Five lessons on faith

It was five years ago this month that we launched “On Faith.” The idea was to inform and educate about all faiths (and no faith) and to initiate an ongoing discussion about the role of religion, values and ethics in our daily lives. I hoped that after learning more, people would become more accepting of those who held different beliefs. Pluralism was the goal.

The discussions we have had over the years have far exceeded my expectations. What I find most gratifying is the inspired contributions from the subjects of our interviews, our contributing writers and our readers. From the volume of e-mails and comments, I know that others find the site as informative, provocative and entertaining as I do.

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Since the time we launched I have never been so enthralled, learned so much or been so fulfilled by a subject. It has changed my perspective on life. It is clearly what I was meant to do.

Here are five things I have learned in these five years:

1. Nobody knows.

My favorite bumper sticker and the guiding wisdom for me every day is this: “I don’t know and you don’t either.”

An atheist father was trying to explain to his son that there was no such thing as God. “But Dad,” asked the boy, “how do you know?”

“You’ll just have to take it on faith,” said the father.

That says it all.

We are all taking our beliefs or lack of beliefs on faith.

Although I called myself an atheist when we started this site, I no longer do, thanks to Jon Meacham, the religious scholar and former Newsweek editor who helped launch the site. He also served as co-moderator until last year, when The Washington Post Co. sold Newsweek.

We were having an argument over whether or not I was an atheist. Finally, Jon said something that resonated. He said, “You don’t want to define yourself negatively, and you know nothing about religion.” He gave me a list of books to read and told me to go study religion. If afterward I insisted on calling myself an atheist, he argued, at least I would know what I was talking about.

I was astonished, engaged and finally enlightened by what I read and ashamed at how little I really knew about religion. I’m still reading and still learning, and it seems the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.

I don’t call myself agnostic. That doesn’t work for me. It simply means you don’t know. By that definition we are all agnostic. The pope is agnostic. We may believe, but we don’t know. I wouldn’t call myself a seeker, either. If I had to define myself, I would say I was a learner. And this has been an extraordinary learning experience.

2. Religions are the same — and not.

In the process of educating myself in our first year of “On Faith,” I took a three-week tour around the world to study the Great Faiths. It was a remarkable, if exhausting, trip to Rome, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, India (Amritsar on the Ganges), China, Tibet, Japan, India again (the Sikh Golden Temple), Ethiopia, Albania and Turkey. I had hoped to have a transcendent experience, to be in touch with the divine. The trip had its moments, but there is something about the 5 a.m. baggage call in the lobby every morning that brings you back to reality.

When we started, with three religion professors as our guides, I thought all religions were totally different. What astounded me at the end was how similar they are.

The idea that all religions are the same drives most theologians and academics crazy. That’s because religions are so different in so many ways. The differences, though, are in the expressions and traditions of each faith. I still believe, despite all the arguments, that all religions were founded on the notion of community, of doing good to protect one another. It was a matter of survival. And what convinced me was the one constant among the religions we studied. It was the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Extraordinary good and horrendous evil have been done in the name of religion. Unfortunately, those who commit evil in the name of religion often hijack the entire religion and sully its name. Nowhere do we see this more than in Islam; there are more than a billion Muslims and possibly a few hundred thousand who commit violence in its name. But there has never been a faith that has not committed atrocities in its name.

3. Everything is about religion.

When I first suggested that The Post cover religion more comprehensively, it was purely from a journalistic point of view. It seemed that so much of what we covered had a religion angle to it. Little did I realize that it touched so much more. My friend Welton Gaddy, a Southern Baptist minister, told me about a friend who informed him that she had absolutely no interest in religion. “Well,” he asked her, “are you interested in national politics or foreign policy?”

“Yes.”

“What about abortion, gay marriage, immigration and the environment?” he asked.

Of course she was.

“Well, then,” he replied, “you’re interested in religion.”

Gaddy might well have added the financial bailout, poverty, disease, movies, music, holidays, parenting, sexual abuse, animal rights, sports, books, the Web, the military, women’s rights, racism, violence, crime, marriage, family, science, medicine and on and on. Everyone is interested in religion. They just don’t know it.

4. We are all looking for meaning.

We are all searching for the transcendent, for a sense of the divine. Even those who claim no faith, no belief, cannot ignore the three questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What then must I do?

Life is hard. No matter whether you are religious or not, you will have periods of extreme doubt that will make you ask, “What is the point?” Nobody gets a pass.

Viktor Frankl, in his famous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” written after the Holocaust, asks the question and answers it for himself. I think I know what gives my life meaning, what the sense of the divine is for me, what I find transcendent. I have found this out by studying religion. That doesn’t mean I have any answers. It only means I believe I know why I am here.

There is no greater conversation than this.

5. Why there is suffering.

In these five years, I have met, interviewed and talked to thousands of people about their faith or lack of faith. The question I ask over and over, and particularly to people of faith, is: “How do you explain suffering?”

Those who believe in God will often talk about free will, but I have to say that in all these years, nobody has been able to answer the question to my satisfaction. How could a loving, all-powerful God allow suffering?

I was raised by a Presbyterian mother and an Episcopalian father. They believed in God. I said my prayers every night. I believed in a loving God who watched over me and my family.

My father fought in the Army in World War II in Germany. He was at Dachau the day the concentration camp was liberated. His staff photographer took many pictures of the camp, including the piles of dead bodies and the emaciated ones. My father made a book of the photographs, which I saw when I was 5 or 6. That’s when I stopped believing in God. I couldn’t believe that a loving God could allow such suffering. I never prayed again.

Some of the greatest theologians I have met will simply throw up their hands and admit that they don’t understand it, either.

So, do I believe in God now?

Where I am with this question has changed many times since I began “On Faith.”

I have a difficult time believing that there is no reason for our existence, no greater force out there that is too much for the human mind to comprehend. I also believe that we are two different people. We are biological creatures, but we also have spirits or our own energy or whatever you want to call it. I do not have a personal relationship with God. I think that if he/she/it wanted me to, it would happen.

I often envy those who believe, because that relationship gives so many people such great solace.

I don’t understand the concept of having no tolerance for the beliefs of others or the notion that there is only one true religion. I respect all beliefs as long as no one is harmed and those beliefs are not imposed.

Another question I always ask is, “What or who is God to you?” I have never received the same answer. Nobody has ever described God as a white-bearded old man in a long flowing white robe sitting on a throne in heaven. Given that God is clearly so personal and that we all have such different ideas about who or what God is, how can anyone not respect the views of others?

I have found that nobody has the same view, regardless of whether they are of the same religion, family, country, culture or race.

What I have learned is this:

God is what you or I or anyone else says God is.

This I know.

 
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