By Chance

I (Cami) came home yesterday to see the following (see picture) sitting on my sofa. When my husband came into the room I said, “That’s crazy, isn’t it?”

“What?” he asked as he leaned over my shoulder to look at the images of our book cover and the National Geographic picture of a woman in a burqa with caged birds on her head. He hadn’t even noticed the uncanny similarity! The placement of the two pictures side by side was a complete coincidence.


As you might imagine, I sat for a good long time studying the similarities and the differences here. I posted the picture on Facebook immediately and sent a note to the designer (who also happens to be a contributor to the book). I wanted everyone else to be as taken with the coincidence as I was. What strikes me are the birds.

In one image they fly free; in the other, they live in a very, very small space.

There was a time in my life when I lived in a small space, too—when I looked at the world through the mesh of a limited theology and worldview. In truth, I (like everyone else, I assume) still have plenty of self-limiting beliefs that sometimes make me feel like I don’t have enough room to spread my wings. As Susan and I are fond of saying, “You can take the girl out of the religion, but you can’t take the religion out of the girl.” The “total depravity” doctrine still haunts me at times, even though I’ve consciously given it up.

But seeing our book cover sitting beside the image of this covered woman with the birds on her head made me remember how much range of movement I actually do have. For me and for most Western women I know, the limitations we have live mostly IN our heads, rather than being forced burdens placed ON our heads. I don’t know the life story of the woman in the National Geographic picture above, of course, but I do know there are plenty of girls and women who don’t have the option of choosing their lots in life (whether they cover their bodies or not).

Today I will be thankful to be an uncaged bird, and I will ponder how I can support those who are not so free.

Note: I hope in addition to reading Beyond Belief, you’ve all read Half the Sky by Kristof and WuDunn.

Going on Tour!!


Hurray. We are very excited to announce that Beyond Belief is going on tour!! That’s right, we have a blog tour coming up, and we invite everyone to follow us as we travel to 15 bloggers’ sites for reviews, interviews, give-aways, and guest blog posts. Take a look at the schedule below, come along, and join the discussion. Susan and Cami would like to thank Women On Writing (particularly Crystal Otto and Angela Mackintosh) for scheduling our tour and designing our bookmark for their page.

Monday, August 26 (today!) @ The Muffin
Stop by for an interview and book giveaway!

Wednesday, August 28 @ My Fiction Nook
Join Cami as she writes about the insightful topic of “Remaking Yourself After Divorce”.

Thursday, August 29 @ CMash Reads
Join Susan and Cami as they enjoy the author spotlight at CMash Reads today. This is your chance at a giveaway for the anthology Beyond Belief, The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions. Cheryl has done a fabulous job with an in-depth author interview and excerpt especially for you; enjoy!

Friday, August 30 @ Steph the Bookworm
Get in on the giveaway and join Stephanie as she reviews the anthology, Beyond Belief, The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions by Cami Ostman and Susan Tive.

Monday, September 2 @ Words, Crazy Words
Read what Susan Tive writes in her guest post about “Feminism and Religion” and get in on the giveaway and your chance to win a copy of the anthology Beyond Belief; The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions.

Wednesday, September 4 @ Renee’s Pages
Read what Renee’s thoughts were after finishing the anthology, Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions and partake in the giveaway for an opportunity to read this one for yourself!

Tuesday,  September 10 @ All Things Audry
Don’t miss your chance to win a copy of Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women of Extreme Religion and enjoy a guest post by author, Susan Tive with the intriguing topic of “Motherhood in and out of Religion”

Thursday,  September 12 @ Margo L. Dill
Don’t miss your chance to win a copy of Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women of Extreme Religion and join Margo as she shares her thoughts after reading this thought provoking anthology.

Friday,  September 13 @ World of My Imagination
Don’t miss your chance to win a copy of Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women of Extreme Religion and join Nicole as she shares her thoughts after reading this touching anthology.

Monday, September 16 @ I’d So Rather Be Reading
Don’t miss this opportunity to win your own copy of the moving anthology Beyond Belief; The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions this is one book you don’t want to miss. Read a review just as expertly written as the book as Kelli shares her thoughts.

Tuesday, September 17 @ CMash Reads
You won’t want to miss today’s giveaway for the moving anthology Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions and read about what Cami has to say about “Being True to Yourself”!

Wednesday, September 18 @ Words from the Heart
Giveaway and review of Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of women in Extreme Religions. Find out more about the powerful words of this intriguing anthology!

Thursday, September 19 @ I’d So Rather Be Reading
Don’t miss this giveaway and review of the touching anthology Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions.

Monday, September 23 @ Mom-E-Centric
Today is a don’t miss day for a giveaway of the intriguing anthology Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, and guest post by Cami about “Being True to Yourself”

Wednesday, September 25 @ Choices
Today is your day for a giveaway of the anthology Beyond Belief, The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions. This is also your opportunity to join Susan and Cami for a guest post titled: “Why Women Stay in Religious Communities”

The War Room

I (Cami) am late posting this week. I’m off to Japan this coming week for some research on another book and feeling stretched to get my house clean and my clothes packed. So you can imagine my mixed feelings when Susan and I got an invitation to appear on Current TV’s The War Room this week. On the one hand, I was thrilled we would have the chance to share our work and the stories of our writers with such a large audience (about 1 million viewers), but on the other hand, I was feeling pressed for time and really wanted to hunker down to get things done.

Boy am I glad we said yes. The War Room isn’t filmed local to us, of course, so the producers arranged for Susan and me to go to a television studio in Seattle. We thought we had the right address and ended up on the wrong side of town (after paying a ridiculous amount of money for parking). When we finally found the studio (after paying another ridiculous amount of money for parking), we were whisked into to “hair and make-up” and placed in front of a camera for a four-minute interview.

I’m glad, though, that we drove the two hours and paid the million dollars for parking for that four minutes. Each time we do a quick interview, we are reminded that Beyond Belief touches on something our country needs to talk about–at length. The questions that almost always comes up are ones that informed our vision for the project in the first place: Why would a modern day woman join a restrictive faith? Why would she stay?

In four minutes, those questions simply can’t be answered. Incomplete, quick responses reflect the manipulation of religious communities that women become involved in. But I always feel a little defensive of women. Women aren’t stupid. Those of us who weren’t born into a faith but joined willfully (or stayed willfully) did so because there WAS something offered that we needed. Support for mothering, clear answers, promises for safety, rescue from painful situations, and so on. Surely, there are women who contributed to the anthology who were born into their faiths and rejected them hands down at some point. But others, those who chose their paths as teenagers or adults, did so because they were looking for something.

Since leaving my doctrine (and therefore, my religious community) behind, I’ve worked hard to build a life that has the sustainable elements I need: community, spirituality, safety, purpose. It’s very alluring that all of these things might be offered in one place in the form of religion. The long discussion we might have after the TV interview is over is about how and where women’s need are met in the secular world. Where do you find community, safety, connection, meaning, and support? What can our culture do to press on toward becoming more friendly for women as we evolve in our roles?

Ultimately, I hope our brief appearances for interviews urge people not only to complain about religion, but to ask themselves how we can all contribute to showing up for one another in ways that release us from the restrictions we’ve lived with.

As always, we’d love to hear your responses, contributions, and ideas.

What a Week!

Well it’s been a big week, hasn’t it? I (Cami) sat with the rest of you on pins and needles waiting for the Supreme Court decisions yesterday. And when the news came, I rushed to my Facebook page to watch the reactions of friends and family. Like many of you, I have an online community that is about as politically divided as congress. I’ve got old friends from back in my church days and new friends (people with and without faith) of very liberal persuasions.

Mostly, I stay out of political discussions online because I find that when people hide behind their avatars, they can get nasty. But yesterday I wanted to somehow send a digital hug out to my many friends who have been waiting, in some cases for a lifetime, for their relationships to be acknowledged by their country. It’s a huge step forward when the Supreme Court says everyone deserves “dignity.” And it’s about time.

Because I used to follow the Family Research Council (a conservative organization that opposes gay marriage, among other things), I was also curious about how they responded to the rulings, so I looked up their website. This is from their press release:

“While we are disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the court today did not impose the sweeping nationwide redefinition of natural marriage that was sought. Time is not on the side of those seeking to create same-sex ‘marriage.’ As the American people are given time to experience the actual consequences of redefining marriage, the public debate and opposition to the redefinition of natural marriage will undoubtedly intensify.”

Later in the day, I heard one of the FRC leaders add to these comments on television saying that the impact of the Supreme Court’s rulings would be that parents would lose influence over what their children are taught in schools and that the general culture will be degraded by the DOMA ruling. As excited as I was for equal rights winning the day, I was saddened by such fear of difference and attempts to invalidate others’ lived experiences.

But, unfortunately, there was a time years ago when I was very afraid. I was taught (and believed) that the way to pleasing God was narrow and that those who chose a different path were a menace to God’s will on the planet and should be feared and opposed. I was so afraid of stepping (or thinking) outside of The Lines that I spent a lot of time filled with anxiety and incongruence. I had gay friends, for example, back in those days, but I was afraid that enjoying my relationships with them and inviting them into my life made God unhappy (unless I was trying to change them). So I didn’t challenge myself to think more deeply and to push beyond my fear.

One day about ten years ago, when I was some distance away from the literalistic faith that had caused so much anxiety, a Bible verse came to mind (as will happen if you’ve spent a great deal of time memorizing Scripture, as I had). “The truth will set you free,” popped into my head. And, because I was in the process of changing my faith perspective and learning to think critically, I was willing to entertain the thought that came next: “If something doesn’t set me free, it must not be the truth!”

What a relief this thought was. If something (a belief, a dogma) hurts others, isn’t fair, and doesn’t invite me to be my best self, it’s not something I want in my life–and therefore not “true.”

This week, the Supreme Court acknowledged that denying some adults the right to marry the people they love and to receive the federal benefits other married adults receive hurts people, isn’t fair, and doesn’t invite our country to be its best.

There can be nothing to fear in rectifying a wrong. I believe it will only make our country stronger, more open-hearted, and more compassionate.

stock-photo-15313368-heart-shape-in-female-handsSo… a big digital hug to all of you who care about this week’s rulings. We would love to hear your reactions and thoughts.

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?

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.

Identity: Talk Amongst Yourselves

We’ve heard through the grapevine that readers have been able to purchase Beyond Belief on their e-readers! This means the conversation has officially started. And we’d love for you to join in (by commenting on posts with opinions, questions, or stories of your own).

When we first met in author Laura Kalpakian’s memoir class and started talking about our respective experiences inside our faith communities, we were both amazed to discover what we had in common. I (Cami) didn’t face any of the specific food or clothing restrictions that Susan was obliged to follow, and she wasn’t required to strictly and wholeheartedly “believe” a particular set of doctrine in order to achieve salvation as I was, but we did both very much value the communities we had been a part of (in spite of leaving them). Upon further discussion, we also discovered that for both of us, leaving meant reformulating our identities (just as joining had meant).

question-marks-with-speech-bubblesSo much of being a part of a faith community (or a faith perspective—with or without the people who come along with it) is about identity. Tough questions are answered inside of religion. The more extreme/fundamentalist/orthodox the religion, the more questions are answered. Who am I? What do I believe? What is my purpose on the planet? What should my relationship with outsiders be? What is the “proper” way to participate in education/marriage/child-rearing/worship? All of these questions answer, at least in part, the question of who a person is.

When someone walks away from her sect or her doctrine, she has to decide if she still holds to the answers given to her about the questions listed above (among others). If she doesn’t, she needs to either answer the questions differently or learn to live in new relationship with the questions themselves.

When we conceived of Beyond Belief, one thing we were interested in was making a place where women could talk about how this need to reinvent themselves impacted their lives once they departed from what was once a firm conviction. For me, reinventing meant finding new rituals that would center me and make me feel secure. I used to get up every morning and spend an hour in prayer and Bible reading. Now I get up and run. It’s a new kind of prayer and reading that I do with my body.

How about you? How has/did your faith or religious affiliation inform your identity? How has that changed over time? What’s new about how you answer the questions: Who am I? What do I believe? What is my purpose on the planet? What should my relationships be like?

Can’t wait to hear from you!