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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
At the age of six, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. My favorite toys were dinosaurs. My favorite movie was about dinosaurs. My favorite TV show was Paleo-World, which my parents would let me stay up an extra half-hour on Monday nights to watch. From this “research” I knew that the dinosaurs had died out 365 million years ago, which I understood to mean “a really long time before people existed.”
Now back to Sunday School. When they introduced the story of Genesis, they said it was about how the world was made and how we came to be. I was extremely excited, because I knew that somewhere in between the creation of the world and the creation of man, there were dinosaurs. I was about to hear a story about dinosaurs. I couldn’t wait.
But then a funny thing happened: God made the world, and then God made man. No dinosaurs.
I asked our teacher where the dinosaurs were in the story, and while I don’t remember what the answer was, my little mind didn’t find it particularly satisfying. It was clear to me that dinosaurs were real, and if this explanation of world history did not include them, then it must be wrong.
At that moment, I ceased to believe anything they said in church. I came to view them as liars. This germ of skepticism has stayed with me my entire life. Everything I have since learned about history, archaeology, physics, cosmology, biology, and religion has been in some sense aimed at trying to answer the question, “Why aren’t there dinosaurs in Genesis?” On this matter, my 30-year-old self and six-year-old self are in perfect agreement, because Genesis is wrong.
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.
This is true for most of my family, as well. For us, to be Jewish is to connect with a familial history of having been Jewish, and nothing more. I wouldn’t even say we draw on Jewish cultural values in a big way; if we have “Jewish values,” they’re the values inherited from, say, American secular Jewish culture rather than from a millennia-long religious culture.
So, that someone like Evan would find the sentence “I identify as Jewish” bizarre is, to me, extremely bizarre, at least for anybody who recognizes that there is a substantial chunk of the Jewish population whose connection to Judaism is rooted only in heritage. I do firmly believe that it’s not meaningful for someone to identify secularly as a Jew if they don’t have that heritage, in the same way that someone cannot identify racially with a heritage they don’t have; but it’s important to recognize that some of us call ourselves Jewish not by virtue of adherence to religious practice, but rather solely by virtue of identification with cultural heritage.
In fact, I take the significance of this identification to be something externally imposed more than anything else: As Jon wrote, “[having standards for acceptance] is a luxury that Jews can only afford in relatively safe times. Our enemies have never made such distinctions.”
My identification as Jewish is most deeply rooted in the fact that throughout most of history I would have been labelled as Jewish no matter what I said; that I would have been sent to a concentration camp if I had lived in Nazi Germany in spite of my secularity; that even today I would fear being beaten for talking about my Jewish heritage if I had grown up in Malmö rather than in a major city in the U.S. For me, and for many of the secular Jews I know, identifying as Jewish is tantamount to publicly recognizing that this past is still very much with us, and to standing up to that past, to saying “There is no accepting us as people without accepting as people with this heritage, with this culture—without accepting us as Jewish people.”
As an aside, I want to address something that’s come up in a few of the more religious Jewish readers’ responses: namely, that one is a Jew only by virtue of being born to a Jewish mother or converting. I have no problem with this as a doctrine for religious Jews, but I’m extremely wary of applying it to secular Jews. My mother happens to be my Jewish parent, so it’s never been an issue for me, but I hate seeing this kind of exclusion among other secular Jews. The fact of the matter is that, as I wrote above, secular identification with Judaism is largely the result of external labelling, and since a lot of the people doing the external labelling didn’t care at all which parent was Jewish, neither should we.
To identify as a secular Jew is to have Jewish blood and to choose to embrace the label for yourself as a sign of resistance—and nothing more.
One more story, from Maia:
I was adopted as a baby into a Jewish family and was “converted” at two months old by a Conservative rabbi. We did the mikveh and the baby naming and all that. Same with my older brother.
I am now basically a reform/secular Jew, in that I enjoy all the rituals/holidays but I’m not particularly drawn to the theology or keeping kosher etc. My brother is more observant, but when studying with ultra-orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, he was told that he was not Jewish because his conversion wasn’t done by an Orthodox rabbi. Very upsetting, to say the least.
Even though I am not an observant Jew, when I got married (to a lapsed Catholic), we had a Jewish wedding ceremony and agreed to raise our kids Jewish. His family understands this generally, but I have struggled to explain why I’m uncomfortable celebrating Easter or Christmas with them. Basically, their question is, if I’m not actually concerned about the theological differences between Christianity and Judaism, why do I care if we celebrate Christian holidays as well?
The best explanation I can come up with is that it’s helpful to view Jews as you would various Native American groups—that is, as members of a particular tribe. This means that there is both an ethnic/nationalist component to the identity as well as a religious/cultural component.
Now imagine that this tribe is expelled from its homeland and scattered throughout the world. What remains? As the group fractures, the rituals and religion are kept alive but because the tribe is scattered throughout numerous countries, the ethnic identity is muddled (except, of course, when it is used as a point of discrimination).
This means you end up today with ethnic Jews who don’t practice any of the traditions, religious converts who have entered into the “tribe” by agreeing to adopt the belief and ritual system, and everything in between.
For me, it’s fair to say that I don’t adhere to all the laws and rituals of the Jewish tribe, but they are still the framework within which I learned about Judaism and eventually chose how to express myself as a Jew. For me this means that I don't want to celebrate Easter—not because it’s Christian per se, but rather because it is notJewish and, thus not part of my identity, ethnically, religiously, or culturally.
Finally, I agree that it’s terrible that Jews of any stripe would be unwelcoming to converts, but every religion and ethnic group has their own internal strife about who is “authentic” and who isn’t. The truth is, these discussions don’t have a “real” answer; they just serve to highlight what is important to a particular person about his or her own religious identity.
That’s a good note to end on with this Jewish discussion, unless someone has an exceptionally new experience or angle to share. We’ll post more of your stories on other religious choices soon.
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.”
At first I heard it applied to sexual orientation, gender, or political stance. But I have increasingly heard people apply this paradigm to religion and even race. To me, the sentence “I identify as Jewish” is bizarre. Identity has nothing to do with it. As your reader Alex pointed out, it is the same as saying “I identify as Korean,” regardless of one’s actual heritage. I think this stems from a larger trend of radical individualism that is such a prevalent attitude nowadays.
It pains me to hear about those in the Jewish community who feel excluded. And this is certainly something that needs to be addressed. But the tension described by readers Abby and Lekha between their Jewish identity and their beliefs is an outgrowth of this philosophy, which, when taken to the extreme, falls closer to the antithetical side.
In Jewish practice, there is a balance between the rights and experience of the individual and the obligations that the individual has towards the community. When you swing too heavily to one side or the other, problems start to arise. If you view the “strict religious expectations of what Judaism is” as rules that are meant solely to help the individual connect to God, it’s no wonder they are left by the wayside when they don’t jive 100 percent with how you relate to God.
But there is another aspect. Take for example the commandments surrounding the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher). They are given no explanation in the Torah. Later commentators have explained them in context, adding depth and breadth to their significance, but at their core, they are not meant to be understood by human logic. Were each person to say, “I don’t relate to these laws, so I am not going to follow all of them,” the concept of community would be destroyed. No one would be able to eat at each other’s houses.
Another example is Shabbat observance. Jewish law prohibits driving on Shabbat (due to the prohibition of lighting a fire). The collective observance of this law ensures that all members of the Jewish community live within walking distance of the synagogue, and thereby each other. Setting aside the philosophical reasons for this law for the moment (there is a lot of rich material here), the moment people began to privilege their personal feelings to whether or not they relate to a law over the needs of the public, the communal structure of living next to the people you pray with and go to school with and socialize with collapses.
There is a lot to be said here, but the main point I want to get across is that when experiencing a tension between what you believe and what “traditional” Judaism mandates, instead of automatically criticizing what to you seems restrictive, perhaps it would be beneficial to turn a critical eye to the individualistic tendency that idolizes personal preference as the supreme value.
Update from another reader, Jon:
There is so much more nuance to Jewish identity than the strawmen and facile explanations of Jewish law that some of your readers are offering. By one version, you can stick a Post-It on your head that says “I’m Jewish” and you are; by another, unless a certain select set of rabbis signs off on your conversion or your ancestors, you aren’t.
The latter is only the case if you accept one interpretation of Judaism as the only one and assume that the people who have interpreted them have made no mistakes. Under this interpretation, people who have fulfilled the requirements for conversion even under the auspices of the Haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate in Israel can have their conversions annulled decades later, even if most of their ancestry is Jewish—something which simply is not in the rabbinic sources regarding conversion rites and amounts to as much of an innovation as anything else. Also under this version, people whose ancestry may be unclear due to war or other tragedy may have to convert—in some cases even from communities that have been Jewish from time immemorial, simply because they aren’t on the right lists.
Under the former version, the Post-It one, people are expecting to have everyone accept them as Jewish no matter how little of the various traditions he accepts. In a different way, this too is asking your liberal interpretation of Judaism to be accepted by all. And while I agree that this seems to mesh with people feeling at liberty to pick their identities regardless of actual facts and expect everyone to agree, the difference here is that conscience or beliefs are at least part of being Jewish—and those can change, even if who your parents are cannot. We ought to make that distinction.
Finally, while you can cite important central distinguishing rituals like kashrut, shabbat, and circumcision, anyone who thinks that these are the only obligations of a “traditional” Jew is being just as selective as any reformer. There are responsibilities to the community and to the “stranger” as well. And being a “traditional” Jew alone does not give you a carte blanche to all walks of Jewish life. Indeed, the majority of the population of the State of Israel is secular. One could argue service in the IDF and an Israeli passport is just as much a symbol of Jewish peoplehood as anything any rabbi could issue. Do these secular Jews who eat non-kosher food and turn lights on and off on Saturday not count? If they do, why doesn’t a convert who is more observant? Who’s to say?
The answer is: each different group will have its own standards for acceptance. Failing to recognize all of these different Judaisms, all of these different ways of being Jewish, are problems both the recent converts who think they’ve checked all the boxes and the haredim who think they alone hold the spiritual keys to Jewish peoplehood share.
All in all, however, this is a luxury that Jews can only afford in relatively safe times. Our enemies have never made such distinctions, so we should probably all give each other a break. It’s one thing to build a fence around the Torah to protect it from false change, another altogether to build a fence to keep genuine believers away.
Here’s one more Jewish reader, Steve, with “yet another perspective on the ‘Who is a Jew?’ question”:
I had a good laugh when I read “As your reader Alex pointed out, it is the same as saying 'I identify as Korean,' regardless of one’s actual heritage”—since I am an Orthodox Jew, as is my Korean-born wife, an Orthodox Convert completely accepted by my “ultra-Orthodox” cousins with absolutely no thought that she doesn’t “look Jewish.” You’d get a blank look from them if you mention “cultural appropriation.”
My wife is still very much a Korean-American, but now she is also 100% Jewish—as Jewish as Golda Meir. Indeed, I kid her that she should have taken the name Golda when she converted, as my Jewish name is Tovye and we have five daughters between us …
You’re probably realizing at this point that this conversation is a perpetual motion machine. I think it’s so fascinating because this is one of those places where the Western Liberal Tradition meets Torah and neither one is backing down.
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.
My mother is not Jewish; she is a South Asian Hindu. So to many people I do not “look” Jewish, but I was raised in the religion of my father’s family. I have been lucky enough that people do not generally question my Jewish identity when I claim it, but I’ve had a few uncomfortable experiences where people try to explain Judaism to me because they assume that I could never have that background based on how I look.
Also, unlike many Jews in this country, I was raised in a small Southern town with a very tiny Jewish community and no synagogue. I attended a Jewish Sunday school run by the local Jewish group, but I did not have the experience of being raised in a vibrant, large, Jewish community with an established synagogue and lots of opportunities to participate in religious life. Outside of regular Shabbat dinners, and some Sunday school attendance, I didn’t have much access to the kinds of resources that would bolster my knowledge and identity within Judaism.
This has also left me feeling a bit insecure about my Judaism with respect to others who grew up in large (usually Northeastern) cities and thus had access to those resources, feel part of an established community, and make other Jewish friends. This was very different from being part of a very small community in an area where Jews are mostly looked upon with confusion or curiosity (and sometimes prejudice—the number of times I was told I was going to hell / asked to come to Jesus during my childhood is staggering).
Throughout my childhood I only had one Jewish friend, and most of my other friends were Protestants of various stripes who were kind but convinced that my religion was sinfully wrong. This, combined with the lack of community support and being a Jewish person of color, left me feeling very much an outsider to Judaism and Jewish identity—especially when I went to college outside Philadelphia and encountered people who had spent their whole lives surrounded by other Jews, engaging in BBYO, Jewish summer camps, and other activities that reinforced that identity.
As I got older I realized that my actual beliefs about god(s) were not in line with traditional Judaism. However, I still very much claim myself as a Jew, and while I don’t attend regular services, I do celebrate holidays with friends and family. In fact, I’m very much looking forward to the annual vegan, feminist Seder that a close friend and I hold every year next Friday!
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.
I must admit that I often feel confused when I meet Jewish converts. I think this is because many Jews, especially most of the relatively secular American Jews I know, look on being Jewish as a cultural identity more than a religious identity. People would be confused (or rightly offended, as evidenced by cases like that of Rachel Dolezal) if someone tried to “convert” to a culture or ethnicity that they were not raised in. Many people who claim their identity as Jews, including myself, don’t keep kosher, don’t attend services regularly, and otherwise don’t conform to strict religious expectations of what Judaism is. Yet they can still see themselves as Jewish, because for them it’s primarily a cultural identity.
That’s the perception that Abby Seitz, a 19-year-old journalism student, is struggling with:
I converted to Judaism through the Conservative Movement at the end of my freshman year of college. I was first drawn to Judaism as a 13-year-old girl at Sports Broadcasting Camp. About 60 percent of the campers were Jewish. There had only been one Jewish student in my elementary and middle school in Virginia. I was fascinated by my new friends and their talk of bar mitzvahs and BBYO.
As I learned more about Judaism through the Internet, I began to feel like my angsty teenage existential crisis of anxiety and questions had been answered. I was raised Catholic and did not feel comfortable questioning how one man could encompass both a god and the Holy Spirit. I didn’t understand why the Church took such staunch political positions—especially ones that I morally could not comprehend.
The first time I stepped foot in a synagogue was a few weeks before the High Holidays in 2012, when I was a sophomore in high school. The rabbi at the small reform congregation an hour from my house would not let me begin the conversion process until I was 18.
In the meantime, I read as much as I could and looked at colleges that had a Hillel. I stopped eating out because the food wasn’t kosher-certified.
I wasn’t able to fully live a Jewish life until I moved to Chicago for school in the fall of 2014. While I watched my peers battle homesickness and the difficulty of learning to cook and clean and take care of themselves, I was trying to navigate Jewish social norms. I was shocked when I would go out with my Jewish friends and they would mix meat and milk, or skip services on Yom Kippur.
My freshman year was easily the most eventful: being told by Chabad rabbis I would never be a Jew, being broken up with because my mother isn’t Jewish, the constant personal inquires of, “Oh, you’re a convert? Why did you do that? How do your parents feel about that?”
The biggest religious choice was not standing before a beit din, a court of three rabbis, and declaring my belief in the 613 mitzvot of Judaism, or denouncing my belief in Jesus. It wasn’t giving up Goldfish because they aren’t kosher-certified or spending most of my free time in September trying to make up homework for classes that fall on the High Holidays. The biggest religious choice I ever made was joining a people who, at every turn, did not seem to want me.
Update from a Jewish reader, Alex, who articulates the complexity of how ethnicity, history, and citizenship all relate to being Jewish and practicing Judaism—in all its varied “streams”:
Your reader raises interesting points, but it makes it look like Jews and Judaism as a whole are exclusionary and rejects convert, which is only a half-truth. The reality is much more complex because there are substantial differences between traditional and liberal Judaism.
It is true that Judaism traditionally does not seek converts. While during antiquity Judaism was open to converts, Roman and later Christian prosecutions of Jews and severe state sanctions for conversions led Rabbinic authorities to discourage conversions as well. In fact, if someone wants to convert, the rabbis traditionally need to discourage the person at least three times, to make sure that only those most committed to Judaism and most diligent in seeking to convert join the Jewish people.
Another issue is that Judaism (like some other religions) is based on descent—in the Jewish case, on matrilineal descent—and that, traditionally, we, the Jewish people, regarded ourselves as being descended from our ancestors who stood at Sinai 3,000 years ago when we were granted the Torah upon the Exodus from Egypt. So, in a way, our religion is tribal-based.
Throughout human history, it’s been generally unusual, but not impossible to join another human nation or tribe. (For instance, I could not become Korean or Chinese if I wanted to, although of course, in modern nation states it’s possibly to acquire citizenship). Unlike some other descent-based religions which do not accept conversions—like the Zoroastrians and the Druze—Judaism does allow conversions, but the process is difficult.
Although there are many intermarried couples (including my own), conversion to Judaism is still relatively rare, particularly for the Orthodox stream of Judaism. The more liberal streams, the Conservatives and the Reform, are much more open. I believe that your reader’s problem is that she is drawn to traditional Judaism (which is much more restrictive) rather than liberal Judaism (which is more welcoming). So, if she wants to feel more welcome, she should look for more liberal synagogues and date more liberal Jews for whom her conversion status isn’t a problem.
As the personal questions people ask (“why did you convert?” and “how do your parents feel about it?”), she should not take it personally. Such questions typically reflect inquisitiveness rather than standoffishness or hostility. Most people usually stay within the confines of the faith there were born in, so a person who does something atypical obviously elicits curiosity. Once she provides a reasoned reply, most Jews I know would accept the answer (and her as a fellow Jew) and move on.
That’s the metaphor used by this reader in describing the biggest religious decision of her life:
I’m 35 and was raised in a very extreme, conservative Christian environment. My parents homeschooled me all the way through high school, mostly so that they could control what I learned about the world and about religion. This means that I spent all of my life until the age of 18 or so being not only intensively indoctrinated, but also incredibly isolated from the outside world.
Virtually everyone I interacted with believed in “scientific creationism,” as we called it, and in my history books I learned about Manifest Destiny and God’s glorious plan for America. I also learned, both at home and at church, that as a woman I needed to submit to the men in my life, and that God’s best for me was to stay at home and raise a large family.
Undoing the brainwashing took a long time. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I made my biggest religious choice: atheism!
It was a decision for freedom, but still, leaving my religion (and acknowledging that I’d grown up in something closer to a tiny cult than a loving family) plunged me into a crisis. The loss of so many long-held beliefs and ways of looking at the world was so devastating that for a time, I needed therapy three times a week.
I know that many people practice a more liberal form of religion. But that’s not an option for me, at least not at this point. The extremist religion I was raised in did so much harm that I now feel allergic to any and all religious practice. Attending a (liberal) Christmas Eve service with my new boyfriend’s Catholic family brought on PTSD-like symptoms.
Sometimes I still look back wistfully to the days when I could cling to the knowledge that God had a plan and knew better than I did, no matter what happened. The world felt like a more secure place when I saw it in black-and-white terms and believed myself to be a child of the Creator.
But I don’t get too wistful, because I know that the security blanket of Christianity was actually smothering me. I am much happier now, in my secular life as a humanist. For the first time, I can breathe freely and think honestly. I no longer see myself as a worm with no worth apart from what Christ has given me. I no longer have to repent of each tiny mistake I make. I no longer live in fear of hell. I no longer need to twist my mind to accept things that are in fact illogical and unproven.
Unfortunately, I do still struggle with anger and bitterness and confusion and grief at the way I was raised. I don’t understand the choices my parents made.
That reader’s story reminds me of a similar one published in Patheos by Libby Anne, who was raised by conservative evangelical parents who homeschooled her in a kind of social separation from society increasingly known as “The Benedict Option,” a term popularized by the Orthodox Christian blogger Rod Dreher. The Benedict Option, formed mostly in response to the mainstream acceptance and full legalization of same-sex marriage, harkens back to the 5th century Saint Benedict of Nursia, who retreated from the decadence of Rome and formed an isolated group of monastic communities that sought to preserve Christianity through the Dark Ages. Today’s Ben Oppers are basically retreating from the culture wars, in contrast to the Moral Majority and other conservative religious groups seeking to shape national politics. (Laura Turner wrote a great piece for us last year on “what happens when the ‘moral majority’ becomes a minority.”)
For Libby Anne, her isolation from secular society had the opposite effect of what her parents intended; it led to her to abandon Christianity altogether, as well as a belief in any god. She explains:
The Christian homeschooling movement purports to raise strong, upstanding Christians who will, upon adulthood, be ready to communicate the truth of Christianity and the value of the Christian way of life to the world. The Benedict Option purports the same thing. But how is this supposed to happen if these same Christians grow up so shielded from the world that they have no idea how to interact with it? [...]
There’s another problem, too. Growing up within Christian community, I only ever heard the other side’s arguments through a sort of filter. For example, I studied evolution out of creationist textbooks which explained evolution in an incomplete way and was full of straw men of evolutionary scientists’ positions. The same was true with basically everything. I didn’t hear the other side’s argument from the horse’s mouth, as it were, until I was in [a secular] college, and when I did I was surprised, because what the other side actually said didn’t line up with what I’d been taught it said. This created a crisis of faith, because I no longer felt I could trust what my parents had taught me.
Because what I call the Christian bubble filter is so common across congregations and communities, raising children under a more separate Benedict Option could potentially mean that all of their information about the world outside the bubble would be filtered and thus distorted. This is a problem because when they eventually hear something from someone outside of the bubble, unfiltered—the moment they meet an ordinary gay couple happily raising children, or learn that using entropy to argue against evolution fails on the most basic level—-it won’t line up with what they’d been told inside the bubble. And frankly, postponing this moment until adulthood spells trouble.
Trouble in the sense of rejecting religion altogether, rather than adopting a less rigid form of Christianity, one that’s integrated with mainstream society—bending rather than breaking, in other words. Or, as our reader put it, “The extremist religion I was raised in did so much harm that I now feel allergic to any and all religious practice.”
That’s what religion is to this Millennial reader, Angelle:
I’ll try to be as brief as possible, but you have to understand that it’s impossible to describe in few words what God has done for me.
The biggest religious choice I’ve made is to follow God above all things.
I was born in a Christian, Evangelical home. Before I even knew how to speak my heart believed in God. But it’s not my upbringing that allowed me to maintain in faith, but rather an ongoing set of events that kept proving me again and again that God exits, listens, and acts upon us.
God met me when my father’s stage 4, rapidly-growing cancer suddenly stopped 2cms away from destroying his brain. And when he had maxillofacial surgery to remove the cancer, the doctor couldn’t reconnect the optic nerve to his brain, but when he opened his eyes, he had perfect vision.
God met me in college, when recession had just hit, and my parents could no longer afford my education. Freshman year: I received a scholarship I never applied to. Sophomore year: I received a large donation from a stranger. Junior year: I was due to be expelled from university because of lack of payment, but instead I was given an extension until my senior year. And senior year: I was the only student in the history of a long established institution to attend graduation with a due balance.
God met me after college, when a series of life events lead me to depression, and when I consciously chose to give my life to Him. And when I asked Him to remove the pain, the suffering, the unwillingness to continue this life, He did. Beyond all comprehension or logic or tactic I could pinpoint as a proven method, He simply did.
It was only after all these events that I understood, at 25 years old, why I believe: not because I was taught to, but because life pushed me to a place where the only answer was God.
He pushed me to a feeling beyond this physical world.
He pushed me to a hope beyond rational understanding.
He pushed me to a state of indescribable peace.
He pushed me to a faith that makes a fool of what makes sense.
He met me where logic ends.
People keep looking for facts that God exists, and these facts are everywhere; most importantly within you. People just don’t know how to look, and sadly, don’t want to learn either.
This is very boring, but the biggest religious choice I’ve had to make is simply that of staying put. I was very fortunate in the tradition that I grew up in. While I am far from incurious, I found that my own tradition, with its demands and expectations of belief and behavior, held up pretty well under scrutiny. So I stayed.
Doing so has reinforced to me the value of rootedness and the flimsiness of whim, volition, and passing fancy. Doubts come and go, but I seem to inhabit a different zone from most modern Americans—not of certainty, but of inevitability. It’s true whether or not I believe it.
From a teenage Mormon reader, Madison Shumway:
A religious choice I suppose I’m still in the process of making is the one to stay in my religion rather than leave it. And while that’s not an unusual decision for many religious people to encounter at least once in their journeys in faith, I'm struggling with it a lot.
I’m 17 and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and for a few years I was dead-set on leaving the church as soon as I left my home, even if it meant cutting off my family and community entirely. That started changing a few months ago, when I decided I would try to find faith again.
That decision didn’t immediately transform my experience, as I hoped it would. Even though I had decided I wanted to stay, and wanted to believe in this huge and grand and intangible thing that made people I knew so happy, it wasn't as easy as one choice. Faith is elusive, and I learned that even when one devotes their lives to it, belief can be hard to cultivate.
At first my big issue with the Church, and staying involved in it, was its culture—the sometimes judgmental and exclusive and downright mean behavior of some of its members. After a while I realized that the culture I hated so much was something created by its members, who are all fallible humans, rather than doctrine or a divine being. I thought that epiphany would make my faith flourish, that it would no longer be so difficult to believe in the gospel in which I so desperately wanted to believe.
But it didn’t, and my journey got harder. Reconciling personal beliefs with religious ones is hard. Overcoming the effects un-Christlike Christians can have on one’s testimony is hard.
But what is so painfully and exhaustingly tough is aching to find belief when that belief just won’t come; when all your prayer and scripture study and church attendance and commandment-following doesn’t translate into faith, like you were always taught it would; when persevering only leads to more persevering, with no easily observable effects but frustration and an increasing feeling of hopelessness.
It takes up such a huge part of my life now, all the trying and worrying and crying and discussing and begging. It affects my mental and emotional health as well as my personal relationships.
Why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day. I guess I see something in my religion, something bigger and further away than the promised blessings righteousness is supposed to bring—I guess I see some bright and immeasurable joy, somewhere off in the horizon. And so, every day, I make the choice to keep trying.
This email from another young Mormon woman might be able to help:
You could say I’m writing this in defense of organized religion, since I'm sharing the story of how I re-found my faith. I think your reader series is really perfectly timed, since the world’s focus on religion is so negative at the moment.
I’m 25. I’m a single Mormon girl living in Salt Lake City. I grew up Mormon, but finding my current faith has been a long process. I realize that my opinion may be extremely unpopular, and it’s kind of the opposite of a lot of the pieces you’ve published. But I feel really strongly about my faith, and want to champion it.
I want to share with you part of a talk I wrote last February. The Mormon church doesn’t have just one preacher or pastor; members of the congregation are invited to prepare talks and speak in the general meeting every Sunday instead. I’ve updated it a bit, but essentially, this is what I wrote:
A few months ago, one of the Humans of New York posts caught my eye. It said: “Going through life without God is like being an astronaut tumbling out of control in outer space....you've got to stay close. You can't cut your umbilical cord.” I just love that. For me, at least life without God really is like that, directionless and terrifying.
2013, the year I left the church, was the worst year of my life. I don't say that lightly, either—I mean it. I was in a manipulative and emotionally abusive relationship for most of that year, and it, along with some leftover teenage rebellion, caused me to walk away from the church. I turned my back on all of it, including my family, for a year.
I grew up in the church, and was baptized at 8, went to church every week with my parents and younger sisters, attended all the youth meetings, etc., but it was much too easy for me to turn away. Even though I was going to church and doing all the right things, I was not applying the principles and doctrines I was learning to my life. I was just there.
One of the biggest influences on my returning to church was a book I read in 2013, called Dakota: A Spiritual Biography, by Kathleen Norris. It was her definition of sin that caught my eye: sin as “any impulse that leads us away from paying full attention to who [we are] and what we’re doing; any thought or act that interferes with our ability to love God and neighbor.” I remember reading that and thinking, wow, that’s a much better definition of sin than “doing arbitrary wrong things” or “breaking the rules.”
It was this definition that got under my skin and eventually helped me go back to church. I realized that all the principles and doctrines I’d learned growing up were still rattling around in my brain, and I realized that the very restrictions I was straining against would help me, if I followed them, to lead the kind of life I wanted to live—cleanly, soberly, and with a clear conscience. I realized I desperately wanted to stop lying to my family about, well, everything. I realized I needed something to believe in, because believing in nothing and making my own rules was such a hopeless endeavor—without the guidance of a loving God, the world did not make sense to me. I needed to believe that everything will work out in the end, even if everything looks hopeless right now, because God is in charge and He loves us, no matter what.
I’ve attached the whole talk [PDF], as it was when I gave it, if you’re at all interested in reading the whole thing. I believe that religion is an intensely personal thing, and I’m so glad for all the perspectives shared already. The fight regarding religious freedom is going to get worse before it gets better, I think.
Two military veterans share their experiences. This first reader, Tony from Boise, was deployed to the Middle East three times, once to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq:
I was raised in a very Catholic, Midwestern town in North Dakota. Church wasn’t just something you did on Sundays; it was a way of life. During lent you went to church every morning at 7 am, and you absolutely did not eat meat on Fridays during lent for fear of eternal hell fire.
The first thing that ever made me think twice about it, was the fact that after church every Sunday we would go to my grandmas, and all of the adults would sit and talk crap about everyone who was at church—who was there, who wasn’t there, who looked hungover, who sucked at singing … the list goes on and on.
After high school, I joined the Army. The turning point in my life and my view on religion is when I met a 12-year-old Iraqi girl who had lost her arm from an RPG.
It was intended for an American convoy but hit her house instead. I remember thinking, “What did she do to deserve this? If there is a guy up there, how can he justify this?”
I spent a lot of time soul-searching over that deployment and came to terms with the fact that religion isn’t for me. If anyone can justify that, and plenty of people could, it just isn’t for me. In a world where you can justify the loss of an arm of a 12-year-old girl, where does it stop? Genocides for your religion, killing yourself or others for what you believe in, has to stop.
I get along with Muslims really well now that I am in college. I connect with them, and I have nothing against them. They are people, the same as you and I. When Christians want to talk about how violent they are, I always end the conversation with “Remember the crusades?”
This next Army vet, on the other hand, stuck with his religious faith through the horrors of war. Here’s Patrick Stallings’s story:
My experience with religion has been deep and has kept me moored through the many different phases of my life. Growing up, my mom was Catholic, dad was Methodist, brothers never really went to church, and I ended up going with my granddad to a Presbyterian church.
I saw my church as full of thoughtful, introspective, and kind people. When I tagged along with my other family members, I saw much of the same. The church members weren’t outspoken about the kinds of volunteer work they did, but they were there. I remember couples fostering children, groups working in soup kitchens, and others raising money for projects across the city. It was far from perfect (my home church has split twice over LGBTQ inclusion questions), but it very much seemed a net good.
I left town and joined the Army. My first deployment (Northern Iraq 2006-2007) was brutally violent. I saw the worst of humanity, but in that darkness I also saw the best of humanity. As I worked with my platoon to stop the Islamic State of Iraq and ultimately reconcile people who had murdered each other across sectarian lines, I worked with village leaders and imams and I saw the powerful way which religion framed that reconciliation. Not only was it the part of their identity that was catalyzed to start the fighting, it was the frame of reference they used to reconcile their hatred, and ultimately forgive the “other.”
My faith was challenged, and I spent years of my spare time reading philosophy and theology, as well as reflecting as I struggled to make sense of it. Eventually, I came to feel a sense of peace as I accepted knowledge that some questions are unanswerable. Through that process I abandoned my faith and found it again. I realized that so much religious strife was due to the conflation of core tenants and theological questions, most prevalently by those with little understanding of theology or even intentionally by those who seek to weaken or co-opt religious institutions.
I continue to reflect, but in the years since I have realized how my understanding of my own faith has increased my capacity to understand and work with those who have a religious perspective that differs from my own, and how so much of the dogma that people fight over matters so little.
That’s how this reader describes her biggest test of faith:
I’m happy to see your series on religious choices. It’s something that I struggled with in college and am still examining, as a 25-year-old woman. I was raised in an evangelical “mega-church,” and at one point, I wanted to be a pastor. Neither of these things still hold true. I still consider myself a Christian, and I believe in God, but I haven’t regularly attended a church in years. And I have a lot of inner conflicts over the state of Christianity and the church as a whole.
A lot of episodes in my life have added up to my current stage of religious ambiguity. But this was the most noteworthy: When I was a freshman in college, I was in an abusive relationship with a fellow student I met through a campus Christian group.
He was mostly emotionally and psychologically abusive—a lot of telling me where to go, isolating me, gaslighting, etc.—with a few instances of physical abuse toward the end of our relationship. He based a lot of his decisions on “signs” from God and would say things like “God is telling me this about you” or “If you believed in God, then you would...” He used religion frequently to correct or belittle me and to justify how he treated me.
It shattered me that a “Christian man” would treat me this way and that he used The Bible to defend so many of his actions. The lack of support I received from that campus Christian group and from my church back home made me take a hard look at what I believed in. I especially had to examine how I was treated as a woman in the church and how I’d felt like a lesser person for a while.
When I got engaged at age 23, I joined a more liberal denomination of Christianity, which is the same church I got married in. But I still couldn’t fully reconcile my faith with my reality. My husband and I eventually stopped attending, but we often think about finding a new place of worship. I still haven’t made it happen.
I think that church and Christianity and religion in general can be incredible and powerful. But when people let their egos and their self-righteousness get in the way, that’s when we see religion crumble.
If you’ve had any similar experiences and want to share, drop us an email. Update from a helpful reader:
I have a post on my blog that is specifically aimed at helping people find a new church that is more satisfying and not abusive. You are more than welcome to share this link with your readers if you like. It could probably help many of them.
Here’s another reader with a history of abuse and a lack of support from her Christian peers:
I grew up as stereotypically evangelical as you can imagine: Midwestern, homeschooled, worked at Chick-fil-a, went on missions trips, believed in creationism, wholeheartedly believed that men were “leaders” and women were “helpers” and keepers of the home, etc.
A series of events led me to where I am today, but the biggest catalyst was likely due to a series of abuse when I was 15. A guy I had grown up with my entire life became infatuated with me and began emotionally and physically abusing me. This continued for a year-and-a-half, until he finally went to college.
The worst part was, my friends and church community didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. In fact, they blamed me for leading him on. They thought I should enter into a courtship with him and were upset that I kept refusing him. This guy hit me in the face—hard enough to leave a mark—right in front of my entire youth group. No one said a word.
It took until my senior year of high school to finally realize that none of this was ok. I became a closeted “liberal Christian,” which basically means I was okay with gay marriage and thought that women didn’t have to be the main caretakers of children. During this time, I made the mistake of telling a few of my friends that I came to believe in evolution. I lost all but one of my friends because of that, and soon after I left my faith entirely.
I’ve been secretly agnostic for a year and three days. I’m 18 now and about to finish my first year at a selective East Coast liberal arts school, which has been the best thing to ever happen to me. But I’ve yet to make my biggest religious decision: when I go home next month, do I tell my family the truth about my lack of faith?
No one back home knows, and I don’t want to keep lying to them. I don’t think I even can anymore. But I know if I do, I’ll either be disowned or pulled out of my college and kept at home. I don’t have good options. But I don’t regret losing my faith at all. The only regret that I have is that I’m too scared to try to help my younger brother, who’s in the same place I was religiously when I was 16.
Religion is supposed to give you peace. That’s what I always was taught, that we should have peace because we have certainty and trust in God. That was never true for me. When I was religious, I lived in constant, internal turmoil. Ever since I embraced agnosticism and welcomed uncertainty, I’ve been more at peace with myself than I’ve ever been.
We previously heard from a reader who found religion by reading philosophy, namely the works of Christian apologist William Lane Craig, but the reader eventually turned back to agnosticism. The following reader, Ryan, seems on more solid religious ground after his reason-based conversion:
I’m 30 years old. I grew up in the South in a nominally Christian household. We went to a non-denominational church some when I was growing up, but I didn’t really stick with it. In middle school, I decided religion didn’t make much sense, and I associated it with ignorance of science and history. My mom knew I was agnostic but didn’t care as long as I didn’t say to her “There is no God.” I had a lot of questions about belief in the modern world that my parents lacked the theological know-how to answer.
For awhile, I found hope and optimism in a humanistic view of the world. I thought technology, the right politics, and time would eventually bring about a humanistic utopia.
However, by the time I was out of college, I had adopted an angry, nihilistic view of the Universe and a dim view of humanity. I wasn’t depressed, but I would go through weeks where I would have panic attacks over God not existing and the world being a terrible place. The atheist answer that a godless Universe was an exciting place waiting to be explored and understood didn’t resonate with me. Technology (particularly the Internet) often seemed to allow humanity to commit the same errors of judgement on a larger scale.
The turning point was when I met my wife and her family.
Her parents were Catholic. My wife and her three siblings had left the Catholic Church over its views on homosexuality, abortion, and women’s role in the Church. Her parents didn’t hold their children’s self-imposed exile against them, nor were they dogmatic about the issues that had turned their children away from the Church. Her parents also saw no conflict between science and religion.
As I was around her parents and saw what great people they were, I decided they knew something I didn’t. I realized that all the best people I had ever known throughout my life were Christians and that I agreed with the basic tenants of Christianity and its model of humility and kindness towards others. After reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Miracles, I decided I could rationally believe in God if I wanted to.
After a few weeks of agonizing, I eventually worked up the courage to ask my wife if she would go to church with me. When we went, I was too nervous to focus much on believing in God. I didn’t feel a belief in God, but I figured that if I kept going to church and prayed, perhaps the mask of faith could become real faith.
My wife and I are currently attending an Episcopal Church together. She’s still trying to figure out if she is a Christian. For me, it’s the only religion I feel like I have a chance of believing in. I find the weekly experience of liturgy a comforting and powerful reminder of Christ’s message. While attending a Maundy Thursday service I had the thought, “I’m not sure how someone couldn’t believe in this” and realized that I had become a Christian. I am hoping to be baptized within the next year and praying each day for hope.
Embedded above is the most popular installment on YouTube of C.S. Lewis’s BBC broadcast of Mere Christianity, discussing the role of “moral law” in human behavior. The book actually followed the broadcasts, which aired between 1942 and 1944.
“No one chose this imprisonment.” That’s our latest reader pushing back on the previous one, both of whom were raised by JWs but developed very different attitudes toward the church and its practice of disfellowshipping—the complete shunning of an apostate JW by both congregants and family members. Here’s her story:
I’d like to offer a reply to the reader who split hairs on the free preconditions of baptism and disfellowshipping. She presumes that the commitment to baptism is a free one, and that the consequences of breaking the commitment are thus chosen. Perhaps this is the case for adults who have life experience with which they can actually make an measured decision about what it means to “be no part of the world.”
What if you’ve never been in the world? Or what if your experience of the world is completely filtered through Watchtower-shaped lenses?
I am an on-the-books Witness, having taken the plunge at 14. I was pressured by my family, congregation, and friends to “get baptized” and was obsessed by the fear of being “worldly”—as in, under the influence of Satan the Devil, not a sophisticated, smart, and cosmopolitan person (When I realized that that was what “worldly” meant to everyone else, I had to laugh. I really had no idea).
Many people “raised in the Truth” (what Witnesses call their faith) are encouraged to get baptized in their teens. If they don’t, they are looked at a bit askance. My best friend and I used to fervently discuss whether we would be kept out of the Paradise for swearing, listening to Nirvana, or checking out skater boys. If we got baptized, we reasoned, we’d be protected.
This is not an uncommon belief, and it is utterly reasonable for a religion of myriad behavioral restrictions. After baptism, we would stop even wanting to be “worldly” because we wouldn’t be anymore! And when she did get baptized, she seemed so righteous. So I did it, too. I was terrified of being shunned or otherwise left ungirded in a world that had been described since childhood as a place where Satan walked around invisibly, just waiting to eat you up.
Witnesses strive to limit their members’ social world to only “the friends” (what they are, and what everyone else isn’t). I wanted to fit in, please my parents, and do what I thought would save me. I was bright, highly adept at acting as though I believed everything I ought to—so adept that I fooled not only the elders and my parents, but myself.
I’ve been “inactive” for over a decade, and the reason I’m not disfellowshipped is because I refuse to subject myself to the “judicial” procedures your reader describes. If I were to become disfellowshipped, I know that my parents and brother would probably stop talking to me, and my mother has said as much. So, I remain in a limbo, which I don’t mind at all, considering that I think the entire process is abused and abusive.
Your reader’s mother, according to her own description, used the disfellowshipping process as a method of skewering her father (she doesn’t say what “actions” the father did) so that she could be free to marry someone else. She went through all that process rather than questioning the rule.
I’ve seen this play out painfully. I watched our neighbor get into her car from my driveway as a small child as my mother told me: “You can’t talk to Anna anymore.” Anna (I’m using pseudonyms, to ensure privacy) was a woman I knew since birth, who cared for me as a baby, whose yard I played in and whose snacks I ate and whose dog bit me. I found out later than Anna got disfellowshipped “on purpose": She had had sex with another guy, Bill, in the congregation, so they could both leave their spouses, knowing they’d get disfellowshipped.
Anna and Bill did marry, but that was not the primary purpose for the adultery. Anna’s husband, Mark, was gay (a fact I also found out later; I don’t know why Bill needed out of his marriage nor should I need to know). Mark's second wife Nancy, who was an anointed Witness (one of those few chosen to serve in heaven), left him too (for a woman).
Anna and Nancy probably did not realize that they were marrying a gay man. Not only were they forbidden from having any sexual intimacy before marriage, Mark was forbidden from admitting his sexuality. Everyone lost.
No one chose this imprisonment. The strictures of the religion are so numerous and invasive that the way they end up playing out in the real world are absurd and incredibly sad. My own parents told me that they had considered divorcing and were at the point of deciding who would do the cheating-disfellowshipping combo to free them.
Disfellowshipping, as your reader mentions, is the way the religion keeps itself “clean.” From what, exactly? Mustachioed gay men who love musical theater and porkpie hats? (That was Mark, to a T.)
If a religion’s grasp on reality is so tenuous that it depends on painful and complicated measures of shunning to make sure it’s “clean,” it qualifies for criticism. Doing so isn’t “misinformation or intolerance,” as your reader puts it.
Update from one more anonymous reader, who complicates our JW discussion even further:
I was mostly raised as a Jehovah's Witness. I was baptized at 13. I attended and graduated from an Ivy League university while still an active member. I stopped attending meetings when I was in my mid-20s. I had done nothing that would warrant my disfellowshipping, though I am sure at this point I have.
Though I am no longer an active member, my mother is. We maintain a close relationship. She is, objectively, a lovely human being. We just don’t see eye to eye about some things. I think we are at peace with that, though I can’t pretend it wasn’t difficult at first.
These facts would seem to make me an anomaly among the voices that have so far been published. I know that I am not. I know many people in similar situations who made the choice to leave the religion, or simply drifted away, and were not shunned by their families.
Some occasionally participate, some never do. I know many, many “complicated” Jehovah's Witnesses family—married couples where one is a Jehovah’s Witness and one is an active member of another church, and where people move in and out of levels of active involvement, disassociate themselves, become disfellowshipped, become reinstated.
Of course, as in any group, there is great social pressure to conform. I don’t find this to be an exclusively JW phenomenon. If I had not been more or less raised as a Jehovah’s Witness (although my father was not a member, and in fact most of my family members are not), I would not have gotten baptized. Then again, social pressure or not, I chose it at the time. Many in my peer group were baptized years after I was, or not at all.
Some churches baptize infants. That baptism may become essentially meaningless to that individual, as mine eventually became to me. It just happened at different times.
I also attended Catholic elementary/middle school, which did not at all jeopardize my baptism or standing in the church. I was excused from Mass, as were the Muslim students in the school. I had Jehovah;s Witness friends who attended the same college as me. When I return home to visit my mother, I am not ignored on the street by Jehovah’s Witnesses I knew growing up.
I suppose my point is that while it is a much smaller, and therefore much less well understood religious group, it is no more or less constricting than other religious experiences. Some people believe fervently, some barely at all but just go with it to keep the peace at home.
I don’t agree with all of the Jehovah's Witness belief system, and that is why I left. I am against organized religion entirely. However, I believe that religion at its best provides a support community to its adherents, especially during difficult times, and if that’s what anyone gets out of religious observance, more power to them.
Update from yet another former JW, Rachel:
I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, although I was very skeptical of the teachings. By the time I was 16, my social life was severely impacted by my hesitation to get baptized. Since I wasn’t allowed any friendships with non-JWs, I got baptized to solve the problem. My sister was baptized at the same time, although she was only 12.
I tried my best to fit into the religion, but gradually fell away from the homophobia, gossip, and informal shunning. I still believed, but I had no desire for an eternal life with my fellow congregants under any circumstances.
A few years later, my sister got married. I had a panic attack in the parking lot of the Kingdom Hall, terrified of the shunning I was about to face, even though I wasn’t disfellowshipped. After this experience, something felt so wrong that I had to resolve it. I started researching online, finding information on the origins of the religion and the corruption and indifference of it’s leadership. I kept quiet about all of this, never discussing it with my still-in family.
A few years later, my then-fiance became embroiled in a drama within his family that led to his father being disfellowshipped. I was not involved, but since he was on their radar, so was I. I received a series of certified letters, which I never picked up.
Then, one Saturday, as I came in from my run, I saw two elders on my porch. There was no where to hide. They told me I had been disfellowshipped in absentia. I hadn’t been to a meeting in over eight years at that point, did not consider myself a Jehovah’s Witness, and never spoke about the religion with anyone.
My sister only speaks to me at funerals. My mother is more lenient. My father and brothers have left the religion. But it is as if a bomb went off in my family. We are never in the same room together. We are distant, and rarely have contact. Years have been lost between us.
I’ve moved to another state, where no JW knows me. Sometimes I pass by a Kingdom Hall, and I feel so badly for them.
Omicron, also known as B.1.1.529, was first detected in Botswana and South Africa earlier this month, and very little is known about it so far. But the variant is moving fast. South Africa, the country that initially flagged Omicron to WHO this week, has experienced a surge of new cases—some reportedly in people who were previously infected or vaccinated—and the virus has already spilled across international borders into places such as Hong Kong, Belgium, Israel, and the United Kingdom. Several nations are now selectively shutting down travel to impede further spread. For instance, on Monday, the United States will start restricting travel from Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.
Instead of using his acquittal to promote vigorous discussion, many administrators sent out statements decrying the verdict.
At universities, the recent acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse should be an opportunity to study a divisive case that sparked complex debates about issues as varied as self-defense laws, guns, race, riots, the rights of defendants, prosecutorial missteps, media bias, and more. If administrators were doing their jobs, faculty and students would freely air a wide variety of viewpoints and have opportunities to better understand one another’s diverse perspectives. Instead, many administrators are preemptively imposing their preferred narratives.
The Rittenhouse saga began in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 25, amid rioting that followed the police shooting of a Black man. Rittenhouse, then 17, armed himself with an AR-15-style rifle and walked into the chaos, claiming that he intended to protect the community. He wound up shooting three men, killing two. Last week, a Wisconsin jury found him not guilty of murder, crediting his claim that, at the moment he fired, he feared for his life and acted in self-defense. This, many analysts argued, was a plausible conclusion to draw from Wisconsin law and video footage and testimony presented at trial.
Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is a mainstay of basic cable—and a rallying cry for a country that is losing touch with itself.
In 2007, in one of the first episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Guy Fieri visited Patrick’s Roadhouse, a railway-station-turned-restaurant in Santa Monica, California. The diner’s chef, Silvio Moreira, walked Fieri through the preparation of one of Patrick’s most notable dishes, the Rockefeller—a burger topped with mushrooms, sour cream, jack cheese, and … caviar. Fieri, looking playfully trepidatious, lifted the burger with both hands, said a fake prayer, and did what he would proceed to do thousands of times on the show: He took an enormous bite. And then he fell silent. “Wooow,” he commented, finally, shooting Moreira a what-have-you-done-to-me look.
“Different, huh?” Moreira said, grinning. “Yeah,” Fieri replied. The show’s camera discreetly cut away to the next scene.
The preponderance of the evidence suggests that social media is causing real damage to adolescents.
Social media gets blamed for many of America’s ills, including the polarization of our politics and the erosion of truth itself. But proving that harms have occurred to all of society is hard. Far easier to show is the damage to a specific class of people: adolescent girls, whose rates of depression, anxiety, and self-injury surged in the early 2010s, as social-media platforms proliferated and expanded. Much more than for boys, adolescence typically heightens girls’ self-consciousness about their changing body and amplifies insecurities about where they fit in their social network. Social media—particularly Instagram, which displaces other forms of interaction among teens, puts the size of their friend group on public display, and subjects their physical appearance to the hard metrics of likes and comment counts—takes the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifies them.
People with scant illusions about Trump are volunteering to help him execute one of his Big Lies.
If Donald Trump had been supported only by people who affirmatively liked him, his attack on American democracy would never have gotten as far as it did.
Instead, at almost every turn, Trump was helped by people who had little liking for him as a human being or politician, but assessed that he could be useful for purposes of their own. The latest example: the suddenly red-hot media campaign to endorse Trump’s fantasy that he was the victim of a “Russia hoax.”
The usual suspects in the pro-Trump media ecosystem will of course endorse and repeat everything Trump says, no matter how outlandish. But it’s not pro-Trumpers who are leading the latest round of Trump-Russia denialism. This newest round of excuse-making is being sounded from more respectable quarters, in many cases by people distinguished as Trump critics. With Trump out of office—at least for the time being—they now feel free to subordinate their past concerns about him to other private quarrels with the FBI or mainstream media institutions. On high-subscription Substacks, on popular podcasts, even from within prestige media institutions, people with scant illusions about Trump the man and president are nonetheless volunteering to help him execute one of his Big Lies.
Every year thousands of Americans die on the roads. Individuals take the blame for systemic problems.
More than 20,000 people died on American roadways from January to June, the highest total for the first half of any year since 2006. U.S. road fatalities have risen by more than 10 percent over the past decade, even as they have fallen across most of the developed world. In the European Union, whose population is one-third larger than America’s, traffic deaths dropped by 36 percent between 2010 and 2020, to 18,800. That downward trend is no accident: European regulators have pushed carmakers to build vehicles that are safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and governments regularly adjust road designs after a crash to reduce the likelihood of recurrence.
But in the United States, the responsibility for road safety largely falls on the individual sitting behind the wheel, or riding a bike, or crossing the street. American transportation departments, law-enforcement agencies, and news outlets frequently maintain that most crashes—indeed, 94 percent of them, according to the most widely circulated statistic—are solely due to human error. Blaming the bad decisions of road users implies that nobody else could have prevented them. That enables car companies to deflect attention from their decisions to add heft and height to the SUVs and trucks that make up an ever-larger portion of vehicle sales, and it allows traffic engineers to escape scrutiny for dangerous street designs.
When life feels this precarious, it’s only natural to roll the dice on just about everything.
Gambling has become one of the defining pleasures of our time, the perfect accompaniment to an era of high-risk, rigged economies and a looming sense of collapse. Once there was Las Vegas; now there’s a Las Vegas in every phone.
You can bet on almost anything today. Elections. Literary prizes. If you have a feeling that, say, Lapuan Virkiä is going to beat Porin Pesakarhut in the women’s Superpesis, the top professional pesäpallo league in Finland, you can put your money where your mouth is. During the pandemic, as casinos and racetracks closed, you could wager on the evening’s forecast in real time, or on the upcoming winter snowfall. There was serious action on the highest daily temperatures of major American cities. Then there are the ads. If you watch sports regularly, you probably feel, as I do, that the games have become interruptions in a more or less constant barrage of wagering promotion. Gambling is swallowing sports.
The traumas of the past year have left some people wrestling with an awful question: Am I still a good person?
Throughout the pandemic, people have had to make impossibly tough decisions. Kathleen Turner, a 52-year-old intensive-care nurse in San Francisco, has been haunted by hers. Since COVID-19 patients started overwhelming her hospital last spring, she has had to give patients sedatives knowing they would likely have lasting negative health consequences, and systematically deny relatives a chance to say goodbye to dying loved ones. Last year, Turner was following guidelines when she told a woman that she could not visit her dying mother—on Mother’s Day. “I upheld the rule on the piece of paper,” she told me. “But in terms of what would a good person do? It’s not that.” Collectively, these experiences have fundamentally shaken her sense of morality. “Am I really a good person? There’s that seed of doubt,” she said.
The degree to which the world depends on oil and gas is not well understood.
To appreciate the complexities of the competing demands between climate action and the continued need for energy, consider the story of an award—one that the recipient very much did not want and, indeed, did not bother to pick up.
It began when Innovex Downhole Solutions, a Texas-based company that provides technical services to the oil and gas industry, ordered 400 jackets from North Face with its corporate logo. But the iconic outdoor-clothing company refused to fulfill the order. North Face describes itself as a “politically aware” brand that will not share its logo with companies that are in “tobacco, sex (including gentlemen’s clubs) and pornography.” And as far as North Face is concerned, the oil and gas industry fell into that same category—providing jackets to a company in that industry would go against its values. Such a sale would, it said, be counter to its “goals and commitments surrounding sustainability and environmental protection,” which includes a plan to use increasing amounts of recycled and renewable materials in its garments in future years.
When both sides think catastrophe will always be averted, each behaves more rashly.
Republicans and Democrats alike have characterized the debt-ceiling fight as a game of chicken, in which two drivers barrel toward each other and each hopes that the other swerves away first. Political pundits have described some strategies for resolving the conflict, such as changing the Senate’s filibuster rules to allow a simple majority to raise the debt limit, as “nuclear options.” Language like this might seem to melodramatize the legislative process, but the comparisons are apt. Nuclear-war strategists have long understood how recklessness, or the appearance of recklessness, may help one side get the other to relent during a single game of chicken. But these strategists’ work also offers a warning for Congress: The more times the game is played, the more treacherous it becomes, because when both sides become convinced that catastrophe will always be averted in the end, each behaves more rashly.