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 life might be like for me 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 irrevocably. What happened during those years color what I do still, more than 25 years after I decided I could no longer subscribe to the tenets of christianity.
Last night, 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 of many stripes: Mormonism, Judaism, The Moonies, Catholicism, among 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 places in the world rather than forced to shut ourselves off from the world, shut ourselves down, hide our true selves because our religions taught us what we felt was wrong—our loves, our bodies, our desires, our thirst for knowledge. We all have managed to overcome the limits our religions imposed upon us, but at what cost, I wondered?
What might I have accomplished if my energies all those years had been channeled toward, say, academics instead of directed constantly at worrying about going to hell? What if instead of having to be vigilant against every carnal thought, I could have spent those years, oh, I don’t know, learning to play the drums or enjoying each moment, guilt-free instead of feeling pressured to proselytize so my god would smile upon me, so my god would not cast me into the fiery pits of hell. Imagine.
The red thread of sex ran through most of our stories, which was a little surprising, given our diversity as a group—each of us spent so much time and effort struggling 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 is so much devotion to not-sex? We can see how well suppressing those natural urges and biological imperatives has worked out for the Catholics, after all.
But, back to religion and wasted time. Oh, sure, I am what I am because of my experiences, and I’ve got lots of rich material thanks to years of being repressed and, frankly, terrified at times that my basic humanity was enough to condemn me to an eternity of damnation. But what else might I have been? What else might that energy have cultivated had it not had to be engaged in a religious jihad against my very own nature?