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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'I Would Go Into the Woods to Yell at God'

Nick, a young reader in Georgia, opens up:

I am not sure if you are still running your series on religious choices, but I feel like this topic is especially poignant to me. My biggest religious choice was when I chose to stop following Jesus when I was 24. I’m 28 now, and it is still one of the hardest and most painful decisions I have ever made.

From my high school days up through the end of college, I was madly in pursuit of a relationship with Jesus. As a Christian, I felt it my calling. I would go to church on Sunday by myself and sit in the pew and bask in the glow of fellowship with other church members who also searched for His presence and warmth.

When I got to college, I joined a “non-denominational” contemporary Christian college ministry and it was the perfect fit. All of my friends were in the church. I traveled across North America on missions to Colorado, Memphis, Mexico, and Honduras and had the time of my life seeing various cultures and feeling a closeness, a connection with God. I felt his presence in my prayers, felt it when I was in the woods, walking with Him in closeness. There were intense joys but also intense sorrows when I would fall short. But I knew I was imperfect, and that all my shortcomings could be made up by seeking His presence.

But when I was 21, I decided that I wanted to start being honest with myself and respect my wants/needs more often. I was gay and closeted and living in fear that God could never love someone so different and unnatural.

A reader recounts a horrifying early childhood in which she was regularly abused—physically, sexually, psychologically—by her mother’s boyfriend. That suffering severed her faith in God:

I feel compelled to share my story because it illustrates a fundamental flaw in religion that is often overlooked. As a young child, I enjoyed Sunday school, and I learned to put all my trust in God. I was five years old when my mother, who had divorced my father when I was two, met a monster and moved him into our house. He was a violent child molester who tortured me for the better part of a year, and the abuse was too graphic to describe here.

I prayed constantly for deliverance, for help, for relief, for anything other than what was happening to me. He told me he would kill my mother if I told anybody what was happening, and he showed me a handgun to prove he could do it. My five-year-old self was convinced that he could do it because he was just so mean.

When I found a few baby birds that had fallen from a nest in our backyard, he fed them to his dog. When he entered a room and I flinched, he would slap me for flinching. He forced me to drink beer out of a shot glass, pouring more and more in until I got sick. He threw me into a swimming pool and held out a hook for me, but once I grabbed hold of it, he dunked me over and over. He did a thousand other horrible, inscrutable things to me.

But before long, my mom married him, and I couldn’t understand how God could let this happen to us.

Here are two stories from readers who attend a Unitarian Universalist church and how it differs from more traditional churches in the U.S. The first reader, John, describes how being exposed at an early age to a very different faith in a very different culture opened up his mind—and then closed it off to religion:

Fascinating collection of personal essays. Here is mine.

I grew up in Northern Virginia and was raised Episcopalian going to a long established Episcopal parish in Fairfax and being confirmed there. In 1962 my father joined the U.S. Information Agency. That September we moved to Ankara, Turkey. I was a few months short of 12.  

The move exposed me to the Turkish version of Islam. It was also the beginning of what I like to think of as an appreciation for what William James termed “the variety of religious experiences.” My father was a great believer in getting out and exploring the country, for which I will always bless him. We travelled all over the Turkish Mediterranean coast, to Istanbul and to Greece. This exposed me to Greek and Roman polytheism and to the Greek Orthodox traditions of the Byzantine Empire and modern Greece. At around the same time I was beginning to explore Western classical and American history, including the impact of the Enlightenment on Revolutionary America.  

After my parents separation in 1965, my mother, sister, and I returned to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I was quite offended by the lack of understanding she received from the Episcopal minister there. I don’t recall the impetus, although I think I can infer it, but in 1966 she left the Episcopal congregation for the Kalamazoo Unitarian congregation. It is possible that my mother’s Quaker heritage on her father’s side could have played a role. We continued as Unitarians when we moved to Tucson, Arizona, in 1967, when I was 16. In my 20s I gradually drifted away from organized religion.

I have recently begun connecting with the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, where I now live. I consider this an intellectual, not a spiritual, connection—one prompted more by my respect for the ethics and intellect of the two ministers leading RRUUC and a personal quest for community after my wife entered long-term care for Alzheimer’s.  

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.