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Women’s Voices on Leaving Religion

By Karen Garst ~

Last week, I wrote an essay about why there weren’t more women atheists, citing statistics that set the number of men who disclose themselves as atheists at 68% and women at 32%.[1] I post my blog to a number of atheist Facebook groups each week. I have never received so many comments in the two years I have been doing this. The comments ranged from agreements with the reasons I stated in the essay: being part of a community, having church as a safety net, and issues with leadership and speaking out. There were also comments proposing that women’s brains were different, women don’t admit they are atheists, women are still subjugated in many societies, women  in the US have it better than men, to men are just more loud-mouthed. Therefore, I decided to share some excerpts from my book, Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion, to show real life experiences of what women experienced when they did try to leave religion. At the end of this essay, there are links to two other posts that have a few other excerpts if you are interested. The book itself is available here.
Ann Wilcox was raised in a very fundamentalist church with a very domineering father. She talks about the long-term impact of this upbringing on her mental ability to think rationally. I think we forget how the inculcation of children can shape their psyche long term.
But when my religion demanded that I believe things that were irrational, mythical, or contrary to human decency, it had to undermine or destroy these fundamental tools. What else would they have done? If they hadn’t bent my mind, I might have wondered why there are such an amazing number of things in the Bible that make no sense. If they hadn’t suppressed my feelings, I might have decided that human compassion is more important than obedience to dogma, and I might have rebelled at being commanded to love a Being who sends billions of people to hell.
But in my world, it was flirting with eternal fire to question any of this, and I had no desire to take on the Almighty. As submission to this dogma eclipsed my thoughts and feelings, I lost the ability to know what I really thought and how I really felt. It became almost impossible to give and receive love, or to trust. It became possible to accept things that violated my integrity as well as human decency.
Fortunately, Ann has recovered from her indoctrination but it took a very long time. I applaud her willingness to share her story with others.
Ceal Wright reveals another aspect of indoctrination. She was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. Not only did she keep within the circle of other JW’s, she was absorbed in activities for the church and discouraged from higher education.
JW’s excel in the art of indoctrination. The organization keeps its followers on a strict schedule of busywork. At that time my typical week consisted of a Sunday meeting: two hours, Tuesday night meeting: two hours, Thursday book study: one hour, Saturday morning door-to-door ministry: three hours, and one additional night spent on a family study. In addition, we were strongly encouraged to study before all meetings and spend extra time socializing with fellow members.
For similar reasons we were strongly discouraged to pursue education beyond high school. Who needs more wisdom than what Jehovah’s organization can offer you? There were no hard rules concerning either of these things, but rather social pressure and the fear of losing status in the congregation kept most people in line.
It’s so clear to me now why education isn’t conducive to being a Witness—it makes a person think. It opens your mind and forces you to question things that they wanted members to accept as fact. More importantly, it exposes you to a whole new segment of the population that makes you question what bad association really is.
Keeping people in a bubble is probably less probable now with access to the Internet, but even that can be strictly controlled by parents. Fortunately, Ceal left the religion, but she cannot tell her cousins who are still JW’s or they could no longer have anything to do with her. Does the word cult come to mind? In many ways, religion shares many, many characteristics with cults.
Matilde Reyes was raised in Peru and recruited by the Opus Dei, a very fundamentalist sect of the Catholic Church. They used their own unique methods to draw her in. Fortunately, she broke free.
The Opus Dei is a powerful group that was close to Pope John Paul II. They are very conservative and use their teachings to ingrain specific and restrictive gender roles. They are the ones fervently preaching about birth control, and they don’t hesitate to pry into the lives of parishioners to ensure their doctrines are followed. They separate their believers by numeraries and supernumeraries. Numeraries are single men and women who make celibacy commitments, dedicating their lives to god whilst keeping their own professions. Supernumeraries are married members of the Opus Dei.
A couple years into secondary school, I was one of the girls chosen to be invited for a leadership course at one of the Opus Dei houses, where they helped “form” young girls. That course opened the door for me to be invited to meetings, Masses, religious retreats, and a friendship with one of the woman numeraries at the Opus Dei house I attended. A friendship that, about eighteen months later, I would run from for no reason other than the constant checking in—aka, harassment—to join them for everything and anything. One thing I realized is that the Opus Dei goes through great lengths to recruit followers. They pressure you into friendship but only if they think you have potential, and apparently this woman thought I had potential. While this was tremendously annoying, it was also flattering, especially for me as a lonely teenager.
The final excerpt is from Ruth Marimo who grew up in Zimbabwe, Africa. Not only did she walk away from religion, but she also came out as a lesbian and got a divorce. She emphasizes one of the aspects of religion, feeling special, that has affected many.
The hardest thing for me was getting out of religious habit. It took a long time for me to not feel the need to pray before bed or before meals and even just to not feel compelled to get up on a Sunday and get ready to go to church. As soon as members of my church started asking about my absence, I started to explain the reasons and everyone tried to convince me otherwise. It felt like it was a lot harder for other religious people to reconcile with my walking away than it had been for me. Some people actually expressed how hurt they were about my choice to no longer be religious, some people stopped talking to me, and some even unfriended me on social media. But just like with my coming-out journey as a lesbian, I soon discovered that many people were like me, and slowly I began to express my secular views more publicly.
I want to thank again these women who have shared their stories about leaving religion. Religion is the last cultural barrier to gender equality. We need to get beyond it.
Karen L. Garst
May 19, 2017