No two people follow the same religion.

I feel confident in saying that. Each of us is different from every other human who has ever lived. Our genetic blueprints are different, and our experiences that work hand-in-hand with those blueprints to make us are likewise different. Each of us organizes our brains differently. We understand the world around us in a unique way that, more than anything else in our universe, truly belongs to us. That perspective changes with us as we learn and grow, but at each individual moment, that mental model of the universe around us is well and truly ours.

Even if you are raised within the same culture, the same religious tradition, and even the same family, different parts of a belief system will be more important to you than others. Certain passages of a holy book will mean more to you than they mean to your fellow believers. Some chants or songs will be particularly enlightening to you. Some koans or parables will profoundly affect you but might leave others just scratching their heads. Some branches of science will inspire you more than others. It doesn't matter how granular you go in outlining a religious/philosophical identity; each person is their own unique ecosystem of belief, knowledge, and experience.

Ultimately, religious labels are simply a probability cloud with degrees of error built in. When someone says that they are "Buddhist," "Hare Krishna," or even "Atheist," it allows your mind to model their beliefs with varying degrees of certainty based on your own beliefs, knowledge, and experience. As you get to know more people who fall under a certain label, you naturally adjust your internal model, and with an increasing sample size, your definition gets better over time. However, nothing can predict the individual variations. If someone tells you that they're Catholic, you still don't know how often they attend mass (if at all), how they feel about the Church's stance on only allowing male clergy, or whether they have a rosary in their purse that they use for prayer/meditation. Labels are useful, but they aren't slavish definitions. In the presence of "contradictory" data, we must adapt our internal understanding of a label rather than treating those labels prescriptively. Ultimately the only way to know what someone believes or thinks is to (1) ask them if they feel comfortable discussing it with you, and then (2) ask questions and genuinely listen to details of their answer.

Back in the fall, when I was working through Getting Things Done for at least the fourth or fifth time, I fired up kind of a different project on my GTD projects list: "Develop personal religion." After all, projects are just open loops, things in your head that are bothering you in some way but require more than just one simple action. My personal beliefs have been an open loop for me for quite some time, and honestly, it was a significant source of stress in my life. "Fine," I thought, "Let's see if GTD can handle a project as personal and esoteric as this." In my life, I've gone from a staunch Southern Baptist to a generic Christian to a Christian Buddhist to a dyed-in-the-wool Dawkins-inspired atheist. But to varying degrees, all of those things have felt like reactions to other people. I encounter someone else's beliefs, match them against my own, and then react to the comparison, taking on pieces that feel "right" and quietly putting those that feel "wrong" to the side. (Putting on my critical theory hat for a moment, this is a very Marxist/dialectic approach, reaching synthesis from "opposing" forces.) This time around, I'm trying to categorize how I personally believe and researching labels that are appropriate for those beliefs.

Three months in, I can say that my productivity system/methodology is handling the project just fine, and I'm grateful to finally be moving something forward that previously just generically bothered me when it was least convenient to be bothered. I've read a lot of books. I've watched a lot of documentaries. I've spent many hours journaling about what I believe. I've lit a lot of candles. Most importantly, I've made lots of tiny but cumulatively significant changes in my life to better align my actions with my beliefs as I discover them. Each piece of that puzzle has helped me move the project a little further forward, one halting and fumbling step at a time.

Like a lot of mystics, examining my personal beliefs is a very solitary endeavor. As I wrote in my journal a while back, "I have zero interest in a conversion experience. In many ways, what I'm seeking is the opposite of that. I'm trying to become aware of what I already believe and then give myself permission to believe what I already believe without adding the beliefs and liturgies of someone else." The real change during my pilgrimage/jihad/quest actually happens in the words I type into my journal and in my five-in-the-morning quiet contemplation. However, I keep stumbling across ideas and sources that I'd like to share with other people. That's where this collection on Google+ comes in. It gives me a place to share my discoveries and my thoughts.

Your commentary and participation is welcome. I mean, otherwise I wouldn't be putting it on the Internet. However, there are a few ground rules in my sovereign digital territory:

  • Don't try to convert or evangelize. Even if your personal religious beliefs require that of you. You're welcome to talk about your beliefs and your faith (or even a lack of faith), but seeking to convert others is a no-no that will make me delete your comment.

  • Be respectful of others and their beliefs. Don't ridicule anyone. Seriously. This includes what you've heard about Scientology on South Park or what you saw on Fox News about Wicca. Be advised that the word "cult" immediately puts you on thin ice.

  • Don't assume. As discussed above, everyone has very unique personal beliefs, even if they follow the same religion as you. When in doubt, use "I" statements (e.g. "I was taught that...") and accept that people are experts in their own experiences. (Telling a Mormon how Mormons believe, for example, is a big no-no.) As a related point, please don't assume that "religious" or "spiritual" are synonymous with "theistic". As just two examples, neither Buddhism nor Paganism require belief in any form of god(s).

  • There are actually no rules. I am an agent of chaos. This place is constructed purely by my mercurial whims and desires. Don't be a jerk, and don't piss me off.