Teens and religion: a lost faith or a renewed belief

January 13, 2021

Religion has been a part of America’s fabric since its beginning, but do today’s teenagers still have the faith? In this special three part series, WTV Executive Producer Cooper Ragle explore the role of religion in the lives of students. (Morgan Kong)

From Hanukkah to Christmas, and Rahmadan to Diwali, the year is filled with dozens of days that are religiously significant to billions of people around the world.

For some people, these days aren’t about religion.

Instead, they’re about spending time with loved ones.

But what do these religious days mean to students on campus? 

Have today’s teens lost their faith? 

In this special three part report leading up to World Religion Day on Sunday, WTV Executive Producer Cooper Ragle explores the world of teenagers and religion.

A part of everyday life

From the first moment European settlers first step foot on the land that would eventually become the United States, religion has been a bedrock principle upon which this country has been built.

Its importance in the history of the country is expressly outlined in the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

We have a tradition in the United States of America of respecting a diverse range of religious traditions, and we live in a very diverse pluralistic society in which our government and our constitution does not recognize one religion as more important than another,”

— social studies teacher Jeff Crowe

“We have a tradition in the United States of America of respecting a diverse range of religious traditions, and we live in a very diverse pluralistic society in which our government and our constitution does not recognize one religion as more important than another,” social studies teacher Jeff Crowe said. “We have the First Amendment, the very first amendment to our Constitution, expresses that and I think that’s important because it also protects religion by not having the government or basically our laws becoming involved in religions. We have what, historians, and authors, and people have referred to as a wall or a separation between the church and the state. Which has kind of been the tradition in the United States for the last 240 years.”

However, according to the Pew Research Center, the percent of Americans who pray daily and attend religious services on a regular basis has seen a modest decline in recent years.  

Data from the nationwide study shows a decline in the percent of adults that describe themselves as religiously affiliated dropping from 83 percent in 2007, to 77 percent in 2014.

For teenagers, the numbers are a bit different.

A 2020 study by the pew research center found that 68 percent of teenagers consider themselves unaffiliated with any religion. 

Here on campus, the numbers appear to be close to the national average, as regardless of the faith, religion plays a role in the lives of a majority of students. 

“Well, a lot of people, religion, it makes my day to day life because like a lot of people think it’s like just like a rule book and like all that but really it’s like having a relationship with him and like wanting to, like, do the things that are right for Him, and that like, it’s not just a rulebook but it’s a way of life,” class of 2020 graduate Jared Jones said. “And that Christianity for me is, since I’m reading the Bible study like that’s a way for me to step out my faith. But also, it’s a way for me to also learn more about Him, and that causes me to be a better person.”

“Most of my day-to-day life is affected by religion because I come from a really religious like strict Hindu family,” senior Anurupa Roy said. “So part of it like I’ll wake up everyday I’ll pray, I’ll come to school, and then when I get back home I’ll pray.”

“My religion includes a lot of prayer so there are definite times in the day where I have to like, pause what I’m doing and go to pray and things like that,” senior Safa Ashraf said. “So it’s very involved and I’m involved with almost every day.”

Taking a variety of forms, religion has been a part of humanity since prehistoric times. And for some students on campus, it seems as if they would have a completely different life without religion being a factor.

Does religion play a role in your life?

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“My life without religion, it would be a completely different lifestyle,” Roy said. “I can’t honestly even imagine it without religion because as I said before, religion has been incorporated as a big part of my lifestyle and like a lot of my beliefs and perspectives on issues derive from my religion.”

“Without religion I’d imagine my life would be a lot different,” Ashraf said. “Most of the things I do revolve around my religion or like there are certain restrictions that are in place because of it so without it I’d imagine that I’d be like a completely different person.”

“My life without religion would be very different because it sets a great standard for morals,” Zonis said. “Especially Judaism we don’t necessarily believe in like a hell so we don’t believe in condemning but we do believe in following the word of God and just sticking true to your faith and like, what morally is right.”

But for many students on campus, religion is more than just a faith or belief system, it can define who they are, and can factor into the daily decisions they make.

“I think my religion is my identity because finding your identity,” Jones said. “Things in the world are usually going to like let you down like things such as like friendly stuff, you never know when they’re going to betray you or when like if you’re having a hard time they’re going to be busy and you can’t like talking but when my work in Christianity I can always rely on God to be there.”

My life without religion, it would be a completely different lifestyle. I can’t honestly even imagine it without religion. Religion has been incorporated as a big part of my lifestyle and like a lot of my beliefs and perspectives on issues derive from my religion,”

— senior Anurupa Roy

“A lot of my beliefs and perspectives on issues or what I’ve been taught throughout my life,” Roy said. “So from a young age my parents have taught me to incorporate religion and how it influences my actions and stuff.”

While religion helps define who some students are, their beliefs are still put to the test in today’s world. 

“A lot of the times it’s been tested when I’m like eating with a couple of friends and there’s like certain foods I can’t eat because of my religion,” Ashraf said. “So people would always kinda pressure me like ‘Hey you should just try it’ but I’ve had to like step back and say “No, I can’t do that like it’s a part of who I am”.

“Growing up in like the Bible Belt, definitely has been tested a lot,” Zonis said. “Because I’m white and I’m Ashkenazi Jew I don’t necessarily look like it so unfortunately for people who are like Muslim and wear hijabs, they’re more pressurized because of their religion because you can see it. But for me it’s just been World War II Hitler jokes on the sly that kids make that they don’t necessarily realize, but I’ve had family members affected by that and so whenever they’re just making these jokes unknowingly into an endless void, they are not regarding whoever is near.”

Religion’s impact on daily life

The latest show on Netflix.

The newest trend on social media. 

The project due in some class. 

Topics such as these seem to fill the lives of teenagers.

But religion still has its place for many students. 

In this second part of a WTV Special Report, Executive Producer Cooper Ragle continues his exploration of the world of teenagers and religion.

 

Since its inception, religion has been fought over and tested, but thousands of years after it first appeared on earth, these students still believe religion has a place in today’s society.

“I think religion affects society because it really gives people something to believe in, it gives hope,” class of 2020 graduate Jared Jones said. “Overall I think religion itself is like a good way for people to have somebody to believe in, and something to look forward to. It answers questions that, like people, know like how the earth came to be and where we’re going after death and things like that that really just like puts leads to people’s minds I think that’s one big reason why people find this agenda so intriguing in society.”

It holds people to a certain moral standard or conduct that just like kind of help frame society in a way and so that’s why you see it a lot,”

— senior Safa Ashraf

“So religion is affecting our society mainly today because it holds people to a certain moral standard or conduct that just like kind of help frame society in a way and so that’s why you see it a lot,” senior Safa Ashraf said. 

“Religion is definitely one of the biggest factors of our social and political conflicts but it also is the reason that a lot of people stick to what’s morally right,” senior Chloe Zonis said. “Although like there are a lot of disputes over territories and what have you due to religion, it also sets a great standard for people growing up in their own religion.”

However for some students on campus, religion doesn’t play a role in their lives.

“I just grew up in a house that wasn’t very religious so I just never had that in my life, so once I started to form my own beliefs I decided I was an atheist,” class of 2020 graduate Emma Varela said. “My dad is an atheist, my mom is Catholic, so I did have a little bit of religion in my life but she’s not really practicing, so I didn’t really go to Church as a kid or have that.”

But even with a lack of religion, questions can still stir about religious practices and ideals.

According to a recent Pew Research Center Study, approximately 63 percent of Americans identify as Christian, 2 percent as Jewish, 1 percent as Muslim, and 1 percent as Buddhist.

“Definitely, like even nowadays I do question sometimes, ‘Oh maybe there is a god, maybe it would be better if I had God in my life,’” Varela said. “Because I would have faith and stuff like that, then I realize, I look at the facts and everything I’ve been told my entire life, what my dad tells me, what other atheists that I have conversations with tell me, or like the media and stuff like that, that like I don’t believe in it. I’ve never read the Bible, but I do want to read the Bible, because it’s always good to be informed about everything in the world.”

When it comes to the concepts and ideas tied to religion, there’s one thing that varela struggles with.  

“Yes, if like there were straight facts or if God, because people always say Jesus comes to them or like an angel talks to them, I never believe those stories,” Varela said. “I think it’s just like, ‘Oh I’m getting attention’, but if God did come to me and was like ‘I’m here’ or there was a straight proof of another being, then I would totally believe in it, like I sometimes, I always wanna believe in reincarnation, of like Buddhism ya know? Because I think it’s a really cool idea and I am afraid of just, nothing being there, which is also what made me an atheist because I think people made religion because they’re just afraid of dying and want something else, like they don’t wanna just die, they want something else to happen to them so that’s why. I’m afraid of the blackness, the nothingness, so I’m like ‘maybe some reincarnation would be fun.’”

Passing religion on to the next generation

Without people, there is no religion.

And like most things, religion is something that is passed on from one person to another. 

In this third and final part of a WTV Special Report, Executive Producer Cooper Ragle continues his exploration of the world of teenagers and religion.

 

Whatever the religious beliefs and whether or not someone has these beliefs, almost nothing can be learned without a teacher.

For some people, this means doing things in their spare time, but for others, their entire profession goes into teaching different holy words.

“So what drives me to do the work I do here, is really the responsibility to leave the world a better place than it was when we came here,” Hebrew school teacher Mushkie Kesselman said. “So we moved here to Frisco five years ago to open this which is one of the first Jewish establishments in the city, and we cater to all the physical and spiritual needs of the people that live here. I personally have a special focus on the youth and the children, that’s what I do, I have a Sunday school, and bar mitzvah club, and different youth programing, teen groups, and the main goal and the main drive is to improve the world and improve the city that we came to and leave it a better place than when we came. What motivates me everyday is seeing the smile of the children as they come in to religious school, and getting the feedback from the parents about how much they love what they’re learning and what they’re doing, and really seeing how they make it part of their lives, and how they bring it into their families and improve what’s going on there as well.”

But here the younger generation, they ask you questions, why this has to be done a certain way and you need to know the answers, you need to connect with them in order to have faith in you and make sure they trust you, what you’re saying is correct which allows them to also remember,”

— Hinduism teacher Ashwin Joshi

“I think it took me a little bit to realize, because being on Young Life staff and kind of working in ministry, it’s almost like a calling of sorts of something that I think you’d only do if you feel really called to it or feel like that’s a really important thing in your life,” Young Life leader Hunter Taylor said. “I love high school kids and I love like, just your generation, or high school generation, and I think it’s so important to have people around you that are encouraging to you. I wish I had more people in high school that I could look up to, or that would know me well, and lead me in different things, so as far as being a Christian or being with Young Life, I think that’s a big part of what drives me to do the work that I do.”

“When I see the Indian background kids or Hindu kids getting raised here, sometimes they don’t have the real story behind the religion or behind the culture and since they are getting raised in a foreign environment, it’s kinda, good to explain to them about the culture, the scriptures, and the religion,” Hinduism teacher Ashwin Joshi. “That kind of drives me because that also allows me to learn about our own religion and scripture.”

“When I was younger, obviously we grew up in America in an American society and one of the things that affected us was our disconnection from God,” Quranic instructor Tawsif Quabili said. “So when I went to study Islam and religion then it connected me to God and recognized God and found purpose, and it changed my life in a lot of ways. So I thought in the same way that if I could give this to every person I meet, every person that I come across, and hopefully he can connect to God and change his life in the same manner.”

But something that comes with these teachings is the ability to adapt thousands of years of history to a new generation.

“The I have had to kind of change things or adapt to a new generation is really working with Young Life, we tend to be really good at this and do this in a good way of adapting to culture now,” Taylor said. “Things have changed since 20 years ago or when I was in high school eight or 10 years ago, phones are such a huge thing in culture today, social media, the different pressures you’re under, so I think one way that I try to adapt is being a Christian, kind of things that I try to do model after what Jesus did and there’s this thing called incarnational, where Jesus came to Earth to be with us, and I hope that’s what I can do to students or high school kids, just like Jesus came to Earth to be like us, to understand us, for us to understand him. I hope that I am able to come to where you guys are, to where high school kids are, and be in your universe, you know? Because it’s totally different than asking you to come out of that and hopefully it feels more at home for students to be in a high school or at basketball games and that’s where you can find Young Life people as well.”

“When I was raised or even my wife or generally the people of my age or background, when we were raised in India, typically we were just imparted to things and we never questioned or we never asked why this is or why this is not,” Joshi said. “But here the younger generation, they ask you questions, why this has to be done a certain way and you need to know the answers, you need to connect with them in order to have faith in you and make sure they trust you, what you’re saying is correct which allows them to also remember.”

“The new generation tend to believe in what they see in front of their eyes,” Quabili said. “And sometimes believing in God is believing in an unseen and that takes a lot of effort to take their mind and belief away from something they see every single day or something they’re told to something they can’t see, and that is the hard part.”

“So the Jewish faith has been around for centuries and we are trying to appeal to the younger generation as best as we could. The advantage that I have, the slight advantage, is that I’m actually not very far in age from the students that come, so I’m 26, so I’m kinda in the same generation,” Kesselman said. “I relate to a lot of the struggles they face and a lot to their upbringing because it’s similar to mine, but we do definitely have a lot of effort that we put into making Judaism appeal to that generation. So even though Judaism is 5000 years old, it’s still very much relevant and alive and we really try to bring the relevance and the life of Judaism into everything we do, so we do a lot of hands-on exploration. We kind of look at the trends of what’s going on and we’ll incorporate all that into all the different activities we do, whether it’s doing a paint night, or using social media, or going through having the children do a multimedia presentation where they’re filming and they’re executing what they learned and teaching it to their parents and their families and other students, so I really try to incorporate everything that’s going on in the world and using that as kind of a catalyst and a starting point to teach the lesson.”  

We really try to bring the relevance and the life of Judaism into everything we do. We kind of look at the trends of what’s going on and we’ll incorporate all that into all the different activities we do and using that as kind of a catalyst and a starting point to teach the lesson,”

— Hebrew school teacher Mushkie Kesselman

But, students aren’t the only ones learning, as the constant changes in today’s society helps teachers learn more about the ones they’re teaching as well.

“Through my work I see that every few years the world presents something new, which people are attracted towards,” Quabili said. “For every attraction we have to find a new method, the lessons are not new, but you just have to find new methods to get the same lessons.”

“I think one thing that I’ve learned through the changing times and through my work is that though a lot of things are still the same, so many things are different too,” Taylor said. “That humans are still humans, like high school kids are still high school kids, those circumstances have changed, like I said with phones, and social media, and having more freedom or less freedom with parents, and what the home life is like, all of those things affect how you operate as students and yea i think it’s so important to recognize those things so that we’re able to connect more and that kinda thing.”

“So I get a lot of people that come to me and I’m kind of in a place where I work with older people and younger people, so I don’t do exclusively youth or exclusively adults, I’m kind of in between and do a little bit of everything, so we do get the classic complaint, I should say, from the older generation who’s like, “The youth is always on their cell phones.” and, “What’s gonna be of our younger generation?” and all the complaints that I’m sure you’ve heard and everybody has heard about the younger generation,” Kesselman said. “And I think to myself, our parents had the same complaint about our generation, and the grandparents had the same complaints about their generation, and that’s just the cycle of the world, is the older generation is complaining about the development and the advancements of the younger generation We’re all learning and adjusting to the changes of our times, but I think that in 20 years, in 30 years, in 40 years from now, it’s just gonna be a greater advantage that we’ve had, so once we learn how to manage, and not to cut out let’s say media, or social media, or technology from our lives, but how to really use social media and technology in a way that advances religion and the world and the social interactions of people to a place we’ve never been to before. So I would say don’t look at it as a negative advancement, but really just focus on the positive that will come from it because the advancements in the world through generations has only led to positive impacts.”

But when all is said and done, whether it’s on the level of a small town or on a worldwide scale, these teachers have their own religious related goals set in place.

“I would love to see kids know the goodness and the freedom that comes with knowing Jesus and walking in their faith too and growing in their faith,” Taylor said. “I hope that I can be a part of that and I hope that Young Life can be a part of that, that would be a really really cool outcome.”

I want to make in my work is connect everyone to God. But together with that to create a very united society where people’s hearts are connected, and because they’re obeying God and understand that there is a higher power in front of them, they will stop causing corruption, et cetera, around the world and create a very loving world instead of a very hostile world that we have today,”

— Quranic instructor Tawsif Quabili

“The big impact is that kids should remember about their faith, their religion, the way of life and hopefully they will pass it on to their next generation,” Joshi said.

“So the greatest impact that I wish to have, and that we hope to have, and that we strive for everyday is actually not a global impact, it’s really affecting the individual, so the Torah teaches that every Jew or every person comes down into this world for 70 or 80 years, which essentially is an entire lifetime just to do one favor for another, that could be a physical favor or a spiritual favor,” Kesselman said. “So really the Torah teaches that our whole existence in this world is to assist others in their physical needs and their spiritual needs, so the greatest impact that I hope to have and that as a community we hope to have is to really assist and encourage the spiritual growth and the physical needs, if it comes to it, of each person in our community and in the city at large to really just help them on a personal level and to bring joy into their lives and Judaism into their lives, even one more mitzvah, one more good deed that will change the world for good.”

“The biggest impact I want to make in my work is connect everyone to God,” Quabili said. “But together with that to create a very united society where people’s hearts are connected, and because they’re obeying God and understand that there is a higher power in front of them, they will stop causing corruption, et cetera, around the world and create a very loving world instead of a very hostile world that we have today.”

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