Religion and Identity | Facing History & Ourselves

Religion and Identity

Four teenagers from different religious traditions reflect on their experiences of religious belief and belonging.  
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English — US


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Religion can be a central part of one’s identity. The word religion comes from a Latin word that means “to tie or bind together.” Modern dictionaries define religion as “an organized system of beliefs and rituals centering on a supernatural being or beings.” To belong to a religion often means more than sharing its beliefs and participating in its rituals; it also means being part of a community and, sometimes, a culture.

The world’s religions are similar in many ways; scholar Stephen Prothero refers to these similarities as “family resemblances.” All religions include rituals, scriptures, and sacred days and gathering places. Each religion gives its followers instructions for how human beings should act toward one another. 1   In addition, three of the world’s religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—share a common origin: all three trace their beginnings to the biblical figure of Abraham.

There is incredible diversity within each religion in terms of how members define their connections to it. For some, a religion’s theological beliefs and rituals of worship are central to their lives. Others are more drawn to a religion’s community and culture than to its beliefs and rituals. Many even feel part of a religion’s culture but choose not to participate in its rituals at all. Some people feel free to choose a religion for themselves, or to reject religion entirely as a part of their identity. Others feel that they have been born and raised in a particular religion and are unwilling or unable to change it. Some governments grant privileges to one religion and not to others, while other governments protect citizens’ freedom to follow any religion without privilege or penalty.

  • 1Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 12–13.

ton koene / Alamy Stock Photo

Different people have different experiences with their religion. In the following reflections, teenagers share parts of their religious experiences. While each belongs to a particular religion, each one’s experience does not fully represent that religion as a whole.

Rebecca, then age 17, explains the influence that her religion, Judaism, has on her life:

In the Bible, in the Torah, there are 613 commandments. They involve everything from how you treat other people, to Jewish holidays and how we observe them, and the Sabbath, which is every week, and how we observe that. It’s like a guide how to live.

There are also a lot of dietary laws. The dietary laws say we can only eat certain kinds of meat that are killed and prepared in a certain way. We can’t eat meat at nonkosher restaurants. My parents like to remind me of this funny story. One time when I was two, we were driving past a Burger King. I saw the sign, and I yelled out, “That sign says Burger King. No burgers for Jewish people.” I picked up on those observances. It was always something that was part of me. I recognized that it was important.

We set the Sabbath aside as a day of rest because God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. Because of this, there are lots of rules for things you can and can’t do . . . It’s supposed to be a day of rest—you’re not supposed to do any type of work, or watch television, use the computer, use electricity, any of that stuff . . . For me it’s very spiritual. It really separates the day out from the rest of the week.

I spend a lot of time with my family—from Friday night at sundown until Saturday night. I go to prayers at my synagogue in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon. It’s just a really spiritual experience. It makes it more of an important day . . .

I haven’t gone to see a movie on a Saturday or Friday night ever.

It’s weird being in a public high school because you’re faced with being in a school where there’s lots of activities on Friday nights and things to miss out on. Like all the school plays are on Friday nights. I have to give up trying out for school plays. And sports—I used to play softball. But there are games every Saturday, so I couldn’t play those.

A lot of people look at it like, “How can you give up all of this stuff because of your religion?” It’s just a matter of how you look at it. You can look at it as being a burden—that you have these religious obligations, so you’re not able to do your school activities. But I look at it as a more positive experience. It’s something that I choose to do. 2


  • 2How Can You Give Up All of This Stuff Because of Your Religion?,” in Pearl Gaskins, I Believe In . . . : Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Young People Speak About Their Faith (Chicago: Cricket Books, 2004), 58–59. Reproduced by permission from Carus Publishing Company.

A woman lights a candle with her daughter during the start of the Passover seder.

Barbara Davidson / Contributor / Getty Images

Often, the way individuals relate to and practice a religion changes over the course of their lives. Maham, age 19, explains how her Muslim faith and practice has changed as she has grown older:

When I was fifteen, I was really super-religious actually. Then I fell into this not-so-religious stage—that was between the end of junior year of high school and freshman year of college. I started praying less and hanging out with my friends more. I believe that spirituality is a roller coaster and that you’re going to have your ups and downs, because when you’re up, there’s nowhere to go but down. That’s how life is.

I went down, and now I think I’m heading right back up. I still am not back praying five times a day because of my schedule (I try to pray as much as I can), but I believe that true spirituality transcends ritual worship, so I try to live my life with the philosophy that Islam teaches—of compassion, peace, submission, tolerance, and things like that. I try every day to fight the jihad of personal struggle to become a better person.

That’s what Islam is to me now, more than just praying five times a day. When you’re fourteen, that’s enough. But as you mature, life becomes complicated and harder to categorize as just good and bad. The rules are not laid out in black and white anymore—you find a lot of gray area since you gain more independence as you get older. After all, you start to make your own decisions—some good, some bad—but life has to teach you its lessons somehow.

I do believe in rituals. Like Ramadan is coming up next week. Do I plan on fasting all thirty days? Yes, I do. Those things help me become a better Muslim. There are a lot of things that are taught in Islam, like wearing the headscarf and praying. Just as people eat food four or five times a day to nourish their bodies, prayers nourish the soul four or five times a day. It’s a way for me to meditate. It’s a way for me to tune myself out from the things around me that are bad influences. It’s a way to remind myself of who I am so I have less chances of doing something I’ll regret. 3

Sara, age 18, feels differently about the rituals and worship practices of her religion than Rebecca and Maham do:

I feel really connected with my Jewish community, but a little less connected to the observance factor of my religion. I don’t keep kosher. I don’t really feel that that’s necessary. When I was little, my whole family would sit down every Friday night and light the Shabbat candles and say the blessings. We don’t do that anymore. Now it’s like, “It’s Friday night. I’m going to go out with my friends.”

I don’t like organized prayer. Every once in a while I go to services, but I appreciate it a lot more when I do my own thing and say my own prayers . . .

When I was younger, I never really thought I was different ’cause I was Jewish. It didn’t occur to me until high school when I started getting really involved with stuff. It’s kind of weird when I really think about it. It’s like I’m just like everyone else, except there’s that little part of me that’s going to be Jewish forever, and that makes me different. 4

Hesed, age 14, a member of the United Methodist Church, explains how he knows the Christian religion in which he was raised is right for him:

After confirmation [as an adolescent] I was getting stronger in the faith, but I still thought about it and said, “Well, what about other religions? Are they fake? And if they are, why are there millions of Muslims around the world who pray to Allah five times a day? And why are there Buddhists who make Buddhism their faith? Why do I think this one faith is real?”

And basically, to me, I just get a feeling. It’s really hard to explain. Christianity just feels right to me. I go to church, and I see the cross, and we’re at prayer—it feels right. And I can honestly say that I feel the presence of God in that place. And for me, Christianity is the religion where I feel that. To me that’s basically what faith is—to just believe in what you think is right. And this is right for me.

Now I’m really secure in what I believe. And I don’t know if it’s wrong to say it—since I’m a Christian and we’re supposed to go out and save the world and convert people to Christianity—but I truly do believe that there are a lot of people who feel that their religion, whether it be Islam, or Buddhism, or Hinduism, is right for them. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. I’m not saying those are the right faiths, but you just get a feeling when something is right for you. 5

Connection Questions

  1. How do the young people in this reading experience religious belief and belonging? What can we learn from the similarities and differences in their stories?
  2. Based on your experiences and observations, what are some other kinds of experiences with religion that are not represented in these four short reflections?
  3. How would you describe the role, if any, that religion plays in your identity?
  • 3“I Try Every Day to Fight the Jihad of Personal Struggle,” in Gaskins, I Believe In . . . , 68–89. Reproduced by permission from Carus Publishing Company.
  • 4“I Wear Two Stars of David,” in Gaskins, I Believe In . . . , 33. Reproduced by permission from Carus Publishing Company.
  • 5"Shaky Waters,” in Gaskins, I Believe In . . . , 103. Reproduced by permission from Carus Publishing Company.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Religion and Identity," last updated August 2, 2016.

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