Questioning faith


By Hana Al-Henaid and Michelle Nosratian

For the past year or so, Robby Mack ’10 could not figure out what to put as his religion on Facebook. Many do not give much thought to the label, but for Mack, the inability to answer that particular question represents his difficulty identifying wholly with one religion, something he struggled with while simultaneously enduring the trials of junior year. What began as a slight questioning of the values he had been brought up with evolved into a full-blown religious identity crisis.

Mack comes from a family that he describes as “Christian and conservative.”

For the first 15 or 16 years of his life, Mack never questioned the views that his family held, he said.

“In terms of both my religious and political values, I listened to what my parents said,” he said. “I used to believe that God is truth, Jesus is the savior, the free market is great, Ronald Reagan was the best president we’ve ever had and that anybody can attain the American Dream. I never questioned it and I’m not entirely sure what prompted it to change.”

One night, Mack was sitting on the couch of his parents’ house with his mother’s laptop when his thoughts started wandering.

“I was curious as to what the Qur’an actually says,” he said. “Maybe it was divine influence, but I went to Google and typed in Qur’an text and I was surprised because it said radically different things than I thought.”

In many ways, Mack was shocked by what he found in the Muslim holy book.

“There was one section in the Qur’an particularly that struck me,” Mack said. “It was Chapter 2 section 62, and it basically said Muslims, Jews and Christians all will go to heaven. I thought that was so 180 degrees from what I’ve been told.”

After he read about Islam, Mack went on to Facebook, removed the label that said ‘protestant’ and left it blank for a while.

“There was one point when I considered putting Muslim in there but decided against it,” he said. “After a while, this honeymoon period went away and I didn’t feel that rush when I read it anymore.”

After his fascination with Islam died down, Mack went on another religious search — literally. He looked up religions on Wikipedia, wondering “which one’s for me,” he said. He looked at Buddhism and once again “saw something.”

Mack’s longtime friend Myles Teasley ’10 identifies himself as a Buddhist, and for a long while, Mack considered himself a Buddhist as well.

Teasley was raised by his Christian mother, a Methodist, and his Buddhist father, who converted to Buddhism before Teasley was born.

Growing up with the influences of two different religions prompted Teasley to look for a unique niche between the two.

“It was weird being raised by parents who are different religions,” Teasley said. “It’s been really hard to answer the question of what religion I am.”

Although his parents both made the conscious effort to raise Teasley as a practicing Christian and a practicing Buddhist, Teasley said, with age he began to define his spirituality for himself.

“At first I thought I had to choose,” Teasley said. “As time went on and I got more mature, I realized that faith itself is really a choice. You don’t need to answer that question. You are what you are.”

As Teasley began exploring different facets of both faiths, he selected parts of each tradition that appealed to him.

While Teasley believes in reincarnation and nirvana, for instance, he also believes in the Ten Commandments and in a Creator.

“It’s syncretic,” Teasley said. “I have taken aspects from a lot of places, from anything that fits, that resonates with me. I officially stopped going to church when I was 11. Now I’m more Buddhist than Christian.”

Teasley influenced Mack, for whom Buddhism seemed to fill in a lot of the gaps that Christianity left open.

“I saw the love and compassion,” Mack said. “In the Bible there’s charity and in the Qur’an, what they call Zakat, which is alms-giving, but I never saw that manifested. In Buddhism I saw the Dalai Lama and monks being utterly compassionate and thought ‘maybe that’s what I’ve been missing.’ One of the things I saw in Buddhism is the simple honor in a life of poverty. There was a time when I wanted to drop out of high school and go to a monastery and have no material goods and just meditate.”

Although it lasted much longer than it did for Islam, the “honeymoon period died” for Buddhism as well.

“After a while, I thought ‘well, another swing and a miss,’ so I went on another search and after a while, realized that there is really nothing that fits,” Mack said. “For so long, I thought the holy books were the word of God. I didn’t bother to think that this was written down by the hand of a human being, it couldn’t possibly be perfect. In fact, a lot of it couldn’t possibly be truthful.”

Mack now refers to himself as agnostic, although he appreciates the experiences he has had.

“One thing I did gain from all this is a newfound respect for all faiths,” Mack said. “By experiencing it and feeling what they felt, it opened me up to what it is that is the essence of those faiths.”

“Agnostic is Greek for ‘without knowledge’,” Mack said. “Maybe it was the way I was brought up, but I have a very hard time just shirking the idea of there being something. I have no idea what it is, and there’s a large part of me that thinks no matter how powerful or perfect something is, does it really deserve my worship?”

School chaplain and Episcopal priest Father J. Young feels that questioning one’s religion in high school is “appropriate and normal.”

“High school is a time, as you’re maturing, that you question all of your boundaries,” he said. “Anything that is boundary-setting in your life, whether it’s your parents’ authority or your moral obligations, are tested in high school and college. It makes total sense that we also challenge and test our religion, which is another boundary setting institution in our lives.”

“The main developmental goal of adolescence is to develop a sense of identity,” Counselor and humanities teacher Luba Bek said. “Developmentally, it’s very clear that if you were to question your religion, this is the time to do it.”

Mack used to wear a necklace with a small golden cross on it, which he hasn’t worn since he picked up the Qur’an.

“There was one night a few months ago when I put it back on for 15 minutes,” he said. “I was listening to this song by one of my favorite bands called Skillet and something inside me wants to believe, wants to have the ‘theist’ at the end of the agnostic.”

After a tumultuous year of spiritual crises, Mack has finally found a label that fits.

“My big triumph is finally changing my Facebook status,” he said. “I changed it to agnostic theist, although the theist part is mostly to keep my family happy.”