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Changing Faith: Why It's Not a Bad Thing

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People who believe that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim often cite as evidence the fact that his father was a Muslim and that he briefly attended a Muslim school. The assumption seems to be that the President couldn't be sincere in his claim to have embraced a different faith, even though the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has found that about half of all Americans change their religious affiliation at least once in their lives, usually before the age of 24. In fact, believing something different from his parents makes Obama a fairly typical American.

Finding my own belief system was an important part of my journey. I left the Catholic Church during my freshman year of college when I realized I couldn't recite everything in the Profession of Faith. It marked a dramatic break with my Irish clan and threw me into a period of anxious questioning, which eventually subsided during a spring backpacking trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains, when I felt a sense of peace come to me as I looked out on a beautiful vista. I sensed that there was something greater than me that I was connected to, and that knowing that was enough for the time being.

In my late twenties, I felt drawn to start attending unprogrammed Quaker worship, where I could sit in silence with my questions without having to profess any answers. I liked the phrase, "There is that of God in everyone," which undergirded the Quaker traditions of social activism and inward listening for guidance. I also liked the variety of words used for "the Divine" and the fact that I rarely heard the term "He" applied. As much as changing my religious affiliation, I was changing my concept of God, from an old white man in the sky to a spiritual force that permeated everything and guided me to new people and work in ways that often felt miraculous.

Knowing how important it was for me to find my own belief system apart from my family's, I was intrigued to find that many of the people I interviewed for a recent book on the Serenity Prayer had gone through something similar, whether they ultimately changed religions or stayed within the tradition in which they had been raised. For some, letting go of their image of a vindictive, judgmental God helped them to live with greater peace and trust. Several discovered the concept of the God within, the idea that they had a divine aspect themselves, and were enlivened by it. One man, the son of a Southern Baptist minister, realized that God could be a mother figure, as well as a father figure, an insight that helped him break open the limited vision he had of God. Now a professor of religion and history, he says, "The more metaphors the better," because no one image can fully capture the Divine.

"People experience God in profoundly different ways," notes Rabbi Erin Hirsh. "If we can celebrate how many ways people can experience God, then we can be united in that, and God doesn't have to be divisive." Rabbi Erin, who grew up in a secular Jewish family, says she experiences God in moments of profound connection with other people. "It took me a long time to understand that, but I believe that there are sparks of the Divine in each person. When I connect with someone, and I find that spark, I've seen a glimpse of the Divine." She says that she is unusual for a rabbi in that she does not think of God as a supernatural being, but she notes that in Judaism, people are expected to wrestle with tradition, with scripture, and even with God, the way Jacob wrestled with a mysterious angel before he was granted the name Israel, or "God-wrestler."

Roman Catholic priest and scholar Andrew Greeley asserts that how we conceive of and describe God has profound implications for how we live. A sociologist interested in the intersection of religion and culture, Greeley has developed a tool he calls the Grace Scale "that measures a respondent's image of God as mother versus father, lover versus judge, spouse versus master, and friend versus king." Greeley's research shows that a high score on the Grace Scale predicts many other qualities, including interest in the fine arts, belief in the equality of women, satisfaction in marriage, compassion for people with AIDS, and willingness to invest in protecting the environment.

What we believe about God has implications for how we treat others, which is one reason it is good to question what we were taught as children. Many adults grew up with what I call the Lincoln Memorial image of God, a distant and stony-faced judge, and assume that they have to believe in Him or nothing. While believing in nothing is one option, it is not the only one. For many people, finding a belief system that rings true to their experience is part of the journey to a more mature faith.

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