Reporter's Notebook

What Was Your Biggest Religious Choice?
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Readers respond to that question with a variety of personal stories and reflections. (For related essays, see our special project Choosing My Religion.) To share the most important religious decision of your life, or remark on one of the accounts below, please drop us a note at hello@theatlantic.com.

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An Orthodox Christian reader writes:

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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?

A reader raised by Jehovah’s Witnesses responds to our callout for dissenting views over the apostate readers and disfellowshipped readers who were shunned by their JW congregations and families:

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.

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.

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?

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.

That’s the journey this reader went through:

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.

This reader had one:

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.

Satan pours on the plagues of Job in William Blake’s The Examination of Job  (Wikimedia)

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.