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, drop us a note at hello@theatlantic.com.

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.

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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.  

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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.

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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?

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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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Dylan, a young Millennial reader, revives a really interesting subthread on Jewish identity (starting here, here, here, then here) within our overall discussion on religious choice:

I was amazed to read Lekha’s struggle with her Jewish identity because I am in almost exactly the same situation: Both of my parents are Jewish, but my mother is a convert, originally from India (like Lekha’s mother). I grew up in New York and was raised Jewish. I went to Hebrew School, had a Bar Mitzvah, and had Jewish friends. For the most part no one questioned my Jewish identity until I was in my teens.

It’s not easy convincing people you’re Jewish when you look more like one would expect a Muslim to look like. It’s an ongoing battle within myself.

I also don’t agree with your Orthodox Jewish reader, Esther, when she said that someone who converts to Judaism but doesn’t follow Jewish practices will “naturally” be viewed as an “outsider.” I know plenty of Jews who don’t practice the religion or even believe in any of its tenets but who consider themselves and (more importantly) are considered by other Jews to be Jewish.

This standard doesn’t seem to apply to me because of my mixed ethnic background. When talking to other Jewish people, I’m often forced to explain that, yes, my mother converted before marrying my father. Although even this isn’t enough for some people; my grandmother still didn’t want my father to marry my mother because even they she had converted she would “never really be Jewish.”

Here’s an older reader, Irene, who talks about the tension she experienced growing up with Jewish identity in the 1950s:

If there was one subject I thought I wouldn’t have much to add to, it’s religion. But when the subject took a whole different turn, to “who is a Jew and who decides?,” I knew I could relate.

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A reader, Elizabeth Martin, recounts her uneven journey of “losing my religion”:

I was raised to be a lifelong devout Christian, a member of the Southern Baptist church from the time I was in diapers up until I was 18 or 19 years old. I went to church Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday nights. I went to camp during the summer, and retreats during the fall and spring. I roofed and painted houses each summer on mission trips. I promised to wait until I was married to have sex. I learned the books of the Bible and can recite them from Genesis to Revelation even to this day. I memorized a litany of scriptures. Conservative politics were espoused from the pulpit on a regular basis, and I learned to respond in typical fashion to any discussion on homosexuality or abortion—the two big no-nos according to Evangelicalism.  

Despite this absolute immersion into the Evangelical culture, it did not stick.

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A reader introduces a new spiritual tradition to our series on religious choice:

I have quite an interesting (at least to me) journey that is ongoing when it comes to religion/spirituality. I was raised in a non-denominational Christian church and always had a million questions. When I was a college student in my 20s, I ended up meeting an older guy who I enjoyed having philosophical and political discussions with, and he ended up introducing me to Kabbalah.

It was interesting because I had already been studying various religious ideas ranging from Eastern philosophy (Bhagavad Gita, Tao te ching, Buddhism) to the autobiography of Malcolm X and even took a course called “Catholics, Jews, and Buddhists” (which interestingly enough focused on the Beatniks; we read On the Road and Dharma Bums). I was always searching, and when he gave me a book called The Thirteen Petalled Rose, it opened me up to the world of Kabbalah.

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That quote is from Christian writer Rachel Held Evans during an interview in which she discusses the doubt that lies at the center of her faith:

I caught wind of Evans from a reader, Barbara, who addresses here a previous reader in our ongoing conversation over religious choice:

Last night I was at the grief support group meeting I attend every month for people whose spouses have died suddenly. Today I read the note by Angelle, the Millennial reader who said “God meets us where logic ends.” What bothered me about Angelle’s testimony is that her faith became secure through experiences she credits to god. My life events have not been so fortunate, and the sudden death of my husband from a previously undiagnosed cancer was not a miracle; it was a blow, both to my life and to my Methodist-tinged-with-Anabaptist beliefs. It wasn’t logical to me that my husband had died so suddenly, and it didn’t seem like a lesson in faith, either.

My support group has had numerous members who were faithful and caring Christians who experienced tragedies. Where would Angelle’s faith have been had her father died of cancer and the scholarships not appeared?

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That’s the path Fred followed when his life was hitting rock bottom:

I read a few of the reader stories in your religious choice series and, to me, it looks like a lot of empty hearts trying to find a way to fill the emptiness. And in some cases, some hearts don’t even know or admit they are looking for a fill. It’s all about happiness and unsureness.

I was brought up in a Catholic household, although now that I look in hindsight, my parents weren’t too much of an example of practicing Catholics. We all have our stories. When I was 12, my mother told me that my dad was not my real dad.

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That’s a perspective we haven’t heard from yet. Here’s Lily:

I’ve been really enjoying your reader series on Millennials and religious choice. I suspect a lot of us—alienated economically and politically as well as from dominant forms of religion—are starting to engage with these questions in a more existential way.

I’m a 26-year-old lesbian trans woman. I was raised in a right-wing corner of Texas Episcopalianism just around the time that church was facing schism over the openly gay Gene Robinson’s consecration as a bishop. [CB note: Robinson is profiled in the above video, featured by our video team earlier this year.] I grew up imbued with a worldview full of moral absolutes, with little middle ground between good and evil.

My biggest religious choice involved letting go the notion of all-or-nothing universal standards and instead embrace the value of relationship and community. I left Christianity as a teenager due to my parish’s anti-LGBT teachings and family’s intolerance. However, I kept the absolutist sensibility, becoming a hardline, Dawkins-quoting atheist. Even with different ideological content, anything short of unchanging and uncompromised beliefs still felt like “selling out.”

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An American veteran, Jon, describes his religious journey while deployed overseas:

I didn’t feel like I had a choice when it came to religion. Just as a child who has touched a hot stove knows what “hot” is, I knew three things about what just happened to me after I called out to God in one of the darkest moments of my life.

I knew he heard me.
I knew he knew me.
I knew he loved for me.

Out of the billions of people on the planet and the vastness of space, I knew the God of the cosmos had just taken a moment to step into my life in a tangible way. In that moment he revealed himself as a real, personal and loving God. That’s why I didn’t feel like I had a choice.

There was no going back. I fell to my knees and asked God to take over my life because I had made a hot mess of it.

Now, let me back up and give you the details.

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