Give me a genie and three wishes, and I’d probably ask for the following: an end to poverty worldwide, give people the desire and ability to protect and restore the environment, and an end to religion.
Religion is at the root of much of what’s wrong with the world. When we go chasing after invisible gods, all of our worst human tendencies remain, but are given God’s stamp of approval. I’m sure you’ve noticed how what God wants so often matches the desires and prejudices of the person saying what God wants. That, or they’re parroting what the people who wish to retain power over them tell them God wants. Either way, the desires always track back to people.
And in Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, we see just how destructive and devious religion can be. This book is full of slices of fundamentalist life from a broad range of faiths. The editors, Susan Tive and Cami Ostman, wanted to explore the commonalities between women who found themselves sucked (or born) in to extremely restrictive religions. They weren’t intending “to refute or belittle religion.”
They didn’t have to. The religions do that quite well all by themselves.
One common theme I noticed, and that infuriated me, was the way all of these sects, from Judaism to fundie Christian to Jehovah’s Witnesses to Islam and more, preyed on vulnerability.
Within hours of the Twin Towers falling, members of a cult were at a vigil on a college campus only a few miles away. They weren’t praying for the victims so much as seeking people whose world had just come crashing down, and preying on them. Spreading Jesus was more important than rendering aid.
Another cult used a young woman’s intense desire to heal her mentally ill brother to suck her in, turning her into another money-collecting drone for the cult.
Women searching for clear, simple rules to navigate complicated lives. Women trying to overcome anxiety and depression. Women trying their best to be what pastors, parents, prophets and parishioners want. Women needing to feel loved and safe and whole. Religions descended on them like hyenas, tore them apart while promising to put them together, and spit out the pieces. Taught them to fear the wrath of God and hell so viscerally that they would do anything for salvation. Taught them they were worthless and damned if they strayed from that incredibly narrow path.
The stories these women tell grab you by the gray matter and demand you pay attention, no matter how awful they become. We sit in a mortuary chapel with Naomi Williams, surrounded by the stench of decayed human bodies, as the pastor conducts the congregation’s regular service and the parents lie.
“Why couldn’t these people, who had not the slightest hesitation about telling their children that they would burn forever in hell when they died, be honest about the real-world manifestations of death? Here, surely, was the real “end” of man – dead, breaking down into volatile organic compounds, a mortician’s project. Talk about a powerful object lesson. But all we got by way of explanation was dead fish.”
We kneel on the carpet in a pastor’s office with Pamela Helberg, as her father and pastor pray “the demons of homosexuality” away.
“If life begins with the splitting of a cell, my lesbian life began that night in Pastor Gary’s study. I was not made free from my burdens, but I split into two selves. My inner and outer being were forced to separate, setting me on a long and arduous path to rediscover what would make me whole again.”
We stand in Leila Khan’s room as she rejects an arranged marriage, and faces her mother’s wrath:
“You have disappointed us so much. If you refuse to marry Amir, I will curse you so that you never succeed in life. You will fail and fail, and when you come crawling back to me, begging for forgiveness, you know what I will do to you that day?” She stared at me with unblinking eyes. “I will kick you so hard in your face, you will never be able to get up.”
These women all overcame their indoctrination and have gone on to live rich, fulfilling lives. These glimpses into their lives before freedom are infuriating, inspiring, and always riveting. They’ve given me a deeper understanding of life within the confines of a constricting religion. That little piece of them will always be with me.