Religious Identity Formation

The 3B Framework: Beliefs, Behavior, Belonging

Benjamin P. Marcus, a religious literacy specialist at the Religious Freedom Center, teaches that a person’s religious identity is formed in equally complex ways.

  1. Beliefs: Beliefs may reveal a person’s or group’s understanding about the ultimate nature of deities or the universe, which may include theological, doctrinal, scriptural and ethical evaluative claims about daily life as much as claims about a transcendent reality or experiences of the divine. Not all members of a community hold the same beliefs, and the ways religious communities interpret those beliefs change over time.
  2. Behavior: Acting a certain way as an individual or in a group, such as through rites, rituals, holidays or daily devotional practices, may vary widely based on individual expression, ethnic or racial or cultural variations, or by the time period in which the behavior is exercised. Behaviors may manifest both inside and outside of strictly religious settings.
  3. Belonging: Acts of belonging that affirm a person’s or group’s sense of mattering to others may affect the lived experiences of religious individuals and communities. Expressions of belonging may include membership in religious communities and other social communities that intersect with racial, ethnic, familial, gender, class and other identities.

In this context, it is important for educators to understand how religious studies scholars investigate the ways in which individuals and communities construct their religious identities. Describing religious identity requires recognition of the historical, political, geographic and economic factors that shape the beliefs people hold, the behaviors they exhibit and their membership within multiple intersecting communities.


Image key: “Ex” refers to extraordinary experiences and “Or” refers to ordinary experiences. These direct experiences may reinforce or contradict a person’s experience with historical traditions. These encounters may inform whether a person’s religious identity is more rooted in belief over behavior, for example.