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 We Don’t Have to Answer

Tonight I (Cami) am sitting in my friend’s apartment. She’s away on a trip; I’m hanging out with her cats. This pal of mine (let’s call her Sherri) is visiting her family in another state—a family that has been much grieved by Sherri’s leaving the Christian faith. Every summer and almost every Christmas Sherri goes back to see the people who love her, but who are terrified for her soul now that she’s rejected the doctrine. And on each visit, both Sherri and her loved ones spend a lot of time trying to be understood by one another. She’s spent many hours over the years listening to how worried they are about her and fielding the emotional fallout of making the decision of not believing something anymore.

Susan has talked a lot about how, as an Orthodox Jew, the rules were primary for her. In many versions of the Christian faith, however, one’s thoughts and beliefs are the crucial focus, and following moral guidelines is meant to be an act of obedience, evidence that a person’s faith is real and deep. If you watched Sherri visiting her family, you wouldn’t see that she was any different from her mom, dad, and siblings. And this is because you can’t see inside of someone’s head. Sherri doesn’t smoke; she’s not a nudist or a drug dealer. She is a lesbian, but since she’s single, her parents aren’t confronted with what to do in a practical way with Sherri’s sexual orientation. Nonetheless, every time Sherri visits, she senses the terrible disappointment of her family—because of what she no longer thinks.

In my experience, one of the highest psychological tasks one can master is to healthily live with the disappointment of others. The women of Beyond Belief live with knowing that those who used to love them (and those who still do, in many cases) are disappointed, afraid, and angry about their choices to leave communities/faiths/religions. And many of them live with this very gracefully.

This week in the news, we’re watching a public woman leave a very secretive religion. Actress Leah Remini (from the sitcom King of Queens) has walked away from Scientology and is facing grave disappointment from her former friends, no doubt. We don’t get to know how she’s handling it (though we would dearly love to hear from her if she’s out there looking for a supportive community who “gets it”), but if she’s anything like my friend Sherri (and like me and many of you), bearing the disappointment of others is sad. And hard. And irritating. And… and… and….

One thing I’ve done when I encounter old friends who want to bring me back into the fold of fundamentalism, is to breathe into my not-knowing—the glorious freedom not to have answers, for myself or for others. None of us—Sherri, Leah, me, you—has to answer the question, “Why did you go.” We don’t have to know or articulate the anything we’re not inclined to.

What do you do when you encounter family and friends who are invested in convincing you of something? What do you breathe into? What keeps you grounded?

To quote a common mindfulness meditation: May all beings be at peace. May all be freed from their suffering. And to Sherri and Leah: You are not alone.

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?

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.



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!