KidSpirit

Reaching Across Different Faiths and Cultures

The God IssueInterfaith Connections

What is right and wrong? What do we, as teenagers, base our decisions upon?

Lina and I are both 16-year-old high school students. We live in a predominantly white, suburban bubble just outside of San Francisco. As we’ve grown older, questions about faith, God, and internal standards have arisen and been challenged by our increasing independence and studies in school.

When we were younger, our parents’ beliefs shaped our own. As we become adults, will our actions rise from the traditions we were raised in or will they change as we form our own unique opinions? Lina and I share an interest in this subject. Though we come from different cultural backgrounds, our goal in talking about our respective traditions is the same: how do you measure morals and how do they evolve? With these questions in mind, we met to discuss our religious and cultural roots, and how they shape our own moral codes.

My name is Caie, and I am a nonreligious half-Asian. My parents have never mentioned much about faith: their religion is science. My father is a biology professor and my mom is a financial analyst, so my lessons about morals have come in the form of stories and real-life experiences. My mother is Chinese, and has always been a strong believer in holding high standards and dispensing punishment when we haven’t followed through. One particular example of this stands out.

Like many siblings, my sister and I always used to fight. When my parents had had enough, my mother sent me to the front of our house and my little sister to the backyard. There, in the lonely light of day, we were forced to think about our disagreement. I’ll always remember my mother’s face before my 20-minute exile, saying, “Listen to me! If you cannot get along with your sibling, then you will be alone. If you don’t want to share, you don’t have to. You don’t have to spend any time with anybody at all.” I discovered then the dangers of unnecessary conflict. It was harsh, but it was effective. With these punishments, along with fairy tales and fables, my parents taught me right from wrong. As I became a teenager, their lessons evolved into lectures about drugs and alcohol that were fact-ridden and scientifically based. I learned, in other words, in a rational, straightforward way.

Such rationality plays a role in many aspects of life, including my values of hard work and academic honesty. Growing up, my mother constantly reminded my sister and me that nothing worth having ever came from being lazy. As a result, she enrolled us in Saturday morning Chinese school, music lessons, and swim team, and would not let us quit. Through such activities, I learned that success did not come easily, but rather rose after many hours on the piano or in the pool. When I had put time and effort into a task, that eventual triumph — whether it was nailing a trill for a classical piece or improving my time at a swim meet — was even sweeter. In school, I draw on these experiences with the understanding that academic success comes after long hours with my AP US textbook or repetitive calculus problems. Experience has reinforced the idea: if I spend the night before a test relaxing in front of a television instead of a textbook, my grade will reflect my effort level.

"Such rationality plays a role in many aspects of life, including my values of hard work and academic honesty."

Similarly, the bedtime stories from my childhood introduced the importance of honesty, and I stay by that value because of my own experiences. Many of my classmates have cheated on tests or papers, and often their wrongdoing is not caught. Just because they do it does not mean I should, though. I take classes because I enjoy the material, and so not learning what is required would undermine the reason I signed up for coursework in the first place. For many, God is what keeps us on a moral route, but for me that compass is a little more internal.

My name is Lina, I am an American Palestinian Arab, and my parents are both Muslims. I have been learning about Islam since I was born. In my eyes, Islam is a beautiful religion and I too consider myself a Muslim. I’ve heard the word “terrorist” in conjunction with “Muslim” many times, and so I know how inaccurate these generalizations can be. Caie will point to a newspaper article or childhood anecdote to prove that kindness is beneficial. I look to Islam. My religion is peaceful, and we are taught to welcome differences, above all else. My religiously-based upbringing, I am sure, will continue to aid me in making the right decisions.

Islam has taught me morality, including the idea of jihad. The way I have been taught, jihad means “striving in the way of God.” In the media, jihad is a term often used to describe radical Islamic fundamentalism. But for something to be jihad, it needs to have a dignified and righteous intention as well as a sacred connotation. It’s like an inner moral compass — the knowledge that something is bad, and the strength one must have to stay away from it. When I was younger that meant respecting my elder’s teachings or studying the Qur’an.

Today, jihad means that if I’m at a party, and people are drinking, I say no. I understand that such decisions are based on the rich culture I was raised in, and I know not to put myself in situations where such actions would affect me. It’s hard to say what exactly makes me realize the difference between wrong and right. I was raised by two strong Muslim parents who I trust and respect. As a result, I value the decisions and lessons they have taught me, and I have no reason to question those morals. Having faith allows for direction and clarity. In high school, I’ve seen firsthand what alcohol or drugs can do to a classmate, and I am glad for the upbringing I’ve had. I, too, value honesty, hard work, and respect. My experience at school, and success in public speaking or other activities have certainly reinforced that hard work pays off. Respect is a moral so ingrained through faith and through my upbringing that it is hard to imagine living without it. When I was in kindergarten, I had a group of friends over at my house. We were up in my room playing games and having fun. At one point, my mother was going to open my door to check on us and see if we needed anything. Right before my mother opened the door, she overheard my friends and me talking about people at our school. Later that night, when my friends went home, my mother came to talk to me, saying, “I overheard you and your friends saying bad things about people at your school, in other words, gossiping. Lina, gossiping is never a good thing to do. In our holy book the Qur’an, God has told us that gossiping is forbidden. Try not to do it again.” After that conversation, my mother took out our holy book the Qur’an and began reading me the part where it says not to gossip. I was taught a crucial lesson and to this day, I try to never gossip due to Islam and my mother’s words. As I grew older and studied Islam more, I have learned to show kindness to everyone, no matter what, and to uphold values that are very similar to Caie’s.

While our outlooks reflect different cultures and customs, Caie and I both value strong morals. For me, acceptance of others stems both from having experienced racial insensitivity and from the teachings of the Qur’an.

So today, how do we judge the moral standards we’ve been taught? Neither of us would change the way we were raised. We’ve come to similar conclusions about how to act despite different moral systems. By following the lessons from others, we’ve grown into successful, satisfied students. When we seek understanding instead of judgment about classmates’ cultures, we’ve found ourselves more open-minded towards beliefs that are different from ours. We aren’t exactly the same: we dress differently, celebrate different holidays, and eat different foods, but these are superficial qualities. The stronger, underlying core values of tolerance and morality are what determine how we truly view each other, and these inner beliefs reach across our faiths and cultures. While it’s an overstatement to say that we live in total harmony with others — we are teenagers, after all — we do feel like we understand our place in this world. Islam has taught Lina how to determine right from wrong. My mother’s endless “don’t do this” lessons and facts showed me the correct path. These teachings just come from separate sources of wisdom. As a result, while the workings of the world for Lina are signs of God, for me, they are explained through science or the effects of our own decisions. We’ve both come to understand our parents’ warnings, which are surprisingly similar. While Lina knows not to drink from her faith, I don’t because I believe that my actions will have consequences and because I was taught it wasn’t right. Though her beliefs are rooted in religion, they aren’t different from my own beliefs. In the end, our actions are the same.

Like all teenagers, Lina and I argue with our parents from time to time. During these fights my mother wonders if her lessons have had any effect on me. Well, as far as we are concerned, yes, Mom and Dad, we have been listening to you.

Caie Kelley and Lina M. are both 16-year-old high school students living in the San Francisco Bay Area. In their free time they enjoy public speaking, swimming and running, music, and spending time with friends and family.