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Women in Secularism Tell Their Ex-Fundamentalist Stories

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ATHEISM
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When women leave moderate forms of religion, are their stories less interesting or was it a coincidence that all but one of the deconversion narratives I heard at the Women in Secularism III conference May 17 in Alexandria, Virginia, involved women leaving fundamentalist versions of faith? Because I'm a Christian, and I would leave those too.

The Stories

Candace Gorham, a licensed counselor and member of The Clergy Project, said she was ordained as a prophetess and evangelist at 18 years old in a store-front Pentecostal church that she described as extreme. She later joined a prosperity gospel preaching mega-church, and abandoned Christianity altogether after moving to Bermuda and encountering a series of personal trials.

Dan Barker videos on YouTube "built the coffin" for her belief and Bart D. Ehrman's book on how the Bible was constructed "nailed the final nail" into it, she said.

Philosopher and author Rebecca Goldstein (Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction) was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family that has become "progressively more fundie" over the generations, she said.

"It was all books for me that got me to where I am now," said Goldstein. "The interesting thing about Judaism is that they don't really care what you believe as long as you do it," she said. "Doing it" meant things like keeping a kosher kitchen. Goldstein may not have deconverted had she been a man and allowed to study Talmud, she said.

Heina Dadabhoy's non-religious Muslim family moved to London when she was five years old to "get more religion," she said. There she became a "little fundie." Dadabhoy, a contributor to Skepchick.org, also said she may have remained religious if she had been a moderate Muslim. The treatment of women and gays within the version she practiced contributed to her deconversion.

Sarah Jones, a communications associate at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, grew up in the Christian homeschooling movement, where she was taught creationism by parents who identify as fundamentalists. Jones had little contact with people outside her church, she said, and for a time no television or radio.

She was expelled from a fundamentalist high school for being a "disturbing influence." Like Goldstein, her introduction to philosophy in a religious school contributed to her deconversion. Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian" made more sense to her than the messages she heard at the school's mandatory chapel services, she said.

A Counter-Narrative

In another session, the author Barbara Ehrenreich delivered a counter-narrative of sorts, based on her latest book, Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything. Hers was a story of growing up in a staunchly atheist family and grappling with the meaning of a series of mystical experiences that she had as a teenager.

Ehrenreich, who holds a PhD in cell biology, said she learned from science not to ignore observations that don't fit into her theories. Women's subjective experiences have been too often dismissed, she said.

Ehrenreich mentioned the possibility of mental illness as an explanation for what happened to her. This seems reasonable given her mother's history of mental illness and eventual suicide, but Ehrenreich didn't fully embrace that explanation.

One of her goals in writing about her experience was to reclaim "so-called mystical experiences" from religion and "soft spirituality," she said.

"If you should have such an experience, or anything like it, do not fall upon your knees. Pay attention. Take notes. Better yet, get a blood sample," said Ehrenreich, referring specifically to the possibility of encountering a supernatural being.

There is room for mystery in her paradigm, it seems, but not for the possibility of God.

Making Distinctions

The question arose in light of these stories as to what keeps women in religion when it is so often hostile to us? Among the answers suggested were rationalization, a culturally imposed lack of self-confidence, the need for community, a lack of basic life skills and/or education and a longing for purity that also involves disdain for the body.

(Kile Jones, founder and editor of the Claremont Journal of Religion, outlined "Five Interesting Facts About Women and Religion" in a 2013 blog post that touches on some of these factors.)

Missing from the discussion was the idea that other women have positive experiences with religion and/or have grappled with similar challenges and come to different conclusions.

Only Jones said it is important to draw a distinction between fundamentalism and more moderate and progressive traditions. She finds the same battles over ideological purity in the secular community that she found in fundamentalism, she said.

"I worry that we're trying to single religion out as the scapegoat," said Jones.

Given the recent Supreme Court decision (Greece vs. Galloway) allowing sectarian prayer at government meetings, the author Susan Jacoby (The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought), in another discussion, said she doesn't think there is any danger of religion being marginalized in America.

Jacoby and Goldstein expressed mild disdain for moderate faith in a discussion about "Why Women Are too Polite About Religion."

Jacoby said she feels sorry for her religious feminist friends. "They don't want to go all the way; it's kind of a halfway house," she said, arguing that "the degree to which [religions] are not dangerous to women is to the degree to which they have been changed by secular ideas."

"I feel protective of them and their beliefs. There is some part of me that feels, 'Oh, you poor person; I don't want to smash you,'" added Goldstein, who, it should be noted, also said she wrote 36 Arguments for the Existence of God because she doesn't agree with the demeaning of religion among her peers.

Dadabhoy expressed reluctant appreciation for Muslim feminists. "I left that hot mess behind, and they're trying to fix it," she said.

Finding Allies

In an email after the conference, Jones said it takes a great deal of work for her to admit that religion can be a force for good because she was "treated shamefully so many times by so many people who justified their actions by claiming that they were just following the Bible."

"I'd be lying if I said that didn't make me angry. It still makes me angry. I'm still in the process of recovering from that pain, and I have no idea how long that process will take," said Jones.

Nonetheless, she sees parallels between hardline atheism (the perspective that the world would better if we were all atheists) and fundamentalist Christianity (the view that the world would be better if we were all fundamentalist Christians).

"Both are very rigid perspectives. And the world isn't a rigid place," said Jones. "There's abuse in organized atheism -- the church doesn't have a monopoly on that."

Because Jones had mentioned her involvement in interfaith work, I wondered if that work might inform her perspective. It taught her that there can be more than one philosophical justification for the same human rights principle, she said.

"I don't care if someone supports gender equality, for example, because they believe it's a religious tenet. I care that they support gender equality," said Jones.

Learning to Listen

As a storyteller, I understand that dramatic narratives can be the most compelling, but far too much public discourse about religion is driven by arguments with fundamentalism.

"When [religion] defines so much of your identity, leaving it is a bigger deal. And often it's a bigger deal to your community, your family," said Dadabhoy when I asked her about the makeup of the "Women Leaving Religion" panel.

Those who leave fundamentalism have more criticisms and more emotional work to do, she said. "Within my own family, the ones who were raised a little less practicing are the ones who didn't impose practices on themselves the way I did... They've said things to me like, "Oh, you just went from one extreme to the other."

On the website for her 2002 book, Walking Away From Faith: Unraveling the Mystery of Belief and Unbelief, missiologist Ruth Tucker writes,

There are many reasons cited for walking away from [evangelical] faith. Matters of science and philosophy and biblical criticism are often right at the top of the list. So also, disappointment with God -- as when an individual is stricken with a debilitating disease or a child is killed in an auto accident. Disappointment with God's people is another frequently mentioned reason for leaving the faith.

The number of unaffiliated women rose from 13 percent to 17 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the Pew Research Center's 2012 "Nones on the Rise" study. However, only 36 percent of those who identified as atheists and agnostics are women.

Their stories are intrinsically valuable. They are also instructive.

At one point in the conference, a moderator asked for a show of hands from those who had been disrespected by their families or communities because of their atheism. A majority responded in the affirmative. This should not be.