Escaping Christian Patriarchy

Ophelia of Butterflies and Wheels has been writing some excellent posts lately about the abuse and oppression of women in Christian communities. One of them led me to an outstanding blog titled Love, Joy, Feminism. Its author, Libby Anne, grew up in an incredibly strict and fundamentalist Christian home that practiced a way of life she calls “Christian Patriarchy” (some might also refer to it as the Quiverfull movement). She and all her (twelve!) siblings were homeschooled, indoctrinated with religion from their earliest years, taught that women’s role in life is to obey men and that women must give up their dreams and ambitions to better subordinate themselves to their future husbands.

Despite the endless chores and incessant hard work, despite the perpetual religious indoctrination, despite the beatings doled out as discipline, Libby Anne’s childhood wasn’t miserable. On the contrary, she remembers it as a blissfully happy time. She genuinely wanted to be a good, submissive daughter, and took pleasure in fulfilling her parents’ expectations. She was excited about the idea of her father selecting a husband for her, which she viewed as a romantic fantasy, and she couldn’t wait to become a housewife and devote the rest of her life to serving her husband and having as many children as possible for Jesus’ right-wing cause. One could, of course, argue that this was the happiness of enforced ignorance; she was happy in this way of life because she had nothing to compare it to, because she literally wasn’t aware that there were any other ways to live.

How did she escape this? Despite all they believed about Christian patriarchy, her parents also valued education, and they allowed her to go to college. While she was there, she met people who didn’t follow the script, people who led happy, fulfilled lives despite not hewing to the strict rules she grew up with, which she’d always been taught was impossible. She also found herself defending her religious beliefs for the first time, and she kept encountering arguments she’d never heard before, arguments that could punch holes in the beliefs she’d grown up learning as absolute truth. Eventually, the worldview she’d been taught crumbled, and despite intense emotional pressure and guilt-tripping by her parents, she found the courage and the honesty to walk away. (See also her longer account of her deconversion.)

One thing I noticed while reading these posts is the startling number of similarities there are between the Christian patriarchy and the Islamic one: women kept isolated at home, forbidden to work, get an education or travel without male approval. (Libby Anne’s parents were unusual in letting her go to college; here’s another post by an escapee who didn’t, and now laments her inability to support herself.) They’re taught that their only role in life is to serve and obey men, treated as property to be passed off from father, to husband, and sometimes to son – this happens in fundamentalist Christian communities as well as Islamic ones.

Another observation, readily apparent, is how absolutely consumed by fear these people’s lives are. Parents who follow the teachings of Christian patriarchy are, necessarily, terrified of letting their children come into contact with any idea that doesn’t conform with what they’ve been taught – which is why they go to such extreme lengths to isolate themselves. Despite biblical verses like the Great Commission, we’re increasingly seeing believers like Libby Anne’s parents conceding the battleground of ideas, propagating their beliefs only by reproducing and not even attempting to convince outsiders. As society becomes more secular and atheism becomes more influential, we’re going to see more of this sort of thing: fundamentalists retreating into these isolated, closed-off bubbles and locking the door behind them.

This is just what Daniel Dennett is talking about when he writes in Breaking the Spell that any faith which has to “hoodwink — or blindfold — [its] children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, [that] faith ought to go extinct.” But that’s easier said than done, and it creates a dilemma for us. How can we effectively evangelize for atheism and teach ideals of human freedom and liberty to those inside these communities? How can we reach people when their entire upbringing is organized to deny them contact with the outside world? I don’t have a good answer for this, but I’m open to suggestions.

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  • Alex SL

    How can we effectively evangelize for atheism and teach ideals of human freedom and liberty to those inside these communities?

    We? Wrong question. The answer to the right question, however, is: outlaw homeschooling and faith schools, and build one public school system for all, so that they cannot isolate themselves from the rest of society. Problem solved. Currently not very realistic in the USA, I admit, but that is how it works in my home country.

  • Brian M


    That is rather…doctrinaire…in its own way, isn’t it? OUTLAW home schooling and faith schooling? What if the State is itself messed up (as so many are…look at how much obedience and toxic patriotism can be enforced in the good ol’ USA).

    Don’t trust faith schools, but is the answer always a one size-fits-all mandate from above?

  • Joyous

    Ahem…some of us homeschool for entirely secular reasons, thankyouverymuch. While it’s odd to find myself in bed with fundamentalists in this regard, I’d rather be allowed to continue unhindered.

  • Seomah

    I don’t really know if it would be good to ban homeschooling in the USA right now, but I can say that the first time I heard about homeschooling it sounded very weird to me. Here in Spain nobody is homeschooled. Even small villages with just two or three children take them to a public school. I guess there’s a small percentage of people that homeschool their kids, for medical or other reasons, but it’s very rare.

    My point, along with Alex SL said, is that the normal situation for most people around the world (or at least around Europe) is a public school system, and the high percentage of homeschooling in the USA seems an exception.

    I would venture that the main reason for homeschooling your children is to indoctrinate them and keep them away from external influences, not the actual quality of public education.

  • kagerato

    We don’t need to outlaw religious schools (or homeschooling). It’s sufficient to stop subsidizing efforts to construct and maintain private schools, and to properly fund a fully secular public education system open to everyone and concerned solely with teaching empirical facts. The rest will come with time.

    Our core issue is actually that children have no clear legal right to have their will observed, unlike adults. If a child wants to explore the world, meet new people, and learn he or she should have that capability. The concept of parental rights and the ownership of children impedes this, however. When the parent’s will is exerted repeatedly and forcefully over the child’s desire to leave, it’s hard to see how this is any different from imprisonment.

    We as a society do not seem to be ready to accept the cost and responsibilities of raising the children of bad parents, however. Due to that, I don’t see much change coming soon. There is also the question of how old a child must be before they become self-aware enough and informed enough to properly execute their own will. That subject differs wildly among individuals and doesn’t seem to have any easy answers.

  • Jerryd

    I’m currently reading “Escape” which describes a similar fundamentalist religious system the FLDS uses to brainwash and snare the children of these far out Mormon believers. It is downright scary. One question keeps haunting me as I read the FLDS or Christian Patriarchy (CP) children’s plight: Why would our Constitution give free reign to all forms of religion, and why would people deem that to be perfectly okay?

    Obviously the FLDS and CP are malignant forms of religion. And there are many others, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as so hauntingly described on this blog many times. I can perhaps justify the Founders giving adults complete freedom of religion, but it is criminal in my estimation for parents to be allowed to indoctrinate their children into malignant forms of religion before they reach the age of reason. If only the First Amendment limited religious freedom until after reaching adulthood, I could live with it. Particularly if all kids were required to take comparative religion courses–all of which were taught by non-practitioners in that religion–and taught completely free of evangelizing.

    I don’t think this would completely eliminate the problems, but it should reduce them dramatically. Of course changing the Constitution to require this will also never happen. Some mistakes are permanent, even when not fatal.

  • RipleyP

    I don’t know that we can get into the realm to reach these people simply or easily. I am not even sure we should be going in as there are arguments on both sides of the fence. In this I do not suggest what happens in these groups is right merely that imposing new ideas isn’t always effective.

    These groups are effective at insulating themselves so I would expect any attempt to get in would be blocked through some new means. The groups appear quite serious about keeping their distance.

    What we can do is have easily accessed resources for those who question and seek something more than they currently know. Something I feel is growing and developing and I hope helping. I also believe those who seek knowledge are more likely to make use of the knowledge they find.

    We can be the best people we can be and invite these people to share in our open world. In this we need to be building a world that accepts those who escape other worlds since the other worlds often reject and isolate those escapees.

    Of course stopping funding by government that may support the groups and preference religion is always a good thing.

  • Lance

    For more on the Quiverfull movement I’d strongly recommend people listen to the Godless Bitches podcast from last week. It’s a spinoff show of The Atheist Experience and had a former Quiverer Vyckie Garrison telling her story.

    ps: I’d also second the above recommendation for Carolyn Jessop’s Book Escape it’s an inspiring and harrowing story of life particularly for women in the FLDS.

  • karen

    This is exactly why fundamentalists are so terrified about their children going off to “secular” university and college campuses. I’m surprised her parents allowed her to go and I’m sure they completely regret it now.

    A friend of ours, whom we knew was a Christian but never considered fundamentalist, recently told us his church warned him about his oldest son going off to college and “losing his faith.”

    Now he’s got the boy interested in Liberty University, just a horrible indoctrination machine! This kid is really smart, scored very well on his SATs and of course Liberty is throwing all kinds of scholarship offers at him, which is making the parents overlook some of its drawbacks.

    Shocking to myself and even my still-religious husband. And sad to imagine the waste of a college education.