“Mommy, What ARE We?”: Rethinking Religion

Rethinking ReligionAs my seven-year-old learns more about the world, she is learning that some of her friends are Jewish, some are Hindu, and some are Christian.

“What are we?” she asked me the other day.


I tried to explain how I don’t think there’s really one label that would fit me: I’m not Christian but I think Jesus was a loving teacher, I’m not technically Buddhist but I love what the Buddha taught us about compassion and about our minds, I think it’s important to treat others with kindness, the reason we are alive is to bring love to others—

“No, Mom, WHAT ARE WE?”

She wanted a simple answer, a one-word religious label to affix to a small package that tidily wrapped up our family’s beliefs.

But it’s not that easy. Religion is so much bigger than that.

What is religion?

Our English word “religion” comes from the Latin “religare,” which means “to tie, fasten, bind.” It also refers to the sense of awe and wonder that one feels in the presence of the divine. In this context, religion unites people in their experience of the transcendent.

Anthropologists tell us that religious behavior is universal. As far back as 60,000 years ago, our human ancestors made fertility charms. Neanderthals buried their dead, surrounded by rocks and flowers in a manner that intimates belief in an afterlife or at least a need to commemorate the rite of passage of death. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong asserts that “the desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic.”

And while religiosity or spirituality may be a part of our human nature, our relationship with and conception of religion has evolved over time.


The Rise of the “Nones”

In the most recent Pew Forum survey of religious beliefs, almost a fifth of Americans identified as “unaffiliated,” meaning they don’t label themselves as Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or as a member of any other faith tradition. For Americans under 30, the percentage rises to one third.

But this doesn’t mean they are what we might label as “atheist”:

[M]any of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. {From the Pew Forum survey}

And overwhelmingly, they are NOT looking for a religion (only 10% indicated they were). Many indicated they were turned off by the dogmatism, greed, and political influence of organized religion.

Which makes me wonder…

Are we rethinking religion?

Today we refer to religious people as “believers.” Or we call someone a “person of faith,” as if their agreement with doctrine were the most important part of their religious commitment.

That was really what my daughter was looking for, a one-word summary of what we believe.

As I continue to examine my beliefs and practices in this realm of the human experience, here’s how I have been rethinking religion:

Religion is about action.

Today, we think of religion as a set of doctrines, but historically, religion was not about belief. Karen Armstrong, in her absolutely amazing book The Case for God, writes that for most of human history, religion “was not primarily something people thought but something they did. Its truth was acquired by practical action.” Religion was about ritual and initiation and community membership.

Huston Smith, in his renowned text The World’s Religions, asserts, “people danced out their religion before they thought it out.” In the small-scale societies studied by anthropologists (who can perhaps provide us with clues as to what human cultures were like for 99% of our species’ existence), there is generally no separation between the natural and the supernatural, between the sacred and the mundane. Spirituality is woven into the fabric of daily living.

To ask one of our caveman ancestors, or even a medieval peasant, “What religion do you believe in?” would be just as ridiculous as asking someone today, “What gravity do you believe in?” It’s just there.

-All the 'proofs'.jpg

Myths are myths. Literally.

We have a very different relationship with stories than our ancestors did. We read texts today to gain knowledge, and we divide our books conveniently into fiction and non-fiction. Yet, for most of human history, there was no written word as far as the vast majority of the world was concerned. There were myths and legends and folktales, passed down orally and continually reinterpreted.

History, in the sense of an academic discipline of determining what actually happened in the past, is a relatively recent invention.

The ancient writers of scripture weren’t necessarily concerned with what actually happened; they wrote in order to make meaning of the past. Armstrong writes that “until well into the modern period, Jews and Christians both insisted that it was neither possible or desirable to read the Bible in this way [i.e., literally].” Instead, they believed “it gives us no single, orthodox message and demands constant reinterpretation.” 

Myths were not taken as literal truth; a myth set the script for ritual. A myth was, in Armstrong’s words, “something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time”: creation and destruction, birth and death, joy and suffering, rebellion and conformity, good and evil. The myth was a program for action.

As Joseph Campbell tells us, the mythical hero is “Everyman”: not a king or a god, but a commoner. The hero is a carpenter, or a farmgirl, or Harry Potter, or Luke Skywalker. And what do they all discover? That the power to transform resided within them all along – the holy spirit, the power to go home, the ability to make magic, or simply the Force. A myth reminds us of our amazing human potential — the Buddha within — whether the events in the tale “actually happened” or not.


Faith is not the same as belief.

Many writers and theologians have suggested we need a new definition of “faith,” one that does not mean a wholesale acceptance of dogma (think of how often we speak of “blind faith”). Sharon Salzberg, in Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, writes that in Pali, Latin, and Hebrew, faith is a verb, not a noun. It is not something we believe; it is something we DO. As Salzberg says, “We faithe.”

We ask questions, we explore, we accept that we don’t know all the answers, and we go on anyway.

Zen priest Karen Maezen Miller, in Paradise in Plain Sight, describes faith in this way: “You have it when you surrender to a night’s slumber and open your eyes to another day. You have it when you … walk across this planet without falling off the face of it. Mine is not the faith of wishful thinking. It’s faith with arms and legs, days and night, eyes and ears.”

The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich suggested that faith was “that which is of ultimate concern,” the True North that guides our decisions and actions, framing our days and our years and our lives.

Perhaps this is why we are rethinking religion today — it’s difficult to imagine that the several dozen or so major world religions are individualized enough to meet the needs of some 7 billion people.

The Buddha advised that we approach any set of teachings, including his own, with skepticism. We should test them as a scientist would. The Buddha told his followers:

“Do not accept anything by mere tradition…. Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures. Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your pre-conceived notions….

“When you know for yourselves — … these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to well-being and happiness — then do you live acting accordingly.”

Perhaps that’s what draws us to the religious life in the first place — the yearning for something that helps us live with happiness and ease. We are drawn to a set of teachings not because they are “universal” or because “it sounds true,” but because it speaks to something deep within our own experience. That’s when we know it’s our story.

As I wrote this post {which took me a month to write}, I kept coming back to these lines at the end of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch:

“…if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.’ … a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you.”

My religion is compassion.

While the “ultimate concern” will be different for everyone, it doesn’t mean that all beliefs are what the Buddha would call “skillful.” Our intentions matter, and the impact of our actions on others matter. There’s probably a reason why ancient philosophers, holy prophets, and preschool teachers all emphasize the Golden Rule.

All of the world’s faith traditions establish compassion as a central component of our engagement with the world. The Dalai Lama said it most simply yet profoundly when he said, “Kindness is my religion.”

Beliefs may be significant guides, but it is far more important to me that we treat others with compassion than whether we think communion is symbolic or is an actual transformation of bread and wine into flesh and blood, or who we think God’s true prophet was.

Religion is about understanding our connectedness. When you suffer, I suffer. Religion is about binding us together to take heartful and inspired action to make the world better.

At least that’s my story. What’s yours?

Sarah Rudell Beach
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Sarah Rudell Beach

Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.
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  1. says

    What a thought-provoking post, Sarah. We wanted to avoid having to respond to same question from our daughter, but for different reasons.

    It was critical to my husband and me that our daughter answered that question herself, based on what she believed, not what we or her friends or the rest of her family believed, because it’s a deeply personal question.

    My husband and I feel it’s SO personal that it’s not fair to foist a familial, societal, regional or traditional label onto a child who doesn’t have the ability to choose for herself or fully understand what the label means (and often requires of its believers for continued “membership”).

    Luckily our local Unitarian Universalist church has a wonderful program for 12- to 14-year-olds that asks them to explore this question, as well as many of life’s “deep” questions. They do this over nine months, in weekly meetings and two overnight retreats, all with encouraging and supporting adults and one-on-one mentors. All this thoughtful exploration culminates in the youth presenting their faith statements to the congregation, family and friends.

    Many of our friends and family disagreed, and believed we failed in our parental duties by not bringing up our daughter in a specific faith (usually Christian, as no other one would be looked upon as valid or true in our circles). We disagree, obviously, and have faith in the fact that we’ve taught our daughter to be a seeker of her own truth, which will serve her well in her life on many fronts.
    Kelly Roberts recently posted…One Wise Girl’s Definition of FaithMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Kelly – I LOVE the UU RE program. I attended the Coming of Age service a few years back and was just amazed at the profound statements of belief from young people!

      My daughter went to church with her friend last weekend, and we talked about what they said about Jesus and God, and I tried to convey the same message to her — that’s not what I believe about Jesus, but people have so many different interpretations of it, and she can explore and learn and decide on her own what she believes as she grows up… and that she’s only 7 and it takes some people a lifetime to figure out what they believe.

      I love your line about encouraging our kids to be seekers of their own truth…. so important.

      Thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. says

    The one thing I really agree with is that religion is about is doing more than anything else. It’s hard when we have to label ourselves. I like to think I’m ‘religious’ but another from my community may question that. Children really need to be able to think deeply before they think about religion, but the way society is, they have to much earlier.
    Tarana recently posted…Seven Life Lessons My Dad Taught MeMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Yes, Tarana, it is so hard when these are such profound questions for adults, let alone little ones! I read Armstrong’s book years ago, but that line about religion being about practice and not belief has really stuck with me.

  3. says

    Sarah, what a thought-provoking post!

    My eldest is only 4 but I imagine I will find myself in the same boat once he’s older. I find myself explaining to others that I grew up Catholic but don’t really practice anymore. My husband and I haven’t raised our kids in any religious faith since we felt it would be fake to do so since we don’t follow any religions. And you’re right; just because you don’t follow a religion doesn’t mean that you don’t have faith.

    I think religion, like race, is an easy category to place people in, and it’s a clear identifier of something about you. So it’s understandable why kids (and people in general) would feel compelled to want to identify with a group, especially since others do so quite easily.

    I really want to think about this more and so far we haven’t had this kind of conversation but I love your focus on kindness.
    Nina recently posted…7 Children’s Books about Birthday PartiesMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks, Nina. After my daughter went to church with her friend, she said, “I want to be Christian.” When I asked why, her response was, “Because I believe in Jesus.” And then we had a conversation about how you can “believe in Jesus” in the sense of believing he existed (which there is little historical doubt about) and that he taught amazing things, just like we know the Buddha existed…. It’s so hard to explain these things to concrete thinkers. One day she tells me she’s Christian, then she’s Buddhist, then she just thinks God is everything. I might be raising a little theologian :)

  4. says

    This is an extremely thought-full post, and I truly appreciate all the work and research that went into it.
    I, too, am unaffiliated. I think there’s good in just about all religions, and I want to pick and choose based on what is likely to help me become the best person I can be. I was brought up in the Presbyterian denomination, and I remember my church community and education with great fondness and gratitude. I have also learned a lot of the Jewish religion from my husband, and I find its emphasis on social justice extremely appealing.
    I was very fortunate to have parents and extended family members who regularly questioned and thought and reinterpreted their beliefs. I do not think adherence to one faith or denomination necessarily equates to “blind faith” or precludes questions. When my parents made the switch to the Presbyterian church, my mother openly asked the minister about her lack of belief in a virgin birth. He made it clear that this did not mean she could not be a Christian or a Presbyterian, and in fact, she has served in national leadership roles in this denomination.
    So, as my parents left a more conservative denomination for a more liberal one, I have branched out to unaffiliated status and a mixed religion family. But I do not think I have a broader interpretation of faith than my parents have; I just grew up in a different time.
    Sarah recently posted…TToT30: Floods of ReliefMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      I agree, Sarah, that faith does not always mean “blind faith,” and I love that many religious traditions encourage questioning and doubt and exploration. But I also know that many don’t. My husband remembers being in Sunday school and asking questions and not being encouraged to do so. I love your mother’s minister’s answer … there are so many ways to be religious and to be Christian without accepting every teaching. In fact, the history of the church reveals quite a bit of debate and questioning about things that today we assume are ‘dogma.’ Thanks for sharing your experience!

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks, Julie! I think this is what has always been my struggle with religion, the idea that it means adopting an entire platform of beliefs. There are aspects of Buddhism that I struggle with (reincarnation, for example), and I find it so encouraging to look at religion from a historical perspective. I tried to find the article, but I couldn’t, as I was writing this piece about how even 19th-century Christians would not recognize the Christianity of the 21st century, in terms of the dogmatism and political involvement of certain denominations today.

      • ZenDude says

        Reincarnation was a carry-over from the religious tradition of the Buddha’s day and age. Like many religions, Buddhism has countless denominations. Many modern Buddhists reject the idea, or simply do not even consider it. Some modern Buddhist “new religions” like SGI don’t even really meditate! Many Zen teachers (my own included) do not really support it. There is a related, but very different concept known as Rebirth that differs quite a bit from the literal Reincarnation of Hinduism. So, you definitely don’t have to believe in Reincarnation to be a Buddhist (I don’t). Anyway, after reading many of your posts, I would say you are a Buddhist 😉 But I don’t like the label of -isms either. I usually just say I practice Zen.

        • Sarah Rudell Beach says

          Thanks for the info! I guess the “What are we?” question still trips me up… And I like your line about just saying what we practice — because that’s really what it is, not the ‘ism’ we use to label ourselves.

  5. says

    Sarah, you sound an awful lot like a Unitarian! We joined that church years ago, and our daughter always called it “teach,” which struck us as a much more accurate name. Because Unitarian Universalists, like you, believe that each religious tradition carries a kernel of truth, and has its own beauty…as well as its own potential for abuse. I was sold when our leader called himself “an atheist who has chosen to behave as though there is a God.” :) I’m not trying to reduce your thoughtful approach to a single term, but I would be interested to know your thoughts.
    Karen recently posted…From ridiculous to sublime in LondonMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks, Karen! I need to get back to our UU church! I don’t know if I would define myself the same way your leader did…. My fave UU definition/joke is “What’s a Unitarian Universalist? —- An atheist with children!” :)

      • says

        I’ve never heard that before, but it made me laugh, and now I want to go to a UU church even more than I already did!! lol

  6. says

    Between my fiancé and I, we have six children. Surprisingly, we haven’t had to face this question.

    I’m a firm believer in allowing children to explore their own religious beliefs.

    I try hard not to imprint my own religious beliefs (or lack thereof) on our kids. But as a secular humanist, there isn’t much talk of a higher power in our house.
    Carrie-Anne Foster (thatdizzychick) recently posted…Do I Really Want To Hit Publish?My Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Yes, Carrie-Anne… I feel like I should have made that part clearer in my post… I have addressed with my daughter it’s not what WE believe, but she needs to discover what she believes. Which is hard when you’re 37, let alone 7! I’m trying to teach her about different religious traditions as they come up, like when she was invited to go to church with her friend last weekend.

  7. says

    I so, so love this post Sarah. (I think I’ve been working on a post similar to your topic since I started writing and it’s still not finished!)

    My daughters (ages 7 & 10 now) have asked this question many times now. My side of the family is southern and Christian and my husband’s is Jewish. Both my husband and I believe similarly, we are more along the secular humanist side of things-really, kindness and doing good is our religion. We’ve also tried to stress to our children that they must follow their own hearts and minds and decide how they feel and what they believe as they get older.

    It is tough living in the south. It is tough having pressures from both sets of grandparents to ‘take care of our children’s souls’ and ‘teach them the traditions and ways of their people’. We follow traditions but keep them secular. We talk about what Nana believes is different than what Grandmom believes, etc… Right now we have established a balance.

    My daughters just asked this question again last week over frozen yogurt but this time it wasn’t what are “we”, it was what do “you” believe and I think that’s progress. I simply say, I am comfortable not knowing exactly what the answer is or having a label and will keep learning with them.

    Thank you again. As always, I love it.
    Chris K. recently posted…My Four Fathers | It’s Still ComplicatedMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks, Chris, yes it is truly what do YOU believe, and not foisting our beliefs, or lack of beliefs, on our children. We are lucky in that we don’t have family pressures (I was raised in an atheist household, so the stuff I write about and explore here feels really religiousy and woo-woo to me, and even a UU church felt really churchy…. LOL.) But I am starting to teach my daughter more about holidays (like Easter and Christmas, which we celebrate) and teaching her the Christian meaning of them and how we interpret them and celebrate them.

  8. says

    What a spectacular post! I love the part about religion being derived from (practically speaking) action. I associate as Jewish, but the “faith” part… on that I’m not exactly ambivalent, as much as I simply diverge. But the ACT of religion- of dipping apples in honey for Rosh Hashanah, or fasting on Yom Kippur, or lighting Shabbat candles… the act is meaning in of itself for me.

    Thank you so much for helping me put all this to words. I have no doubt it will help when in the not-too-distant future my children start asking me the same questions.
    Becoming SuperMommy recently posted…How to Humiliate The Most Important Person In Your Life, or, Happy Father’s DayMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks. It’s interesting because the Pew Forum survey revealed that almost 20% of people who identified as Jewish said they didn’t believe in God. I think Judaism in particular, at least among the Western religions, really is about emphasizing the meaning of history and the importance of ritual, more than the acceptance of doctrine. I remember as a kid being jealous of all the cool rituals and meaningful celebrations that my Jewish friends had…

  9. says

    Loved this, as you might have guessed. I really liked, in particular, the part about religion being action-oriented vs. belief-oriented to distinguish the changing trend. It’s why I’m glad we have a Jesuit pope (even though I no longer consider myself Catholic) — his is a worldview that prioritizes helping others rather than enriching himself. Humility. Wonderfully researched and written piece. If only everyone would be so thoughtful.
    Deb @ Urban Moo Cow recently posted…Generation Grit: Better Toys for BoysMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Indeed. I love our current pope (he even said last year that atheists could go to heaven — that it’s really about living a good life! My response, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance…!”). I too love the emphasis on action, not belief. Because that’s what ultimately matters — we can ‘believe’ a lot of things, but they mean nothing if they don’t inspire compassionate action.

  10. says

    I found myself nodding with a lot of this. I’m not big on the whole “If you don’t believe what I believe you’re doing it wrong” method of Christianity I came of age with (even though I did not grow up in a religious household, my parents became that way when I entered high school, and the church I attended as a young adult was very much that way; another story for another time, though). As my faith has become more my own, I find it no longer resembles that of everyone else’s, not even a little bit. I especially relate to this line: “we need a new definition of “faith,” one that does not mean a wholesale acceptance of dogma.” My beliefs are much more inclusive, more fluid than most churches I’ve been to will allow in their congregation, which is why I’ve had a hard time finding a place of worship to attend without feeling extremely uncomfortable.
    I know kids like easy boxes to put themselves in, to orient themselves in the world, which is why I appreciate how much thought you put into your answer. Children need to know that like doesn’t easily fit in a convenient box, ESPECIALLY when it comes to religion.
    I always appreciate your methods of inquiry, historian that you are. 😉
    Natalie DeYoung recently posted…The L.A. SceneMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks, Natalie. {I think ‘historian’ or something like that even came up on my Strengths Finder list :) } I think what you’ve described is exactly why so many people are turning away from religious labels today, because so many churches insist on doctrinal uniformity. I love getting a historical perspective because instead of this being just about a selfish age of customization, and thinking that we can even customize religion to our needs, we can see that how we have approached religion in the centuries since the Reformation is very different than how it was practiced for millennia.

  11. says

    Sarah, I love this post! I couldn’t agree with you more that how we treat others is far more important than the belief system we choose to affiliate with.

    I was brought up in the Catholic Church, but it never felt right for ME – even as a child. This is an issue that my parents and I continue to struggle with as I approach my 30s… “You’re doing it wrong,” they recently told me when I explained to them why my husband and I weren’t going to have our daughters baptized. Love, kindness and compassion is my religion; that is how we plan to raise our kids. They will be encouraged to embrace their religious curiosities as they grow and change and to accept whatever doctrine, method or mantra that truly speaks to THEIR heart.

    Thanks for this!
    Kimberly Murphy recently posted…We love you, Daddy!My Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thank you, Kimberly. I think religion is a bit like meditation in that way — we can’t really do it “wrong,” though perhaps we might be unskillful. I was ‘raised atheist’, if that’s even a term, so I have had a lot of support through my life in terms of exploring belief. I hope that is what I can convey to my children — here is what I think is important, and you can explore the world and figure out what makes sense to you…. and it may take your whole life to do that!

  12. says

    This is a very interesting post. You and I seem to have many things in common – recently I almost wrote a post titled, “I’m not a Buddhist, but…”
    I grew up in a church-going family and I remember one minister explaining that the Bible wasn’t meant to be taken literally. He said that when Jesus fed a crowd with 5 loaves and 3 fishes it was because that when someone offered up their food, others then did too.
    I think that overall UK churches are more relaxed about beliefs than some in the US seem to be, probably because they’ve had to change. I can’t remember statistics, but I think over half of the UK population does not consider itself religious.
    I liked your definitions of religion. Mine would be compassion too!
    Like you and others, I’ve also encouraged my daughters to think about this for themselves. One of them feels strongly that there is more than just this life, and we often talk about how we are all connected. (She’s 16.) My younger daughter (14) recently observed that she has Christian, Muslim and Hindu friends, and that she is atheist. But when we talked some more, it became clear that it’s just she doesn’t believe in God as a person (or persons) in the sky. When this daughter was little, she often said things that surprised me and convinced me there is more to life than meets the eye. At the time, I wondered if almost dying as a baby gave her a deep spiritual connection, but I now think it’s probably there in all small children and what you write about its historical roots also suggests this.

    And on a more frivolous note – Byron Katie said says that her religion used to be, “My children should pick up their socks.”
    Yvonne recently posted…Welcome to my New Blog!My Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      I love that Byron Katie quote! And indeed, I think there is a very different approach to religion in the UK, and in Europe in general. One of our British tour guides a few years ago was commenting on how he just couldn’t believe how much Americans injected religion into our politics. His response was “We fought our Wars of Religion centuries ago. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.” I think of that a lot. The US has had a very different religious history than Europe, and I think we still bear some of the imprints of our Puritan origins.

      I love your approach with your daughters. I hope to be able to encourage the same sense of exploration in my children.

  13. Bree says

    My husband and I disagreed with the dogma of the different religions in which we were raised, so we explored, and identified as Buddhist for a long time. After we had kids, we wanted to expose them to different religions so they’d learn to respect and understand them. They played with a dreidel on the floor in front of our Christmas tree, and we sometimes celebrated solstices and equinoxes with a local pagan family group, we observed Lion and Dragon dances for lunar new year, looked at sugar skulls as we read about Day of the Dead, and we found children’s stories online from lots of different religious traditions to share with them. My son once asked which belief was “right” and we talked about how the “right” religion was a personal decision he could make later, but that all these religious and cultural practices were to be respected because they were meaningful and “right” to those who believe in them.

    We, too, believe in right action, and have attended UU services several times. I love that they incorporate social activism. It helps me teach my kids that regardless of what (if any) religion they choose, it is important to work to protect and help others who need it. It’s really rough finding a “place” that fits when our beliefs are so broad, but the UU has been helpful to us in tying it all together.

    Thanks so much for your post. I’m glad to see we’re not the only ones who have struggled to pin things down neatly when the kids asked us about this stuff.

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks for the comment Bree. I think that is why I have been so drawn to UU, because children are exposed to so many different practices and beliefs and are encouraged to walk their own spiritual path. And I love the emphasis on social justice, which I know is an important part of most Christian and Jewish and other religious institutions as well.

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks, Stephanie :) I suppose the big thing is that it’s not What are WE? but What are YOU? Which, as I’ve said in other comments, is hard for us grown-ups to process too!

  14. says

    I love posts like this that make you rethink everything you know about a big idea. I grew up in a very religious household. Those experiences were both good and bad. I miss having something to call myself but no longer agree with their beliefs. My religion now is love, family, reading and nature.
    Jenny recently posted…The Amateur MotherMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      …”make you rethink everything you know about a big idea.” Oh I just love that comment. I love that this is encouraging people to, as the title says, rethink religion and what it means to live a religious life. I’ve often thought too how nice it would be to have a set book that I could say, okay, this is the truth. These are the words I can live by. But we all know it’s not that simple!

  15. says

    Sarah, your posts, and this post especially, make me think and wonder. Your writing causes me to initiate conversations with friends. I wake and think about what you’ve written. Did you know that you’re a heart sower, a community weaver?

    In a comment above you write, “We can ‘believe’ a lot of things, but they mean nothing if they don’t inspire compassionate action.” That’s what I’m sitting with–the action. Wait, not sitting, acting upon!

    Warm wishes to you as you head to Paris. I want to be in your family. Oh, that’s right, I am : ) in this broader sense. Can’t wait to hear what you learn, glean.
    Susan Michael Barrett recently posted…Riding east towards Florida: a mix-up, a massage, and a surprise treat from Maya AngelouMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Oh, Susan, I am just reveling in your words. I love thinking that people are reading this and initiating these important conversations with others. And you are indeed in the family. Hugs. :)

  16. says

    The month you spent compiling this was well worth it. I have recently been thinking a lot about religion, mostly because I want my son to learn the stories of it so that they are, at least something he’s familiar with. The problem for me has been which stories? The ones that I grew up with (Christian)? The ones that my step-mom, and his step-cousins believe deeply in (Jewish)? The stories that are not traditionally religious but made me FEEL something, in the way that you describe a painting speaking to me? Well, all of them I suppose, and I’d like it to be in an environment of connectivity (like a church as I did enjoy it when I was young) but when I now go to church (like the three times in the past 15 years and can I use any more parenthesis???), so much of it actually angers me that it’s hard to figure out the next step. So I do nothing. I believe in compassion though. In kindness. In the MoreThanUsAlone of humanity and beauty and love.
    This is an amazingly well-written essay on something that – for me, anyway – always feels to hard to articulate. Both to myself, and to my son, who is thankfully not asking me “What Are We?” yet…
    Kristi Campbell recently posted…Our Land: What is Beauty?My Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      I love how you describe it… and most of the theologians of the past few millennia would agree that we can’t really put it into words, that the most appropriate words when speaking of God are … silence. I think we need to honor our connectedness — as soon as we see that we are others and others are us, we’ll all be a lot nicer to each other.

  17. says

    I love the thought and care you put into this post. We are “Catholic” but that is like being “American” to us. Yes we attend Mass, but mostly because our child is going through CCD. For me it was more to give her a sense of a higher power and also because hey it’s what you do in an Irish-Catholic family :) I know in my 20’s and 30’s I explored other religions. Just to see what was out there and found that at the core they are all one and of the same:

    Do good.

    So that is the end goal of teaching our child religion and/or faith. It’s about teaching her that actions matter. That doing good is more than saying the Rosary. Maybe to answer your daughter’s question of what are we you can answer:

    We are do gooders.
    Kerri recently posted…Actions matterMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      I LOVE that — we are do-gooders. And really, as you state, that’s what virtually every faith tradition teaches. Thanks for sharing your story.

  18. says

    You must be a great teacher. I love coming here. It’s like hearing a lecture, with all the positive meanings of the term. Joseph Campbell is a favorite of mine. And I did a senior project on myth in college focusing on the idea that a myth’s many inconsistent details sometimes make up a sum greater than its parts. It’s been a long time but I still remember some of it.
    Liz recently posted…Zoe vs. My SmartphoneMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks and hugs, Liz. I’ve always envisioned, I guess, that that’s what my blog is…. a bit lecture and intellect, a bit inspiration. And Joseph Campbell? AH-MAY-ZING!

  19. says

    Wow! this was awesome, honest, and so thorough. Judaism is still a religion of action. Belief and faith are part of it, but what we do is all the matter. It’s not enough to believe or have “good thoughts.” You must do positive actions. That’s why, for example, on Yom Kippur, if you have wronged a person during the year, we don’t ask God for forgiveness. We have to ask the person we’ve wronged. I like that little bit of practicality. There are SO many more examples, but not trying to hijack this into a discussion of Judaism. 😉 You did a beautiful job explaining where you’re coming from. It’s complicated stuff, religion!
    Nina recently posted…Summer ReadingMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      I think you’re onto something with the discussion of Judaism, though, because I think there’s a reason there are so many Bu-Jews or whatever the term is, that so many of the popularizers of Buddhism in the West are Jewish (like Sharon Salzberg or Joseph Goldstein). I think are are many connections between Judaism and Buddhism in terms of the meaning in history, the importance of action, and the importance of social justice. In my world religions class, students are really drawn to the Jewish emphasis on ritual. I especially love the Sabbath rituals… Thanks for sharing your story!

  20. says

    This is so completely fantastic! I don’t even know what to say other than that I loved this, and will re-read it a bunch, I’m sure. I echo what others wrote about feeling inspired by the idea that religion should be about doing, seeking, asking, etc, rather than unyielding, unquestioning belief. That really, really resonates with me!
    Meg recently posted…Project 365 – Week 24My Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks Meg! Indeed, if that’s what people can walk away with — the importance of action and compassion — then my post has done its work!

  21. says

    Everything you’ve written indicates a belief that religion is a human invention (as opposed to discovery). In this case, then why deny your atheism? Being an atheist does not define your priorities. Nor does being an atheist impact your appreciation for the teachings of various religions and religious leaders.

    While I identify myself as an atheist, this is not a requirement of atheism. My in-laws are Jewish atheists. Other relatives are atheist Jews. My wife describes herself as a Humanist, because like you, she prioritizes compassion for humanity, even though she is also an atheist.

    You are right that there is not one label that would fit you. In fact there are multiple labels that fit you. You’re not doing your 7 year old, or yourself, any favors by denying them. As appealing as it may seem, you don’t have to be an enigma. Why not dissect and explain this complicated Venn diagram to your children and let them know how you think they ultimately decide these things for themselves, or inherit them, however your values and beliefs dictate?
    Eric Kamander recently posted…Rosh HashanahMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Hmmm… I guess I didn’t see this as a way of denying any label, but rather sorting through the perspectives and actions that I think are important. And the more I think about atheism, the harder I find it to nail down exactly what it means. It requires a particular ‘theism’ to be ‘a’, to be against, and atheism, traditionally, and especially with the New Atheism, has in many ways simply set up a straw man god that many believers don’t believe in, either. I guess my perspective is “evolving,” and I’m not sure the labels are really important in the final analysis. I’m not trying to ‘be’ an enigma, but rather acknowledging that ultimately, that’s what our experience of the transcendent is.

      • says

        Atheism doesn’t setup a straw man god, though individual atheists may reference various religions’ deities. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in any god or deity. The only thing it is “against” is that very individual belief (as opposed to being against anything others believe). Of course there are fanatic Atheists, just like there are fanatic Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.
        Eric Kamander recently posted…I’m Glad I Backed Up, So I Can Move On…EventuallyMy Profile

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