Women Beyond Belief
Discovering Life Without Religion
What are the elements that drive women away from religion? Karen L. Garst, editor of Women Beyond Belief, includes twenty-two essays written by women about the discovery of a meaningful life without religion. While many outspoken atheists are men, this book provides a venue for female atheists willing to share the intellectual, religious, doctrinal, and humanitarian journeys that led them to find fulfilling lives without religion. In addition to these women’s personal voices in their religious traditions, Garst—through her introduction and epilogue—critiques discriminative American religion, which is deeply and historically rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition—Catholicism, Lutheranism, Mormonism, Judaism, and so on—that endorses unfair gender inequality and demands the subordination of women. The stories include these women’s diverse personal challenges in the church, which led them to leave their religions and to choose atheism, agnosticism, or secularism. In particular, readers will find that the stories feature these women’s quests for full equal rights in unfair religious structures and society. Garst’s compilation effectively presents these women’s struggles and pursuits for freedom in religious structure, and in a larger social context through their life testimonies.
Additionally, Garst invites women to reconsider their roles in the religious structure, in their community, and in their family life to empower themselves beyond the systems of their faiths. These testimonies envision diverse aspects of atheism as cultural, societal, and often familial processes that make new norms. The stories include women’s boldness to choose to ignore religious influence on their lives. These twenty-two narratives strongly validate that women have been discovering meaningful life without organized religion.
This book also shows that women’s narratives are powerful tools for academic disciplines. The specific narratives here mirror the important aspects of how and why theologies, doctrines, ritual practices, rules, and regulations of each Judeo-Christian tradition could be oppressive to women. Several contributors confess that education—religion, philosophy, politics, science, and so on—helped them to realize their oppressed conditions in their religious structure and community, and then, to ultimately solidify their self-identification as atheists, agnostics, or secularists. Although society and religion have tried to keep women ignorant or illiterate in oppressive conditions throughout history, these women powerfully narrate their intellectual and reasoning capabilities to articulate their oppression.
Readers will find many reasons why these women chose atheism after struggling for a long time in organized religions. First, there are problems of interpretation of the Bible that create fear and oppression. For example, Ann Wilcox narrates that she came to realize “how bad the Good Book was” because the Good Book [Bible] supports the cruelty of God, fear of the afterlife, and its admonitions of violence including gender discrimination (29). As Wilcox read the Bible, she saw the frightful description of the maleness of a punitive God who killed people with many disasters for failing to worship Him. She felt her religion had controlled her mind and used fear to thoroughly immunize her as a woman against skepticism about contradictions, violence, fear, and so on described in the Bible (31).
Moreover, there are the problems of rejection or condemnation of their unbelief, non-religious behaviors, or different lifestyles by the indoctrinated community. The religious community indoctrinates believers to condemn themselves, the worldly people, or other religious communities that have different doctrinal principles. Women suffer more than men to live within their religion’s standards, as religious life demands that women give up independent thinking to please God—more than men are required to—and to accept their submissive roles. For example, Ceal Wright narrates the process of her awareness of how much she was bound with fear and prejudice by her religious indoctrination against other religious communities, or the secular world: “Unknownst to me, what was really taking place was my slow awakening to the fact that worldly people were not the ilk that I had grown up being afraid of (42), ... I realize how indoctrinated I was and [what a] powerful a weapon guilt is” (43). As the narratives show, Wright’s experiences with indoctrination left her feeling small, insignificant, helpless, and unprotected. Additionally, those women who choose atheism also suffered from a fear of rejection, and the heavy burden of a guilty conscience when they chose not to follow the normative lives that their religious communities demanded.
Together Garst and her contributors think of religion as a weight holding humanity down, and as something that causes more harm than good (212). They felt released and happier when they decided to become atheists, agnostics, or secularists. To them, the so-called religious virtues—love, joy, gentleness, patience, and so on—cannot belong to religion but rather, belong to humanity. These virtues are the best in us. We share them with other humans even in a secular world (34).
In contrast, Garst and her contributors seem to miss the possibility that atheism might be another religion. These women’s choices of atheism, agnosticism, or secularism can be understood as a part of their spiritual journeys, which involve doubts, denial, backsliding, and renewal of faith, rather than as the ultimate solution for unjust religion. For example, when Jackie Burgett narrates her spiritual journey toward an understanding of the unknown, she explains, “What skepticism taught me is that it is okay to be wrong as long as you update your stance with the knowledge you gain … my opinions could evolve with time” (201). Even Nancy J. Wolf, in her journey to find answers to the questions about the existence of God, demonstrates that scientific theories of the cosmos inform her “spirituality” about the vastness and mystery of the universe, including the possibility of God’s presence (249). She wants to leave this realm as a mystery that will cause readers to think about her spiritual process in understanding the unknown. Women Beyond Belief amazingly represents atheist women’s acknowledgment of the discriminative religious structure and breaks new ground for women choosing new paths in their spiritual journeys. This book could be evocative for many women who are thinking of leaving any religious structure without feeling guilty or fearful.
JungJa Joy Yu is a doctoral candidate in women's studies in religion at Claremont Graduate University and author of Breaking the Glass Box: A Korean Woman's Experiences of Conscientization and Spiritual Formation.
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