May 2, 2019
Under the first amendment, students in public school are guaranteed religious freedom, while the establishment clause prevents schools from imposing a specific religion on their students. But on and off campus, religious diversity is prevalent, as seen through clubs, places of worship and core values.
Religion on campus
A group of students and English teacher Bianca Aguirre stand in the middle of Aguirre’s classroom, their arms linked and heads bent. Junior co-president Julia Chang asks the group for prayer requests.
One member talks about a relative with cancer.
“God has created miracles,” she says, and the group prepares to pray.
Prayer circles mark the end of a Christian Club meeting, which also includes Bible study and worship. Secretary and junior Franklin pulls out his laptop, revealing an annotated copy of Romans 16 on a Google Doc. The other group members follow along on their phones, interjecting with their thoughts as the group reads through the passage.
One part of Romans includes “personal greetings,” and Franklin shares his annotation.
“Paul is talking about how much he loves all these people,” Franklin said. “That’s the point of the greeting. We should think of all Christians, and love and greet them just as much.”
Junior Cassandra Sweet disagrees.
“I think we are extrapolating too much from that,” Cassandra said. “He was just saying hi to people.”
The club, which is led by Julia and senior Andrew Mo, aims to create a space for students who identify as Christians to have discussions about their faith.
“There are valid questions that other people have about Christ or about their faith,” Julia said. “We try to be okay with that, be okay with not having answers, because we are together in our relationship with the Bible and Christ.”
Cassandra is also co-president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). The club, which hosts speakers and outreach programs, also emphasizes community.
“FCA uses sports and athletics as a way to connect with other people and use that platform as a way to share God with other people,” Cassandra said.
Besides student-led clubs, religion is also related to classes’ curriculums. At Los Altos and public schools across the nation, biology classes teach Darwin’s theory of evolution to students, which differs from creationism, or the belief that the creation story in the Bible is literally true.
For some students, like junior Cassandra Sweet, who is Christian, evolution and creationism can coexist.
“Personally, the science and religion debate has never been a debate,” Cassandra said. “No amount of science can tell you why we’re here, and what the purpose of life is. I use religion as an answer to why and science as the answer to what.”
Cassandra believes that the creation stories in the Bible are “more metaphorical” and should be interpreted as such, but she also doesn’t believe the evolution debate is crucial to her faith.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s possible that God used evolution as a way to create everything we see right now,” Cassandra said. “Whether or not evolution is the way that everybody and everything got here, it wasn’t a dealbreaker for me. I figured I’m already here.”
Biology teacher Jacob Russo approaches the teaching of evolution by presenting evidence and allowing for students to evaluate the theory for themselves.
“My expectation for students is that they consider the evidence and make a decision about Darwin’s ideas, not change the lens they view the world through,” Russo said. “I draw a continuum on the board with pure belief on one end and pure science on the other and make the point that most people sit somewhere along the continuum, not at either extreme.”
While some students have told Russo their beliefs on evolution at the beginning of the unit, Russo doesn’t believe public schools are an appropriate place for conversations to reconcile the two ideas.
“People explain the presence of life on Earth in whatever way is most comfortable for them, based on their life experience, and no one should be faulted for that,” Russo said.
Religion off campus
Religious communities exist outside of school, through gatherings at places of worship, family traditions and religious organizations.
Junior Cornelia Penn, who is Buddhistm attends a Buddhist temple each month to pray with her family and other Cambodian Buddhists. Sophomore Emma Gourand, who identifies as Catholic, attends church every Sunday with her family. Her mother helped contribute to the development of a local French Catholic community by bringing French priests to help people pray.
Junior Ben Rubinstein is part of Jewish teen movement BBYO’s local chapter, which he describes as his “outlet” to Jewish culture and a driving force in his pride of his Jewish heritage.
“It’s this culture of being a minority and of being oppressed and of trying to find our own cultural identity through that,” Ben said. “Being a part of BBYO means I can connect and keep being Jewish. We see bad things happening to us as a Jewish community when people begin to forget their Judaism.”
At home, Ben speaks Hebrew with his family, participates in religious rituals involving the Torah and attends synagogue approximately once a month. However, he does not believe in God or connect with the spiritual aspects of Judaism.
“I understand Hebrew, and to be able to look at a language and understand what it’s saying and say words that I might not believe in [in synagogue] makes it less appealing to go,” Ben said.
For Ben, joining BBYO allowed him to redefine his way of practicing his religion.
“I’m not praying as much, but it doesn’t mean that I’ve disconnected from my Judaism,” Ben said. “I’ve taken control of the way I want to practice Judaism. Prayer has never been something that I’ve found necessary or helpful to connect to some divine power. I’ve always felt that has come mainly in my ability to do good in the world. Being part of BBYO has been integral to allowing me to stay with those values.”
Senior Rebecca Swernofsky identifies as more culturally than spiritually Jewish. As a result, she doesn’t attend synagogue every weekend although her mother and stepfather do. However, she values the community aspect of Judaism.
“I feel like I’m being left out,” Rebecca said. “I wish I was more of a part of the community, because community is huge. I’m missing out on that whole community aspect where you see the kids learning your values and the older adults there treat you as a grandchild because they’ve known you for years.”
Another reason Rebecca doesn’t attend synagogue is because of the time commitment.
“Community is nice, but it’s a lot of time every week to say prayers,” Rebecca said. “I don’t see myself [attending synagogue] several years down the line. Maybe when I’m really old.”
Atheism and Agnosticism
Not all students are religious. Sophomore Ella Chang attributes her atheist beliefs to growing up in a mainly atheist family.
“I would not join organized religion because I prefer to live without having to follow specific rules on how to be a good person,” Ella said. “I cannot believe in a system where people tell you how to live your life based on a book.”
For junior Joanna Doria, who identifies as an atheist, her lack of religious identification stems from questioning her parent’s’ beliefs. Although her parents do not identify with a specific religion, they believe in the existence of God.
“My parents were always saying how God did this, and God did that,” Joanna said. “But coincidences exist. Science and luck can play into everything. Is there really someone out there watching down at us?”
Freshman Kaavya Butaney, who identifies as agnostic and Hindu, believes in some aspects of Hinduism, such as karma and reincarnation. But other parts of the belief system are “confusing,” including the idea that God is in everyone.
“It’s really weird and complicated,” Kaavya said. “I don’t know what to believe if I don’t understand it. If I don’t understand why it’s happening, I won’t believe it. I’m kind of hesitant toward all religions.”
Identifying as atheist can also invite judgement from others. According to Joanna, one common misconception is that atheism is “bad,” and some see it as an incomplete belief system.
“Some people say you don’t have faith, and people shame you for that because they think you need to believe in something,” Joanna said. “But it’s not necessary. Everyone is different, they all have different opinions.”
For freshman Anand Mehta, who identifies as both atheist and Hindu, religious values and atheist beliefs can “coexist.”
“There is ultimately a balance between what we can observe and reasonably conclude and various morals that can be derived from religion,” Anand said. “While I do not believe in the gods that Hinduism preaches, I believe in the values that it teaches. Atheism has taught me to look for the truth and reality in things, instead of simply pointing to a greater deity as the answer.”
Both Joanna and Ella said that religion can be a positive influence in people’s lives.
“Religion is a scapegoat for some people,” Joanna said. “If some bad things are happening, they’ll pray. When you lose all faith in something, it’s nice to have religion as a backup.”
Religion and Stress Relief
For some students, religion and religious practices help with mindfulness and stress relief, especially in school.
Junior Cornelia Penn, who is Buddhist, meditates daily. She sees meditation as a chance to “express herself” and describes her way of practicing as “freeing.”
“Meditation is a way to escape the stress of daily life, and it’s a way to calm myself when my emotions are getting larger and so big that I can’t control them,” Cornelia said. “It makes me more calm, more understanding of others, and not so quick to judge other people because I know what they’re going through because Buddhism encourages me to self reflect.”
Sophomore Eliza Morgan, who is Buddhist, uses meditation as part of a value system. She initially became Buddhist as a freshman because she was seeking a way to “know what the right thing to do is” without worshipping a deity.
“Buddhism is about letting everything go,” Eliza said. “For instance, if I get a bad grade on a test, it’s not the end of the world, it happened. Meditation has made me a lot more relaxed, to the point where some people get the impression that I don’t care about things, but I’m more focused on the goal than the process.”
For one student who identifies as Mainline Protestant and requested to be anonymous, religion means trusting that “God always has a plan.”
“He may want you to go through some hard times because he wants you to learn from them,” she said. “I always think of that when I’m going through something hard because what I think might be good for me isn’t actually what God wants for me, and His plan is always better.”
Her beliefs have allowed her to manage stress surrounding her grades.
“It’s made me realize that my grades aren’t super important anymore,” she said. “Religion helps ground me. Instead of me going all over the place and yelling and screaming, it sort of prevents me from hurting myself and hurting others. God has planned so much more for me than my grades. He defines me as someone completely different.”
A closer look at religion: It’s complicated
Many students reassess their beliefs as they expand their understanding of their religion. Some reconcile ideological conflicts, while others continue to grapple with differing ideas. Moreover, religion bleeds into other aspects of life, including the political sphere, informing students’ policy preferences. And others face their peers’ misconceptions surrounding their religion
A LCSome students question the beliefs taught to them by their parents or religious organizations.
“There’s definitely things that I question, and I think everybody has to question what they believe at some point or another,” Cassandra said. “It’s a question of what is religion, and how do I know if Christianity is real and if the Bible is legit. It’s a constant process of re-assessing my beliefs.”
Most of the time, questioning one’s beliefs doesn’t lead to a definitive answer. When sophomore Emma Gourand, who identifies as Catholic, questioned her beliefs, her mother told her to “look deeper into the text [of the Bible].
“I had this phase where I was listening to the Bible during mass and I said ‘wait, I don’t agree with that,’” Emma said. “I talked about it with my mom and she told me that you could disagree, but after disagreeing, you should try to understand the message behind the text because sometimes it has a different meaning.”
She disagrees with parts of the Bible because she believes some sections are sexist or homophobic.
“I’m not against LGBTQ+ rights, and it’s a real question if the church should accept gay marriage in churches,” Emma said. “I’m still working on that question, to be honest. In the Bible, the Earth was made with man and woman, but I’m thinking it could have happened differently.”
Moreover, other parts of the Bible seemingly conflict with views on LGBTQ+ rights.
“The Bible says every human should be equal, and that they should have the same rights,” Emma said. “So in a way I do think that gay marriage should be included in church, but I also think it’s going to be a huge change if it happens one day because right now it doesn’t seem to be happening.”
However, questioning her faith hasn’t lessened her belief in God.
“I have a real relationship with God, and it’s been 15 years,” Emma said. “It’s a part of my life, and I can’t imagine not having this God.”
Religion has also influenced students’ political views. Freshman Keshav Shah, who is Hindu, found that studying religious texts, called vedas, informed his views on healthcare.
“Hinduism says almost everyone should have the chance to go through life all the way to their death, and not die from something they might be able to stop,” Keshav said. “A lot of people might die because they don’t have the correct resources to survive while someone else is holding on to them, and that is sort of selfish. So that really changes how I think about healthcare.”
Ben describes a “shift from hatred of the Jewish people to hatred of the state of Israel” as “frightening,” as he believes that politicians and the Democratic Party in particular “do not value Israel as an ally.” In the 2020 election, where he will be of voting age, he plans to vote “liberally” in local elections and “conservatively” in national elections.
“To see the United States, essentially our biggest ally, say ‘your people don’t matter to us anymore,’ it’s scary for me,” Ben said. “I want to protect my homeland. Even though I’m not in Israel, I want to make sure that the best is being done for it. I am an American, but I am also a Jew, and it’s important that I make sure the people who I vote for are going to support people like me.”
Others, like senior Noelle Hanson, disagree with most aspects of the religion they were raised in. Noelle’s family is Mormon, although she does not personally identify as Mormon.
“The fact that I have been introduced to Mormonism and I willingly say I don’t believe it [means] I’m going to hell,” Noelle said. “It’s so complicated because I know my dad knows I’m a good person. The church tells him to believe [I’m going to hell], and I don’t know if he does, but he’s so invested in the church that he doesn’t talk about it.”
Noelle’s disagreement with Mormon beliefs has made conversations with her dad “complicated.”
“When I voice my opinion, my dad says ‘this is the one thing I ask of you,’” Noelle said. “Well, you can’t really ask that of me. The church doesn’t believe gay people should get married. I have best friends that are gay. I cannot even say I’m a part of [Mormonism], how could I say that when my best friends are gay?”
However, despite her objection to Mormonism, Noelle says that the community of people are “so supportive,” and her conversations with her dad have improved this year.
“My dad’s really working on seeing my point of view, which has been really nice,” Noelle said. “I don’t hate Mormons. It’s a community that I’m a part of, which is weird because I kind of don’t want to be a part of it. But when they found out I got into UCLA, I had so many people text me and call me. They are so loving and they’ll do anything for anyone, but at the same time they’re scared of the world.”
Sometimes, religious beliefs make students the targets of bullying or stereotyping. During the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, students called senior Ferris Atassi, who is Muslim, “Ferris did Paris” and “Ferris the terrorist.”
“I was a bit ashamed of who I was,” Ferris said. “But I realized I shouldn’t care what other people think about what I follow. I have to keep being a good person. It’s pushing me further to help the community when I can.”
Ferris believes that incomplete media coverage is the main cause of misconceptions about Islam, and that people should learn more about Islam before commenting on it.
“If you translate Islam in Arabic, it translates to peace,” Ferris said. “The media coverage isn’t really going over what it truly means to be a Muslim. They’re highlighting the evil acts that a tiny proportion of people who call themselves Muslim do. A vast majority of Muslims just want peace. They want to live a happy life.
My relationship with religion
Once upon a time I might have told you I was an atheist. I spent a few years in elementary school going to church and struggling to understand God, and ultimately decided it was easier to just skip believing all together.
My atheism was born less out of a conviction that God or gods couldn’t exist and more out of confusion and convenience. Although my family briefly went to church, we weren’t particularly ritualistic. Besides a few passing references to God or heaven, we never talked about our beliefs.
Religious symbolism was more common in my grandparents’ house. For a long time, my grandparents followed Chinese folk religion, and the house was full of statues of SanXing “Three Stars” deities. I remember one in particular: Shou, or the deity representing longevity. He had striking features—a long white beard, a large lump on his bald head and elaborate robes. I didn’t really understand that there were different religions then, and I remember thinking, is this what God looks like?
One day, the statues were moved downstairs, and then out of the house altogether. My grandma got baptized, and my grandpa followed a few years later. Christianity became the backbone of part of my family, and whenever we visited my grandparents, we shifted into a religious version of everyday life.
The reintroduction of Christianity into my life forced me to reconsider atheism. I would sit in church, head bowed down in pretend prayer and feel like a fraud. I was a fraud. There were times when I felt so confused—I believed that my grandma would go to heaven, but I didn’t believe in heaven. I participated in rituals, including singing songs about Jesus in Chinese, out of love for her and the incredibly supportive community she had built, but I didn’t have a relationship with God.
Today, I still don’t have a real relationship to any deity. Processing my religious beliefs has taken a backseat to other priorities in my life. But I’ve come to the conclusion that spirituality—religion separate from the procedural and uncomfortable traditions I didn’t choose for myself—can be valuable.
There’s something to be said for the belief in exchanges of energy and karma, and the ability to share at least a part of my spirituality with my grandparents. More than that, allowing myself to be free from guilt and labels has strengthened my desire to redefine what religion means to me.