15 Readers on Their Religious Journeys

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

I recently asked readers to describe their relationship with organized religion. What follows is a continuation of the outpouring of responses I received.

Betsy explains why she rejects hierarchical religious organizations:

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and [religion] is no exception. There are many fine and generous people who practice religion as it was meant to be, but those numbers are small and usually not in positions of influence. I have not abandoned spirituality, and feel that there is an existential need for imparting a value system that inculcates consideration, concern, and care for all human life. This is the root value of faith communities, but so often it’s co-opted by those unavoidable humans who see an opportunity for influence and self-aggrandizement.

Chad explains why he values organized religion:

I am a Christian who believes that Jesus of Nazareth was born of a virgin, lived a life without sin, died a death he did not deserve, and rose from the grave on the third day.  And it is through faith in him alone that I can be saved from my sins and receive eternal life.

I have been a part of a church since I was born, in childhood as a member of the Church of Christ, and later as a member of a Southern Baptist Church. Overwhelmingly, my experience has been loving and good. That goodness has been founded in the love between the fellowship of believers in those places. I have loving parents, and found in the Church other loving adults who deeply cared for my development and well-being as a child. As an adult, I live in Madison, Mississippi, where neither I, nor my wife, grew up. We found a very supportive community in our church as we seek to raise our own children.  

While these aspects of Church have certainly been beneficial, the reason I go to church is because my heart is so humbled by a God who would love me, and send his son to die for me, despite how many times I fail. What I mean is that at my core, I seek to glorify myself above others. I am prideful. I think if all humanity were honest with themselves, they would say the same thing. If we believe that there is a God who is perfect who created the heavens and the earth, and has revealed himself to us through his word, choosing to glorify ourselves over him has to be sinful. Yet, despite us constantly only thinking about our own personal wants and well-being, this God still loves us anyway.

That kind of unconditional love is worthy of my worship and affection. I have experienced the failings of Church leadership. I went to a church growing up where two of the three pastors are now professing atheists and disavow what they once taught. We had a pastor embezzle hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Southern Baptist Convention has a well-documented history of sexual abuse by its clergy. While these failures require accountability and justice, my faith has not wavered. That is because my faith is not in men but in a God who is perfect in his love, justice, and forgiveness. Churches are made up of people who will continue to fail. But the reason to go to church is because we are all broken and marred by sin, and in Church we find a God who loves us anyway.

Paul describes his religious evolution:

I grew up in an Irish Catholic family that went to church every Sunday (at 7 a.m.!) my entire childhood (’80s–’90s). Somewhere around my preteen years, I realized not everyone’s family was as strict with attendance, and I couldn’t understand why these nice families would be going to hell just for not being observant enough. Later in my teen years, I knew plenty of Jewish people and Hindus who I really thought were going to hell for not being born in the right “type” of family (I realized at that time that most people are “born” into a religion—it’s not a choice). And since God created them all … why did he not even give them a chance to follow the rules? They were basically sentenced to damnation upon creation.

I didn’t have any “bad” experiences; I just started to see holes in the foundational doctrine. I kept going to church with my family, and even continued briefly in college, then slowly tailed off. It wasn’t a “moment” where I stopped feeling Catholic; more of a slow letting go. I got married in a church and got my children baptized, but mostly out of family obligation (the “training” classes for each of these confirmed my fears of the dogma).

Then in my early 30s I started suffering from depression and anxiety. I have an engineering background, so figured I could fix it like an engineering problem: all by myself! I dove deep into general psychology and CBT. It worked a little, but I was still having issues. Then I came across the whole “mindfulness movement.” After doing some research, I saw that it was rooted in some science. I was willing to give it a try and saw some immediate results! I then started diving much deeper into the practice and Eastern philosophies … which are directly tied to Eastern religions, especially Buddhism.  

I found an opening to overcome my aversion to all organized (Western) religions—the historical Buddha clearly stated not to believe anything because it is said or written down; you must experience these things for yourself. I didn’t realize it ’til then, but there was a “hole” that was previously filled by religion (common beliefs, community, identity, etc). I started practicing Buddhist meditation daily by myself for a few years and saw a lot of improvement: I had fewer critical thoughts, was a better employee, and less of a “jerk.”  A few years ago I finally joined a Zen Buddhist Sangha (a group led by a Zen priest) and found just what I needed (even though we mostly sit there in silence together).

Right or wrong, that I feel I was able to CHOOSE my path really opens doors and increases my faith in “something” bigger. And I just don’t think “He” cares what I do on Sunday mornings.

Bob describes a break with his faith community:

My wife and I moved from Chicago to Kansas City 43 years ago as [Reform] Jews. One of the first things we did was join the largest [Reform] congregation in town. After conversations with the rabbis, we were placed in a havurah (a small group of 10 couples) with similar backgrounds. It was up to the hosting couple to determine the topic of the month (somehow or another tied to Judaism). After 20 years of being part of this “second” family, sharing family events from births, bar/bat mitzvot, weddings, and funerals, this was very comfortable for us. Although we didn’t agree on many things, as we had many conservatives as well as liberals/progressives within the group, it made for interesting discussions.

Then, 20 years in, major issues were coming up in the congregation at large of approximately 1,800 households, like dismissing the senior rabbi underhandedly, moving the temple cemetery, and funding a new building on a new site. About 400 households (us included) objected to some/all of the changes and met to push back against the executive director and board, including members of our aforementioned havurah. The next time the group got together, we had other plans and did not attend; we were voted out of the havurah and haven’t spoken to these couples in over 20 years.

We decided then that if we had an opposing viewpoint and could be “voted” out, we were done with the congregation. No more dues, holiday celebrations, and everything else connected to membership. I’ve become more of an agnostic, secular Jew in the meantime and I don’t miss the human tribalism of being in a temple congregation. I know who and where I came from. My parents were Czech Holocaust survivors and I’m comfortable in the decisions we’ve made being secular Jews without a congregation to call home.

Jess isn’t spiritual:

I identify as a Reform Jew and have been raised as such from birth. I enjoy attending synagogue and participating in holiday rituals. My husband was raised Episcopal but converted before our marriage, having immensely enjoyed his first visit to a synagogue and finding it more meaningful and relevant than any religion he’d explored before. We intend to raise our son as a Jew. All this said, belief in God has never been a factor for me. No living person can possibly answer the God question, and therefore it isn’t worth pondering. The organized nature of Judaism is more important to me because it helps maintain a connection with our cultural traditions. It has been a uniformly positive influence in my life and one that I’ve never felt compelled to hide. The best way to describe my outlook is “religious but not spiritual.” If there’s a simpler term for that, I haven’t heard it.

Jan urges a kind of religious pluralism:

Swami Vivekananda (the hit sensation of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions) once said the highest manifestation of genuine spirituality will be seen when each individual develops their own unique approach to the supreme reality AND understands that underlying the multiplicity of such approaches is a unity which can never be defined or summed up in any creed or dogma. I have found that underlying unity in contemplative traditions around the world, from Christianity, Kabbalistic Judaism and Sufism to Vajrayana Buddhism and Kashmir Saivism. There are now millions of sincere individuals in every culture who are similarly discovering the unity that Swami Vivekananda pointed to. And many are internationally recognized scientists who, like myself, were atheists when all they knew were the dogmas of organized religion.

Tyler has been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints his entire life. At 48, he appreciates the organized aspect of faith more than ever:

This past week I was made aware of a neighbor whose wife had passed away after a long illness, after which the widower contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized. Alongside other members of our faith (and others not of our faith), we were able to provide meaningful service to this man in an hour of great need. The service rendered was immediate and multifaceted due to the organized priesthood structure and Relief Society organization (composed entirely of women) at the local level of our small congregation.

Conversely, I was served by members of this same congregation this past Sunday as I listened to the sacrament-service testimonies of God and his love—offered by my fellow believers. This took place at our regularly scheduled 9 a.m. sacrament service—just one small example of the blessings of a structured, organized, consistent element of our Church.

I understand the criticisms of organized religion and its historical abuses. But without organized religion today, I would be without blessings and support that I consider vital to my spiritual progress.

Kathleen’s conversion to “very conservative Protestantism” eventually led to her earning a Ph.D. in religion from the secular graduate school now named Claremont Graduate University. She writes:

When I was in the sixth grade, my parents sent me blithely off to Calvin Crest Camp, a mainstream Presbyterian camp. My little girlfriend’s father was a Presbyterian minister in town. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the camp was staffed by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. While there I had a “born again” experience under the guidance of a staffer named Becky Cowan (I even remember her name). I came home with a Bible. My parents were dismayed. My atheist maternal grandmother, who was the executive secretary of the San Francisco Marin Medical Society, the first woman to chair the California medical board, and one of the original Terman children, called a friend on the faculty at UC San Francisco, a sociology professor, and asked him, “How long will my granddaughter be in this cult?”

I ended up at a small, conservative Baptist school. Graduating a year early, I went to Westmont College in Santa Barbara at 17. Although discouraged from even attempting to take Koine Greek by my first adviser (a Ph.D., but still a graduate of Bob Jones University), I took it anyway and decided I wanted to be a New Testament scholar and professor. From there I went to Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena. I also learned Coptic, as I was interested in the Gnostic Gospels, along with a full year of Biblical Hebrew.

I had no women role models. The theology building did not even have a women’s bathroom; all professors were men. After two years I transferred to Claremont Graduate University, where I worked first with Bernadette Brooten, then James M. Robinson and Burton L. Mack.

With every year of my education, I moderated, and went from being a fundamentalist to being a pretty liberal Episcopalian. After being at several deathbeds of men who died of AIDS as a volunteer for APLA, I came to believe that gays and lesbians should at the least be allowed civil unions. My very first academic article in a very conservative evangelical theology journal challenged the validity of Paul’s rejection of same-sex relationships in Romans 1:26-27. My mentor Bernadette went on to write an entire book on the passage, for which she received a MacArthur “genius grant.” Unfortunately, at the end of my first semester, she took a position at Harvard. She wanted me to move with her, but I could not afford it.

In 1989 I took a full-time job at the University of Sioux Falls, in South Dakota, as the first woman ever to teach in theology or Bible. This is an American Baptist school. It had no formal statement of faith I had to sign, and assured me it was ready for a feminist woman. I was there for three years, and it was awful. My support for gay and lesbian people continued. Without any process, six weeks after I had refused to make a public statement in a university publication that I was not a lesbian, I was denied renewal for my “activities,” and for not being a good “fit” for the school. I prepared a grievance, but the campus did not even have a committee to receive it.

I defended my dissertation in the fall of 1991; it was accepted for publications with a trade press without revisions, and I had several on-campus interviews. Although invited by the dean at Notre Dame to take a tenure-track job there, all of my feminist mentors told me to instead take a job at a state school in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which at that time had a large, well-respected religious-studies department. So I came to the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh in the fall of 1992.

After Sioux Falls, I finally realized I was no longer an evangelical. I no longer was committed to the evangelical belief in the full authority of the Bible, nor felt I had what is understood to be a “personal relationship with Jesus.” I remained a committed Christian but obviously no longer was able to conform to an evangelical institution. I feel free to not apply biblical passages to my life that I can argue are time- and culturally based. After being threatened by violence from my husband, I decided that I was free to divorce, even though I agreed that Jesus himself prohibited divorce for any reason. I also saw no reason to reject gays and lesbians outright, as God had created them, too, in his image, and I had firmly decided that gay men with AIDS were being dehumanized based on a culturally biased argument of the Apostle Paul that I saw as completely outdated.

I have spent a great deal of time doing adult ed and other weekend seminars in churches around the country helping other Christians grapple with passages that have led them to treat others poorly when (I believe) God wants us as Christians to show mercy and compassion for every human being we encounter, and to fight for justice for all whenever possible. I still find great meaning in the scriptures, and my education deepens my love of these texts upon which my faith is based. I now am active in a Presbyterian Church, where I attend with my husband, an evangelical Christian a bit more conservative than I am. He is a lifelong Republican and an Army veteran.

He did not vote for Donald Trump as he thinks he is an immoral man.

Irene was raised in the Orthodox Christian Church by a priest and presvytera (the title for a priest’s wife) of a Greek Orthodox parish:

I never felt a need to leave the Church, and always felt like I was at home within its traditions and community of faith. In graduate school, I met my future husband through Church. He attended seminary, and we married the week after he graduated. It never occurred to me to marry outside of the Church.

Together we have traveled for more theological training in Greece; we have raised two children and have served our parish for over 30 years. Even though my husband is now retired, we still are in the parish. The people in our parish are “family,” and we are united in a common bond of faith and devotion to God. I love welcoming new members to the faith. Orthodoxy is a rich faith that stays true to the teachings of Jesus, and even though we seem strange to the American religious landscape, we have lots to offer. It frustrates me that we are not better known, and it frustrates me that today, orthodoxy is known primarily because of ethnic festivals and the horrible invasion of Ukraine. I am a chanter in the church, and chanting the hymns greatly deepens my faith. The depth of theology shown in the hymnography is fathomless. Another thing that helps me grow in my faith is charitable outreach, especially through the local and national ministries of our Church.

Max counsels against polemical atheism:

I’m now in my 70s, and my disbelief has become only more certain. Yet, I’ve withdrawn my support for militant atheists as their provocations are not diminishing militant religiosity but encouraging it. Religious faith is not amenable to reason, but reason is vulnerable to faith, and when we make people choose between faith and reason, most will choose faith and then go on to defend it and their choice by rejecting reason and evidence. Articulate voices arguing that there is no God and that religion is harmful have caused an opposite but more powerful backlash that is partly responsible for the shocking abandonment of reasonable thought and opinions that has dominated the Trump era.

Benjamin found his Christian faith with help from another believer:

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Going to church was just something my family did: Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights were spent there, but, strangely enough, we never spoke much about the Bible or faith at home. For us, the organized religion of the Church was scantly personal, not intellectually rigorous, and didn’t clearly change the way people lived; the Church was a social gathering based loosely on Jesus. When I went to college, then, I had a vague intuition/baked-in belief that Christianity was good somehow, and so I began attending a Christian campus ministry. For whatever reason, I kept visiting the weekly meetings and grabbing coffee with the intern of this ministry for my first year and a half of college. While this campus ministry probably isn’t the kind of organization that you think of when you hear “organized religion,” it was very much an expression of religion that is organized at the local, regional, and national level, so I’d say it counts.

My sophomore fall was a tumultuous one to say the least, but that intern was always there; I knew I could count on him to just show up to talk about whatever I wanted to talk about. Since this is a religious group, I could also count on him tossing in a couple Bible verses and applying them lovingly to my situation, even if I didn’t really understand why. My relationship with that intern was the first time I witnessed an inkling of God’s goodness that I had probably only heard about for an hour on Sunday. That sophomore winter break is when I believe I understood God’s love for me in Christ for the first time—it became tangible, fulfilling, something I desperately longed for. Undoubtedly, to me, it was the intern back on my college campus that showed me this truth, lived it out, even if I can’t remember how exactly he articulated it (though I have no doubt he did).

Today, I work in that same internship in New York City. Organized religion went from a seemingly hollow social club to a peripheral pursuit to showing me a God who draws near and sends out—one who sent me far from home to cast the light of his embrace over students here, to demonstrate that the organized faith is not just a value-add or a fragment of the person I call “me” but a transforming embrace that will encompass everything about me and can do the same for you. I never would have known the grounding peace that I believe only comes from knowing Jesus if it weren’t for that group on my campus and that intern. Now I just hope I can be for a student a sliver of what he was to me.

Jaleelah’s best experience with organized religion was as a kid:

For a few years when I was growing up, I attended a Muslim Sunday school that used an atypical teaching style to impart traditional religious beliefs. Muslim schools for children in Canada tend to focus solely on Arabic grammar and Quran memorization. The school I attended aimed to impart core religious beliefs and practices through interactive group lessons. Students were never told they should believe in God or the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) simply because the adults said so—they were invited to raise doubts and provided with logical responses. I credit some of the thinking prompted by that school with ensuring my belief in God remains sound (“if a number of physical and metaphysical forces each affect a certain amount of mass, surely one is quantifiably stronger than the rest”). Unfortunately, as I grew older, I found out that adult religious communities operate quite differently.

Many religious people are more concerned with pointing out the flaws of others than improving their own. This is, of course, true of atheists as well, but the culture of moral righteousness has unique consequences in religion. For Christians and Muslims alike, religion is often the center of the community. Small Christian towns organize events around churches, and communities of immigrants who come from everywhere between Palestine and Malaysia stick together by attending celebrations and dinners at masjids. When a center of religion is unwelcoming to people who cannot or will not practice “perfectly,” they lose far more than eternal salvation: They lose their family and their biggest connection to their culture.

I still admire Islam’s systems of justice. I will still fast throughout Ramadan in March and April because it is an excellent exercise in humility, empathy, and self-control. But I will also continue to approach religion with skepticism, which may unfortunately lock me out of truly engaging with it.

Cherry counsels going to church in person:

We need the coming together, the prayer and worship time, and we need to publicly acknowledge we believe in God. When I was more committed to being a part of organized religion, I felt less isolated and I did not take dust issues and transform them into mountains. People also need to be with groups that they relate to and feel comfortable with.

Now, people can view church services via online media and don’t need to get dressed, burn expensive gas, and put miles on their vehicles. But something is missing when you do this. When entering a house of worship, there is a peace, as if you have entered the presence of God. It could be that this space has been dedicated to God, or it could be all of the prayers that have been offered up. The holiness of that space is felt.

Isaa, 70, is “a baptized believer in God and a lay member of God’s Eastern Orthodox Church.” He writes:

God has sustained me all these years; I am one of the few longtime San Francisco bike messengers to reach my age and have also survived some years in Afghanistan (as an aid worker), two years of homelessness, and two heart conditions ongoing since 2006. Before and after my baptism in 1984, I was also someone who saw religion as a consumer item, something that I could use to improve my life. That feeling still comes back on occasion. But I have become aware of the vital fact that it is not God who must do for me; God has already done so much for me—given life to me and my loved ones and created an Earth that is stunning in its natural beauty and variegated bounty.

So, after all God has done and still does for me, I must do for God and for other people. And my organized religion helps me do for God and for others. It organizes us. An array of prayers, services, sacraments, fasts, feasts, and other benefits work to organize our daily lives.

Consider just one of these blessings:

The sacrament of confession. Many outside the Church have criticized the practice of confessing in the presence of a priest. “Why not just confess directly to God?” they ask. Actually we are confessing directly to God, but we are doing so with a witness. And this seemingly unnecessary regulation serves as a brake on our very human inclination to sin. After my first confession at the age of 31, I said what almost every other convert to Orthodox Christianity has said: “If I had known I would have had to say some of those things in front of someone else, I never would have done them.” And to this day, I find myself checking my infamous temper when I remember that I will have to admit my actions in front of someone else. So this inhibition on our human tendency to sin restrains us from harming other persons and keeps us from spiritually damaging ourselves.

Brink Lindsey’s lament about the decline of organized religion is a variation on a theme I have often read in print or heard in conversation, especially in recent years. Basically atheists, agnostics, or others who avoid organized religions are concerned about the loss of faith by other people. While they see religious faith as something irrational for individuals, they see faith as desirable and therefore rational for society. For me as an individual, faith is very rational. For millions more, wouldn’t it be more so?

And Glenn advances an intellectual argument for faith:

C. S. Lewis said, “A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”  He is referencing the transcendent religious experience to which all world religions point. Some are simplistic, others sophisticated, but all point to a reality beyond the merely physical.

Twentieth-century secularism dares to seek reason and purpose in the merely physical present. Trying to fully experience meaning from the facts available to us by the hard sciences is like trying to experience Bach or Beethoven by only looking at the sheet music. The notes on the page are a true depiction of the genius of those composers, but hardly a true experience of their creativity––and I would argue, as a devout Christian, of their creator. In fact, music, art, love, etc., are just the sorts of things that expose the threadbare vacuity of our modern and postmodern secular point of view. We hunger for more because there is more. And every form of transcendence requires some mode of faith, not as a component of anti-intellectualism but because faith is the only bridge that we have available for us to escape the mere physicality of the universe.

Do we understand this? Of course not. If such a supreme being exists, we should expect such vagueness rather than certainty. Any “god” small enough to fit neatly in my brain and thought process would be far too small to be the being we are seeking. It would constitute proof that he existed but was not all that we thought or hoped he would be. He transcends our expectations and explanations. We are constantly surprised by the counterintuitive nature of quantum physics; certainly we should expect to be surprised by the artist that created quantum physics, if such a being exists.  

He does.