Alvin Ling studies physics religiously
Alvin Ling (‘19) sees evidence of religion everywhere: in cell membranes and photons, in the quirks of animal biology and in the laws of motion. So when I interview Alvin, he is, fittingly, in the physics lab, doing extra work for the Taiwan Young Student Physicists’ Tournament and searching for truth.
Like his family, Alvin is primarily a Taoist, and also incorporates aspects of Buddhism into his thought. But he is open to religious influences from a variety of sources, particularly Gnosticism, a group of early Christian movements that believed in salvation through knowledge of a supreme being. “My temple’s interpretation of Taoism is that we all are basically fallen angels,” he says. “We’re here so we can regain our divinity.” That divinity is achieved through knowledge.
Alvin’s religious practice does not merely consist of conformity to a set of rules; it also requires a continuous effort to understand the nature of the universe. For him, that entails combining the insights of both science and world religions. “Different religions see what is true from different angles,” he says, comparing this to quantum mechanics, in which light and matter can be treated both as a wave and as a particle. Both interpretations are “true,” but each are useful in different situations.
Alvin’s current religious views emerged largely during freshman year, when a period of personal struggle and distress prompted him to reconsider his beliefs. The physics lab and the temple were his two safe havens, and he found solace in his faith at a time when he had faith in little else. At first, he would go to the temple every week to ask for advice about academic and social issues from the interpreters who explained the meaning of burned incense.
“I’ve always been spiritual, but the purpose was different. When I was young I thought that deities were just there to help me achieve small goals,” he says. “After going through severe trauma, I became more religious and less self-centered, focusing on the journey to reality.”
Despite his certainty in the existence of a supreme being, he constantly reiterates that there is much he does not and cannot know. “I don’t know what the supreme being is. All I know is that the supreme being exists,” he says. At another point, he compares humanity’s search for truth to a two-dimensional object attempting to grasp the concept of a three-dimensional world: “You can only try to imagine it, but you really can’t perceive it.” But to him, doubt can be beneficial. “I still have doubts every day. The doubt is a way that you can gain knowledge,” he says.
Part of what makes quantum mechanics so compelling to him is its assertion of the limits of human knowledge. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, for example, states that it is impossible to accurately know both the position and momentum of a particle at the same time. In a world where objects can have mass without volume, or simultaneously exist and not exist, quantum mechanics makes a mockery of any presumption that science is capable of categorizing, labeling, and defining the world in neatly comprehensible boxes.
In such a mysterious universe, the search for reality, whether through religion or science, is a difficult battle. To seek it, Alvin says, one must “worship in temples to find inner peace and assistance from the lower beings, and control oneself to focus on knowledge acquisition.”
Hannah Smith finds conviction in doubt
“When my grandma died in first grade, and we buried her in the cemetery, my mom told me to 拜拜 [pray],” says Hannah Smith (’19). “We were praying, and I didn’t see any gods, or feel their presence. I looked up and I was like, “What are we doing? Why are we doing this?’”
Looking around, Hannah observed other family members as they prayed and realized that their experience was radically different from hers. “I looked at my sister and realized there was a significance that these prayers were supposed to release. But it just wasn’t like that for me,” she says.
That was when Hannah realized that her ways of looking at the world were different from the convictions that her Christian and Buddhist family held.
Over the past 10 years, she has seldom doubted her conviction that a higher being does not exist. “I’ve had moments when I wanted it to be true,” she says. “Because it would be so nice. But I know that I can’t bring myself to believe something I know isn’t there.”
For Hannah, the idea of morality being linked to religion is nearly incomprehensible: Instead, she believes in constructing her own ideas of justice. “Once someone asked me, ‘What gets you going every day? What makes you live your life if you don’t have God?’ I think it said more about her than it did about me,” she says. “I’m constantly figuring out what kind of person I want to be, all the dreams I have for myself.”“I want to live my life as a constant revolution, always figuring out what truth and beauty is in all aspects of the world around me,”
Yet, she still considers herself a deeply spiritual person. Hannah finds a sense of awe particularly from learning more about the world and the people around her.
“I never harbored any ill-will or resentment to people who were religious because I’ve been able to find a similar sense of wonder through knowledge sometimes,” she says. From biology to art history, her educational experiences have imbued her with a sense of awe that she considers almost religious.
“I get this feeling I get when I’m connected to learning, to the world and all the people in it. That feeling makes me want to do this type of learning for the rest of my life,” she says. “I could be an academic, maybe.”
However, her spirituality is distinct from religion in several fundamental aspects. She has often felt isolation from organized religious beliefs and activities.
“Denominational religion always has an aspect of attachment to a god’s name. But what I feel is much more vague than that. It’s a feeling of bigness. It’s a feeling that the universe is so much bigger than all of us can possibly imagine.”
More than knowledge, Hannah fundamentally sees her life’s journey as a pursuit of truth. “I want to live my life as a constant revolution, always figuring out what truth and beauty is in all aspects of the world around me,” she says.
At the same time, she emphasizes the importance of finding truth independently in all areas. “Nobody should say what your truth is,” she says. “You need to find that. Find that feeling. Hold on to it.”
“I keep saying the word ‘truth,’” she says. “I don’t have any synonym.”
While her independent nature was a product of her own personality rather than her religious beliefs—or lack thereof—she believes that her atheism has shaped the way she thinks about life.
“I’ve always been assertive and independent,” she says. “But I know I have the power to make my life what I want it to be. I know that I have the power to try, even if I fail.”
Ultimately, her life revolves her loved ones, learning, and the lives of other people around the world. “The last one is important,” Hannah says. “We have to take care of each other because there’s no god to take care of it for us.”
The Jergensen twins are mormons for life
Before most Taipei American School students arrive at school, Daxton and Brecken Jergensen (‘19) are already in a classroom to study their religion: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormonism.
Every morning, from Monday to Friday, the twins arrive on campus at 6:25 a.m. for a 50-minute class to study scriptures and to talk about the commandments. Along with seven other Upper School students, they are taught by an adult from their church. Daxton and Brecken’s religion is something they share with their family. “We were born into a family where both our parents were Mormon so we never knew anything different,” says Daxton. “We’ve just always been Mormon.”
In Mormonism, followers believe in and read both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. “The Book of Mormon tells us how to interpret the Bible and they act together to tell us what to do,” says Daxton. As Mormons, Daxton and Brecken view the set of commandments and rules
that they have to follow as a vital part of their lives.
Beyond the Ten Commandments from the Bible, specific rules also come from latter-day prophets for the Mormon Church. These include rules forbidding the consumption of alcohol, tea, and drugs. While these rules appear to restrict what he can or cannot do, Brecken says, “Each one actually makes us more free. If we break one of these commandments you can easily become addicted to certain things and that restricts you in certain ways.” Daxton agrees and adds, “All the rules and everything kind of shape me to be the best person I can possibly be in this world.”
When the twins first moved to Taipei from Logan, Utah in 2015, the twins had to face completely new obstacles. “In Utah, it’s hard to find somebody who isn’t Mormon. It’s completely different…All the students here didn’t know what Mormonism really was, so that was really hard,” says Brecken. One example sticks out in Brecken’s memory. “When people swore, I was kind of like, cringing. I’ve tried to tell people not to.” Daxton completes his brother’s sentence, saying, “But we didn’t really want to force them to.”
The brothers say that they now appreciate the culture shock they faced because they grew to become more accepting of others in Taipei. “I think it was amazing,” says Daxton. “It would’ve been a bigger shock if we were older and learned a lot of these things.”
The twins dedicate a significant amount of time from their lives to practicing Mormonism. Daxton and Brecken already go to religion class, called seminary, every weekday morning, but they also read at least a couple of verses or a chapter of either the Bible or the Book of Mormon every day on their own.
On Sundays, their family goes to church in the morning for three hours and follows the rules of the “sabbath,” which the Bible designates as a “day of rest.” “The main thing is just don’t have somebody work for you on Sundays,” says Brecken. Daxton elaborates, “As a family we try our best not to buy anything or be with friends, but there are days where you have to go to the store or something so there are exceptions.”
Basketball, however, is not one of those exceptions. When the twins traveled to Okinawa for a basketball exchange with the boys varsity team in January, they did not play on the Sunday of the exchange. Both agree that it was difficult, but Daxton states, “I have gone my [entire] life telling myself that I will not play sports on Sundays…it makes my decision a lot easier.”
While the twins believe it is difficult to be a devout follower of a religion, they both state that they have also experienced the blessings that come with their faith. “It gives me more of a purpose,” says Brecken. “I know what my ultimate goal is, which is to be as good as I can be in order to go to heaven and return to our Heavenly Father after we die.” Meanwhile, Daxton smiles and says, “It makes me happier because I know what I’m doing here.”
Cindy Lee aspires to Christian devotion
Cindy Lee (‘19) wakes up early to go to church. In her current church, Taipei Korean Community Church, she attends the Christian Youth Group, where she worships with other Korean middle and upper school students.
Every Sunday morning, “We usually start service around 11:00 a.m. by singing songs and listening to a sermon,” says Cindy. As the current student leader of the Youth Group, Cindy spends her Sunday mornings leading worships and planning activities. She has been attending church since birth, as she comes from a devout Christian family.
The world’s biggest religion with around 2.1 billion followers, Christianity is a religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible, a holy text containing the Old Testament—selections from what Jewish people call the Torahand the New Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus rises as the son of God and the promised messiah sent by God to save humanity and eliminate their sins through his crucifixion.
Since Cindy is a Christian by birth, many have asked if she is pressured by her family into her religion. Cindy always responds that she continuously makes the choice to worship Christianity, and she never feels forced by anyone with her faith. “If I choose to abandon my faith, [my parents] will probably discourage it. But they will try to understand me and first ask me why.”
Cindy’s favorite part of attending church is the opportunity to meet new people and socialize. Once every year during August or September, the Youth Group of Cindy’s Church organizes a retreat, where they will spend two days at a beach or a camping site on a mountain. During the day, the student will have fun and socialize with others church members. During the night, everyone will spend time reflecting on their Christian faith.
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