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.
I am overwhelmed and angered by the misinformation being supplied by your readers. Many of them are leaving out vital information. Only if you are baptized can you be disfellowshipped. Baptism is not a requirement in the church nor is it a choice one can frivolously make.
I am not baptized, but both my parents were; my mother is baptized but inactive, and my father was disfellowshipped. I was raised in the Kingdom Hall [the JW term for church building] until I was a young teen, and then allowed to choose my own path. At 28, I still hold many of the beliefs (I abstain from holidays and attend the observance of [Nisan 14], also known as The Memorial of Christ’s death), but I am not baptized and do not plan on becoming baptized because I know I could not follow all the rules. I have been told that the path to baptism takes around two years. One must be old enough to choose for themselves (16+ usually), have intense Bible study, and then pass a rigorous test administered by the elders on Bible knowledge.
For one to act as though they were shocked by their disfellowshipping and the subsequent behavior of baptized family and friends is like one being surprised that their spouse has divorced them and doesn’t wish to communicate after cheating. They chose to make a lifelong vow and broke it, fully aware of the potential consequences. No one forced them to be baptized; it was their own free will and choice. Again, without that choice, they would not have been in a position to be disfellowshipped in the first place.
I asked the reader a few followup questions, such as the rough percentage of JW church-goers who are baptized and some key distinctions between members of different commitment levels:
I am no longer an active member of a congregation (admittedly, I now only darken the door for the Memorial). I would guess if you walked into a Kingdom Hall on a Sunday morning the majority of attendees (minus children) will be baptized or preparing for baptism. I think generally people who make the effort and commitment to go to church regularly are more likely to commit in other ways, such as baptism, whereas those who are not serious about baptism probably drop off and rarely attend because it is not required of them. There is no term for an unbaptized believer, but I cannot call myself “one of Jehovah’s Witnesses” as an unbaptized adult; I can only say that I was raised as one.
There are three ways for baptized members to leave the church (but they will forever be considered baptized): disfellowshipment, disassociation, and becoming inactive.
Let me interrupt real quick to illustrate the difference between disfellowshipment and disassociation, explained here by a different reader (the first of two readers excerpted in our previous note) in a followup email:
Just to clarify, my wife and I weren’t disfellowshipped. We disassociated ourselves, which is a technicality of sorts, but also very different. We committed no wrong and left because we no longer wanted to carry the label of Jehovah’s Witnesses, since we disagreed with their position on many things. People are disfellowshipped for moral failings. We disassociated because of their failings. Our leaving was voluntary.
Back to our dissenting reader:
An inactive member is someone who does not maintain steady attendance at the Hall nor keeps up with going out in service. Very rarely would someone who’s inactive be disfellowshipped, as the whole point of disfellowshipping is to keep the church “clean,” and if someone isn’t attending, then they can’t quite taint it.
However, the only grounds for divorce in the church is adultery. If a divorce is obtained for any other reason, remarrying another Witness is not possible.
My father was inactive when my parents divorced and my mother wanted to remarry a Witness, so she brought my father’s actions before the elders. It was a long process—interviews with family members, opportunities given to him to repent, etc. He could try to be reinstated now, like most disfellowshipped people, probably by attending all meetings for a year, asking for Bible study, showing repentance and writing a letter to the elders to ask for consideration.
I really appreciate you allowing me the opportunity to try and shed more light on this issue. Please don’t help spread misinformation or fan flames of intolerance. I was bullied horribly in school due to my beliefs, all the way through college (mostly by the administration at my state school—I was also an employee). The amount of discrimination Witnesses face is pretty incredible sometimes; people lose their minds over others not celebrating holidays, for instance. Say you are/were a Witness and you risk others being convinced you want to proselytize them.
I understand the religion has some issues—all do—but what can be expected from organizations led by imperfect men?
Here’s a moving confessional from reader Doug on the biggest religious choice of his life—leaving organized religion—which in turn forced him to make a few other hard choices:
As a child and a teenager, I was kind of in and out of church. My mom is pretty religious but my father is not. But whenever I was in church, I was very involved. I went several times a week (to services or Bible studies or events), and I even taught and preached on a regular basis. I was very religious throughout college and intended to become a full-time missionary overseas. I got engaged to a very smart, very loving, and very Christian young lady.
Three months before we were to get married (and the week before my last semester’s final exams), my best friend suddenly got bacterial meningitis and died.
That was 11 years ago, but I vividly remember praying in the hospital room that God would save him. I remember thinking about how James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” And I knew that I wasn’t really righteous, so I made sure to call the most righteous men I knew and asked them to pray. And I knew that Mark 11:24 says, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” I genuinely believed that God would save my best friend … but my best friend died.
And according to my beliefs at that time (and the beliefs of millions of Americans), my best friend was going to go to Hell because he was not a Christian. And so this was the major event that I’d say shook my faith.
However, I also still believed that the truth was not contingent on what I wanted to be true. It didn’t make sense to stop believing something simply because I didn’t like it anymore.
Yet there was another event that completely sealed my loss of faith. And that was about eight months after my friend died in 2004, the major tsunami hit Indonesia and immediately wiped out like 80,000 people. After that I just couldn’t believe in evangelical Christianity ever again. I couldn’t believe that God would allow 80,000 people, most of whom were not Christians (as Indonesia is actually the largest Muslim country in the world), to die at the hands of Mother Nature … only to spend eternity in Hell. There was no way I could any longer believe in that kind of God.
So, what happened? My fiancee and I went ahead and went through with the wedding (it is really hard to cancel a wedding once the invitations have all been sent out). We argued constantly about religion for two and a half years. I didn’t want to go to church anymore, but I had to go. Sometimes I wasn’t paying attention enough for her satisfaction. It hurt her knowing that the most important thing in her life, her faith, was no longer shared with me. She constantly pointed out, correctly, that I had changed—not her.
So, after two-and-a-half years, we got divorced. I did initiate it. But honestly, at that point I was struggling so much with my best friend’s death that it was in her best interest to be free of me anyway.
I did not become a missionary, so I had to go find a job in the real world helping make money for the man. And it took me many years before I really found out what I wanted to do.
It’s been 11 years since my best friend’s death and I’m still not religious (though interestingly I am trying to make God a part of my life again … but without the formal religion and believing in scriptures). I could have pretended to still believe to try to save my marriage and keep my career plan, but I can’t ever lie to myself. I enjoyed doing Christian work and I enjoyed teaching. But I’ve just had to find other avenues to use my abilities and explore my interests in life.
In this video from atheist blogger Hemant Mehta, the second of his “nine things you should Know About Jehovah’s Witnesses” regards disfellowship, which involves not just getting kicked out of a congregation for disobeying the church, but the complete shunning of the individual by JWs, including members of his or her own family:
Here are two more stories from readers who parted ways with the JWs. The first one voluntary left the church after being shunned while the second one was straight-up disfellowshipped:
I am writing in response to “a Jehovah’s Witness reader,” which was an update to “Disowning A Daughter Over A Church.” Yes, Jehovah’s Witnesses do discourage higher education. A recent quote from Anthony Morris, one of the seven governing body members that are responsible for the teachings, is as follows:
I have long said: the better the university, the greater the danger. The most intelligent and eloquent professors will be trying to reshape the thinking of your child, and their influence can be tremendous.
There he directly links higher education as being a danger. It is taken from his own words in video on the tv.jw.org website. There are numerous articles and talks that have been given regarding the dangers of education.
I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses until last year when I, at the age of 38, having spent a lifetime in the organization, found myself shunned. What grievous sin did I commit?
I reached out to my brother who had been disfellowshipped for 14 years or so after shunning him for the entire time. I realized that the scripture your reader quoted in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 may have applied at one point when my brother was initially disfellowshipped, however shunning him forever is just ridiculous. He is living an upright, moral life, none of the things listed in the scripture that was cherry picked to support a heartless, controlling doctrine used to keep the rank and file in order.
I apologized profusely because I realized that rather than love being kind as the scriptures stated, it had been turned into something ugly. I realized that if I greeted those who were my brother only, I was no different than anyone else like Jesus said. I realized that if God is love, maybe I should represent that and that shunning is psychological torture inflicted on another to manipulated them to coming back. It has nothing to do with making that person return to God, and everything to do with them returning to a man-made organization.
My wife and I disassociated formally from the organization that was our entire lives, the most difficult thing we ever had to do. But life is good now, and my wife and I bask in sweet freedom from an oppressive organization that holds its members captive. We lost a lot, but we gained even more.
The other JW reader:
Your note resonated with me so much because I am a former Jehovah’s Witness who has been disfellowshipped twice. The first time I was in my early 20s and the second time I was in my late 20s. Both times were because I had engaged in sexual activity and was not married.
The first time, I was in total agreement with the decision of the elders in my congregation. I had recently finished volunteering for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society a little more than a year or so before and was still actively trying to live my life according to “Jehovah’s standards.”
Even the second time, while the circumstances surrounding that instance was quite different, I agreed in principle to the decision. But it was at that time that I decided that I was not going to make an effort to get reinstated and no longer wanted to be Witness.
My older sister disassociated herself from the organization when I was in my teens and my older brother is disfellowshipped as well. My twin sister is active in the organization and basically has nothing to do with any of her siblings. Recently, at my grandmother’s funeral, she told us all that she really wanted us all “to come back,” meaning back to the organization so that she could have a relationship with us.
What I find interesting is that while the onus is often on those who are disfellowshipped or decide they no longer want to be part of the organization to “repent” so that their loved ones can associate with them again, no one really thinks about the impact that has on those who have to bear the weight of being the cause of family discord because they decided to explore their own options as far as life and spirituality go. We are the bad guys because we have “forced them” into the position of “choosing God or choosing family.”
My mother has had a strained relationship with my older sister for decades and this is mainly due to her wanting to adhere to so called “Bible standards” in relation to disassociated and disfellowshipped family members. Being someone who has served in several capacities within the organization, I know that this “shunning,” as it were, is not consistently applied to all members. There are some that have been disciplined within the congregation for similar, if not more egregious, acts and were not disfellowshipped.
One might even live what is considered a “double life,” and as long as they are not exposed or they do not go and reveal their wrongdoings to the elders, they remain in good standing. In my case, I was admonished by a distant relative, when I faced this the second time, to go to the elders or he would have to.
It has been about eight years and I have barely spoken to my twin sister, or any other members of my family who are Witnesses. There have been times where my sister and others have been in my mother’s house and I was there and they barely spoke, if they spoke at all.
The crazy thing is, when I went to the elders, I was really seeking their guidance in relation to the woman I was seeing because I was, in fact, planning to marry her. It took eight weeks for them to finally meet with me and when they did, they told me there was nothing they could do because they had given me plenty of time to either get married or end the relationship.
While we all must be held responsible for the decisions we make in life, one should not be expected to just except such archaic practices because it is said to be “in the name of” whomever we call God. The truth of the matter is, no loving god would ever subject his creation to rules and principles and discipline such as this. Dealing with this and the discord it has caused within my family has led me to question every single thing I was ever taught about God by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Thanks again for opening this dialogue, because there are a lot of people suffering due to imperfections and sinful tendencies and being subject to this unfair practice when there are much, much bigger things happening in the world.
If you’re a Jehovah’s Witness and would like to defend the church, or simply talk about your positive experience there, please let us know.
That’s the brief path that reader Matthew took on his journey through faith and doubt:
I think that I’ve made two big religious choices in my life—one was going from a “cafeteria Catholic” to a religious Catholic at the age of 16, and the other was becoming an agnostic a year later.
My family was never particularly religious, but I was baptized, had my first communion, was confirmed, and we would attend church occasionally. I’m not really sure how I felt about religion—I don’t recall if I ever thought about God’s existence, the meaning of religion, and what not. I remember being interested in the discussions in Sunday School, but I don’t think I ever thought about whether God existed. Either I just didn’t care or I believed it without being particularly religious.
Around the time when I turned 16, my dad introduced me to the Christian philosopher, theologian, and apologist William Lane Craig. It was life-changing for me.
For one, I became extremely interested in the subject of philosophy and those juicy speculative questions about the existence of God, the meaning of life, morality, the laws of nature, consciousness, etc. I’m even a Philosophy major right now in college.
The second thing though, and the thing relevant to the topic, is that I became religious. Dr. Craig is well-known for debating with atheists and arguing for the existence of God using philosophical arguments, and I became convinced that those arguments were sound. I’m not really sure why I became religious after that; maybe I was never sure that God existed and became sure after hearing those arguments? Maybe I just realized the importance of religion—how, if all this is true, it is really life changing? I’m not sure, but I became religious—started reading theology, praying, going to church, etc.
I think, from studying philosophy, I also became convinced that it is important to have evidence or reasons for your beliefs. If I didn’t have reasons for being a Christian, I thought, why not be a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.? Without evidence or reasons, they all seemed the same and equally implausible. However, I believed that there was evidence for God and for Jesus being God.
Eventually, however, I began to lose faith in the arguments for the existence of God and also began to realize how complex all these issues were and how little I’d studied. Even asides from the philosophy, I was believing that the whole Bible is true without having read the whole thing nor read the scholarship on it. I also began to worry how I could know that I’m right when there were also so many intelligent people on “the other side”?
So, since what seemed to be underpinning my belief in God were the arguments, when I became skeptical of the arguments, I became skeptical of religion and became agnostic. (I’ve always been kind of skeptical of “religious experience” because I thought there could be psychological explanations for that, but that’s another tangent.) Like I said earlier, this only happened about a year later, so I was only really “religious” for a short period of time.
About four years later, I’m still agnostic. Perhaps it’s just ingrained in me because of my religious upbringing and other people don’t feel this way, but I really would like to be religious again. I find religion to be beautiful, and I think it gives meaning to life and hope in the face of suffering. I would like to have faith, or I’d like to perhaps be religious for existential reasons rather than metaphysical ones—so just believe and let it give meaning to my life and not worry so much about the truth of the matter, since I guess if it’s not true, but I enjoyed being religious, it’s not like there were any negatives to being religious in my life … sort of like a Pascal’s Wager kind of thing.
Also, I know everyone doesn’t feel this way and I know this isn’t a rational thing to say, but I just have a feeling that there’s gotta be something more to life …
When I was 12, I figured out this gay thing wasn’t going away and I had a choice. I could remain in the faith of my father [Catholicism] and hate myself, or I could stop believing. I stopped believing and became an angry teenage atheist who would have adored Richard Dawkins if he’d been present in that role at the time.
It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle and met religious people who weren’t your stereotypical fundamentalist nuts that I realized that it was possible for people like that to exist. Then I met my college best friend, who led me back to religion in the weirdest way.
She spoke French. I’d learned German in high school, so we had no shared private language to talk to each other on the bus. We agreed to study a new one together and settled on Hebrew.
After the first year, I spent a summer in Israel studying intensely. Then I changed my major. Then I found that Judaism was a gentler faith, Reform Judaism was accepting, and the ancient ritual appealed to me, largely because of my Catholic upbringing.
I gained my faith back and converted. My husband converted as well, and our son is at temple each week.
My parents are happy with this. They’re sad their grandson will never be baptized and they don’t understand a lot of what we talk about, since their Jewish best friends aren’t terribly observant. But they appreciate that their son and grandson are deeply involved in a religious community. It would have been theirs if the church weren’t so traumatizing to gay kids.
I am 26, and I went through a personal crisis regarding religion when I was a freshman in college. I am a “cradle Catholic,” baptized in the Roman Catholic Church as an infant, and raised by two religious parents. I went to Catholic elementary and middle schools, and I was heavily involved with music and youth ministries at my parish during high school.
I also suffered, from about age 13, from severe depression. At times, my faith was literally the only thing that kept me going. Sometimes it was more fear motivated by faith than anything else, but I say it was faith nonetheless.
When I got to university, I was exposed in a much bigger way to dialogue about LGBT issues, especially marriage, since this was right before and after the passage of Proposition 8 in California.
I began to struggle with the idea that the Church would never accept same-sex marriage and what that meant about the status of those were gay in the Church. I remember feeling as though I was having a crisis of conscience, wondering how anything less than full rights for LGBT persons could be Christian.
I stopped attending mass with any frequency, and I contemplated leaving the Catholic Church for the Episcopal Church. My depression worsened, because I felt as though abandoning my faith would be an abandonment of what had kept me alive for the past few years.
In the end, although the decision took the few years while I was in school, I decided not to leave the Catholic Church. The questions and discomfort I had sparked a research and learning process into theology, ethics, and the history of marriage. This process forced me to examine my own ethics and behavior, in the context of what makes an action “sinful,” and how individual Christians are called to react to sin. The beliefs that I hold now are in accordance with Church teaching, but they often put me at odds with other American Catholics, who use the Church’s teachings on sacramental marriage as a front for homophobia.
Ultimately, I was influenced to stay by the belief that in order for faith to be a transformative and positive institution, members of the faithful cannot choose to follow only those tenets which feel good or are convenient to them personally and at the moment. This idea flies in the face of modern American culture, which emphasizes both convenience and choice.
There are other Catholic teachings that I struggle personally with to this day, though none as significantly as I did with same-sex marriage, but I cope with them with the faith and hope that I can improve myself and the world around me through my journey of faith.
I have greatly enjoyed your reader series so far, and I look forward to the rest.
The theodicy tangent to our series on religious choice continues with several more eloquent emails from readers. To reader John, the problem of suffering leads him to think that “God is a human construct, and somebody needs to send god back to rewrite.” He looks to the ancients for consistency:
The question of theodicy, for me (an atheist), is not so much “why does god allow so much suffering?” as it is “what is the nature of this god you believe in?”
The real contradictions I see are between the realities of the world, supposedly created and overseen by god, and the descriptions of their god by the faithful. They don’t mesh. The ancient Greeks were much more honest, I think, in their depictions of their gods. Greek gods were petty, arbitrary, powerful and mean-spirited. As such, they fit the world we live in.
Christians, Muslims and Jews all describe a god that is benevolent, just, omnipotent, and omniscient—which doesn’t fit our world one bit. If you’re determined to believe in a god, Zeus makes a lot more sense than the supposed Christian “heavenly father.”
Another reader, Jonathan, questions the omnipotence of God even further than John but doesn’t think it necessarily negates God:
When it comes to theodicy, I wish we could avoid trapping ourselves in ideas of perfection and infallibility.
I know far too many people who don’t bat an eye at the idea that the literal physics of the universe are relative and even probabilistic, yet the moment God is mentioned, they suppose this divinity must be capable of anything we can possibly imagine or it is not really God.
Why can’t we interpret “All-Powerful” as (merely?) having all the power that’s actually employable, and “All-Knowing” within the confines of things that can actually be known? We’ve got a greater handle than ever on the limits of power and knowledge. It’s only in the context of medieval theology’s untenable concepts of perfection that theodicy becomes an issue.
If, instead, we consider that God has to take energy-expending actions to perform miracles (from spitting in his hands to dying on a cross) and that predicting the future might be as much of a speculative (though better informed) act for God as it is for us, then it seems to me the old stories become much easier to parse.
Christ didn’t hang on that cross as part of some cosmic game he designed in the first place, sure of the outcome. Rather, he did so because self-sacrifice out of love is the epitome of Goodness and a core aspect of the act of Creation. That this is as true for the most powerful and knowledgeable being in the universe as it is for the typical bumbling human is practically the moral of the story. God’s Work takes, y’know, work. That idea shouldn’t make God any less impressive.
Another reader, Mike—in response our previous note citing Andrew Sullivan’s thoughts on theodicy—questions the idea of God as benevolent:
Oh, how I loved reading Sully again on this. The journey is always the most interesting part, isn’t it? How someone arrived probably tells you more than the destination.
I arrived to a similar destination as the reader who volunteered in Central America, but without the travel abroad. My family was never religious, so I basically got a chance to try on religions as a teenager. I was intrigued with Catholicism, then Judaism, then—for a much longer spell—Buddhism. I ended up at Zen-as-practical-philosophy after finding too much of the usual follies in Buddhism-as-religion (you don’t have to search far for dogma).
Years earlier, George Carlin had been my introduction to atheism. I was sympathetic to his views, but I couldn’t find it in myself to take them on. But sometime in my early 20s, I remember running the typical come to Hitchens thought experiment:
OK, so God is an all-powerful, omniscient being who created everything, and made man in his image. Well, God created humanity, and therefore created a capacity for evil within humanity. Since God is omniscient, God knew humanity would use this capacity for evil. Despite being all-powerful, God doesn’t seem very interested in interceding to stop this evil.
Put less kindly, if God isn’t a murderer, God is at the very least an accessory to murder and manslaughter (as well as being the architect of disease, famine, strife, war, etc.). That’s actually quite an impressive resume, but not one I find particularly worthy of worshiping.
Take away all logic of the scientific method explaining the universe. As a moral matter, I couldn’t really get behind the idea of God as a benign father figure anymore. I can’t be 100% certain of the lack of a supernatural creator, but doubt is always more interesting than certainty. I suppose that would make me an atheist-of-doubt (whereas Sully might be a believer-of-doubt). However, the universe fills me with the type of awe and wonder that I used to describe as marveling at God’s creation.
We are dead stars. You don’t need religion to find rebirth; it’s already here. It’s in each of us. We are the universe made sentient. If that doesn’t give you an empathy and connectedness with your fellow humans, I don’t know what will.
I’d argue I feel more of a “link to something bigger” now than I ever did before, a sort of secular Brahman. Letting go of a belief that humanity is blessed by the divine and of a special class? It doesn’t cordon you off into some moral-less shadow world. It opens you up to being part of something unimaginably bigger.
Another reader, Paul, touches on free will and the relative nature of suffering:
On the proposition that the presence of suffering rules out the existence of a benevolent God, I’d ask what humanity would be if God didn’t allow suffering. The only answer, it seems to me, is that we’d be much less free than we are.
To prevent suffering, God would have to remove from us our ability to make evil choices. Actually, God would have to take away our ability to make anything but the very best choice, since over time choices that were anything less than optimal could, and probably would, snowball right into evil.
Our species has an ability to know good from evil (indeed, to see suffering as an evil presupposes that ability) and make choices in one direction or the other. A world without suffering would be a world without a humanity free to choose between good and evil. I can’t help but think that such a world would be less a utopia than a form of totalitarianism, where humans act in lock step with an unyielding divine will.
One more reader for now, Elizabeth:
First, I want to express my gratitude for your thoughtful and nuanced engagement with this question. I appreciate The Atlantic’s reporting on religion, and that you create a space for serious discussion. Thank you.
When it comes to the issue of theodicy, there aren’t really any easy answers, are there? Perhaps that’s as it should be. Faced with the tearing crimson and black of pain and grief and evil, a tidy formula seems somehow profane.
I’m a Christian (spoiler alert:) and a missionary, and so the goodness of God in the light of pain and injustice is a tension that I am regularly confronted with. And it hurts.
My church’s Good Friday service is quite simple, consisting mainly of a reading of the Passion, with different members of the congregation reading the dialogue of the various persons in the story. This year, I was struck with the immediacy of the situations—situations that are happening all the time, everyday, all over our world: A friend who screws you over for personal gain. Another friend who chickens out and doesn’t stand with you. Police brutality. Religious hypocrites who avoid the smallest speck of dirt while engineering terrible things to protect their own little kingdom. A corrupt justice system that is more interested in keeping the status quo than in real justice. Mobs. Torture. Execution.
Take off the Ben Hur costumes and add a couple thousand years … and you’ve got Hell’s Kitchen, or Syria, or maybe your own backyard.
And there, in the midst of it all, is Jesus. He’s walking (though with dread) right into the middle of the maelstrom of all our gigantic and garden variety meanness. As N.T. Wright says “Jesus doesn’t explain why there is suffering, illness, and death in the world...He doesn’t allow the problem of evil to be the subject of a seminar. He allows evil to do its worst to him. He exhausts it, drains its power, and emerges with new life” (Wright, Simply Good News).
He’s the God who suffers with us. And I love Him for it.
We’ve already heard from one reader who was shunned by her family for leaving their church. This reader was shunned by her devout family because of her gender identity:
My name is Julia, and I’m 23 years old. I read a few of the stories in your Notes section about people’s personal experiences with religion, and I saw at the bottom you were looking for reader responses. Well, here’s mine.
My mother is Catholic, and my father converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism when I was a child. Every Sunday growing up, we attended church in a small suburb near our city. My mother was very devout; Catholicism formed a cornerstone of her life. I even took Sunday bible school classes at her insistence.
I had several atheist friends who influenced me, however, and while I was nominally Catholic, I didn’t really care all that much about religion. I believed there was a God and I attended church regularly, but it wasn’t a daily thing for me. I didn’t sit down to pray every night like my mother. I didn’t read Christian literature like she did or do the rosary.
My mother was a really loving person. She had an innate kindness in her that I didn’t see often in others. She would go out of her way to help people, even in extreme cases. Even with her strong religious beliefs, I thought such a person could accept anyone regardless of circumstance. I was wrong.
I’m transgender; I was born a biological male. In church and in our community around us, I was taught as a child that LGBT people were sinners bound for hell. That they were not redeemable. I knew my mother personally had espoused these sorts of beliefs before, but I thought it might be different if it was her own child. That she would still love me, regardless.
We had a fight one evening over my college performance (I was doing poorly at the time). The argument eventually spiraled into other topics, and my transgenderism was exposed. My mother called me a monster, told me she wish I had never been born, threw me out of the house, and told me to never return.
I have since left the Catholic Church. I do not plan to ever go back to organized religion. The way I was treated, and the pain religion has brought on my life—I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I can’t reconcile everything that happened and continuing to believe in a higher, benevolent power.
Several years ago, this reader grappled with the age-old question of theodicy—why would a benevolent God allow for so much suffering in the world?—and decided to leave religion behind:
Four years ago I lost my faith. I grew up a passionate Christian, and this lasted most of the way through college. Following graduation I moved to a new city and stopped going to church because I couldn’t find a congregation that appealed to me, and, frankly, I liked having the extra free time. Although I was no longer as religious, it was still important to me to find a partner with faith. When I met my now-husband, one of the qualities that I admired was his devotion to his Lutheran church.
Then, when I was in my mid-twenties, I spent several months abroad volunteering in Central America.
This provided a monumental shift in all aspects of my life, but the biggest change was that I found that I was able to admit that I was no longer a Christian and didn’t believe in God in general. The sticking point for me was that I could not reconcile how a higher power could allow for so many people to suffer so greatly when (s)he had the power to alleviate suffering, which is so vast and unending in the world. I also saw how religion could be used to manipulate people by those in power, and while I recognized that it was a source of much good in the world, it could also be used to create drifts between people and distract from real issues.
What has surprised me is that I don’t feel that different in my day-to-day life or in my interactions with people. Growing up I always assumed non-religious people looked down on people of faith. However, rather than having contempt for the faithful, I find that I still have great respect for many people of faith. I never thought that I could be with someone who has a different belief system than I do, but our religious differences have never been a point of contention in my marriage because, at the end of the day, we both love and respect each other.
I could very well become religious again, but the last few years as an atheist has taught me that the absence of religion does not mean the absence of morality.
If you’re interested in the sticky subject of theodicy, Dish readers—back when The Daily Dish was part of The Atlantic—debated the question at length with bloggers and among themselves. Here’s how Andrew Sullivan, the former Atlantic writer and life-long Catholic, responded to atheist blogger Jerry Coyne during a substantial back and forth:
I wonder how much of my writing Coyne has ever read, how much of my wrestling with doctrine and theology and faith he has perused before he dismisses one side of an ancient debate as “insulting to anyone with a brain”. Obviously, my case of letting go to God reflects a Christian understanding of what one’s response to suffering could be. This does not deny suffering, or its hideous injustices, or the fact that so many in the animal world suffer without any such relief or transcendence.
For me, the unique human capacity to somehow rise above such suffering, while experiencing it as vividly as any animal, is evidence of God’s love for us (and the divine spark within us), while it cannot, of course, resolve the ultimate mystery of why we are here at all in a fallen, mortal world. This Christian response to suffering merely offers a way in which to transcend this veil of tears a little. No one is saying this is easy or should not provoke bouts of Job-like anger or despair or isn’t at some level incomprehensible. The Gospels, in one of their many internal literal contradictions, have Jesus’ last words on the cross as both a despairing, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” and a letting go: “It is accomplished.” If you see this as less a literal error than a metaphorical truth (i.e. if you are not a fundamentalist), you realize that God’s only son experienced despair of this kind as well. And resolution.
My own reconciliation with this came not from authority, but from experience. I lived through a plague which killed my dearest friend and countless others I knew and loved. I was brought at one point to total collapse and a moment of such profound doubt in the goodness of God that it makes me shudder still. But God lifted me into a new life in a way I still do not understand but that I know as deeply and as irrevocably as I know anything.
If this testimony is infuriating to anyone with a brain, then I am sorry. It is the truth as I experienced it. It is the truth as I experience it still.
If any other readers want to share their own experience with theodicy, especially if it let to a major religious choice, let us know. The above video, by the way, was featured by our video team earlier this year:
A large portion of [photographer Robin Hammond’s] work has focused on documenting victims of abuse and sexual violence, especially in the Congo. “The real conflict for me is the conflict between those who care and those who don't,” he says in this short film, We're All Complicit. “The world is a brutally unfair place...
Update from a reader, Peter, who has some really eloquent thoughts on the subject:
Thank you for the opportunity to discuss theodicy. I am not an active member of any church, but I feel that religion is a honest response to the world. The point in the end is that we are not God’s children; we are God’s adults. Sort of a good news / bad news thing: The good news is that we were given hope and love and courage, the bad new is that we are going to need it.
It is a child’s view to think that someone will come and make everything good and better. It is also a tool of political power to keep people thinking that way. But when you become a parent, you realize that now it is up to you to provide that service, and that sometimes you can’t do it. When you yourself can’t take the suffering away, there is no doubt that you would gladly trade your adulthood for a world where everyone is a child of a benevolent God.
The ultimate pain is the argument that suffering is the price of our free will. Again, the only honest response is that it was very bad of God to have forced such a choice upon us.
Faith doesn’t mean “you win in the end.” Faith means that even at the end, you still have an ability to be honest. If that honesty means that you have to call something out as irredeemably bad, then at least you can do that. You can curse God for having put you in such a position, but you can also thank God for the fact that there is one part of you, your honesty, that is indestructible.
Christ on the cross is meant as a statement that in the end we can always at least serve as a testament to suffering. At the end of the novel 1984, the ultimate failure of the protagonist is that his honesty is beaten out of him. The purpose of religion is to help us not loose that one thing that we should have left.
Couldn’t God have made a nicer world? You damn sure would have hoped so. If you think this world is heaven, then it is shocking to find how hellish it can be.
But how come no one asks the opposite question? How do you know this world isn’t really hell and the devil is in charge? It would certainly explain a lot.
But if it is, then the devil did a very bad job. It is the opposite of the theodicy question. The failure of the devil is that I still have my hope. The devil may run the world, but I still have my heart. And I can be thankful for that, even if having hope makes it worse. It is not a nice view of the world, but it is one that fits the facts.
My wife and children, however, are still active, believing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormon Church. This authoritarian, patriarchal religious organization was at the center of my life from the time I was a child. Beginning in my adolescence, I felt a growing tension between what others told me was true and what my mind and heart was telling me.
Nevertheless, I lived up to the expectations of my parents, my church leaders, and other role models in my religious tradition: I graduated from seminary (a four-year high school program for LDS youth); I earned an Eagle Scout award; I went to Brigham Young University on scholarship; I served a two-year mission for the Church in France and Switzerland; I married my wife in the temple in a private ceremony for only faithful members; I served in many volunteer capacities in my local congregations; I even made my professional career as a faculty member at BYU for five years.
Over the years I had felt increasingly constrained by my life’s circumstances and my own acquiescence into the Mormon religious culture. I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone close to me about my struggle, for fear of losing their respect and causing them heavy pain. In my confusion and loneliness, I reached out online to various communities of Mormons going through similar faith and cultural struggles as I was. Over the course of seven years I deconstructed most of my faith in the Church, as well as my belief in God or any kind of theology. I was angry and hurting and depressed, which affected all aspects of my life.
In choosing to step away from the LDS Church, I threatened virtually every relationship in my life: my marriage almost ended; my 10-year-old children (twins) were confused and scared by what they intuitively could sense was happening but had no tools with which to process; my parents and wife’s family (all active LDS) were supportive but saddened and bewildered by my choices; and my BYU colleagues knew I wasn’t engaging in my work and was at risk of losing my job. My choice to leave the Church necessitated a career change and required that I go back to school for additional training in order to be marketable outside higher education.
It took two years to process through the stages of grief for this loss of faith. Along the way I had to learn again how to trust other human organizations and how to have the courage to apply that trust in meaningful, purposeful, and productive ways again. Along the way I found a way to honor my religious upbringing without feeling constrained by dogma or social expectation for my belief and behavior. Although I’m largely agnostic about ultimate questions of God’s existence, I find myself still passionate and committed to the vision set by the Jesus of the Gospels for healing the world through collective action toward social justice issues.
I enact and practice that commitment through regular worship and service at my local Episcopal church and in leading that church’s ministry with the poor and marginalized in our community. We serve at our local soup kitchen. We’re planting a community garden this year, out of which we’ll feed the hungry. We are setting up a “Garden of Warmth” closet to distribute free warm clothing to those in need during the cold winter months here in Utah. We’re looking for ways to bring in and sit with and serve alongside those who have felt rejected or forgotten by society here. These have been great sources of spiritual renewal to me.
I acknowledge, of course, that the LDS Church also does many good things for people in the world. My wife, children, parents, and many of my extended family are all still heavily involved in doing good through that organization.
Leaving the LDS Church was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but life in the aftermath of that decision has been filled mostly with hope, possibility, a rediscovery of meaning and purpose, and a healing of relationships that had been strained by my crisis of faith.
Let’s hear from one more reader. Compared to the agnostic ex-Mormon above, this reader went through the LDS door in the opposite direction:
I’m 24, and I grew up in a household with a nondenominational, non-church-going-but-Christian father, an agnostic mother, and an atheist sister. Two years ago, I decided to become a Mormon. (My family still doesn’t believe and I even married an agnostic, but thankfully they’re all supportive!) I’ll share two turning points that led me to my decision.
First, I went to a professional conference in college that had nothing to with religion, but I met some girls from a Catholic school and we stayed up talking all night about faith, politics, and the universe. At the end of our discussion, one offered me a beautiful, leather-bound embossed Bible and insisted I keep it, saying, “I have a feeling you’re going to need it.” I thought that was odd, but I accepted her gift and threw it in the back of a drawer in my dorm room.
Two weeks later, my father passed away suddenly and unexpectedly—an event which plunged my whole family into emotional and financial despair. I turned to that Bible and decided then that I was a Christian, but I didn’t know what kind.
The second turning point, years later: I had visited the churches of my friends—nondenominational, Protestant, Catholic, and more. Yet I always got into passionate arguments with my peers (and once, even the pastor) over doctrine. There were so many things I was taught in mainstream Christian churches that I had studied and prayed about but absolutely didn’t accept. Due to a job falling through unexpectedly and needing to find a place to live right away, I moved into a house with five roommates I found on Facebook. They happened to be Mormon.
I visited their church and asked them frequently about their beliefs, which resonated with me so much that I hunted down the local missionaries and asked them to teach me. I was amazed when I told them some of the things that I believed—things that people in my previous churches said were crazy and that nobody agreed with—and they told me they believed in them, too. Without having any Mormon friends or knowing anything about Mormon doctrine, I had still been prepared for my conversion.
A final note confirming how crazy my whole experience was: When I looked up my Family History (which the Mormon church is very involved with), I discovered that some of my ancestors had immigrated to the U.S. after being converted by early Mormon missionaries and had been part of the persecuted refugees who fled as pioneers to Utah. I had no idea.
Like our previous reader Jon, this next reader Joshua struggled between his sexuality and his church. But he, unlike Jon, left one of those things behind:
I grew up very, very Mormon. My parents are devout people, and raised me to be devout as well. I loved the Mormon Church and believed in its teachings. On some level I always knew I was queer but I lied to everyone about it, including myself.
Towards the end of high school I fell in love with my best friend, who was also very devoutly Mormon. I refused to acknowledge to myself what was going on; I don’t think I put it into words, not even in my own mind. I convinced myself that these feelings meant that God didn’t want me back after I died. I felt a sense of doom, feeling that there was no possible way my life would work out in any sort of positive way.
I kept my sexual orientation under wraps and left to serve as a Mormon missionary at age 19. After I came home two years later and started to think seriously about the rest of my life, I finally began to acknowledge the truth.
I went through much of the coming out process while I was studying at the church-owned Brigham Young University. Eventually I started dating guys—something that would have gotten me expelled if discovered—and I realized that I needed to make a decision between the church and the other life that was available to me. I agonized over this decision for months.
One night, I was in the church building and found myself alone in the chapel. I had been dating someone for a few weeks and realized that I did not believe what I was doing was wrong—I just couldn’t believe that anymore. Being with him made me feel love and peace, not guilt and shame. I knelt down in the chapel to pray and asked God one last time if he was there and if the church was where I was supposed to be.
I sat quietly for a long time, yet felt nothing. I realized then and there that I no longer believed. I stood up in tears and ran my hand along the pews, touching hymn books, as I walked to the door. I turned around and looked back at the empty chapel, seeing everything I had grown up knowing and loving, and grieved.
That grief lasted for a long time. I knew what I was doing was right, but I still grieved for the part of my life that I was leaving behind. It was like that part of me died.
But a different part of me flourished for the first time. My relationship at the time ended, but shortly after, I started dating the man who is now my husband. He also came from a very Mormon family. Together we started to build a life. I dropped out of BYU and we got an apartment together, and last year we got married. Our relationships with our families have become complicated, but we’re making it work.
I now consider myself agnostic. I still identify with Mormonism as my heritage—it will always be where I come from—but I am no longer a member of that or any church. I’ve found that I am living a happy and fulfilling life without religion.
Our next reader, Nick Beckstead, made a similar choice:
My gayness definitely shaped my decision to no longer be a part of the Mormon church. For years I beat myself over my own identity. I struggled with reconciling the idea of being married to a woman but being attracted to men. (The church’s usual antidote to homosexuality is heterosexual marriage, which seems like an unfair burden to both partners.) How could that kind of partnership possibly be fulfilling? It wasn’t for me.
As I approached 25, I slowly became less and less attached to the church and its teachings. Then a remarkable thing happened: I began to be at peace with myself. Reconciling my sexual identity to my sense of self and abandoning the faith that I’d spent two years proselytizing in the Philippines lifted a giant burden off of my shoulders.
I stopped attending church some time in my 26th year. I excused my absence to some people as church no longer “being for me,” and for others, I came out as a proud, young gay man.
The gift of gayness is realizing that, as RuPaul has put it, we are God in drag. Religion, politics, institutions are all a construct; they aren’t real and don’t matter. But what does matter is finding our true selves and sharing ourselves with those that love us.
A reader from South Carolina has a heartbreaking story:
I am 31 years old. I was raised in a strict bi-cultural (Af-American and Nigerian) Jehovah’s Witness family, one of six children. Though it’s generally looked down upon for JWs to attend liberal arts universities (vocational schools are recommended), I somehow convinced my parents to allow me to go to university and major in theater (!!).
I was always really devout, but I harbored doubts about the teachings since I was a child. I finally came clean to my family about it at the end of my first year of college when I was 19 years old and told them that I no longer wanted to be a JW.
After heart to hearts with each family member, all five of my siblings and my parents stopped talking to me. I was followed around town by members of the church. My family withdrew financial support.
Though I had plenty exposure to shunning and excommunication, I was naive enough to believe that my family would never do that. I thought if I was honest they would respect my decision and embrace me. Nope. I can’t even begin to describe the depression and loneliness that ensued.
Recovery has been a long process. I’ve been very proactive and I guess I’m fairly resilient. I ended up transferring schools a year after the shunning. I left my hometown in South Carolina and finished my degree at Temple University. I am doing an MA in journalism next fall. I’ve done some research on religious shunning and have interviewed lots of folks from various religious backgrounds who have been shunned. I also co-facilitated a workshop last fall for people who have been shunned or have endured other forms of spiritual abuse. I’m working on an investigative piece about the practice.
Thanks for posing this question about religious choice. I think it’s an important part of making this conversation a part of a larger dialogue, something I think is a major part of my life’s work.
I am a Witness, been one for over 30 years. As Witnesses we don’t look down on education, although in light of them last days we are living in, one is wise to focus on what is priority. Ultimately it is one’s decision and is respected.
Also, if this daughter was baptized and then chose not to continue, she is not ostracized. But I would prefer to socialize more with those who serve God. Now if she were practicing wicked and immoral behaviors condemned as willful sin and was disfellowship, then this is from scripture: 1st Corinth 5:9-13. It is a loving provision from God for the person to recapacitate as well, as to keep the congregation clean. It’s not from the church as in a doctrine opted; it is from God’s own word, the ultimate authority.
From a reader who has clearly not chosen the JW path:
IF YOU ARE A JEHOVA'S WITNESS YOUR ORGANIZATION WILL FORBID YOU TO READ ANYTHING POSTED HERE.
I once told a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses that I could never become one. They asked why not? My reply may help: I could never be a part of something that does not allow their members to investigate for themselves what other churches believe. You can be excommunicated by the Jehovah’s Witness organization if you even enter a building owned by another church. [CB note: That seems dubious, especially without a source, which I couldn’t readily find.] I could not be a part of such an organization because such a position is fear driven.
If what you believe can not survive the scrutiny in the public market place, then frankly it is a false religion. To have such restrictions against exposure to any other belief structure demonstrates a fear of not being capable of carrying the day with you argument. In other words, you can’t win the argument, so you just tell your people you cannot investigate—period.
There have been repeated alterations and changes in the writings of the JW teaching, and they have done their best to remove any of the older publications from the marketplace. They have predicted the second coming a number of times, and when it didn’t materialize they had to say “Oh He (Jehovah) came, but it was secretly to just a few of the chosen.
I was once invited to Passover by a young JW who was neatly attired with his little sister. He came to my home (the parsonage) and invited me to Passover. I asked him why he would invite me to something I could not participate in (only the 144,000 can partake of Passover). His reply was, “I would like to study the bible with you.” I replied “I don’t think your ‘congregation Servant’ would want you to do that.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses will only study with you as long as they perceive that they are the teachers and you are the student. If at any point they think that position has changed, they will trade off with other teachers, or cancel the studies all together. They are afraid of any other material other than “The one true channel of truth,” which they believe the “Watchtower Bible and Tract Society” to be.
Sometime this week, you might walk outside in broad daylight, look up at the sky, and see a luminous orb as bright as a full moon. Only it wouldn’t be the moon. It would be something far more explosive: the dazzling aftermath of a cataclysm hundreds of light-years away.
You’d be seeing the light from a supernova—the final, powerful flash of a dying star.
Or … you might see the regular old sky. Supernovas are nearly impossible to predict. But astronomers have recently started discussing the rare possibility with a bit more enthusiasm than usual, thanks to some odd behavior elsewhere in the Milky Way. If the supernova did show up tomorrow, it would be the celestial event of the year, perhaps even the century, leaving a cosmic imprint in the sky for all to see.
A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade.
Christopher Hitchens and I weren’t close friends—I was a lesser planet in his orbit. Every so often I felt the rhetorical lash of his published words on my back, and then I tried to make him feel mine, and you can guess who got the better of those exchanges. They usually had to do with Iraq. We both supported the war, but I supported it in an ambivalent, liberal way, while Christopher supported it in a heroic, revolutionary way. The more I saw of the war, the deeper my despair became. Christopher made it a point of honor never to call retreat.
I know of many friendships that ended in those years, including a few of mine. But something strange happened between Christopher and me. For every time he called me a split-the-difference bien-pensant, and for every time I called him a pseudo–Lord Byron, we seemed to become better friends. We would say rude things about each other in print, and then we’d exchange tentatively regretful emails without yielding an inch, and then we’d meet for a drink and the whole thing would go unmentioned, and somehow there was more warmth between us than before. Exchanging barbs was a way of bonding with Christopher.
The “crazy worms” remaking forests aren’t your friendly neighborhood garden worms. Then again, those aren’t so great either.
On a sweltering July day, I follow Annise Dobson down an overgrown path into the heart of Seton Falls Park. It’s a splotch of unruly forest, surrounded by the clamoring streets and cramped rowhouses of the Bronx. Broken glass, food wrappers, and condoms litter the ground. But Dobson, bounding ahead in khaki hiking pants with her blond ponytail swinging, appears unfazed. As I quickly learn, neither trash nor oppressive humidity nor ecological catastrophe can dampen her ample enthusiasm.
At the bottom of the hill, Dobson veers off the trail and stops in a shady clearing. This seems like a promising spot. She kicks away the dead oak leaves and tosses a square frame made of PVC pipe onto the damp earth. Then she unscrews a milk jug. It holds a pale yellow slurry of mustard powder and water that’s completely benign—unless you’re a worm.
Five years ago, the flight vanished into the Indian Ocean. Officials on land know more about why than they dare to say.
1. The Disappearance
At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for Malaysia Airlines is MH. The flight number was 370. Fariq Hamid, the first officer, was flying the airplane. He was 27 years old. This was a training flight for him, the last one; he would soon be fully certified. His trainer was the pilot in command, a man named Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who at 53 was one of the most senior captains at Malaysia Airlines. In Malaysian style, he was known by his first name, Zaharie. He was married and had three adult children. He lived in a gated development. He owned two houses. In his first house he had installed an elaborate Microsoft flight simulator.
While public attention is focused on the Senate, the president is making controversial policy moves.
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff, said days after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. Emanuel’s point was that a moment of cataclysm meant a chance for big structural reforms that wouldn’t be possible in moments of calm.
But there are other ways to take advantage of a crisis, as the Trump administration is demonstrating right now. Even as the president’s impeachment trial moves forward, the White House is acting aggressively on a range of policy proposals that are politically, legally, or morally suspect, wagering—probably correctly—that the press and the people will mostly overlook them amid the drama in the Senate.
It isn’t, as has sometimes been claimed, that Trump wanted to be impeached, or that the impeachment is somehow a brilliant Machiavellian distraction he has orchestrated. The president has made clear that he wants the trial over as quickly as possible. But as long as it’s going on, the White House is using the crisis as best as it can.
False statements and West Wing disorder are not only inseparably linked; they’re mutually reinforcing.
Donald Trump faces the diciest moment of his presidency, a Senate impeachment trial, with a pair of distinct handicaps: shattered credibility and a West Wing that is broken into fiefdoms and often clueless about his intentions. Both were years in the making; neither seems easily fixed.
From the outside, these can seem like two different problems. But in many ways, they’re one and the same. False statements and West Wing disorder are not only inseparably linked; they’re mutually reinforcing.
Start with a president who is a solitary decision maker and who has swept aside early staff efforts to vet the material he sees. Trump now absorbs information, innuendo, gossip, and calumny wherever he finds it. He’s getting it from random Twitter feeds and old friends, from overseas autocrats and pro-Trump talking heads. He’ll repeat rumor as fact without naming the source.
And a resulting acquittal verdict would present Americans with something far worse than a constitutional crisis.
On the opening day of the impeachment trial, the Senate, in a party-line vote of 53–47, approved an organizing resolution establishing the ground rules for the trial and rejecting efforts by Democrats to compel the testimony of witnesses and the production of documents not included by the House in its impeachment inquiry. However, the resolution allows Democrats to renew their motions to subpoena witnesses and documents after House managers and the president’s defense lawyers have completed their opening statements. The fateful battle over witnesses will thus begin in earnest next week.
In December, Donald Trump became only the third U.S. president to be impeached. If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell succeeds in his intention to prevent any witnesses from testifying, Trump will become the first president to be acquitted by an unconstitutional impeachment process.
In the past half century, the number of bathrooms per American has doubled.
American exceptionalism takes on many forms, both flattering (our immigrant-founded start-ups) and unfortunate (our health-care prices). But perhaps no part of life in the United States is more unambiguously exceptional than this: We have so many damn bathrooms.
The New York Times’ 1619 Project launched with the best of intentions, but has been undermined by some of its claims.
With much fanfare, The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue in August to what it called the 1619 Project. The project’s aim, the magazine announced, was to reinterpret the entirety of American history. “Our democracy’s founding ideals,” its lead essay proclaimed, “were false when they were written.” Our history as a nation rests on slavery and white supremacy, whose existence made a mockery of the Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal. Accordingly, the nation’s birth came not in 1776 but in 1619, the year, the project stated, when slavery arrived in Britain’s North American colonies. From then on, America’s politics, economics, and culture have stemmed from efforts to subjugate African Americans—first under slavery, then under Jim Crow, and then under the abiding racial injustices that mark our own time—as well as from the struggles, undertaken for the most part by black people alone, to end that subjugation and redeem American democracy.
“We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.”
In April 1963, King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, after he defied a state court’s injunction and led a march of black protesters without a permit, urging an Easter boycott of white-owned stores. A statement published in The Birmingham News, written by eight moderate white clergymen, criticized the march and other demonstrations.
This prompted King to write a lengthy response, begun in the margins of the newspaper. He smuggled it out with the help of his lawyer, and the nearly 7,000 words were transcribed. The eloquent call for “constructive, nonviolent tension” to force an end to unjust laws became a landmark document of the civil-rights movement. The letter was printed in part or in full by several publications, including the New York Post, Liberation magazine, The New Leader, and The Christian Century. The Atlantic published it in the August 1963 issue.