Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

What Was Your Biggest Religious Choice?
Show Description +

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.

Show 12 Newer Notes

Whistling Past the Devil

A reader from a very traditionalist Muslim family has a colorful story of personal religious choice:

Iblis, aka Shaitan, aka Satan (Wikimedia)

I was born into a long line of imams of a Sufi order. My father is an imam, all my paternal uncles were imams, and my six brothers and I are supposed to be imams. My father studied religion, as his ancestors did, by going from village to village, master to master, until he was “ordained.” My mother is illiterate, but she has a vivid imagination and took on the task of scaring her children straight with colorful stories of hell and, less often, of heaven, while my father took on the task of teaching us the Koran.

One my mother’s favorite theme was that of Shaitan (Satan) and his habit of influencing youths to veer them off the righteous path. One of these ways, she would tell us, was that if we whistled, Satan would appear in some guise to convert us and pervert us, be it the form of a cockroach, a goat, a snake, or even—gasp—an attractive woman. (This one would cause me to whistle frequently as a boy, to the point where I am now an expert at various methods of whistling).

When I was about 9 years old, I went on a week-long field trip.

Dylan, a young Millennial reader, revives a really interesting subthread on Jewish identity (starting here, here, here, then here) within our overall discussion on religious choice:

I was amazed to read Lekha’s struggle with her Jewish identity because I am in almost exactly the same situation: Both of my parents are Jewish, but my mother is a convert, originally from India (like Lekha’s mother). I grew up in New York and was raised Jewish. I went to Hebrew School, had a Bar Mitzvah, and had Jewish friends. For the most part no one questioned my Jewish identity until I was in my teens.

It’s not easy convincing people you’re Jewish when you look more like one would expect a Muslim to look like. It’s an ongoing battle within myself.

I also don’t agree with your Orthodox Jewish reader, Esther, when she said that someone who converts to Judaism but doesn’t follow Jewish practices will “naturally” be viewed as an “outsider.” I know plenty of Jews who don’t practice the religion or even believe in any of its tenets but who consider themselves and (more importantly) are considered by other Jews to be Jewish.

This standard doesn’t seem to apply to me because of my mixed ethnic background. When talking to other Jewish people, I’m often forced to explain that, yes, my mother converted before marrying my father. Although even this isn’t enough for some people; my grandmother still didn’t want my father to marry my mother because even they she had converted she would “never really be Jewish.”

Here’s an older reader, Irene, who talks about the tension she experienced growing up with Jewish identity in the 1950s:

If there was one subject I thought I wouldn’t have much to add to, it’s religion. But when the subject took a whole different turn, to “who is a Jew and who decides?,” I knew I could relate.

A reader, Elizabeth Martin, recounts her uneven journey of “losing my religion”:

I was raised to be a lifelong devout Christian, a member of the Southern Baptist church from the time I was in diapers up until I was 18 or 19 years old. I went to church Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday nights. I went to camp during the summer, and retreats during the fall and spring. I roofed and painted houses each summer on mission trips. I promised to wait until I was married to have sex. I learned the books of the Bible and can recite them from Genesis to Revelation even to this day. I memorized a litany of scriptures. Conservative politics were espoused from the pulpit on a regular basis, and I learned to respond in typical fashion to any discussion on homosexuality or abortion—the two big no-nos according to Evangelicalism.  

Despite this absolute immersion into the Evangelical culture, it did not stick.

A reader introduces a new spiritual tradition to our series on religious choice:

I have quite an interesting (at least to me) journey that is ongoing when it comes to religion/spirituality. I was raised in a non-denominational Christian church and always had a million questions. When I was a college student in my 20s, I ended up meeting an older guy who I enjoyed having philosophical and political discussions with, and he ended up introducing me to Kabbalah.

It was interesting because I had already been studying various religious ideas ranging from Eastern philosophy (Bhagavad Gita, Tao te ching, Buddhism) to the autobiography of Malcolm X and even took a course called “Catholics, Jews, and Buddhists” (which interestingly enough focused on the Beatniks; we read On the Road and Dharma Bums). I was always searching, and when he gave me a book called The Thirteen Petalled Rose, it opened me up to the world of Kabbalah.

That quote is from Christian writer Rachel Held Evans during an interview in which she discusses the doubt that lies at the center of her faith:

I caught wind of Evans from a reader, Barbara, who addresses here a previous reader in our ongoing conversation over religious choice:

Last night I was at the grief support group meeting I attend every month for people whose spouses have died suddenly. Today I read the note by Angelle, the Millennial reader who said “God meets us where logic ends.” What bothered me about Angelle’s testimony is that her faith became secure through experiences she credits to god. My life events have not been so fortunate, and the sudden death of my husband from a previously undiagnosed cancer was not a miracle; it was a blow, both to my life and to my Methodist-tinged-with-Anabaptist beliefs. It wasn’t logical to me that my husband had died so suddenly, and it didn’t seem like a lesson in faith, either.

My support group has had numerous members who were faithful and caring Christians who experienced tragedies. Where would Angelle’s faith have been had her father died of cancer and the scholarships not appeared?

That’s the path Fred followed when his life was hitting rock bottom:

I read a few of the reader stories in your religious choice series and, to me, it looks like a lot of empty hearts trying to find a way to fill the emptiness. And in some cases, some hearts don’t even know or admit they are looking for a fill. It’s all about happiness and unsureness.

I was brought up in a Catholic household, although now that I look in hindsight, my parents weren’t too much of an example of practicing Catholics. We all have our stories. When I was 12, my mother told me that my dad was not my real dad.

That’s a perspective we haven’t heard from yet. Here’s Lily:

I’ve been really enjoying your reader series on Millennials and religious choice. I suspect a lot of us—alienated economically and politically as well as from dominant forms of religion—are starting to engage with these questions in a more existential way.

I’m a 26-year-old lesbian trans woman. I was raised in a right-wing corner of Texas Episcopalianism just around the time that church was facing schism over the openly gay Gene Robinson’s consecration as a bishop. [CB note: Robinson is profiled in the above video, featured by our video team earlier this year.] I grew up imbued with a worldview full of moral absolutes, with little middle ground between good and evil.

My biggest religious choice involved letting go the notion of all-or-nothing universal standards and instead embrace the value of relationship and community. I left Christianity as a teenager due to my parish’s anti-LGBT teachings and family’s intolerance. However, I kept the absolutist sensibility, becoming a hardline, Dawkins-quoting atheist. Even with different ideological content, anything short of unchanging and uncompromised beliefs still felt like “selling out.”

An American veteran, Jon, describes his religious journey while deployed overseas:

I didn’t feel like I had a choice when it came to religion. Just as a child who has touched a hot stove knows what “hot” is, I knew three things about what just happened to me after I called out to God in one of the darkest moments of my life.

I knew he heard me.
I knew he knew me.
I knew he loved for me.

Out of the billions of people on the planet and the vastness of space, I knew the God of the cosmos had just taken a moment to step into my life in a tangible way. In that moment he revealed himself as a real, personal and loving God. That’s why I didn’t feel like I had a choice.

There was no going back. I fell to my knees and asked God to take over my life because I had made a hot mess of it.

Now, let me back up and give you the details.

Our Choosing Your Religion special project has run its course, and we’ve already aired a ton of your personal stories and reflections centered on the question “What Was Your Biggest Religious Choice?,” but there are still many more excellent emails worth posting, so we’ll continue to do so every Sunday, indefinitely. This next one comes from Maria, who as a teenager chose secular works of art over her family’s stifling religion and grew to favor the lessons of a Swedish auteur over her father’s:

I’m so pleased with the “Choosing My Religion” series! Much like the reader who submitted “The Security Blanket of Christianity Was Actually Smothering Me” and the accompanied email from Libby Anne, my biggest religious choice stemmed from the non-choice I faced during my childhood/teen years: I grew up in a self-proclaimed “non denominational” Christian church, one that boasts a literal interpretation of the Bible—one that, after many deep-internet sessions, I’ve found to be a cult.

I have only truly felt “myself” for the past five years, and I’ve thrown myself into books, film, and the depths of Spotify to counter years of starvation in these areas. This year I received Bergman on Bergman as a Christmas gift and found that Ingmar Bergman grew up with a strict religious father, a parish minister prone to harsh physical and psychological punishments. In these interviews, Bergman explores the effect such an upbringing had on his psyche, noting Christianity’s penchant for shame:

This story from reader Heather is short but powerful:

I left the Baha’i faith because they shunned a former member. The reason for the shunning was that she had lied when she was trying to leave an oppressive regime. She told the officer at the airport that she was Muslim like her eight-year-old son and husband. Baha’i leaders said she should have told the truth about being Baha’i, even though she would have become a martyr. Yes, she knew for sure that they would have killed her. She should have endured this for her faith.  She should have left her son motherless in order to be an example to the world.

If you’re a follower of the Baha’i faith and would like to respond to this email or share your own experience, please let us know. For those who are unfamiliar with the small and relatively new religion, here’s a brief introduction from the Bahai National Center:

Update from a reader:

I grew up as a Baha’i, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Khomeini regime was at its height, many Baha’is were being martyred on a regular basis in Iran. It was definitely something that was a sorrowful point of pride—horror and sadness that people were losing lives, strength and solidarity that people would not recant their religion. Many of us in the United States wrestled with these ideas to no solid conclusions, but I will say it still pisses me off when Christians in the U.S. claim to be oppressed when people around the world still are actually being martyred for their faith.

That said, no one, even at that time, would blame someone for escaping with their lives using any means possible. What Heather may be confusing this with is the treatment of a shadowy splinter group of (usually) ex Baha’is who—much like the Sunni/Shia schism—decide to disavow Baha’ullah in favor of the Bab. This would be like saying John the Baptist is the true lead figure of Christianity rather than Jesus Christ.

It wasn’t something that came up very much and I certainly never met one of these people. For me, the Faith was not a good fit—politically, personally, and theologically—but I still love and respect my former fellow believers very much!

That’s where Christopher Gerlica came across Taoism:

Hi there! I’m really fascinated by your reader series on religious choice. Some basic facts before I get into my little story: I’m 32 years old, I’m white, grew up outside of Detroit in a religiously diverse city/high school, and now I live in the most Catholic state in the union (Rhode Island). Oh and I’m gay and married to an atheist.

My biggest religious choice, hands down, is when I decided to convert to Daoism (please note the spelling, as there are some different opinions about that). My family is “Catholic”—by the quotes I mean I was never baptized, we never went to church, and I didn’t actually see a real live Bible until I was in college. Basically, we were very secular, but I think my parents felt they had to give me some religious upbringing and would ask me randomly if I believed in God (I said yes, because that was the socially acceptable answer). But that was it when it came to religion.

Around the time I was 16 and finally coming to terms with my sexuality and the fact that frankly all the branches of Christianity weren’t too hot about the gays in the early ‘00s, I turned to my family’s set of World Book Encyclopedias. At the time we didn’t have internet or a computer, so these were my only real outlet to explore what else was out there.

From Bob Kendall, a reader in Michigan:

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.