etc. While I will not support causes I don’t believe in, this country guarantees religious freedom, and people have the right to believe whatever they want. I will actively oppose groups that seek to harm others, especially those run by supposed Christians (such as the Westboro Baptist Church). You cannot harbor hate towards others and claim to be Christian—this directly opposes the Bible as well as common human decency.

As for racism, the Baptist and Presbyterian churches I attend both strongly encourage us to actively combat racism. As Christians, it isn’t enough to just “not be racist”—we are to actively and intentionally be inclusive and welcoming to all, and especially to those who are mistreated in society. As for people who identify as Christians while still maintaining racist thoughts—only God knows if a professing Christian is a true Christian or not. I grew up in a Chinese church, but my current home church is incredibly ethnically/culturally diverse. The church I attend at Swarthmore is demographically mostly Asian, but they really stress embracing diversity.

Tobias: Since I live in a professedly secularist country, I am entirely tolerant of any ideology’s free expression of belief, so far as it doesn’t cause physical violence. That right is, I believe, foundational to the preservation of our free exchange of ideas, which, although far from ideal, is nonetheless greatly preferable to the dictatorship of sameness.

As a Traditionalist Roman Catholic, however, I find atheism to be unabashed impiety, liberalism degenerating banality, white supremacy hubristic villainy, communism misguided materialism, and members of other religions to be woefully in error. Nonetheless, I do find myself enriched by dialogue with most of these ideologies.

Christianity in America is often associated with conservatism. However, as Pew Research Center’s survey shows, Americans are very divided in terms of partisanship by denomination and race. Which party are you affiliated with? Why do you think when people think of Christianity, they think of conservatism?

Michael: Americans often associate Christianity with political conservatism because many of the most vocal and visible figures on the right claim that Evangelical Christianity informs their positions. I’d like to emphasize, though, that this perception isn’t universal (which the Pew survey shows). In the community where I grew up, for instance, nobody I knew ever associated Christianity with the political right. In fact, people I knew often thought of very non-Christian characteristics when they thought of political conservatism. I do think, however, that Christianity does advocate for several socially conservative positions, and the people in my home community would likely also acknowledge this. I personally do not tend to be affiliated with either major political party, because neither of them represents my beliefs in a way that I would consider full enough to deserve my backing. Because of this, the way I vote might change from year to year, rather than always be associated with one particular party.

Rebecca: I personally identify as a moderately conservative Christian in America, but on Swarthmore’s campus I’m probably one of the most conservative Christians (since the school leans left in general). There are certainly pros and cons of both the Republican and Democratic party, but I lie somewhere between independent and Republican. Presently, I think people associate Christianity with conservatism because a sizeable proportion of the politically “loud” conservative population identifies as Christian. Both parties promote various Christian ideals and both parties promote many ideals that go against Biblical teachings. It’s up to a Christian to determine which party they choose to identify with (if any) based on what they believe is truly best.

Tobias: I identify with neither party but consider myself a conservative in the mold of a William F. Buckley or Edmund Burke. Right wing evangelicals seem to currently hold a monopoly on the image of American Christianity, surely because they seem to be moved by far more fervor than the mainline Protestant Churches or most Catholics. Nevertheless, Christianity is by no means a conservative ideology, but if conservatism looks to the past, then Christians can surely not be blamed from yearning for a time in which Federal laws could not cause conflict of conscience with sacred Scripture. From an orthodox Christian perspective, morality has inarguably deteriorated over the years and a civilization suckled by the Church has betrayed her mother. If your foundational beliefs conflict with those upheld by the prevailing moral system of past centuries then liberalism seems an appropriate ideology. Likewise, for many Christians under contemporary circumstances, conservatism seems a natural response.

President Trump recently renewed his executive order on immigration, and the ACLU calls it “still a Muslim ban.” What do you think about discrimination against Muslims in this country?

Tarzan: I think it is highly hypocritical for Trump to exploit millions of people with his own long list of executive orders when he blasted the former president for signing executive orders. The bigger point though is the intention and effect of these executive orders. We cannot suddenly blind ourselves to the truth that America has always been invested in the global economy–part of that is bringing in people for their contribution to our national economy.

The ban itself has started a national dialogue as to whether banning the immigration of certain densely populated Muslim countries is the same as discriminating based on religion. Beyond the talking points from each side, there are millions of Muslims who are domestically facing demonization. It’s not right; it’s misinformed and prejudiced. Truth is, we operate in a system where someone has to be the victim. The Muslim population is the victim of one portrayal of it.

Here’s my suggestion. Get to know us. Represent us in ways that do not put our livelihoods in danger. Don’t look at us differently for the languages we speak or to the entity we ask guidance from, and give us the same opportunities as others.

Zena: It’s incredibly sad. I don’t think people understand the extent to which they hurt minorities in this country, and the inexplicable pain they and their families go through. Discrimination stems from ignorance. Discriminatory people aren’t always bad people, but they do horrible things that really affects the mental well being of other humans, and they will never understand how painful that is. We’re all human. 99% of our genetics are identical–so why do we choose to focus on that tiny difference, and not celebrate our oneness instead? Obviously it’s not as easy as that, but really the way we look, think, and act shouldn’t be what tears us apart. Such diversity is beautiful, and it’s about time people see that.

Featured image courtesy of playbuzz.com.


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4 comments

  1. 3
    2019 Lutheran says:

    I actually don’t think that most Americans conflate Christianity with conservatism. This might be true in a place like Swarthmore, where not many people are very religious and many reduce Christianity to a caricature of ultra-right Evangelicals.

    The truth is more nuanced. Though a waning power in American society, Mainline Protestants were once the dominant religious group in the US and are often more liberal than the population as a whole. Mainline Protestants helped spearhead the Civil Rights Movement and campaigns against poverty. Similarly, Catholics in America don’t lean overwhelmingly to one party and are increasingly Latino.

    Finally, it might help to take a look at the faith of prominent liberal politicians. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are devout Christians.

    Matthew 6:1
    “Take heed that you give not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise you have no reward of your Father who is in heaven.”

  2. 2
    Alum2016 says:

    Okay this is a great, measured conversation with representation from two out of the three most common faiths at Swarthmore. But why are there no Jews in this conversation? It’s not just anti-Muslim hatred on the increase; antisemitism has risen hugely in the past year as well across the country, the world, and in Swarthmore (swastikas in McCabe). I’d really like to see recognition of that as well – separate of political opinions about Israel, please.

  3. 0
    Alum2016 says:

    Sorry – mistyped. I meant 3 out of however many. The point here is inclusion, I guess, and I’m (clearly) writing from a Jewish perspective.

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