John Lennon said it best: Imagine no religion. It’s easy if you try . . . no hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine. I try to imagine what my life might be like had I not been subjected to fundamentalist christianity between the ages of 5 and 21. Those 17 years more than any in my life shaped me indelibly. Those years of being labeled a sinner who would most likely face eternal damnation burning in hell still color my life. Even more than 25 years after I decided I could no longer subscribe to the tenets of christianity.
Last Wednesday evening, I sat with a group of women, all writers, all of us contributors to Beyond Belief: Women in Extreme Religion, an anthology of stories about women’s experiences getting into, staying in, and getting out of fundamentalist religions: Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, Scientology, the Unification Church, fundamentalist Christianity, and others.
Each of us read an excerpt from our story, and as we went around the room, a deep sadness overcame me (that and a not irrational fear that an angry god might smite us for talking smack about him). Sad about the potential wasted, the time wasted, the energy wasted—all the ways in which we’d been shamed, subjugated, stigmatized, separated in the name of god. Imagine growing up female and never feeling shame about being a girl, a woman. Never having to hide: our bodies behind burkas, our brains and intelligence behind our bodies. Imagine life as a woman without the imposition of religious constraints.
What could we have achieved, each of us, I wondered, had we been free to follow our natural impulses? If we had been encouraged to embrace our talents and truths rather than forced to shut ourselves off from the world, to shut ourselves down, to hide our true selves because our religions taught us our very essence—our loves, our bodies, our desires, our thirst for knowledge–offended some made up god. Eventually, we all managed to overcome the limits our various religious experiences imposed upon us, to come to an awakening, an awareness that we would never have a genuine life within the confines of these religions. But what had our lost time cost us, I wondered?
What might we have accomplished if our energies all those years had been channeled toward, say, science? Instead many of us worried constantly about going to hell, expending our resources both literal and emotional, on impossible reconfigurations of our minds and bodies. What if instead of having to be vigilant against every carnal thought and deed, I could have spent those years, oh, I don’t know, learning to play the drums or studying computer programming? What if instead of worrying about proselytizing and “saving” my neighbors, I had reached out across common interests and laid foundations for lifelong friendships instead of worrying my god would cast us all into the fiery pits of hell. Imagine.
As we each read our excerpts, sex emerged as a dominant theme. So much time and effort expended in our struggles to come to terms with our bodies, our sex, our sensuality. Our natural way of being in the world. Why, I wondered is religion so preoccupied with sex? Why so much devotion to not-sex? What better way to control people than by creating fear about the most basic of human instincts?
I was at a writing retreat last weekend, in a workshop on writing about sex, and one of the participants posited how crazy it is that our (judeo-christian) culture prefers to pretend that “good people” don’t have sex despite all evidence to the contrary. Religion’s powerful constraints spill out into culture and impact everyone, not only the believers, which is one of the most annoying and dangerous aspects of extreme religions: that misguided notion that there is only One Truth.
We only need to look at history (yesterday, two weeks ago, 500 years ago) to see clearly the evils perpetrated by extreme religions. Where could all of our energy go if we weren’t fighting for rights that religious leaders want to take away? DOMA. The Inquisition. Joan of Arc. Matthew Shepard. A woman’s right to choose. Westboro Baptist Church.
What else might that energy have cultivated had it not been hijacked by the holy?
Twenty years ago I spent a long weekend at a workshop/retreat that fundamentally changed my life, or at least served as a pivot point in my journey. I had one incredibly emotional moment that weekend—a moment that has stayed with me all these years, through tremendous changes and ups and downs in my life.
One of my favorite parts of this retreat was that it was silent, a fact the participants did not know going in. We could talk only during the workshop sessions, and not with each other, but to the group as a whole. The food was intentionally less than optimal for those few days as well. And every morning we had to run a mile.
But, I digress. One evening, the retreat facilitator led us through some guided imagery and we were to be constructing our future home. What would it look like? Where would it be? Who would be there?
And here’s the part where I burst into tears: My future home was warm, with dark wood and candles, and inviting comfortable furniture, and it was full of many, many children, children that looked like my children.
At this point, the imagery had taken over and I was just a recipient of this vision. I wept for probably a good fifteen minutes, maybe more (it’s been twenty years—details are fuzzy), but I know for sure that tears and snot rolled down my face uncontrollably.
I did not understand then why I had that vision nor why I reacted so emotionally to it. The tears were neither sad nor joyous, just bursting with raw and uncontrollable feeling. Looking back now, I understand I was weeping because my vision was so radically, radically different from my reality. I wept for the pains and joys I had yet to experience on my path to my vision.
Writing my memoir these past 18 months has prompted all manner of self-reflection (the cynics among us might say navel-gazing—there’s a whole other blog), and I’m finding much of that reflecting to be awkward, if not downright painful. So, I was sort of happy when recent events coincided to prompt me to remember this image.
My youngest daughter’s biological brother (both of my kids are adopted) recently moved to our home state and last weekend came to have dinner with us—he and his wife and their four children. This was the first time I’d met her brother, though she had spent time with her biological family (including her birth parents) over the past few years.
As the day of their visit drew closer, I grew calmer—which is not really my MO. Usually I ramp up into a bit of a frenzy before such events. There were going to be ten of us, including four children, going out to dinner. I remained calm, grounded even. Even as the day grew closer and we had to redo the plans, I rolled with it, strangely confident that dinner would be what it needed to be.
And it was. I was home, surrounded by children that looked just like my daughters, surrounded by family new and old and new again.