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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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.

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.

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.

We’ve already heard from two gay readers in our special project on religious choice: one who is considering leaving the Mormon Church and one who already left. The next reader we’re hearing from is a straight guy, who states his choice right off the bat:

I left the LDS Church at age 34.

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.

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.

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.

We are still sorting through the scores of emails from readers responding to our callout over the question “What’s the biggest religious choice you’ve made?,” and we’ll start airing your stories soon. For now I want to highlight one especially good reader comment on the piece Frances Johnson wrote for us about LGBT Mormons who have to decide whether to stay in the Church and stay celibate; try being openly gay and hope for the best; or resign from the membership rolls and effectively quit their religion. As Johnson observes, the LDS Church has dug into its opposition to same-sex marriage: Gay couples can now be excommunicated, and their children can’t participate in certain religious rituals, including baptism. (A number of other religious groups are struggling with divisions over homosexuality; last May, for example, I wrote about LGBT-related conflicts among Mennonites.)

Here’s how our reader, Jon, responded to Johnson’s piece, and unlike our readers emailing in, Jon is still struggling over the choice he might have to make—between his church and his sexual orientation:

I do see how it’s difficult to understand why we would want to be a part of the church. (I say “we” because I am a gay Mormon.) I don’t think I could easily convey it through a message, but I hope to give a small tidbit to try and answer.

For me personally, I feel like if I leave the church, I loose one half of myself, and I will lose one half of myself if I stay and don’t live a life filled with a wonderful relationship with a man I love. Either way I lose.