The Common Experiences of Women Who Leave Extreme Religions

A new book captures the similarities among apostates from a wide range of religious groups.
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When Cami Ostman and Susan Tive met in a Seattle memoir-writing class, the two women found themselves bonding over their experiences in fundamentalist religious groups. Ostman had spent over 20 years in charismatic Christian organizations, while Tive had converted to Orthodox Judaism in order to salvage a sinking marriage. Both had already left their faith communities and moved on with their lives by the time they enrolled in the class. "How to live in the secular world, with all of its paradoxes drew us together," says Ostman. "For both of us it wasn't just one moment in which we decided to leave, but lots of moments along the way."

Tive says, "It was fascinating when Cami told me about things in her own religion that were so different from my own—yet her feelings about them rang true for me." As the women talked, they realized they wanted to hear from others like them, other women who had lived through these kinds of experiences. The result is the recently published Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Woman in Extreme Religions, an anthology collecting essays by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu women. "It's true that there were a few sects and cultures we missed," says Ostman. "We had really hoped to hear from an Amish woman, but it didn't happen." Fortunately, they did hear from many others, including a former Roman Catholic nun, a woman who lost her Jehovah's Witness faith and her virginity in the same week, and a lapsed Pakistani Muslim trying to reconcile her mother's devotion with her own post-partum stress.

They structured the book into three sections, called "In the Beginning," "Burnt Offerings," and "I Lift My Eyes," "which roughly correspond to getting in, staying in, and leaving," says Ostman. Both say they wanted to illustrate why religion might be attractive in each of those parts of the process. "We were very clear with our contributors that we weren't looking for scathing takedowns of a faith or a community; we wanted to know about what was going on in their lives, the reality of what it meant to live them day after day," says Tive. "We were clear that we wanted people to tell their stories, and that we realize none of them are the whole story from beginning to end."

Originally, the book was called "Submitted:" "The idea was, did you feel that you had to submit to rules of beliefs of a system and ultimately perhaps felt you lost yourself?" says Ostman. Although the title has changed, that idea has not. At beyondbeliefanthology.com, along with content that often includes an interview with one of the contributors, there is a spot called "Talk Amongst Yourselves" where people can discuss their experiences with extreme religions. "This book, we hope, will open a space both online, and in living rooms," Ostman says.

There's already been at least one funny living-room conversation inspired by the book. Before the book was published, the authors and contributors gathered to practice their readings. "Everyone was nodding and giving those sounds of assent that women give to one another," says Ostman. "And it just turned out that in the particular group that was reading, all of the stories were about how our sexualities had been restricted or co-opted in various ways. Someone said, 'Wow, this is supposed to be a book about religion, but all of these stories are about sex!'"

Ostman and Tive aren't surprised that intense experiences, like sex, came up so often for their contributors. Intense experiences, are, after all, part of why many of the women got into these religions in the first place. For example, during get-togethers, many women from different faiths talked about the music and how it was something that never left them, even long after they'd left their communities—"it was still in their bones and blood," Tive says. "Often women go in to extreme religions for very positive reasons that then become feelings of restriction."

She knows whereof she speaks, since Susan Tive was a "baal teshuva," an adult who chose to enter into orthodox Judaism. "I was very attracted to orthodoxy because I was a young wife and mother in a difficult marriage," she says. "I had found very little support in the secular world; I kind of felt like the odd one out. I was more or less dragged into orthodoxy by my now ex-husband, but in it I found a structure that values children, and values women as wives and mothers. It was so much more nurturing and supporting and meaningful than what I'd had before. For the first time I felt that what I was doing had meaning."

Ostman also entered into extreme religion on her own, having found that the Christian churches of the charismatic movement provided something that she could not find at home. "I had many ecstatic experiences in the many different churches I attended over the years, especially on retreats that were a little more cuddly than Jesus Camp (the movie). There were many altar calls filled with music and elation, but the ultimate thing was to be 'slain in the spirit,' to literally faint when the pastor touched you with the Gospels. That never happened to me, and it was deeply disappointing. I interpreted my lack of this as something wrong with me, never something wrong with the church."

The authors say that they did notice patterns in what contributors were looking for, and what they found. In the first section, for example, so many were searching for community, structure, purpose, and connection with the divine. Unfortunately, as they looked for joy, some of these women found that it was restricted. Tive says of orthodox celebrations: "Women were allowed to dance, but on the other side of the curtain, in what was clearly a secondary thing. Women more often than not stood around and watched while the men danced."

Women's joy, she says, was more centered in the experiences around food and family. "Judaism has a lot of holidays, all centered around festive meals. In community meals, people fed each other and visitors. There was a great sense of community and generosity and hospitality. You showed up on a holiday, and someone would find you a place to sleep. I had a lot of rabbis sleep in my house! You knew when you traveled that the same would be done for you—people take care of one another."

Ostman thinks that this goes for many of the book's stories. "I think there are connections between women inside a lot of these faiths that are harder to forge outside of them. You have the freedom to be a wife and/or a mother and to focus on those things, whereas outside the choice is often more complicated in our modern age." Both authors also note that there are surprising freedoms to be found within extreme religions. "To move from having so many choices, as both Susan and I did, to having black-and-white rules to follow can give you the freedom not to make a choice," says Ostman. "You never have to ask yourself if you're right, or wrong; you already know what's right and wrong."

Tive says, "That's why a lot of these stories have an element of coming of age to them. It's part of growing up and coming into yourself to question things that you've previously accepted. Things that weren't a problem, became a problem." For Tive, part of that realization occurred when she began to study Torah with other women in her community, and she wanted to dance with the Torah the way the men did—but her rabbi would not permit it. For Ostman, it came when she went to graduate school, studying marriage and family therapy. "Suddenly, my simple answers could not always be applied to the situations I was seeing. There was a new little opening in my mind for questions."

Today, both women have left their faith communities and found a different way. "I don't feel any less Jewish today than I was practicing orthodoxy, but I don't practice the rules to the degree that I once did," says Tive. "I think that I and many of the writers in this book have taken ritual and practice and knowledge and awareness and tried to apply them where they fit in our new lives, with a sense of generosity and an understanding of difference." Ostman, a runner and the author of Second Wind: One Woman's Midlife Quest to Run Seven Marathons on Seven Continents, says "There's a spiritual connection every time my feet hit the ground. I'm loving living in the questions without having to know the answer. I compare to this: I used to live in a swimming pool where I knew all of the edges. Now I'm in the ocean and learning to backfloat."

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Bethanne Patrick is a columnist for the Virginia Quarterly Review and author of An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy. She is the founder of the Twitter hashtag #FridayReads.

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