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, email hello@theatlantic.com.

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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Our Choosing Your Religion special project has run its course, and we’ve already aired a ton of your personal stories and reflections centered on the question “What Was Your Biggest Religious Choice?,” but there are still many more excellent emails worth posting, so we’ll continue to do so every Sunday, indefinitely. This next one comes from Maria, who as a teenager chose secular works of art over her family’s stifling religion and grew to favor the lessons of a Swedish auteur over her father’s:

I’m so pleased with the “Choosing My Religion” series! Much like the reader who submitted “The Security Blanket of Christianity Was Actually Smothering Me” and the accompanied email from Libby Anne, my biggest religious choice stemmed from the non-choice I faced during my childhood/teen years: I grew up in a self-proclaimed “non denominational” Christian church, one that boasts a literal interpretation of the Bible—one that, after many deep-internet sessions, I’ve found to be a cult.

I have only truly felt “myself” for the past five years, and I’ve thrown myself into books, film, and the depths of Spotify to counter years of starvation in these areas. This year I received Bergman on Bergman as a Christmas gift and found that Ingmar Bergman grew up with a strict religious father, a parish minister prone to harsh physical and psychological punishments. In these interviews, Bergman explores the effect such an upbringing had on his psyche, noting Christianity’s penchant for shame:

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This story from reader Heather is short but powerful:

I left the Baha’i faith because they shunned a former member. The reason for the shunning was that she had lied when she was trying to leave an oppressive regime. She told the officer at the airport that she was Muslim like her eight-year-old son and husband. Baha’i leaders said she should have told the truth about being Baha’i, even though she would have become a martyr. Yes, she knew for sure that they would have killed her. She should have endured this for her faith.  She should have left her son motherless in order to be an example to the world.

If you’re a follower of the Baha’i faith and would like to respond to this email or share your own experience, please let us know. For those who are unfamiliar with the small and relatively new religion, here’s a brief introduction from the Bahai National Center:

Update from a reader:

I grew up as a Baha’i, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Khomeini regime was at its height, many Baha’is were being martyred on a regular basis in Iran. It was definitely something that was a sorrowful point of pride—horror and sadness that people were losing lives, strength and solidarity that people would not recant their religion. Many of us in the United States wrestled with these ideas to no solid conclusions, but I will say it still pisses me off when Christians in the U.S. claim to be oppressed when people around the world still are actually being martyred for their faith.

That said, no one, even at that time, would blame someone for escaping with their lives using any means possible. What Heather may be confusing this with is the treatment of a shadowy splinter group of (usually) ex Baha’is who—much like the Sunni/Shia schism—decide to disavow Baha’ullah in favor of the Bab. This would be like saying John the Baptist is the true lead figure of Christianity rather than Jesus Christ.

It wasn’t something that came up very much and I certainly never met one of these people. For me, the Faith was not a good fit—politically, personally, and theologically—but I still love and respect my former fellow believers very much!

That’s where Christopher Gerlica came across Taoism:

Hi there! I’m really fascinated by your reader series on religious choice. Some basic facts before I get into my little story: I’m 32 years old, I’m white, grew up outside of Detroit in a religiously diverse city/high school, and now I live in the most Catholic state in the union (Rhode Island). Oh and I’m gay and married to an atheist.

My biggest religious choice, hands down, is when I decided to convert to Daoism (please note the spelling, as there are some different opinions about that). My family is “Catholic”—by the quotes I mean I was never baptized, we never went to church, and I didn’t actually see a real live Bible until I was in college. Basically, we were very secular, but I think my parents felt they had to give me some religious upbringing and would ask me randomly if I believed in God (I said yes, because that was the socially acceptable answer). But that was it when it came to religion.

Around the time I was 16 and finally coming to terms with my sexuality and the fact that frankly all the branches of Christianity weren’t too hot about the gays in the early ‘00s, I turned to my family’s set of World Book Encyclopedias. At the time we didn’t have internet or a computer, so these were my only real outlet to explore what else was out there.

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From Bob Kendall, a reader in Michigan:

The formative experience of my religious life took place in Sunday School when I was about six. The local Presbyterian church was down the street and down the hill from our house, and somehow Mom let me “drive" my “car” (a small black toy car with little pedals that would turn the front wheels) down the hill and leave it in one of the parking spots during the service, much to the amusement of the congregation. Sunday School typically consisted of reading a children’s version of a story from the Bible, discussing the various themes, and having a snack.

This all went off without a hitch, until we came to Genesis.

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That question is addressed in the following video alongside the question, “What makes someone Black?”—and it’s a really great complement to our reader thread:

Here’s an overview of that documentary, Little White Lie, which our video team featured last summer:

Lacey Schwartz was raised in a typical upper-middle-class Jewish household in Woodstock, New York, with loving parents and a strong sense of her Jewish identity. Others often remarked on her dark skin, but her family always said that her looks were inherited from her Sicilian grandfather. “I would tell myself, my dad gets really tan in the summertime or my mom’s hair is really curly just like mine,” Schwartz says in this excerpt [embedded above] from her documentary Little White Lie. It wasn’t until Georgetown University admitted her as a black student—based off a picture—that Schwartz started to question the identity that her parents gave her.

The nine-minute video ends on a big cliffhanger, and you can buy the full documentary on iTunes or Amazon, but I discovered it’s also streaming on Netflix. I jumped into the stream and heard the following quote from Schwartz (the irony of her name is just too perfect), remembering a moment at her bat mitzvah when a member of her synagogue told her, “It’s so nice to have an Ethiopian Jew in our presence.” That made me think of an email that just arrived from Alex, the first reader who responded to the story from Abby that started this whole discussion on Jewish identity and conversion. Here’s Alex:

It was good to correspond with you a few days ago. I found a recent Times of Israel article about members of the African Selwi tribe in Ghana converting to Judaism. You can also look up additional information from Kulanu, an organization which helps isolated communities (African and Asian tribes, etc.) to reconnect with Judaism. Also try B’Chol LaShon, with a similar mission: reaching out to people who want  to become Jews by Choice.

There’s a small post I did several years ago on the “Lost Jews” of Zimbabwe that also might be worth checking out if you’re interested in the more complex areas of Jewish identity in Africa.

Abby also emailed a followup:

Thanks again for this opportunity. It’s been enlightening and interesting to follow along with the responses you guys have been posting to my submission. My friends and I have also been laughing all day about how many angry emails you must have received from Jews obsessed over what makes someone a Jew.

Actually there haven’t been any angry emails at all. (Perhaps there’s anger over on Twitter, but I wouldn’t know.) It’s been remarkable how gracious but candid readers have been over this topic. Our latest email comes from Aaron, who doesn’t introduce an especially new angle to the discussion but does an eloquent job of highlighting the best parts:

I want to address a few things that came up in other readers’ responses. First, Alex draws the line on openness to conversion between traditional and liberal forms of Judaism: “The more liberal streams, the Conservatives and the Reform, are much more open.” I don’t disagree with that, but I think it has to be majorly qualified with another line, one that Lekha alludes to: “So in my case, choosing Judaism is not so much a religious choice, but a cultural identity that I was born into, and that I have chosen to reclaim in my own way.” This is the line—presumably only present in the liberal forms of Judaism—between religious Judaism and purely secular Judaism.

I’m a Jew who spent his childhood attending High Holy Day services at a Reform temple, and although as a college student I still attend these services sometimes, it’s never been a matter of spirituality. I have no connection whatsoever to the religious side of Judaism; the reason I still attend services, and the reason I consider myself a Jew, is entirely a matter of culture and heritage.

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Two more Jewish readers continue to debate that question—raised by Abby, the young Catholic-turned-Jew, and then complicated by Lekha, the young Southerner with a Jewish father and Hindu mother. First up is Esther, an Orthodox Jew who is “very normal, but you’d describe me as ‘ultra’ because of the way I look and because I don’t have a TV”:

Jews are Jews by way of being born to a Jewish mother or by converting and following the Torah.

I think some of the people who are writing in and saying they “converted” to Judaism are saying they are Jewish, but at the same time, their lifestyle and practices reject the most important parts of Judaism, so I’m not quite sure why they would expect others to embrace them as fellow Jews. Someone who converts to Judaism but by word and deed refuses to embrace real Jewish practices (eating kosher, belief in God, belief in the Messiah’s anticipated arrival, fasting on fast days, learning Torah on a regular basis, saying blessings before eating, and on and on—there are hundreds of commandments!) is naturally going to be viewed as an inauthentic outsider.

To those who have shared their stories, please understand that God made some people Jews and some people non-Jews. Non-Jews can lead good holy lives; God does not expect them to become Jews, and Jews don’t either. Maybe this is hard for followers of other religions to understand because it is so different than other religions. For example, Christians believe that their religion is the right path and universal, but Judaism is unique in that we believe that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, and not everyone has to follow our religion—only the members of the Jewish family do.

And here’s Evan Kominsky, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis:

I was raised in a Jewish household and went to a Conservative synagogue. If you asked me how I would label myself today, I would reluctantly say Orthodox. I say reluctantly because I firmly believe a Jew is a Jew if they have a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish law. All of these other divisions are extremely harmful to the cohesiveness of the Jewish people.

One of the hot topics nowadays (or at least on college campuses) is how people “identify.”

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The reader who prompted that question, Abby, was raised Catholic and converted to Conservative Judaism in college but feels she hasn’t been fully accepted by traditionalist Jews. I updated Abby’s note with a really thoughtful response from a Jewish reader, Alex, who described how “our religion is tribal-based, in a way,” and that “Judaism does allow conversions, but the process is difficult.” Building on that discussion is Michael, an Orthodox Jew:

First of all, the Notes section is absolutely amazing. It’s hard to find a place on the internet which hosts thoughtful and civil conversations about sensitive subjects.

As an Orthodox Jew, I want to add the following point to give context to the discussion about conversion: Judaism discourages potential converts because it does not view being Jewish [as] the only path to a relationship with God and a life well lived. According to Jewish beliefs, all that is asked of gentiles is to recognize that there is only one God and to commit to observe basic moral obligations (a set of seven commandments commonly referred to as “Noahide laws”).

Being Jewish is to be part of the covenantal relationship that God established with Abraham and his descendants, a relationship that comes with added responsibilities that are not demanded of the rest of humanity. Because this level of observance is not for everyone, we typically dissuade potential converts and recommend the universal means of serving God, unless they are truly committed to Judaism on principle and not for ulterior motives.

That being said, the Bible does repeatedly remind us to love converts and not hurt them in any way, including emotionally. I echo Alex’s suggestion that many Jews’ questions to converts are a result of curiosity more than anything else. Observant Jews struggle with the tension of leading religious lives in modern society on a daily basis and often wonder how a convert would choose to accept that tension when it would seem much easier to avoid it entirely.

Our next reader is Lekha, who grew up in North Carolina with a Jewish father and a Hindu mother:

As someone who both considers herself Jewish, but is not recognized as such by many other Jews, Abby’s experience as a Jewish convert brought up a lot of feelings for me. I myself often feel like an outsider to Judaism in many ways.

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