The basis of morality

After traveling 8,000 miles to see his family, Santa Monica College student Tanakrit Sermsuksan enters his Thailand home. As a converted Christian among a household of Buddhists, the 19-year-old finds difficulty in expressing his faith. “Sometimes I think, maybe I am wrong; maybe I should stop being a Christian,” he says.

But it is the basic principles and way of living associated with his newfound religion that keeps Sermsuksan steady.

“I understand the world more now,” he says. “I was able to connect with more people.”

In Sermsuksan’s case, the difficulties in expressing his religious beliefs lie in the home. For others, remaining true to faith is a matter of overcoming adversity through friends, the media and the general swing of society.

The motivations to stick with religion can become slim with the regulations and restrictions they can impose upon everyday life.

For Merlin Muhammad, a converted Muslim of 25 years, it was Christianity that brought him to the Muslim faith.

“[Christianity] had me in a judgmental state of mind; it just didn’t add up,” he says, explaining his feelings that faith did not provide all the answers.

Sermsuksan, who is also club president of the International Youth Fellowship, had similar misgivings about Buddhism. He eventually warmed to the Christian ideal of forgiveness, versus the Buddhist rule that if you disobey a law once, you will have to repeat life on earth.

Sermsuksan says that he was prompted by a desire to be a better person, not by what other people had to say.

“If you use society as the law, there’s so many conflicting [ideas],” he says.

From what Sermsuksan has seen, potential club members who have visited meetings often seem influenced by what their classmates say.

“They listen to their friends; they listen to their family,” he says.

Many strict religions, however, exist in communities.

“There tends to be a very insular community,” says SMC philosophy instructor Steven Kaufman, in reference to members of the Jewish faith, who often worship together, work together and attend school together.

“They are comfortable this way, just like us, who are not as religious,” Kaufman says, indicating that religion is often highly associated with a particular way of life.

According to Muhammad, in the Muslim religion, “every day is considered a holy day.” Members of the faith must recite prayers five times a day. This prayer and the diet of the Muslim faith are part of Muhammad’s lifestyle, and he says he believes it leads to a healthier existence.

“Islam is a way of life; there’s a sort of peace behind us,” he says. “If you look at human nature, there are two things that motivate: pleasure and pain. Same thing in religion. Some people actually get pleasure being obedient to God.”

But Muhammad acknowledges that people are human, and there are pitfalls.

“We all have temptations,” he says. “The hardest thing to do is to overcome the natural inclinations.”

Kaufman sees the media as a source of influence over religious practice.

“It has such a subtle deep influence that we don’t even recognize,” Kaufman says.

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of Evangelical churches believe that the government should do more to “protect morality.” Comparatively, 59 percent of Muslims say the same thing. However, only 26 percent of Buddhists agree, leaving 67 percent to think that the government is too involved in morality.

“For many people, religion is the basis of one’s morality,” Kaufman says. “The reasons behind their moral decisions may be different between a religious and non-religious person.”

Mark Koral, a member of the Buddhist faith, says that Buddhism “respects the individual to the utmost.” This self-awareness correlates to the percentage of Buddhists who disagree with government intervention in morality, as Buddhists value beliefs in themselves over external forces.

The religious inclinations of younger generations have been trending down in recent years, according to a WIN-Gallup International poll. In the United States today, 60 percent of people claim being religious versus the 73 percent that claimed religiosity in 2005.

Muhammad agrees that young people are not as well-versed in their respective religions as he feels they should be.

“Religion is so casual now,” he says.

But even with religion declining, most agree that non-believers can lead truly moral and virtuous lives.

“Anyone can be virtuous, as long as they’re not doing anything wrong,” Sermsuksan says.

Overall, nothing has deterred Muhammad’s religious lifestyle.

“As I’ve grown into the faith, I actually feel more liberated.”