Throughout my teenage life, I've met and befriended lots of people who are very religious, though I've never been religious myself. My father is Jewish and goes to temple regularly. My mother was raised by hippies and is still trying to find the right thing for her. They've both encouraged me to figure out for myself what is right. Seeing some of my friends wake up early on Sunday morning or stay in all Friday night, makes me happy that my parents haven't forced religion on me. Hey, more weekend for me, right? But it has also left me completely oblivious to some factors of life that seem really important to some of my friends, like believing that Jesus loves you, or actually knowing what the prayers mean that are said on Friday night.
The freedom that my parents gave to me has a lot to do with how I think about religion, but I think my older brother and younger sister have a lot to do with it as well. Starting when I was about 7 or 8, I would believe and repeat just about anything that anybody told me. Like once when I told them Bob Dylan wrote "The Star Spangled Banner," or when I really thought that Alice Cooper was becoming a priest. When the family gathered around the dinner table I would relate my newfound "facts" to them, hoping of course they'd congratulate me for my insight. The kudos never came. Before I could even try to laugh it off like I was joking, my brother and sister would jump down my back quicker than Bush slams down pretzels. They would call me out on anything that I thought was fact, even if it were true. This treatment went on until I was old enough to keep my mouth shut and stop believing every little thing I was told. Now I hardly believe anything unless it's backed up with hard facts from a good source.
Skepticism and freedom have shaped the way I feel about religion, but to tell you the truth, I don't really know how I feel. If there is a God, then where was he last Tuesday when I needed him for that pre-cal test? But I'm certainly not going to say there is no God, because if I end up at the pearly gates someday, let's just hope I've been nice enough and that God didn't see all the stuff I did under the protection of my roof. The problem is that sometimes I really want to believe; I want to have faith. Along with that comes another problem: I don't know why I want faith. Shouldn't I be happy without it? I don't even really know what faith feels like--even the concept seems foreign to me. I have always questioned every new concept that's been presented to me, so I can't even imagine "just believing." Faith is like believing the saying, "If you want something bad enough, you'll get it." We all know that only works for movie stars and Britney Spears.
But just because I want to have faith doesn't at all open me up to those Young Life leaders who can smell religious uncertainty from 100 feet away. Hell, if there's one thing that's stopping me from being a Christian--it's the Christians. Now, don't get me wrong, I think Christianity in theory is really great. Be nice to everyone, love your neighbor and all that jazz, but it seems to get all mixed up in real life, sort of like communism.
Every day, when I walk out from school, there are Young Life college students that come up and talk to me. Well, not me, I don't think I'm popular enough, but they do come up to people and chat it up with them and ask them to come to meetings and all that. Whatever happened to separation of church and state? I know Muslims were told they could not pray during school hours, so why can these "hip" Christians chill at the school? These Young Life leaders are like the proverbial serpent in the adolescent ear. Just put yourself in my 17-year-old shoes. You're unsure about God and what God means to you. A cool college student approaches you and actually seems to care about things that are going on with you. He tells you that he's been there too and he knows what is right for you. Wow. Of course young people listen to them. They could just as easily convince a high school freshman that smoking cigarettes is really cool.
Whether or not God does exist, and regardless of which religion teenagers are, we are going to be unsure of what is right and wrong. Everyone knows this; it's why we experiment with so many things--sex, drugs and even religion. But I think that being unsure of religion is healthy. I also believe that peer pressure is a bad thing, even if it is college kids trying to help younger people find Jesus. To me, that's hardly different from a college student pressuring some kid to get stoned for the first time. Both can be unhealthy. We need to find out for ourselves what is right for us. My family has shaped my life in ways I don't even know, but they have also given me the freedom to choose for myself what I believe is right, and that's pretty key in life.
Elliot Berger is a senior at Riverside High School in Durham. He's a writer for the school's student newspaper, The Pirate's Hook.