18 Readers on Their Relationship With Religion

An outpouring of replies on faith, community, and finding one’s home

A black-and-white image of outstretched hands
The Atlantic. Source: Auseef Mustafa / AFP / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week, I asked readers to describe their relationship with organized religion. What follows is but a fraction of the outpouring of responses—in fact, I’ll be sending another email next week with more replies. (And I’ll be back tomorrow with this week’s conversations and provocations.)

Andrew loves his big-city church:

I was raised and still consider myself an evangelical Christian. For the last nine years, I’ve lived on the South Side of Chicago and attended a small church in my neighborhood. I have worshipped side by side with people raised on the South Side and people born on four other continents, people with multiple doctorates and others who have not finished high school. We have eaten together, been at the bedside of newborns and in the ICU together, grieved over untimely deaths together, and celebrated triumphs small and large together. We have supported each other when experiencing homelessness and joblessness, returning from or entering prison, suffering deep mental-health crises, and seeking justice for violence done. It is with my church that I experienced the tragedy of lost learning for kids left behind in under-resourced schools, the struggle against rising gun violence, the harms of police brutality, and protests for reform.

I cannot imagine my response to injustice and inequity without these brothers and sisters who have formed me. Diversity, justice, and equity can be abstract, but I have living examples of people who don’t look, sound, or think like one another, but serve each other with humility, sacrifice resources and time for one another, and raise each other up. We are not perfect, and living in this way is filled with pain and challenge, but this community strives to look to the interests of others in the promise that one day injustice will be no more and the people of God from every nation and tongue will sing with one voice.

Maureen defends the faithful:

I am a cradle Catholic who went to church every Sunday, went to parochial schools through eighth grade, and was a Benedictine Sister for six and a half years (a year short of final profession). I have a Master’s in theology from Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and have worked in church-related ministry almost all of my adult life. I am still a faithful, churchgoing Catholic who tries to further the kingdom through my work in education and participation in my parish, in its various ministries. Though I have my disagreements with the Church, my relationship with God and Jesus Christ has grown much deeper over the years, through marriage and parenting, work and life. I consider my faith a precious legacy from my parents and ancestors and have worked hard to make it my own.

The secular press generally doesn’t know that people like me exist or choose to ignore us. But I am not an outlier. In my circle of friends and co-workers, many of us are well-educated in theology and the history of Christianity. We acknowledge with deep pain and regret the hurt that people in the Church have inflicted on others and pray for healing. We don’t eschew science, except when it is used selectively to advance a political agenda (on either end of the spectrum). In fact, much of scientific method and knowledge is a product of the Catholic universities of the Middle Ages. The Catholic Church doesn’t oppose science, but rather sees it as a subset of all knowledge and learning.

I would like to see a more nuanced discussion of faith in the public square. Caricatures of people on the extremes of the Christian tradition make for sensational journalism. But many, if not most of us, don’t typify either extreme. As committed followers of Christ, we’re trying to live our lives following His commandments and being His hands and feet on Earth.

Mathew left fundamentalism, but not Christianity:

I grew up in the southern Baptist world, a place where faith meant certainty that we are flawed sinful creatures in need of salvation from eternal damnation. There was no room for doubt, questions, or nuance. The Bible being the literal word of God is the bedrock of spiritual understanding. I kept my growing doubts and questions to myself through college. Reconciling being gay and a person of faith became harder and harder.

It took time, but I let that faith go. I embraced Christianity not by rules and regulations, but by a true faith. By believing versus knowing. I traded certainty for hope. Sure, I ended up a “Liberal” Christian, the opposite of a true believer. I’ve been to a number of churches [for] “Whiskeypalians,” Presbyterians, and Lutherans. Even some social-justice-driven nondenominational meetups. I haven’t landed in a particular place, but knowing there are options for those of us who walked away from fundamentalism is a blessing. It pains me to know many people that leave religion and never come back because of what they experienced in their youth. I’m thankful my path led me to a place where I can experience the benefits of Christian faith without the dogma of fundamentalism.

Lynn couldn’t abide hostility to homosexuality in her church:

When our children were young, I stumbled across evangelical nondenominational Christianity. The emphasis on being “authentic” and living your faith gave me and my family a community, hope, and focus. However, a close family member came out, and everything I thought I believed crumbled. We went to our pastor, who just told us to pray but to know that homosexuality is against God. Our church family fell away. It has taken years to recover. This was anything but love that is professed by the church. The unimaginable harm that Christianity has caused members of the LGBTQ community is staggering. It has been 20 years since I left the church, and I can still feel the anger, pain, and betrayal.

Gary’s experience of organized religion has been more positive:

I spent years believing that religion was for the weak and helpless. “God helps those who help themselves” was my mantra. Ten years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, and there was nothing I could do about it. I am convinced that at my darkest hour God sent people to help me. I was attending an Army training conference and coincidentally (?) was seated next to the commandant of the U.S. Army chaplains’ school. He noted my restless, agitated demeanor and started a conversation. We had breakfast together the next day, and he was immensely comforting. About a week later, two people whom I knew professionally asked me if I was interested in attending a Bible study they hosted. We had not spoken 10 words over the previous five years except in a professional context.  

I had surgery on a Monday after attending my first church service since childhood the day before. I cannot describe the calm I felt knowing that my fate was in God’s hands. While recovering from surgery and 40 radiation treatments, I found well-being in scripture and praying. Ten years later, I am a leader in our church, and my life is immensely better physically and spiritually. I have not found the narrow-minded bigotry that so many claim infects Churches. I found love, compassion, and empathy for all. My Church walks the walk of forgiveness and openness. We are now working our way through becoming open and affirming for everyone, especially the LGBTQ community. God loves us all.

Tam is a convert:

I was raised as an atheist, though we often went to Unitarian churches. Now, as a middle-aged adult, I’m converting to Catholicism, despite being a social liberal. To me, some of the ideas of Christianity are so beautiful as to be worth dying for, and thus worth the risk of being mistaken about. I’ve applied a kind of Pascal’s Wager—if all of this is wrong, it’s fine for me to have been wrong about it (by following the religion).

And why the Catholic Church?

It seems to be the only one with any real rigor that is not … right-wing. ([The Church is] socially conservative but politically mixed and certainly not fiscally conservative, especially globally.) I like things like the firm requirement to attend services weekly and the actual acknowledgment that people do wrong things and should stop. It’s okay with me that some of their ideas of what is wrong conflict with mine. Surely this would be true of the Truth (if Truth exists). I mean, what are the odds that I’m right about everything?

Doug feels a bit aggrieved every time he sees survey results about the opinions of “highly religious people,” because he is a highly religious person whose beliefs depart sharply from the norm:

The religion I’m highly religious about is the Thai Forest Monastery tradition, a branch of Theravada Buddhism. It is a conservative tradition––one teacher describes it as “the stiff end of an already narrow orthodoxy.” What he means is that the monks in the tradition follow all the monastic rules, unchanged for 2,000 years, with little accommodation for the modern world. The monks, in turn, are spiritual examples for laypeople to follow.

What’s the attraction?  

As Ajahn Amaro, a Westerner who became a Thai Forest monk, put it, “These people were living the most bizarrely austere life, yet they were also the most cheerful characters I’d ever met. They were getting up at three o’clock in the morning, eating one meal a day, drinking a cup of tea twice a week, sleeping on thin grass mats, having no sex—definitely no sex—no drugs, alcohol, or rock and roll. Yet they were fully at ease, very friendly, and uncomplicated people.” As I practiced meditation, listened to the teachers, and studied the sutras, I came to have a deep appreciation for this path. True happiness and contentment comes from renunciation, moral conduct, and training the mind. I’m living a very normal Western lifestyle: I have a family, a mortgage, etc. I’m no monk. When I think about what makes a happy life, however, my point of comparison is that monk in the sweltering heat of northern Thailand with nothing but three robes and a begging bowl to his name. That’s enough for him to be happy. If I can understand and train my own mind well enough, it would be enough for me, too.

Kathleen is struggling to connect with her Church:

I was raised Catholic but became a Unitarian Universalist as a young adult. I spent 25 years as a parish minister and then moved into an affiliated human-rights organization until my retirement in early 2021. The human-rights work I was involved with included work with immigrants and refugees, which I have continued as a volunteer. The real and often traumatic challenges faced by migrants seem a world away from the issues that preoccupy most Churches: ministerial transitions, dwindling attendance, internal conflict, fundraising, and a constant need for new volunteers for committees. So I have found it hard to reconnect with church life.

To me, the best dimensions of church life have to do with the power and vitality that can arise in a community of people reaching toward the sacred. It happens in worship, at its best, and often through dynamic programs of social justice and service. This renewing energy just hasn’t been something I’ve found in the churches I’ve visited post-pandemic. I still reach for the sacred, through a regular meditation practice and doing my best to pay attention deeply to the world around me. Coupled with my volunteer work with migrants, this seems to be as close as I can get to what church once meant.

Bill became irreligious in youth then spiritual much later:

My relationship with organized religion changed forever after being subjected to humiliation and mild electric shock (“all in fun”) by a Protestant youth pastor (mainstream Protestant) at teen fellowship gatherings in the late 1960s. Subsequent never-ending stories about child sexual abuse by Catholic priests further soured me on religion.

It wasn’t until my 60s that a spiritual curiosity unexpectedly took hold in me, and I began a personal journey of exploration. After reading dozens of books on religion and spirituality, I ultimately created, as Thomas Moore described, “a religion of one’s own.” In addition to believing in God, I’ve become reasonably convinced that consciousness survives physical death, that there is an afterlife, and that we have lived many physical lives. Science and academic research have helped inform these beliefs. Mine is a church of one. It has no single spiritual leader and no church building.

I pray and meditate at home and in nature.

Shelley used to think poorly of religious believers. Now she believes that they can’t help what she sees as their “magical thinking” and discusses how a controversial theory of genetic predisposition toward faith changed her mind:

I was disgusted by Christianity and Islam for this need to have the whole world reflect their beliefs. Here’s the thing that finally allowed me to let go of my rage against the religious machine: A geneticist, Dean Hamer, theorized that we have been breeding for a “God gene” for millennia.

Magical thinking helped raise our species out of the mud, but it’s also what is going to end us. Too many people refuse to take responsibility for the state of affairs in this world.

Instead they lay it at their God’s feet.

Rick is a Mormon:

For my entire life, I have been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I believe its truth claims, which are somewhat unique among contemporary Christian denominations: In the Church’s twin emphases on both the actual physical reality of a supernatural order governed by a personal God and on the essential nature of divine authority for the administration of saving and exalting ordinances, it keeps company probably only with the Catholic Church (and with them we would have pretty serious disagreement about the nature of God/Trinity/Godhead, among other things).

I believe the Church’s truth claims not (pax Richard Dawkins) in spite of the lack of evidence for them, but because of the evidence for them. This evidence includes not only internal and external evidence for the Book of Mormon—which has a direct bearing on the claims of Joseph Smith to prophethood—but also direct personal experiences with God that I am confident are real. These experiences, coupled with more strictly intellectual evidence, lead me to feel confident that I can trust the Church’s authority on spiritual matters, which leads me to be willing to abide by its precepts and participate in its programs. As I do so, I find that I encounter more evidence, both spiritual and intellectual, that increases my confidence that I’m on the right path. Being a member of the Church isn’t always comfortable and is often inconvenient—but it’s hard to see why I should expect anything different, if it is in fact what it claims to be.  

Jerome describes the outcome of a lifetime reflecting on the meaning of life:

By age 20, organized religion and I had gone separate ways. I’ll soon be 80, and the desire to clarify my thoughts about God and the nature of existence has become more insistent. I have a psychic need for something more regarding “the meaning of it all.” My intuition, which may be the product of a universal genetic inheritance, tells me there is something about existence beyond any understanding that science can provide.

Einstein said he believed in Spinoza’s God. Spinoza believed that “God is the sum of the natural and physical laws of the universe and not an individual entity or creator.” Therefore, God is the only substance in the universe, and everything is a part of God. My sense is that naming or describing God in more explicit terms than that is, and always will be, an insurmountable challenge to human cognitive capacity. I find solace in Spinoza’s concept of God. The idea that I am part of the being of existence—God, if you will—and that I have always existed and always will exist is humbling, and fulfilling enough for me.

Sharon explains why she is a loyal member of the Unitarian Universalist Church:

Why church?  

I see what passes for spirituality and think it’s too often flabby, self-centered, and riddled with unscientific theories and practices. Church is spirituality put to work to supply a foundation for life and an organized way to assist important social-justice efforts.  

I admire the history and work of my local church, from years of being tossed out of rented space because of our refusal to hold segregated services, to struggles to establish a center of daily assistance for homeless people. I am part of a church that is a healing center for people who feel damaged by the ostracism of conservative churches. They need to be delivered from ingrained fear of cosmic judgment for their nature and values, [of] eternal residence in hell. They come to be loved for whoever they are, to find a place of peace and service. We supply that because of who we are, not because we make a big deal out of it. Our other service, too rare these days, is providing an alternate, noncommercial society in which they are not consumers but souls.

My Church is here, in part, to represent another way of life: the beloved community. We hope to connect people with the deeper flow of human time, to develop kinship with the whole company of life on this planet. We’ll never be popular—always a splinter religion, but one with an alternate reality that is richer and truer than anything that will ever be popular.

Russell is a critic of organized religion:

I grew up the son of a strange woman and her estranged husband; my mom was a Pentecostal chaplain in the United States Air Force. For most of my life, as long as I could remember, I was in church on Sundays, Wednesdays, and any other days of events sponsored by the church. I went to Christian schools every year; I graduated from a small underfunded school in the basement of an aging and dying Baptist church.

I thought I got “saved” when I was very little. All I remember was I didn’t want to go to hell, and the reasonable choice to me as a very uneducated toddler was to take the safe bet and just get saved. But my life was shaped by conservatives and Christians and the subtle mind-warping military theories of what it means to be not just American, but a military family and even deeper, a good person. Our science books in school were, in a sense, redacted and repackaged as more acceptable science for sensitive young minds trying to balance their faith with prevailing scientific theories. They made fun of climate change and evolutionary theory. I didn’t have a good understanding of the natural world until after I finally began to do my own research using texts from unbiased sources.

I went to seminary for my undergrad degree, found a job at a quickly growing nondenominational modern church, and soon discovered that I didn’t want to do it anymore—not just seminary and the church, but any sort of religion. I didn’t like both truly believing in my reason and sacrificing my reason to Christ every day just to avoid a metaphysical crisis.

The more I learned about not just the history of the Judeo-Christian worldview, but also all other sorts of religious theory, the more I realized that religion has been a long-dying societal engine that can never be reformed enough to remove its most fatal flaw, and that is belief in a God that doesn’t really seem to care too much to reveal himself without using men who have other political or societal motives behind their “revelations.” I still think the world is gonna end any day, and I often still have to unlearn certain explanations of the world. If I don’t hear my wife in the other room where she just was, my immediate thought is still, Was she raptured? I do not like religion. And I do not like the idea of raising a child in a setting where they are surrounded by one single idea of how the world works, especially if the books suck at explaining how it doesn’t stand up to science and reason very well and thus create generations of stupid people with wrong ideas about how to solve our biggest problems––all on the only viable planet that we’ll have for at least 10 more generations.

Jen recommends organized religion:

My faith life has been one of long periods of no religious practice alternating with years of being a nominal participant in my congregation. That all changed when I left Catholicism and started attending the Episcopal Church. I didn’t expect to find my faith in a church that [I previously perceived as] lukewarm at best about Jesus. But that stereotype is not true in the churches I’ve been part of. There is absolute confidence in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and a generosity and tolerance that allows people of strong faith and people of not much faith to worship together. My faith has been built up and strengthened, not by any revelatory experience, but bit by bit and over a long time of being part of the community and regularly receiving the sacrament of Communion.

Stephen describes his journey, which he recommends:

The most interesting thing to me about the current exodus from religion is how much it looks like the beginning of the “hero’s journey,” as described by Joseph Campbell: A community is somehow ailing, so the hero (who is also ailing) leaves the community to find an elixir. When the hero finds the elixir, they are healed and return to their community.

But in two of the most popular hero’s-journey stories today, The Hobbit and The Matrix, the elixir the hero brings back is themselves. And the way they help to heal the community is by preparing other members to go on their own hero’s journey. (Think of Bilbo preparing Frodo, or Neo inspiring some of Zion’s residents.) A community isn’t healed by one hero going on one journey. A community is healed when many heroes go on many journeys.

I think it’s true that religion is ailing. I think people are right to leave it, whether physically or mentally. But to complete the hero’s journey, the thing you really need to analyze, the thing you really need to be honest about, the thing you really need to change, is not the community you left, but yourself. This process is called “entering the inmost cave”: the silent, solitary place where you have no choice but to find out who you are.

This is where the healing happens. And it’s quite a process. I’ve been at it for more than 20 years. Then, the amazing thing: You can go back to your ailing community and not get sick. Like Bilbo, you have the dragon’s treasure. Like Neo, you have access to the world outside the Matrix. Any of us who come from a dysfunctional church, family, or community know that healing enough to go back without becoming infected again is miraculous. And the hero’s journey—the oldest and most popular story form in the world—says we can do it. The question is, why go back to your ailing community when it has so little to offer? It’s because an ailing community is the perfect staging ground for a hero’s journey, and you are perfectly positioned to help—not because you preach correct doctrine, not because you bring outside information, but simply because you come from the community but live without its ailment. Budding heroes will feel that in you.

And their own journey will begin to beckon.

Kathy has walked a tough road:

I was raised as an Anglican. Sunday school every week starting at a very young age. I read the Bible all the way through at 8. I was confirmed at 12—at the same time that I was in my first year of high school. When I was about 14, I went through a period of intense religiosity (triggered by a book I won in Sunday school), and was delighted to discover that Anglicans had nuns, too! I actually taught Sunday school for a month or so when I was about 16—the leader was smart enough to remove me after that. I had a firmly entrenched relationship with God at the time that I later referred to as “bargain basement”—you do this for me, and I’ll do (whatever—mostly saying rosaries). Then, like so many young people in the late ’60s/early ’70s, I started being interested in other religions. I got into magic for a while, tarot, etc. I had no talent but was a decent technician.

My family was terribly dysfunctional—both parents functional alcoholics, completely self-absorbed, etc. I drifted along, looking for something. In the ’70s, I fell into the new-age utopian school, I guess. I had a very close friend who was convinced that “the universe wants good things for you.” “If you just put your desire, your wish, out into the universe, it will come to you.” Well, that sounded pretty good … Ooooo—a “GOOD daddy.” And I’d fallen into the Adult Children of Alcoholics basket a bit later, and adopted that “faith” (which is not to deride its information, just that I was always looking for a home).

That lasted until my dear younger brother, my only sibling, my best male friend, came down with lung cancer. He had worked so very hard to overcome our childhood (which was much worse for him than it was for me), and his subsequent addictions to alcohol and cannabis. His next year was terrible. And he died just a year after the initial diagnosis. I remember standing in the hospital parking lot, after leaving his beside for what I knew was the last time, and yelling at the sky, “God’s a fucking cannibal, and I want my brother back.”

That was pretty much the end for me.

If I had to categorize myself since that time, over 20 years ago, it would be as a pagan. I don’t belong to any group or congregation, but I put my … faith? in nature. The seasons of the Earth, the natural elements, and how to live in harmony with them, and some ease and respect. After my brother died, it was an experience at a cottage that we had at the time, that finally closed that horror. I’d taken a First Nations course while in university, and I remembered one of the instructors telling us, “If you’re in pain, go into the bush, find a big tree, and hug the tree. The tree can take it, and will move your pain down into the Earth, and out of you.” So I tried that. And I sat and watched the little lake, and thought, Everything dies, so … And that healed me, as much as was possible.

My dear husband died just over two years ago, and now I’m struggling with where, if anywhere, he went. My brother was around for about a year after he died, I had clear active responses to requests I sent him. I’ve only asked my husband for one thing since he died, and that was satisfied. I pray nightly that if he’s anywhere, it’s someplace good for him, pain-free, healthy, and at peace—maybe even with joy. I have no hope of “heaven” any more, because it just seems so illogical—and anyway, if there are no cats there, I don’t want to go. (That’s not as frivolous as it sounds—my current cat is the only thing that’s kept me on the planet since my husband died.) Recently, I saw photos from the Webb telescope—universes upon universes. And I remember Joni Mitchell’s lyric “We are stardust,” and some scientist confirming that—that we are, everything is, composed of the results of the Big Bang. There’s no organized religion I know of that supports that approach, but that’s immaterial—it resonates with me.

We don’t know where we came from, but apparently it was stardust (figuratively speaking). And if we go back to that, I’m good. I’ve always been a loner, so I’ve never needed a congregation of belief. If we lose our individuality, and go back to stardust, there’s something in that that satisfies me. Well, I’m 74 now, and still looking for a home.

And John sings the praises of joining the Catholic Church as a convert:

Thanks to that organization across both space and time, I can be at home anywhere on the entire planet, find purpose and solace in any circumstance, pursue peace and solidarity with any community, glean wisdom from any epoch, enjoy beauty and wonder in natural and in human art, relish revelation in poetry as well as science, see myself in every sinner and in every saint. Through it, I have an overabundance of close friends who share life with me: every joy and suffering, blessing and loss, confidence and dismay, betrayal and forgiveness. I have a community that encourages me in my uniqueness, supports me in my weakness, and forgives me in my wickedness; that desires my goodness and liberates me from slavery to my fears and follies; that integrates me into its collective purpose and sends me out to serve the needy according to my talents and abilities. I am reminded continuously that the purpose of life is love, and that to love is work for the good of others. I am never alone or unknown or unloved, and when the circumstances of life take me to different places, there are always new people waiting to welcome me into their lives. And all of this we share because we are joint inheritors of every blessing and curse of millennia, spanning every querulous people and corrupted culture, rooted in the same shared knowledge and love and worship of the God who lives and dwells and suffers and forgives and exalts among us. Catholicism is the whole of life, shared with each other, the good and the bad alike, directed toward heaven, striving for love, and it is vibrantly wonderful.