What About Now?

One thing I (Cami) have been thinking about lately is spirituality. It might seem a little basic, but because in the past my spirituality was so defined by dogma and theology, I still find it a little baffling when I experience spiritual “feelings” without any specific doctrine to attach them to. As Susan and I (and some of the other Beyond Belief authors) traveled to book stores reading from the anthology, we frequently got the question, “Where do you stand now?” For some of our authors, the answer was easy. “I’m an atheist,” Pam Helberg said at one reading. I envied her.

As for me, while I avoided the dreaded “I’m spiritual but not religious” cliche, I never had a great answer for this question. I’ve lately been reading Sam Keen’s book, In the Absence of God: Dwelling in the Presence of the Sacred, in which he states, “Our experience of absence rests firmly upon an ancient memory of presence.” My memory of “presence” isn’t so awfully ancient, actually. I can still remember magical moments between the layers of heavily heaped on doctrinal burden—those flitting feelings of the mystical. In fact, those moments kept me coming back for more—for years. And for that reason, I’m a little wary of such feelings now. Sometime now, though, when I’m out for a run on a warm and slightly breezy day, the trail I’m running on feels about as sacred as any church I’ve ever been in. In fact, out on a good, long run I can be certain I’ve made contact with something numinous, something transcendent. But it IS only a feeling, after all.

question-marks-with-speech-bubblesMy question for readers (and our authors, for that matter) is this: How do you experience/practice/engage in spirituality after you’ve left an extreme religion? Even for those of you who are atheists now: How do you make sense of “spirituality” as a concept and as an experience? Does spirituality, by definition, have to be connected to a God in some way, or can it be/is it a human emotion (as in I feel excited/sad/worried/spiritual)? What are your thoughts?

Beyond Belief Interviews Grace Peterson

Grace Peterson is a writer and blogger living in Oregon. Her stories have been published in several anthologies and she blogs about the writing craft and recovery topics. Grace’s new memoir, gracepetersonReaching has just been published by All Things That Matter Press. It tells her tale of entering and leaving a religious cult and breaking free from the power of a charismatic cult leader. An avid gardener, Grace keeps busy writing a garden column, updating her garden blog and working on her forthcoming gardening book.

What interested you in contributing to Beyond Belief? It began with serendipity and a random Google search. When I found Susan and Cami’s website and read their call for submissions I immediately thought, well, this is right up my alley! Having someone interested in my journey was and is a priceless gift.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion?  It made me very grateful for where I am today.  I was an emotional wreck during the bulk of my seven years under the influence of a hyper-religious man I call “Brock.” During that time, opportunities to explore my emotions were far and few between. I had convinced myself that seeking outside help was wrong. I was like a caged animal. If my “free expression” wasn’t congruous with Brock’s point of view, I was either a rebel or demon possessed. I felt terribly hopeless.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? I remember thinking, if leaving Brock means leaving God then, so be it. I really didn’t want to live the rest of my life without God but I didn’t want to live under Brock’s control either. Brock had taught me to fear the outside world. It took 5 years before I could start to trust people. During this time I began to realize that what I had believed was wrong. I had to admit my part in it. It was much easier to lay blame on Brock and play the victim. It took several years and lots of therapy to own up to the role I played in my own deception.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? For me, initially it was about finding a cure for what was ailing me. Once I was in it became about belonging. I had grown up with parents who were emotionally unavailable. I was longing for connection and wanted a family, particularly a doting father. I believe all of us need to feel a human connection. We’re on this earth for a united purpose.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? Not very much, I pray, not in a ceremonial way. I talk to God and hope that a higher benevolent being cares about me and my loved ones and the goodness of humanity. I hold on to the hope that when we’ve exhausted our efforts to control things, we can trust that higher power to guide us. I’m not a religious person. I doubt I’ll ever step foot in a church again.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Extreme religion is all about conformity to a specific set of doctrines. I would remind women who are struggling with their faith to hone their intuition. We’ve all been gifted with the ability to think and reason and wrestle, to discover what works and what doesn’t.

Additionally I’d remind women that we can eschew religious people and/or institutions and still be connected to our higher power. We don’t need a bevy of pious people to guide us. We can think for ourselves.

One last thought:  A belief system that is hurting you emotionally, physically or spiritually is a red flag. Even if you can’t put your finger on what it is, listen to your gut. It’s okay to think the unthinkable—and to protect yourself from situations that are hurting you.

What are your current writing projects? My memoir Reaching was just published. In it, I go into much more detail about my life, how I was lured into a cult and how I got out.  I’ve also written a light-hearted garden book which will be released in late fall 2013. I write a garden column and author two blogs.Reaching  front cover

Anything else you’d like to say to our readers? I’d like to state publicly how honored I am to be a part of such an important undertaking. Thank you Susan, Cami and Seal Press for believing in this project and giving each contributor a platform to share their story.

Critical Thinking

Susan and I were interviewed on a Madison, Wisconsin radio station last week. The host asked us a question we hadn’t been asked yet.

“What do you think parents can do so that their children don’t get pulled into controlling sects?”

I’ve been considering this since last week, and the issue of critical thinking keeps coming up for me. Back when I was steeped in a narrow way of understanding the world, I was very careful about what I read/watched/listened to. My sequester was intentional; any material that opposed my worldview was suspect, something which might lead me away from truth. Even during college, although I majored in English and Theater, I read assigned texts warily, counteracting any dissonance that arose inside of me by doubling up on Bible reading and study.

Only in and after graduate school did I encounter bell hooks, Naomi Wolf, and Carol Gilligan. Only then did I engage with people of faith whose perspectives were vastly different than mine. And only then did I begin to look at how power and privilege function and feel an objection rising up inside of me so powerful it couldn’t be ignored.

stock-illustration-21670999-thinkHow can anyone make an informed decision without looking at opposing sides of an issue? Without hearing different voices on the topic?

Not long ago, my friend’s twelve-year-old son came home from school upset. He told her that his buddy had informed him that anyone who didn’t believe in Jesus would go to hell when they died. He wanted to know from his mom if this was true.

My friend was wise. She could have taken her child in her arms and said, “No honey. It’s just a story. Don’t worry about it.” Instead, she knows that early adolescence is a notoriously spiritual time for children and so she said, “Well, sweetheart, there are many religions in the world and each one believes something different about what happens after you die.”

“What do you believe?” he asked.

“I’ll tell you what I believe, but would you first like to look at the different world religions and talk about them? Maybe talk about what makes sense to you?” she offered.

When my friend told me this story, I marveled at her restraint–admired her patience with the questions and how committed she was to teaching her son HOW to think instead of WHAT to think.

What about you? What have your conversations with your children been like? How have you taught them critical thinking?

Isolation and Sex

It has been a bad week for women in the news. The escape of three young women held prisoner in a Cleveland neighborhood, shackled and locked in a room, for 10 years! The arrest of Jeffrey Krusinski, an army officer in charge of preventing the sexual assault of women in the military, himself arrested for committing these very acts. And Elizabeth Smart speaking at Johns Hopkins about how her Mormon upbringing taught her that without her virginity intact she was like a chewed up piece of gum. When she lost it at the age of 14, raped by her kidnapper, she often wondered, “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”

Isolation and Sex

In all three of these situations they are common factors. The three victims in Cleveland were physically isolated and then sexually abused. They had no way to seek help. Women in the military become part of a closed community, with its own rules and system of hierarchy. Once signed on they are a small minority who agree to a structure that does not give them permission to speak up thus breeding sexual abuse that will go unpunished. Elizabeth Smart, who, even as a mainstream Mormon, took the lesson of the sanctity of virginity to its heartbreaking conclusion and remained kidnapped longer because, after losing her virginity, she no longer felt worthy of any other life.

Although none of the stories in Beyond Belief come anywhere close to the horror of these three events they have caused me to reflect upon the stories in the anthology and how they speak to the ways in which isolation leads to the sexual control of women and women’s ultimate resilience to find their way back to freedom.

First comes the isolation. Isolation can take many forms from outright physical separation to the more subtle practices and beliefs that separate women emotionally and intellectually from those around them.

Religions create insular, all-inclusive worlds. In Dirty Girl, Erin Seaward-Hiatt’s story, she recounts her own lesson on virginity. In a Mormon Sunday school class she was offered a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies covered in debris to get the message that her virginity was sacred. It took a bad marriage and three times confessing the minute details of her sex life to three different strange middle-aged laymen before she finally threw away her faith and walked.

In Mary Johnson’s (An Unquenchable Thirst) experience of living as a Catholic nun for 20 years her celibacy was controlled by a cloistered environment where women spied on one another and were not allowed to talk openly about their sexual feelings. The rules kept them isolated from one another and to knowledge about their own bodies. Though they were never alone and lived within a tight knit community that was supportive in many other ways each woman was internally isolated.

In my own case the isolation of living as an Orthodox Jew in a small community and practicing the laws of mikveh (immersion in water after menstruation) led to the control of my sex life making me into a baby-making machine. It all made sense, within the confines of the orthodox world, its values, its beliefs, its laws. Cranking out children was normal, a woman’s number one job, a one-way ticket to the world to come.

As powerful as isolation can be I need to remind myself of the resilience and power that a woman’s deep reserve of inner strength has to ultimately help her to break free. Beyond Belief has many fine examples; Elizabeth Taylor Mead, Melanie Hoffert and Carolyn Briggs come to mind. Our resilience, our strength, as women, is a rich and deep vein, it’s what has kept me going during many years of my life and what kept me going this past week of bad news.

I find solace in knowing that more women than ever are speaking out. Telling our stories and coming out of isolation is more important than ever and I am once more grateful to each of the Beyond Belief writers and their willingness to raise their voice.

A Week of Touring

Susan and I just finished up a three bookstore tour with some of Beyond Belief’s local authors (a big thanks to Elise Glassman, Pam Helberg, Elise Curtin, Colleen Haggerty, and Grace Peterson for joining us!), and we’ve been blown away by the interest in the book and the turnout of readers up and down our I-5 corridor. At Village Books in Bellingham, we enjoyed our hometown crowd and the support of friends, family, and other community members, while at Powell’s in Portland and at the University of Washington Bookstore in Seattle, we appreciated seeing new faces and making new acquaintances. (In Portland we had a group of people who had all left a particular faith and who came to our event together. A special thanks to you—you know who you are. We welcome your comments and invite you to let others know about your websites here.) We’re very grateful to have had the chance to be in conversation with everyone who joined us in person at our live events.

After each of the readings, we opened up the floor for questions and discussion. Some of the same questions emerged repeatedly, and I thought it might be helpful to share our answers to them right here for others who are curious about these FAQs.

FAQ #1: How did you find your contributors?

Susan and I started our search for authors by looking online and in bookstores for books by women authors who were already writing about the topic of religion. We contacted these writers and invited them to submit something. Then, we also sent out a general call for submissions to Yahoo! groups, university religion departments, and other writers’ groups. Every story we received we read with an eye for whether or not the author was touching on our primary questions about why and how women join, stay in, or leave a restrictive faith community.

FAQ #2: Did all of the contributors to Beyond Belief leave their religions or have some of them remained?

Most of the women whose stories are included in Beyond Belief have left their faith communities, but a handful have stayed or joined more liberal branches of their religions.

We were looking, in particular, for authors who had experienced the full trajectory of finding, staying in, and eventually leaving their religions.

FAQ #3: What patterns or similarities in themes did you notice in the stories of women who came from all of the different faiths?

We noticed a number of themes repeating themselves regardless of which religion a woman was writing about. For one thing, we observed that when first joining a church or adopting a faith, several of our authors were looking for connection, structure, support, community, healing, and meaning. Religion offers these things, but sometimes also offers restrictions or untenable dogma. The same needs that influenced the adoption of a particular faith impacted a woman’s decision to stay, even once it became clear that something wasn’t working. While some of our authors left their faith without a glance back, many faced significant losses of relationship and identity when/if they left.

Another theme that many women addressed was sex. Many religions have extensive rules about what kind of sexual expression is legitimate. Authors repeatedly mentioned the way these rules impacted their self images or sense of personal power.

FAQ #4: Why did you include only women’s stories?

We recognize that men’s voices need to be heard on this topic and that men need to tell their stories just as women do. Susan and I wanted to focus on women’s stories in this volume because we wanted to explore the particular way that women experience restrictive religion. That said, we often bat around the idea of doing a second volume. We’ll see.

Again, we want to communicate our appreciation to everyone who has joined us live or online in these past few weeks as we’ve launched Beyond Belief. We look forward to being in continued conversation.