Notes
First thoughts, running arguments, stories in progress
What Was Your Biggest Religious Choice?
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Readers respond to that question with a variety of personal stories and reflections. (For related essays, see our special project Choosing My Religion.) To share the most important religious decision of your life, or remark on one of the accounts below, please drop us a note at hello@theatlantic.com.

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A Scientist Finds Salvation

A reader introduces a new spiritual practice, Falun Gong, to our ongoing series:

I came into my spiritual path in a most unexpected way. I grew up as a Catholic, though really only in the most basic sense of the word. Early on I tried to be a proper Catholic, was an altar boy, but I met with what I saw as sufficient hypocrisy in the church (no need for details here) that I proudly declared myself an agnostic in my teens. I came to see religion as a tool for powerful people to subjugate the masses.

I decided that science would be enough as a worldview, a paradigm. I dabbled in Daoist Tai Chi a bit, but purely for purposes of relaxation.

I studied to become a biologist, with particular interest in ecology, evolution, and conservation. I imagined myself becoming a professor. Things were going well. I was blessed with generous research scholarships. I made excellent contacts in my areas of interest, established great collaborations, found ideal field sites. What really interested me was non-Darwinian models of evolution. For my doctoral studies, I did field research in Madagascar to study apparent hybridization between different species of lemur.

Returning from the field, I began to feel weak, depressed, and after some time, my ability to do simple things progressively degenerated. Working with micro lab tools became progressively more laborious and difficult. I thought I was overworked, but no amount of sleep would help.

One day, running to catch a street light, my legs stopped working properly, and I barely made it to the other side. I checked myself into the university hospital.

Unitarians as 'The Church of NPR'

Here are two stories from readers who attend a Unitarian Universalist church and how it differs from more traditional churches in the U.S. The first reader, John, describes how being exposed at an early age to a very different faith in a very different culture opened up his mind—and then closed it off to religion:

Fascinating collection of personal essays. Here is mine.

I grew up in Northern Virginia and was raised Episcopalian going to a long established Episcopal parish in Fairfax and being confirmed there. In 1962 my father joined the U.S. Information Agency. That September we moved to Ankara, Turkey. I was a few months short of 12.  

The move exposed me to the Turkish version of Islam. It was also the beginning of what I like to think of as an appreciation for what William James termed “the variety of religious experiences.” My father was a great believer in getting out and exploring the country, for which I will always bless him. We travelled all over the Turkish Mediterranean coast, to Istanbul and to Greece. This exposed me to Greek and Roman polytheism and to the Greek Orthodox traditions of the Byzantine Empire and modern Greece. At around the same time I was beginning to explore Western classical and American history, including the impact of the Enlightenment on Revolutionary America.  

After my parents separation in 1965, my mother, sister, and I returned to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I was quite offended by the lack of understanding she received from the Episcopal minister there. I don’t recall the impetus, although I think I can infer it, but in 1966 she left the Episcopal congregation for the Kalamazoo Unitarian congregation. It is possible that my mother’s Quaker heritage on her father’s side could have played a role. We continued as Unitarians when we moved to Tucson, Arizona, in 1967, when I was 16. In my 20s I gradually drifted away from organized religion.

I have recently begun connecting with the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, where I now live. I consider this an intellectual, not a spiritual, connection—one prompted more by my respect for the ethics and intellect of the two ministers leading RRUUC and a personal quest for community after my wife entered long-term care for Alzheimer’s.  

How Can God Allow Monsters to Prey on Children?

A reader recounts a horrifying early childhood in which she was regularly abused—physically, sexually, psychologically—by her mother’s boyfriend. That suffering severed her faith in God:

I feel compelled to share my story because it illustrates a fundamental flaw in religion that is often overlooked. As a young child, I enjoyed Sunday school, and I learned to put all my trust in God. I was five years old when my mother, who had divorced my father when I was two, met a monster and moved him into our house. He was a violent child molester who tortured me for the better part of a year, and the abuse was too graphic to describe here.

I prayed constantly for deliverance, for help, for relief, for anything other than what was happening to me. He told me he would kill my mother if I told anybody what was happening, and he showed me a handgun to prove he could do it. My five-year-old self was convinced that he could do it because he was just so mean.

When I found a few baby birds that had fallen from a nest in our backyard, he fed them to his dog. When he entered a room and I flinched, he would slap me for flinching. He forced me to drink beer out of a shot glass, pouring more and more in until I got sick. He threw me into a swimming pool and held out a hook for me, but once I grabbed hold of it, he dunked me over and over. He did a thousand other horrible, inscrutable things to me.

But before long, my mom married him, and I couldn’t understand how God could let this happen to us.

'I Would Go Into the Woods to Yell at God'

Nick, a young reader in Georgia, opens up:

I am not sure if you are still running your series on religious choices, but I feel like this topic is especially poignant to me. My biggest religious choice was when I chose to stop following Jesus when I was 24. I’m 28 now, and it is still one of the hardest and most painful decisions I have ever made.

From my high school days up through the end of college, I was madly in pursuit of a relationship with Jesus. As a Christian, I felt it my calling. I would go to church on Sunday by myself and sit in the pew and bask in the glow of fellowship with other church members who also searched for His presence and warmth.

When I got to college, I joined a “non-denominational” contemporary Christian college ministry and it was the perfect fit. All of my friends were in the church. I traveled across North America on missions to Colorado, Memphis, Mexico, and Honduras and had the time of my life seeing various cultures and feeling a closeness, a connection with God. I felt his presence in my prayers, felt it when I was in the woods, walking with Him in closeness. There were intense joys but also intense sorrows when I would fall short. But I knew I was imperfect, and that all my shortcomings could be made up by seeking His presence.

But when I was 21, I decided that I wanted to start being honest with myself and respect my wants/needs more often. I was gay and closeted and living in fear that God could never love someone so different and unnatural.

Choosing to Put All True Happiness in God

A reader in Arkansas writes:

My biggest religious choice was to follow Jesus. Others in this discussion thread have already shared such experiences. It’s not simply a decision to assent to a particular belief or doctrine. It is the beginning of a personal relationship with God. God has long been as real and vibrant a presence in my life as any of my family or friends. I could no more doubt God’s existence than that of any human being I know.

But we can have our doubts about those whom we know. For many years I doubted whether God really loved me. It seemed to me that he had badly let me down. I’d tried to live and make decisions as I believed God wanted me to. And everything seemed turn to out wrong!

I was like the characters in the story by [Italian writer] Italo Calvino who wondered whether they had either completely misinterpreted the divine will, or whether their awful situation was in fact the result of that will. This period of disappointment and doubt culminated when my spouse—whom I loved more than anybody else in the world—decided to abandon God, and also abandoned me in the process.

Only after that did I finally come to understand what is perhaps the hardest of all Christian teachings: It’s not about you.

Choosing Your Spouse Over Your Church

A cisgender woman in New England writes, “The religion I want does not want me”—because her church does not accept her long-time marriage to her newly out, transgender wife. The struggle between her competing loyalties is really palpable here, especially when the values her church instilled in her—love and forgiveness—are at odds with the church’s view on transgenderism and thus her marriage. In her own words:

I was raised Catholic. As a young adult in the early 2000s, I fell away from the Church, repelled by several factors, including the Church’s stance on civil marriage for same-sex couples, the horrors of the sexual abuse crisis, and my own doubts about the existence of God as a force that exists beyond myth and metaphor. Yet, I was still Catholic enough at 23 to be married in the Church.

Eight years and two children later, my spouse came out to me as a woman. We are staying together, working on our marriage, raising our children. But the foundations of our modern marriage are in shambles.

In my secular understanding of marriage, it is a relationship between two people who negotiate, agree, and consent to an arrangement that makes them happy and fulfilled. That doesn’t work for me anymore. My spouse has changed the foundations of our marriage so profoundly and asked so much of me, including the alteration of my own sexual orientation. By the logic of secular marriage, I should leave.

I don’t want to leave. I want to stay, to forgive, and to turn the other cheek to a person who has both loved and hurt me beyond what I thought possible.

Staying with Jesus After Suffering Great Evil

A staggering story just landed in our inbox. The reader begins by recalling a moment of divine revelation at a very early age, followed a few years later by a suicide bombing at his school that left him mangled for life:

I suppose the Sunday School teacher of the church three houses down the street from ours had just said something crucial to me. Had it been on the morning of that day? Because I remember a day when my field of vision to the right oriented me as being perpendicular to approximate middle C of the keyboard of our upright piano, which I saw out of the corner of my eye as I toddled toward something in our living room, or maybe toward the hallway, which turned to the right and led to my bedroom with the small round mirror on the right wall just inside the room.

It was in that moment I was irradiated with the knowledge that Jesus was the son of God, my God, the one with whom, as the writer to the Hebrews says, I had to do. The feeling that accompanied this sureness is best called ecstasy, though bliss will do.

If I was four years old, I couldn’t have been four years and two months old, because by then we’d left that simple little Levittown-like new house in the Belleville neighborhood, just west of downtown South Bend, Indiana, for Houston. There, three years later, I was almost killed in a mass murder that killed my two best friends, another little boy, and two impossibly courageous adults who tried desperately to save our lives.

Finding Jesus at Summer Camp

From Michael, a reader who teaches at an evangelical Christian university:

I just read your series, forwarded from Editor & Publisher, about important religious choices. Mine was in 1973. It was the height of the Jesus Movement. There were hippies all over the country. Some of them were making music.

From that link, here’s a song from 1973 by Malcolm and Alwyn called “Fool's Wisdom,” off their debut album of the same name, “One of the finest spiritual works of musical art to come out of the period”:

Back to Michael:

I was a kid from a western suburb of Chicago from a mixed-ethnicity home. Religion in our home reflected that split. My Dad had come to Chicago from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II and, having grown up Russian Orthodox, had been thrust into the Russian Baptist tradition by his parents. He didn’t much like it. My Mom, whose parents came to Chicago from Mexico in the 1920s, had been raised Roman Catholic. She didn’t like Baptists either.

But that summer of 1973, my Dad’s parents paid for me to go to a Baptist teen camp near Holland, Michigan. And it was there I made the decision that’s changed my life.

Leaving the Church During the AIDS Epidemic

This reader, J.E. Park, doesn’t have HIV himself, but the way he saw many religious leaders talk about the afflicted—including someone very close to him—made him deeply cynical of organized religion:

When I was young, 12 or 13 or so, the U.S. was reaching the zenith of AIDS hysteria. Back then, an HIV diagnosis was a virtual death sentence, as there were few ways of treating it. And to complicate the situation, there was a huge stigma that went along with the discovery that one was carrying the virus. We had a very young child in our family who had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion, so we were all too aware of the horrible social consequences of this affliction: isolation, harassment, rejection, being forced out of school, and, in extreme cases, assault.

Obviously we were very sensitive to the fear and ignorance surrounding HIV, so we kept this child’s condition a secret, constantly listening to people pass judgement upon an afflicted, powerless segment of the population because they knew no better. I soon discovered that those most vocal and zealous in their condemnation of HIV victims were the very religious.  

Choosing God, Not Gay

The final paragraph in this reader note from Amy is the most powerful, showing how she was able to embrace who she is without rejecting religion altogether:

I grew up at a Southern Baptist church in Louisiana, where I was homeschooled and then attended a fundamentalist evangelical high school. Religion was never a choice there, starting the day that a Sunday School teacher said that if I didn’t have Jesus in my heart, the afterlife would be like putting my whole body on a hot stove—forever. What 6-year-old would choose that?

In middle and high school, I realized that I was a lesbian, but I managed to hide it until college. It also didn’t make sense in my head that I could be gay, because my church only showed us videos of crazy adults at Pride Parades that apparently hated God, and that wasn’t me, so how could I be gay?

Although I attended a Southern Baptist university, it was a moderate one with plenty of nonreligious students (and even a fairly large Muslim population). [CB: Many more readers talked about their same-sex attraction at Christian colleges in this Notes thread.] So I had the choice to go to church or not, and I chose not. Because my entire worldview was shaped by fundamentalism, I couldn’t be a part of a religion that pointed to hell if I fell in love.

But the biggest decision wasn’t the decision to come out and date a woman.

The Devil in the Days of Segregation

A patron going in colored entrance of the Crescent Theatre in Belzoni, Mississippi, in 1939 (Wikimedia)

In this latest note for our religion series, a reader who grew up in the American South during segregation recounts two evil forces in his childhood, one real and one imagined: Satan and institutionalized racism. Confronted with both, the reader’s biggest religious choice was to leave behind the dogma of his family and “rely on my own intellect in dealing with people”:

When I was a child, my mother often referred to the Devil in some form or the other to threaten or keep the children in check, especially if we had been bad or were somewhat hesitant about getting ready for church on Sundays. So we would merrily go off to church each and every Sunday in an attempt to keep a step or two ahead of that ole wicked and evil Devil.

In a child’s mind, as much play as this devil entity received, he had to be some real mean and powerful dude. If one wasn’t careful, this Devil dude would enter your mind and body and take full control of you. You would not even be able to recognize yourself or your family. He would make you do evil thing to others.

I was told that the only power that could protect from the Devil was God. That just blew my mind.

I would often ask my mother if she loved her children. Of course she said yes. I would then ask if she’d stand by and allow a force or some power to do harm to her children, especially if she had the power to control everything. She said no.

I then said, “You tell me that God loves all his children and yet, if I go uptown and drink from the whites-only water fountain, I would be beaten like an unwanted animal or maybe even killed.” I would ask, why must I who is black and one of God’s children be allowed to suffer so much and can’t even do all the things that he allows his white children to do?

Whistling Past the Devil

A reader from a very traditionalist Muslim family has a colorful story of personal religious choice:

Iblis, aka Shaitan, aka Satan (Wikimedia)

I was born into a long line of imams of a Sufi order. My father is an imam, all my paternal uncles were imams, and my six brothers and I are supposed to be imams. My father studied religion, as his ancestors did, by going from village to village, master to master, until he was “ordained.” My mother is illiterate, but she has a vivid imagination and took on the task of scaring her children straight with colorful stories of hell and, less often, of heaven, while my father took on the task of teaching us the Koran.

One my mother’s favorite theme was that of Shaitan (Satan) and his habit of influencing youths to veer them off the righteous path. One of these ways, she would tell us, was that if we whistled, Satan would appear in some guise to convert us and pervert us, be it the form of a cockroach, a goat, a snake, or even—gasp—an attractive woman. (This one would cause me to whistle frequently as a boy, to the point where I am now an expert at various methods of whistling).

When I was about 9 years old, I went on a week-long field trip.

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