I have never been so enthralled, learned so much or been so fulfilled by any subject so much as this. It has totally changed my perspective on life. It was clearly what I was meant to do. From the volume of emails and comments, I know that others find the site as informative, provocative, thoughtful and entertaining as I do.
Here are five things I have learned in these five years:
Cardinals and Bishops attend John Paul II Beatification Ceremony held by Pope Benedict XVI on May 1, 2011 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Franco Origlia – GETTY IMAGES)
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.
Though 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 and 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 an agnostic. That doesn’t work for me either. It simply means that you don’t know. By that definition we are all agnostics. The pope is an 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 just say I was a learner. And this has been an extraordinary learning experience.
2. ALL RELIGONS ARE THE SAME — AND NOT
A Muslim girl attends prayer at the slopes of Mount Merapi to celebrate the festival of Eid al-Adha in the village of Kalitengah Lor outside city of Yogyakarta, Central Java November 6, 2011. (DWI OBLO – REUTERS)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 the trip, with three religion professors as our guides, I thought all religions were completely different. What astounded me, at the end, was how similar they all 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 of the arguments, that all religions were founded on the notion of community, of doing good to protect each other. It was a matter of survival. And what convinced me, was the one constant among the religions we studied. It was Confucius’s Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
One thing for sure is that extraordinary good and horrendous evil have both been done in the name of religion. Unfortunately, those who do 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, where there are over 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.