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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A Canadian reader, Jan, introduces a new spiritual practice, Falun Gong, to our ongoing series. He’s been a practitioner for 16 years and “came into my spiritual path in a most unexpected way”:

I grew up as a Catholic, though really only in the most basic sense of the word. Early on I tried to be a proper Catholic, was an altar boy, but I met with what I saw as sufficient hypocrisy in the church (no need for details here) that I proudly declared myself an agnostic in my teens. I came to see religion as a tool for powerful people to subjugate the masses.

I decided that science would be enough as a worldview, a paradigm. I dabbled in Daoist Tai Chi a bit, but purely for purposes of relaxation.

I studied to become a biologist, with particular interest in ecology, evolution, and conservation. I imagined myself becoming a professor. Things were going well. I was blessed with generous research scholarships. I made excellent contacts in my areas of interest, established great collaborations, found ideal field sites. What really interested me was non-Darwinian models of evolution. For my doctoral studies, I did field research in Madagascar to study apparent hybridization between different species of lemur.

Returning from the field, I began to feel weak, depressed, and after some time, my ability to do simple things progressively degenerated. Working with micro lab tools became progressively more laborious and difficult. I thought I was overworked, but no amount of sleep would help.

One day, running to catch a street light, my legs stopped working properly, and I barely made it to the other side. I checked myself into the university hospital.

When you are deeply immersed in a religious faith, there is always the guilty understanding that falling out of your chosen religion reflects your own inner weakness, a moral failing. Many religions are predicated on an “all-or-nothing” ideology, which implicitly separates “unbelievers” from “believers.” This segregation always bothered me, as a Christian. I could never reconcile the gritty lines carved between religions, forcing us to declare who was wrong and who was right. After a prolonged, painful struggle, I decided to leave my religion.

Immediately, it was like being unmoored in a vast, dangerous ocean. In an increasingly secular world where religion is no longer in vogue for young people, it seems like abandoning religion is an easy thing. Yet, what had always drawn me to religion was its capacity to comfort. It was an answer to the loneliness of the soul in a sprawling universe. It was the assurance of someone else being in the driver’s seat. So the abrupt disappearance of that after leaving Christianity was terrifying to me.

Then, one evening after work, I found myself standing in a circle of 20 strangers in a church in Washington, D.C. I was at the monthly meeting of The Sanctuaries, a self-described “spiritually diverse and creative community committed to personal growth and social transformation.” (I had heard of the group when it was featured in a CBS News documentary, “Faith, Spirituality & the Future,” a preview of which is seen below, and embedded above is a music video made by members of The Sanctuaries.)

The leader of the monthly meeting, a cheerful man who introduced himself as “Rev Erik,” seemed intent on assuaging away all awkwardness. “Why don’t we all just close our eyes,” he suggested gently, “And whenever you’re comfortable—only if you’re comfortable—feel free to say aloud the being or force that guides your life.”

The silence stretched. I peeked open my eyes. A girl across the circle in a hijab saw me and smiled.