My five lessons from On Faith

It was five years ago this month that we launched On Faith. The idea was to inform and educate about … Continued

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 on-going 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.

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:

Franco Origlia


Cardinals and Bishops attend John Paul II Beatification Ceremony held by Pope Benedict XVI on May 1, 2011 in Vatican City, Vatican.


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.




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.

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.


Bill O’Leary


Washington, DC – September, 15: President Obama bows his head during the opening prayer before he awards the Medal of Honor to Dakota Meyer, the first Marine to be so honored for actions in Aghanistan, at White House ceremony, on September, 15, 2011 in Washington, DC.

When I first suggested that The Post cover religion more comprehensively, it was purely from a journalistic point of view. It seemed to me that so much of what we were covering 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?”


“ 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, separation of church and state, parenting, sexual abuse, animal rights, sports, books, the internet, the military, women’s rights, racism, violence, crime, marriage, families, science, medicine and on and on. Everyone is interested in religion. They just don’t know it.


Dayna Smith


Jacquelyn Hall, Ursula J. Holmes and Leslie Wiley pray during Sunday services at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington.

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 which 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.


Soe Zeya Tun


A Buddhist nun holds prayer beads as she prays at the Shwedagon Pagoda during the yellow robe weaving festival in Yangon, late November 9, 2011. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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 dutifully 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 do, 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 or 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 the fact that God is clearly so personal and that we all have such different ideas of 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, the same family, the same country, or the same culture or race.

What I have learned is this:

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

This I know.

View Photo Gallery: As our religion Web site celebrates its fifth anniversary, a look back at some stunning images of faith in the past five years.

Read more about On Faith at five. Below are links to some of our favorite debates and columns of the last five years.

Faith, feminism and abortion

Conservative politician and anti-abortion advocate Sarah Palin stirs debate about what it means to be a feminist. Sixteen panelists answer: “Can you be a feminist and oppose abortion in all circumstances?”

Who owns yoga?

Deepak Chopra and Aseem Shukla debate whether or not yoga belongs to Hinduism. The exchange kicks off a debate among Hindus and yoga practitioners about the spirituality of the popular exercise.

Muslims speak out

An 2007 feature with many of the world’s most prominent Muslim scholars on what Islam really says about violence and human rights.

Is this Mormonism’s moment?

A panel debate on how religions assimilate in America and how Mormonism is emerging into the mainstream.

Attention Gov. Perry, evolution is a fact

Richard Dawkins takes on science’s role among socially conservative politicians and declares evolution to be more than mere theory.

Bonus round: Tony Blair, the Dalai Lama, Rick Warren, Mormon president Thomas Monson, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and a host of other leaders examine what we have learned about religion in the ten years since 9/11/2011.

Sally Quinn
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  • ezeques

    So rather than using science, nature, reason and facts for our rules we have the priests’ interpretation of what God said or told them?

    Sounds like the Catholic Church, Pope and Dark Ages again.

  • ezeques

    >What I have learned is this: God is what you or I or anyone else says God is.

    So I guess religion and God is anything and/or anyone I want it to be?

    Is that why there are so many innocent people in prisons?

  • kemcb

    Your “”Faith” writing is of interest. I was raised in a Presbyterian home, I think today I am an agnostic atheist! Dawkins and Acharya S. “The Christ Conspiracy” have set me free of myth! The father who told his son, “You’ll just have to take it on faith” misses the point! While you cannot prove a negative, a rational person would seek the application of the scientific method of evidence in contrast to faith! Faith is blind trust or belief without evidence, myth! All religions are a result of myth, fables, legends and traditions! All! As evident, blind faith based on myth is dangeroous, ie. 9/11 or Bush War Crime in Iraq! Also, there is nothing negative about defining yourself as an atheist!

  • agatha08

    Your response in rejecting God after seeing horrific pictures of Dauchau is normal. History records actions that are man-made and not directed by God. But it is not God who is to blame. I am encouraged by your desire to learn more. I am one who does have a personal relationship with God and as you write, it brings me great solace from the toil of Earthly life with breast cancer survivorship and having no remaining family. Believing in God is the only stronghold that makes sense to me. Your points are excellent- all religions have committed atrocities and there are common elements. But I believe you have reached an erroneous interim conclusion: “God is what you or I or anyone else says God is. This I know.”
    God has given us Scripture to tell us exactly who He is. It is a matter of embracing the words and diving into them for comfort and solace. Then you will have a personal relationship with Him, after getting to know Him intimately through the words. As authors, we can appreciate the impact the written word has; the final authority on who God is rests there. My website talks about our relationship with God and how it translates to our relationship with Others. I pray that you will feel that personal relationship with Him, too.

  • ddoiron1

    An old Negro Spiritual says, “Every body talking about Heaven ain’t going there….”

    One must remember Satan believes in God and can quote the Bible from front to back too; but he is still Satan, the father of LIES!

  • raptor258

    Remember that God din not invent religion, man did. Each tribe used ignorance and superstition to refine their particular religious dogma to control their people.

    There is a God, but that God is indefinable for man. We have free will to do what we want. Too bad every one doesn’t follow that golden rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

    Maybe Allen Kardec had it right with his books in the 1800s?

  • bainscythe

    All of this and you still don’t know that there are no magical beings out in space telling anyone what to do? Heaven and hell is based on a flat earth view of the universe. But the earth is round, with no magical lands above it or below it. Copernicus proved this 500 years ago, he was murdered for proving the truth. Isn’t religion peaceful with all of the murder it causes?

  • madstopfern

    Sally, First, I appreciate your words on what you’ve learned and the thoughtfulness with which you wrote them.

    I would want to ask you about 1: What about such figures as St. Francis, Rumi, Ramakrishna? According to everything I’ve read about them, they knew rather than believed. In other words, have you been ignoring what is commonly called the spiritual path which is a pilgrimage from believing to knowing whether it be by way of Mystic Christianity, sufism, yoga or Buddhist meditation?

  • jmangan1

    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?”

    Because there is no scientific evidence of a god.

  • 4blazek

    A brief in history…the Council of Nicaea, under the direction of Constantine sat around a placed their interpretation to some hieroglyphics of early man assembling their work under a single title. That title is known as the Bible.

  • bainscythe

    Do you really think there are magical beings floating around in vast empty cold space? How draconian. All religion is obsolete in the face of reality. Magical beings don’t exist. They never have. And dead poeple can’t come back.

  • fzriely

    What was the reading list you were given by Jon Meacham?

  • fzriely

    I don’t understand the word “meaning” as defined by atheists. While they claim those with religious beliefs create God and religion irrationally to meet some need for meaning, they turn around and further claim that they can create their own life’s meaning arbitrarily. In the end, though, the atheist’s creation of meaning has no greater rational basis than the creation of religion. Certainly, the standard of scientific reasoning among atheists cannot be applied to the idiosyncratic and arbitrary definition of the meaning of one’s own life.

    And the atheist’s attempts to explain creation — and the infinite regression of causality implied by simply asking what caused the Big Bang, or where did that ball of matter come from — with mathematical formulas that describe time turning on itself in some infinite process, for example, ultimately begin to sound rather magical and God-like. They are certainly not a refutation of the possible role of God in the process.

    However, to me, the greatest argument against atheism is love.

    Even atheists experience love as something real, meaningful, and perhaps even transcendent. However, by scientific reasoning, love is merely a neuro-chemical reaction that makes us feel a certain way; something that encourages us to raise our children carefully, remain with our parents until we mature, and seek out others with whom to reproduce — all in service to the evolutionary imperative to propagate the species.

    If love is actually meaningful, however, in the way that humans actually experience it, it can’t simply be the product of a chemical reaction in our brains. If it were simply that, it could be replaced by drugs, perhaps a more sophisticated form of Ecstacy, which already produces love-like feelings. The birth of a child would mean little if those feelings could be replicated in a pill. The death of a loved-one would have no significance if their presence in our lives could be replaced pharmaceutically.

    In the end, atheists need to

  • TB_One

    And you can prove there is no God? Brilliant! Christ was raised from the dead. This is a fact as recoreded in history and witnessed by many. You can chose to believe the writers of the Bible lied but consider this; the writers died for their faith and never denied what they saw and knew to be true.

  • jmangan1

    Atheism cannot express the “full range of the human experience of wonder in the universe”, and it doesn’t need to, or claim to. Only religion does that, by making up silly stories lacking in any evidence whatsoever.

  • jmangan1

    If Christ was raised from the dead, where has he been these last couple thousand years? All I ever see of him is pictures and statues. When will he be appearing “live”.