Exclusive Excerpt from Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions

Fundamentalist faiths are bad for everyone, but women undoubtedly suffer more than the men do. Whether they’re evangelical Christian, Mormon, or Muslim, the message is clear: If you’re female, God has a special, shitty role for you.

But every now and then, the women break free. They escape the faith — or at least the more extreme version of it — and serve as inspirations for others.

Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions (Seal Press, 2013), edited by Cami Ostman and Susan Tive, compiles several stories by these women. They write about the “pain that comes from the rigid expectations and diminishment of women so often built into religious orthodoxy.”

It’s as frightening and powerful a book as you might imagine.

Below is one particular story that stood out to me: It’s by Pamela Helberg, a lesbian mother who lived as a fundamentalist Christian for many years. The piece is called “Body Language”:

My parents and I had just returned from a long Sunday morning at church and I was starving. During the last half hour of services I had tried in vain to sing and pray loudly so that no one could hear the deep empty sounds coming from my gut. As soon as we got home and I changed out of my church clothes I headed straight for the kitchen to make myself a toasted cheese sandwich and a cup of tomato soup, my favorite Sunday lunch. My thoughts were focused so intently on getting the bread perfectly browned in the frying pan that I didn’t see or hear my parents suddenly double-team me. Dad came from the living room while Mom snuck up behind me from the dining room, tears streamed down both of their faces.

“Pam Sue, your mother and I need to talk to you,” my father said tightly, his voice modulated to neutral with a hint of loving concern.

Uh oh, I thought, this cannot be good. I turned off the stove and scanned the kitchen for a possible escape. They each blocked a doorway, effectively making me their prisoner. I took a deep breath. “Why? What’s up?”

“Sit down.” My mother stepped away from her post and pulled a chair out for me. I intuited that I should obey.

“Pam Sue, your mother and I love you very much.” This loving concern, these tears, felt like a bad omen.

“I love you too,” I said with a slight hint of a question. My stomach clenched with dread. I knew what was coming next.

“What is this this this… sickness? Are you and Chris lovers?” my mother blurted out.

My heart jumped and my eyes stopped focusing, the kitchen began to spin.

“We are very concerned for you, young lady. We don’t want you to go to hell.” My father began sobbing. His face bright red. “We don’t want to spend eternity without you.”

I had never seen my father cry, and his unmasked emotion scared me. I couldn’t look at him. My desire to run away grew stronger.

“What kind of game are you two playing?”

“We know you are more than just friends,” my mother spit out. “What you girls are doing is a sin. You will go to hell.”

This omnipresent threat of hell had dictated most of my choices throughout adolescence, and while I wasn’t always a good Christian girl, I did spend much of my time pleading with God for forgiveness, hoping for redemption so I wouldn’t spend my hereafter burning and screaming and gnashing my teeth with the unrepentant masses.

“Pam,” my dad said, “we can’t just sit back and watch you destroy your chance for eternal life.”

I could feel my face growing hot with anger and panic. I looked down at my hands to avoid my parents’ eyes. I couldn’t speak.

“I almost died having you,” mom said through her sobs,” and I will not sit back and watch you go to hell.”

I knew the story of my birth, but this was the first time my mother had wielded it as a weapon for Christ. I recoiled, ever more certain that, until I’d met Chris, my whole life had felt awkward and out of sync, and now things were beginning to feel good and right. I finally felt loved and known by someone, and seen, instead of hidden, judged, and condemned. The unfairness of it all angered me. Why did my happiness have to result in losing my parents’ love and support? I had just turned eighteen, yes, and I yearned for independence, but I wasn’t ready to be without my family, not yet.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, terrified and panicked. I wanted nothing more than for this interrogation to end. “I’ll never do it again. I promise we’ll stop.” I was willing to say anything to make the nightmare end. But my parents weren’t ready to leave the ultimate destiny of my eternal soul in my young and incapable hands, and they demanded I go with my father that very night to see Pastor Gary for a laying on of hands. A healing, they called it. If only it could be that simple.

I was grateful for the silence and the air-conditioning in the car as Dad and I drove to the church later that evening. I didn’t know what was more oppressive, the stifling August heat or the afternoon’s dismal events looping endlessly through my mind. I kept recalling my parents’ insistence that my relationship with Chris would lead me directly to the gates of hell where I would spend eternity suffering in fire and brimstone, smoldering away with the rest of the sinners as we writhed in agony forever. Didn’t I know, they’d asked me repeatedly, that lying with a woman was the most egregious of sins?

Didn’t I know? Of course I knew. I had highlighted 1 Corinthians 6:9 so many times in my Bible that the verse had practically disappeared.

As my father and I left the comfort of the cool car and made our way across the still- steaming tar parking lot and into the stuffy sanctuary, Corinthians thrummed within me along with a multitude of other Bible verses.

Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, they must be put to death.” Romans: “Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received the due penalty for their perversion.”

I knew them all by heart, had memorized each admonition as well as I had memorized the luscious curves and contours, the sweet and secret depths of Chris’s body. How could I not know that what I felt for Chris was a sin? But how could I go forward without her? I couldn’t, not in this life. I would worry later about the hereafter.

As I trudged after my father up to Pastor Gary’s office, I left my body, remembering the very first time Chris and I had indulged in what I had been taught were perverse and unnatural relations. We had met at summer camp a year before and immediately became inseparable. After camp was over, although we lived about two hundred miles apart, we often spent the weekends at each other’s houses, always sharing a bed, snuggling before sleep, a habit that had begun at camp.

That First Night was just another night after a long day of hiking and stealing furtive and passionate kisses on the trails near my house, dinner with the family, a bit of television — yet I felt a new, more powerful longing welling up within me. On That First Night a surge of confidence and courage coursed through me as I moved my hands over Chris’s lean athletic body, holding my breath and daring myself to touch her in new and forbidden places: under the waistband of the boxers she wore as pajamas, farther up and under the T-shirt that covered her taut stomach and firm breasts. She did not stop my curious fingers, welcoming my explorations with subtle shifts of her body and small happy sounds. As my fingertips found tender and exquisite flesh, I breathed heavily, and moaned softly. Soon, we were moving together, her hands now on me too, desperately seeking each other’s soft spaces. Our bodies pulsed as one as sweet instinct enveloped us. I clung to her, sharing this fierce and lovely ride until rainbows arched from my toes and our breathing slowed, my hands still exploring, caressing her damp and trembling limbs.

“Welcome home,” Chris whispered and kissed me softly on the lips. Home indeed. My world immediately felt complete, as my mysterious adolescent yearnings resolved into this new expression, these new ways of speaking to the girl I loved. For a few minutes in the quiet aftermath, I reveled in this fresh intimacy, in the joy of our mutual exploration and discovery.

But later That First Night my euphoria came to an abrupt end when I panicked, suddenly terrified I had just doomed myself to eternity in a pit full of wailing, burning sinners. By finally giving in to temptations I had fought my entire adolescence, had I just succumbed to earthly pleasures and forfeited any heavenly rewards? I leapt from the bed and hastily recovered my abandoned pajamas. I looked briefly at Chris, who slept peacefully already, and ran up the stairs to the living room where I flopped into my father’s recliner and prayed. I tried to speak in tongues, but, as usual, the special prayer language eluded me and I settled for plain English.

My church taught that the gift of speaking in tongues is bestowed upon believers who are baptized in the Holy Spirit. Mere mortals receive this special language, a secret code, in order that they might have a direct and private conversation with the Lord. So far, I was not one of those chosen to have this gift. I’d always feared that God had long ago abandoned me as lost.

“Dear Lord Jesus,” I begged, feeling the creeping weirdness I always felt when talking to this Invisible Being I was supposed to be devoted to, for, while I had been raised in the church, its yoke weighed on me, heavy and uncomfortable. “What have I done?” I cried. “What shame have I brought upon your holy name? Forgive me, Father. Forgive me for giving in to Satan’s temptations and earthly pleasures. Help me, Lord, help me to resist these terrible urges, to look only upon you and your love for me. I love you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus,” I muttered and rocked in the recliner. “Forgive me, forgive me.” As I pleaded for my very soul, still a small part of me was not quite ready for redemption, not ready to dismiss as sinful the completeness Chris and I had just shared. I was so wracked with guilt and righteous anger that I didn’t hear Chris come up the stairs. I jumped at her touch and her voice.

“Where’d you go?” she whispered, genuinely puzzled. “Why are you in here?”

Darkness enveloped the living room so I could just make out her silhouette.

“What are you doing?” She moved closer, touched my shoulder.

“Praying,” I said, my cheeks flushing with embarrassment.


“Because we shouldn’t have.” I answered, my conviction waning the moment I saw her. “What we just did, it’s a sin.”


“Really,” I said. “Romans 13:12, ‘Don’t participate in sexual promiscuity and immorality…” my voice trailed off, and when she took my hand and gently pulled me from the recliner and led me back down the stairs, back to bed, I did not resist.

Thoughts of Chris, our bodies entwined, our fingers and lips seeking each other’s pleasures, filled my mind as Dad and I entered Pastor Gary’s windowless office where I imagined I could smell the stench of sin: burning human flesh, brimstone, fear. Pastor Gary was a stocky man, balding with wisps of black hair, dressed in a black T-shirt, black jeans, black cowboy boots. He reminded me of Neil Diamond. I hated Neil Diamond.

“Pamela, I am just very pleased that your daddy spoke with me about your afflictions,” he drawled in a leftover Texas twang. “I am so excited to pray with you tonight, to cast these demons of homosexuality out, to let our good Lord and Savior in to heal your wounded soul.” His feeble attempts to reassure me only scared me more.

He motioned for us to kneel in front of his massive walnut desk, on the plush rose- colored carpet. My father knelt to my left and put his hands on my head and lower back. Pastor Gary knelt in front of me, his hands on each of my shoulders, closed his eyes, and began beseeching God to join us. I closed my eyes compliantly, but the anger I’d felt earlier in the kitchen was still swirling inside me, faster and more furious than before. I wasn’t ready for this “demon” to be cast out of me, no matter what the consequences.

“Jesus! Holy Spirit, Heavenly Father, gloooooorious Son of God, be here with us now,” he commanded. “Touch this young woman, fill her with your love and forgiveness.”

“Yes, Jesus,” my father said softly. “Touch Pam with your healing love.” Hearing my father’s voice calmed me a little. I suddenly remembered to breathe.

For a few beats, the two men waited expectantly, ready for Christ Himself to burst through the door, sword drawn, prepared to do some serious spiritual battle with my homosexual inclinations. I desperately needed a way out of this prison of love and good intention I’d found myself locked in. As the men continued to murmur quietly, my mind drifted back to Chris and what she would think of me in this particular situation. I had given up trying to explain my family’s faith to her after that first night. She refused to understand, having been raised Catholic (who are not even real Christians according to our church). Evidently the saints interceded on her behalf and the afterlife was of no serious concern to her. Besides, as our intimacy deepened, I saw absolutely no benefit in pushing my crazy religious beliefs on someone fortunate enough to have escaped them thus far.

I remained trapped between the bliss of our love—this new intimate language we were learning — and an absolute fear of divine retribution. My god was an angry god, an Old Testament god, a god who did not take kindly to any sort of sexual activity unless performed within the confines of a traditional marriage, and, I suspected, only then in the missionary position and for procreative purposes (though to say this out loud would have only revealed the deepening fissure between my parents’ faith and my own budding certainties).

Pastor Gary’s voice boomed, startling me out of my reverie. “Hahkahlafalafalah. Holy Spirit, be with us now. Hahkawaffleahfalalah. Hahkahwaffle waffle ah.”

Those chosen to speak in tongues allegedly all receive different prayer languages, and, like snowflakes, no two are alike. To my ear, they all sounded eerily similar, and Pastor Gary’s sounded disturbingly like a Saturday morning breakfast order at IHOP.

“Jee-suzzzzzz, have mercy on this child’s soul. In your name we command the demons of homosexuality to leave her now! Malakalafalafala makawaffle ah.” As Pastor Gary did his best to cast the demons out, I silently begged them to stay.

I sensed my father muttering in his own prayer language next to me; I fixated briefly on his short aspirations and the occasional soft pop as he moved his lips. I could hear him fighting back tears, reminding me of the risks I faced if I chose Chris over eternal life.

Could hell be any worse than being trapped on my knees in this office, being prayed for against my will for demonic forces to depart from my body? — forces that gave me both great pleasure and terrible guilt. I could not imagine life without Chris, never touching her again, but I also couldn’t imagine going on without the support of my family. Eternal agony of endless burning, endless suffering, loomed all too real for me side-by- side with something I didn’t even understand about myself. I knew I had to figure out a way, at least temporarily, to keep both my family and my relationship with Chris. If Judgment Day were to arrive anytime soon, God could see how I was trying to do the right thing, couldn’t He? Maybe He would see fit to at least let me past the pearly gates. I didn’t need a mansion made of gold, just a small humble cabin far away from hell’s furnace — and someone to love. I started to tremble.

As my knees grew achy and my spine stiffened and my feet got numb, I remembered all the other times people had prayed over me, all the times I had answered the altar call and gone forward at the end of the church services to receive my own baptism in the Holy Spirit, my own secret language. So many believers I couldn’t count had laid their hands on me or waved their arms in the air over me as they prayed for God to touch me with His grace, prayed that I would be slain in the Spirit and receive His secret code. But each time I went forward, desperate for this spiritual currency, I came away speaking only English and some rudimentary high school Spanish. Now, tired of fighting a confusing internal fight and sad for my parents, who loved both God and me, I continued to tremble on my knees in Pastor Gary’s office, knowing that both men would attribute my involuntary shaking to God working within me. Only I knew that I shook with the fear of making an impossible choice. Emotionally exhausted, I just wanted to go home.

I took a deep breath and tried to get myself under control.

A simple solution to my immediate dilemma was within my own power, I just had to use it. I cleared my throat and tried to act confident.

“Barreemabeanabarreemah,” I raised my arms slightly, palms up. “Barreemabeanahbean.” No demons left my body, and my head didn’t spin around while I projectile vomited, but my soul floated above us, hovering over this strange trio trying to make sense of the scene.

“Hakabarreemabeanabarreemah,” I gave the R’s a trill for authenticity. “Barremabean. Holy Spirit, thank you.”

I felt Pastor Gary and my father relax next to me. They continued to murmur in their prayer languages, thanking Jesus over and over:

“Praise you, Jesus.”

“Thank you, Lord.”

“Thank you, Jesus.”

“Praise you, Lord.”

“Amen,” I interjected, hoping to wrap things up.

“Amen!” Pastor Gary agreed emphatically.

“Praise the Lord,” my father said, weeping for the second time that day. “Praise the Lord.”

As we walked back to the car, Dad put his arm around my shoulder and gave me a little squeeze. “I love you, kiddo,” he said.

“I love you too,” I said. I knew I had won an important, if temporary, reprieve from the impossible choice I would someday have to make. I had no idea of the struggles that lay ahead as I learned to speak the new language of my love for Chris while uttering the secret words that kept me bound to my family and friends.

If life begins with the splitting of a cell, my lesbian life began that night in Pastor Gary’s study. I was not made free from my burdens, but I split into two selves. My inner and outer being were forced to separate, setting me on a long and arduous path to rediscover what would make me whole again.

The whole book is filled with incredible first-person stories like this.

If you live in the U.S. or Canada and would like to win a free copy of Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, please leave in the comments your own story of how religion has negatively affected you (or any of the women in your life). Please use the hashtag #ExtremeFaith at the end of the comment to be entered in the contest — I’ll contact a random winner next week!

(Excerpt reprinted by permission of Seal Press.)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://profiles.google.com/davydd.norris David Philip Norris

    This story is beyond sickening. What awful, twisted, bigoted parents to treat their daughter like that. They believe they’re doing the loving thing by trying to spare her an eternity in hell, when in reality they’re using their hateful beliefs to justify their own bigotry and fear of homosexuality. Every parent like that should be beaten and jailed.

    • CommuterP

      David, I’m glad to report that I have a good relationship with my parents now and that we’ve come to a place of forgiveness and understanding. I do believe that my parents always loved me and always wanted the best for me, and that they truly did believe that my very soul was in danger.

      While I still wrestle with the effects of growing up lesbian in a fundamentalist household, my experiences have made me who I am and for better or worse, have given my life texture.

      I didn’t write this to exact revenge upon my parents, but that we might all learn more compassion for one another and particularly that parents might consider the effects of their actions on their children.



      • http://profiles.google.com/davydd.norris David Philip Norris

        Pam, I’m sure you didn’t write this out of revenge. There’s healing in telling your story and sharing it with others. However, reading this brought up awful memories about growing up gay during my own childhood and young adult years. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to forgive my own parents for the pain and suffering they unwittingly inflicted on me, motives be damned. Glad that you’re in a better place though.


        • http://twitter.com/PamHelberg Pam Helberg

          Thanks David–it’s taken a long time to get here. I hope you can find some relief, and I hope that my sharing my experiences at least lets you know you aren’t alone. I get though that even reading similar stories triggers painful memories.
          Be well.

      • John Brown

        You wrote this story for the right reasons.

        My parents are drinking and drugging themselves to death and there will probably never be any reconciliation. I hope though that people share their stories and listen to each others stories. A lot has changed in a little time in this country and ai hope that we can all learn more compassion from one another and treat our children better than we were treated.

  • Patrick

    That’s a very simple but expressive cover to the book. Kind of says it all.

    If only all women could be freed from religious tyranny.

  • Tim

    This sounds fantastic; I think I will make it the next book I read. Stories like these serve to galvanize my opposition to a life of faith. I can’t help but feel lucky that should either of my two children (still very young) ever show signs of being gay, I will have the open mind necessary to not care one bit. It feels good knowing that they’ll be loved no matter what.

    • http://twitter.com/PamHelberg Pam Helberg

      Your children will be fortunate, Tim. The book is a fantastic collection of stories from a variety of faiths and experiences. I hope you enjoy it

  • onamission5

    That was hard to read. Hard to read without going back to my own exorcism at 10 years old, a sort of protestant quasi-confessional with my young self surrounded by a group of my church elders all commanding the demons I named to come out, come out in the name of jesus, leave this child be. Feeling nothing, naming all my offenses before god in hopes that my next yawn which signaled a demon leaving my body would be the end of it, that I’d be declared healed of the sins of rebellion and getting mad and asking questions once and for all. So many sets of hands crushing down on my head, my shoulders, pressing me into the chair, keeping me surrounded by gibberish, good intentions, and bad ideas.

    • http://twitter.com/PamHelberg Pam Helberg

      I hope you’ve been able to heal from those awful times.

  • gm44

    wow. left my heart pounding.

    • http://twitter.com/PamHelberg Pam Helberg

      Thanks gm44. I hope that’s a good thing :)

  • Stev84

    I just can’t comprehend taking hell that literally and seriously. For me it was always just a story. I never bought into it. And I don’t think anyone around me did either, even if they otherwise believed in god. So that whole mindset and ideology is completely alien to me.

    • Mario Strada

      Oh, I believed it. Every cloudy day for me was Judgment Day. That’s when my parents took me out of Catholic School and into public school and when finally I turned 7 I left the whole thing behind. I had to wait another 3 years to tell myself I was an atheist, but I wasn’t a believer for long.

    • AxeGrrl

      Dale McGowan (‘Parenting Beyond Belief’) was on the most recent episode of The Atheist Experience and touched upon this again ~ that ‘Hell’ is one of the religious concepts he doesn’t ‘play fair’ with when discussing religion with his children.

  • http://www.facebook.com/noisnowie Noisha Rhoades

    I would so love to read this book! I am not gay but have felt those same feelings of discomfort and akwardness while being prayed over and pretending to believe.

  • Crazy Russian

    A truly powerful story. It illustrates just how complex the whole issue of religion, religious fundamentalism, and sexuality is, with so many conflicting emotions at war with each other. I just hope things resolved in a more or less peaceful manner, as, unfortunately, they don’t always do.

    • http://twitter.com/PamHelberg Pam Helberg

      Crazy Russian,
      I’m happy to report that eventually things did resolve peacefully. Education, time, and children all helped smooth the way to understanding, acceptance and forgiveness. Thanks for reading.

  • Amy Warriner

    I am 32 and grew up in a church like this. My dad is a pastor. It was only four years ago that I finally reached the end of my ability to justify all the contradictions and walk away. A year after that, I accepted the fact that I was a lesbian. Part of that journey has been realizing that I don’t have to be traditionally feminine like the church taught, something that made me feel awkward and uncomfortable in my own skin. The first time I let myself shop in the men’s clothing section I felt like a kid in a candy store. I seriously rock a good bow tie and can finally look in a mirror and like the person looking back at me. Its been a tough journey reworking how I think about almost everything and learning to be myself in ways I wasn’t free to be before, silencing the guilt and the long list of rules in my head. But life is a lot fuller and happier now. My family is choosing to love me even though they don’t approve, however, there is still a loss of closeness that I grieve as I have to be more guarded about what I share with them. #ExtremeFaith

    • http://twitter.com/PamHelberg Pam Helberg

      Amy, isn’t it wonderful when we embrace ourselves and find a fuller, richer life? Hang in there with your family and continue to share with them–sometimes they are unsure of how to respond, but good on them for continuing to love you.
      Be well,

  • rustywheeler

    WOW that really touched a nerve. Let’s just say that I can relate. Well done.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Charlotte/100001257871259 Jim Charlotte

    wife had been dating a fellow who came out to her as gay. Being they
    were good friends, naturally she joined and became an officer in the
    campus gay/straight alliance.

    This didn’t fly very well with the fundamentalist church
    members back home. She told me how odd and heartbreaking it was that
    somebody who has been friendly to her all her life was now telling her
    that she was going to hell because she join a gay/straight alliance.

    that was enough of that, and my wife left religion. She would go on
    to become president of the college’s gay/straight alliance the year
    before she graduated.

    I can’t help but think this made things much
    easier for her younger sister who came out as lesbian shortly
    thereafter. This loyalty to friends and family and determination to
    stand up for what she believes in was one of the reasons I fell in love with her. #ExtremeFaith

    • http://twitter.com/PamHelberg Pam Helberg

      Jim, Yay for your wife! I’m sure that her younger sister so appreciated the stand she took.

  • Mario Strada

    I absolutely love the cover of this book. And the story from it is very powerful. I will buy it later today.

  • Michelle B

    I really want to read this book. I don’t feel eloquent at all at the moment, this is the best I can put it.
    -destroyed my relationship with my atheist boyfriend, friends, and his family
    -wasted my time and energy with groups in college (and every Sunday and some Saturday evenings for 20 years of my life)
    -caused much emotional distress at times, many tears shed, fear of being struck down for not believing, etc. #ExtremeFaith

    • http://twitter.com/PamHelberg Pam Helberg

      One of my biggest frustrations, still, is the time and energy that I wasted on religion in college. When my eldest daughter started college my only advice to her was to watch out for the crazy campus christians.

  • Michelle B

    I really want to read this book. I don’t feel eloquent at all at the moment, this is the best I can put it.
    -destroyed my relationship with my atheist boyfriend, friends, and his family
    -wasted my time and energy with groups in college (and every Sunday and some Saturday evenings for 20 years of my life)
    -caused much emotional distress at times, many tears shed, fear of being struck down for not believing, etc. #ExtremeFaith

  • Jen

    Despite not being what I normally think of as “extreme”, my dad’s
    religion stops him from seeing me as a woman at all. He’s a
    member of a relatively liberal christian denomination but still thinks
    it is in god’s plan for me to be cisgender and straight. (He avoids
    using the term “sin” but does talk about there being literal demons that
    influence our thoughts to try to turn us from god’s chosen path.)
    When listing things he was worried I might be doing, he mentioned my
    wearing feminine
    clothing in the same breath as self-injury.
    He has (begrudgingly) accepted that I’ve become an atheist, so a
    religious intervention is unlikely, but his religion still hurts our
    relationship. I worry I’ll never convince him to see me as I am instead
    of how he thinks god made me.

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

      Yikes, if you don’t mind my asking, what denomination does your father belong to? I shudder to think that belief in literal demons could be considered “relatively liberal.”

      • Jen

        Methodist, but it’s complicated. He’s talked about demons in a way that makes it seem like he thinks they’re actual beings, but I also get the impression he doesn’t believe in hell (beyond some vague limbo/purgatory-like period away from god while one figures out how they were wrong or something).

        • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

          That does sound puzzling. Methodists are usually one of the saner denominations. The mild/vague hell seems normal enough, but the obsession with demons and feminine clothing I would associate more with evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity.

    • AxeGrrl

      You’ve touched upon what I think is one of the worst aspects of some religion…….

      that it prevents human beings from seeing, acknowledging and accepting other human beings for who and what they are.

      There are few things more simple, profound and loving than just acknowledging and accepting someone when they say “this is who I am” ~ and few things more destructive than refusing to do that.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

    Can’t wait to read it! Seal Press has a lot of good books, and this one sounds fascinating. I’ll make a note to pick it up at the library. I can’t really enter the contest, since my life has been (fortunately!) free from encounters with extreme religion.

  • Patricia

    Very moving story. At the end I was rooting for her to say ‘fuck this!’ and tell them it was all BS and walk out, but things rarely happen like that in real life.

    I am a woman who grew up in a Lutheran home, not extreme by any means, but I just always felt out of place when I had to go to church as a kid and pretend to believe all that crap. And I’m sure telling my parents I wasn’t Christian and dropping out of confirmation at 15 certainly didn’t help our already fragile relationship. I am very thankful I dropped religion early on and had no qualms about exploring my sexuality as a teen. My heart aches for the individuals in these situations. I certainly know religion has had a very negative effect on the rights of women and LGBT individuals as a whole in my Midwest state. #ExtremeFaith

  • http://twitter.com/schweinsty schweinsty

    I’m still not able to touch how the fundamentalism I was raised in impacted my life in regards to my mental illness, because – well, it just makes me bubble over with all sorts of angry rage feelings – but as a bisexual woman with many typically male-gendered interests, I had to undergo a lot of ‘gentle’ reconditioning as a kid.

    My dad gently discouraged my interest in paleontology – both because it was a more ‘manly’ job and because dinosaurs were pre-flood satan-beasts that just made people believe in evolution. I wasn’t allowed to climb trees or play sports that were too unfeminine (basically anything other than tennis, which we couldn’t really afford anyway). The longer I go without openly dating a dude (I tend to keep my relationships private, as neither the guys nor ladies I date would meet with my family’s approval), I am more and more often the subject of pointed homophobic remarks – like tests to see if I agree with them. It’s coming to a point soon where I’m probably going to have to choose between most of my family and living my life openly, and, honestly, given how conservative and close-minded my family is, I’m only surprised it’s taken this long. #ExtremeFaith

    • http://twitter.com/PamHelberg Pam Helberg

      I got a lot of that too–”girls don’t play the drums or the trumpet . . . and why aren’t you nicer to boys, Pam?” Eventually, I had to put my foot down and live the one life I’d been given for myself. The paradox is that the more openly and honestly I live my life, the more open and honest my family has been with me.


  • Niveau

    My inner and outer being were forced to separate, setting me on a long and arduous path to rediscover what would make me whole again.

    This line, in particular, resonates so very strongly with me – I’m currently in a situation in which I’m forced to pretend I still believe in my mother’s religion, though on the inside I couldn’t detest it or disagree with it more. It really does feel, at times, like you’re splitting yourself into two very distinct pieces, and that rejoining them will be one of the most difficult tasks you’ll ever encounter.

    My mother’s religion has caused all sorts of harm to me over the years – it shaped my thinking in ways that I’m still struggling to change, taught me more about hate than it did about love, and often worked hand-in-hand with my Asperger’s to make social life even more difficult. But what bothers me most about it now is how much worse this all is as a non-believer. When I come clean about my non-belief, I’ll be shunned by most of the people I’ve spent my life loving. I’ll be able to openly be with the man I love, as opposed to hiding our relationship the way we do now, but none of those people, my mother included, will attend our wedding. I still struggle daily against the idea that I’m selfish for wanting to be happy, for wanting to make my own decisions in life. I get stared at disapprovingly any time the topic of post-secondary education comes up, because I’m in university and attending it is very strongly discouraged. Worst of all is the negativity, always dressed up as a positive message, a constant refrain of “you’re not good enough, not even when you believe” – it’s exhausting. But knowing how happy I’ll be when I’m finally in a situation to be honest about who am I? That gets me through each day. #ExtremeFaith

    • AxeGrrl

      When I come clean about my non-belief, I’ll be shunned by most of the people I’ve spent my life loving.

      Hearing this sentiment expressed, by so many people, has to be one of the saddest things ever.

      All I can say is that if what you say comes to pass (that you are shunned by those you love), I wish you a life full of new people who love and respect you for who you are.

  • B. Vazquez

    I went to Catholic school for 13 years. By my senior year, I was no longer a believer but I learned to keep it to myself around most of my friends and family. Pamela’s story is very powerful. What I remember most about my elementary school years is the constant mention of Hell. I remember being told at the age of 6 or so that an angel in Heaven sat at a podium with a huge book in front of him. This angel marked all of my sins down in this giant book. Geez, when I lost my virginity years later, already an athiest, I could not get the image of this angel out of my head, not to mention the concerned looks of all of my deceased relatives looking down at me. (It’s actually one of the things I wonder about. When people tell you that your dead loved ones are “up there” watching out for you, do these people follow that idea to its logical end? I mean, are your loved ones seeing EVERYTHING you do? What a bizarre thought. I guess that’s the thing with many religious ideas, you cannot overthink them or they just become illogical).
    Anyway, what I’ve learned is that these ideas about angels keeping a tally of your sins and burning in Hell are most damaging for those among us who were earnest kids, those of us who tried their best to please their parents and teachers. My brother laughs at our childhood indoctrination, he never took it seriously. I was the one who worried about upsetting my parents or going to Hell. Thank goodness I released myself of those mental chains long ago. My husband and I are raising our son without this form of mental child abuse. I wish you love and joy, Pamela. #ExtremeFaith

  • Layne

    I grew up in the Episcopal church and never really remember actually believing in it, even as a young kid, but my major “nope, this isn’t right” moment came in sixth grade when the church was looking to ordain (its first) openly gay bishop. Our female priest was a liberal feminist that I actually agreed with on most things and she was in full support of Gene Robinson. My dad, on the other hand, stood up during the time of congregational announcements and spent a few minutes talking about how evil homosexuality is and how it’s perverse. I remember turning around, with my head down in embarrasment, looking over at a high schooler who had recently come out. He looked really uncomfortable and after the service, his father came up and basically told my father that he should be ashamed of himself and that love is love. I remember being prouder of the other father. That was the beginning of my path to being an athiest, bisexual supporter of equality for everyone. I still have to act for most of my family, but my mother accidently found out about my lack of religion and after a few months, we have regained out previous closeness.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nicole.wallace.39 Nicole Wallace

    Although as a family, we always went to Southern Baptist churches, my adoptive father was always more strict than the church ordered. It wasn’t until later in life that I recognized him as a Fundamentalist.

    For a while, besides weekly beatings with thick leather belts, switches, extension cords, etc, it wasn’t that bad.

    During a separation, when my mother, brother and I lived with my mom’s parents and my father lived with his mother, began the worst year of my life. First, while playing outside, my father drove up to the house, went inside and then came outside and told my brother he was coming with him. I went into the house to find out what happened and found my mother laying on the floor of the kitchen, covered in blood. Being 12 and scared as hell, I called 911. My mom hung up the phone before I could talk to anyone. They called back and she told the dispatcher that her daughter had over reacted. Turns out, my father hand punched my mother in the face hard enough to give her a gash that probably needed a few stitches.

    Later, that year, my Mom was making pasta in the kitchen and I was left alone with my drunk grandfather. He sexually molested me. When my mom called me, I was filled with relief but hearing my grandfather say, “I’ll see you later tonight and we can finish this,” filled me with dread. I was frightened, but I told my mom and she immediately took me next door and called the police. When we went outside to talk to the police, my grandfather came out and denied he did anything. When I yelled at him that he was a liar, my mom told me I was being disrespectful. That night was horrible. I had to go through the embarrassment of telling many people in authority what happened. When I was taken to my aunt’s house to spend the night, my mom examined me herself, which was debasing. But the worst was when my father was told and came to talk to me. The first words he said to me weren’t, “Are you okay?” but “What did you do?” That year was the first time I attempted suicide and started self-injuring.

    At 13, when the other girls were talking about how cute this boy was, I was secretly harboring crushes on other girls. Being taught that a woman and a man was the correct way, I figured, I’d be a boy and it would be alright. I was very sheltered and didn’t know of transgendered people. I cut my hair and wore boys clothes. My father asked me if I was a dyke and why I insisted on shaming my own beauty. He quoted verses about women keeping hair long. Eventually, he began citing bible verses at me about godless women.

    This got worse and worse until I was about sixteen. He started calling me the “Whore of Babylon” and I thought, isn’t that giving me a lot of credit? Once it was obvious that his words/beating weren’t getting the obedience he wanted, he told me I could go to by birth father, who I didn’t even know. He told me I wasn’t his daughter anymore and my mother was my only parent. My mother didn’t work and couldn’t feed me. As a result, I would have to sneak food while no one was looking. I wasn’t his daughter anymore and he didn’t have a responsibility to feed me. That didn’t stop him from hitting me anytime he decided I needed it.

    When I graduated high school, in fact the day of my graduation, I moved out. I went to my ceremony, had a small dinner with my mom, two friends, grandmother and brother, went to get my first piercing and moved out.

    It’s taken a very long time for me to come to grips with what happened to me as a child and I haven’t gone into all of it. I stills struggle. I have PTSD from those years. I have nightmares. When I realized I didn’t believe in god, this relief flooded over me and it hasn’t left yet. That moment lead to me being able to embrace my bisexuality and admit it. Not everyone in my family accepts my wholly, but most do. #ExtremeFaith

  • VM

    I can barely empathize with this story. It’s so beyond what I consider normal. I can’t imagine what it was like to be put under so much pressure that you have to lie to your parents like that and force yourself to become two different people. I’m sad and also very angry that women have to go through this.

  • John Perkins

    That’s terrible. #ExtremeFaith

  • Claire Stout

    I feel as if I have been lucky compared to most people. The only strife I have had in becoming an atheist and leaving Christianity is my own personal stress. Praying to an all-powerful being during a turbulent plane ride always calmed me down. Thinking that there was someone out there was a comforting thought. While I think there was at least a tiny part of me that never truly believed, (always felt super awkward when praying…), another part was convinced by the majority of adults in my life that I had some invisible protector. It is stressful to lose that illusion of safety. And to be honest, I am also not looking forward to telling my Catholic mother and Methodist father, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it….

  • http://twitter.com/PamHelberg Pam Helberg

    Hemant, thank you so much for publishing my piece. I really appreciate the dialogue that it prompted here! Thanks for your support–

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Thank you for sharing such a great story, Pam!

  • John Brown

    Mehta is neither very intelligent or very friendly. But he has found a hot button topic that many people like to b!tch about right now so his blog is doing very well. For his next act I would imagined he will fake getting saved. That should attract a lot of hits.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Projecting only reflects poorly on yourself, as does your making up things about an issue of which you are ignorant, yes narcissistically assume you are informed on.

  • John Brown

    I think that all of these people comming out and blaming religion for everything are misplacing the blame. Not much was know about being gay at all until very recently. It wasn’t even 100 years ago that most Americans lived on a rural farm. What were people’s parents supposed to conclude? The fact is most people would be repulsed by a homosexual relationship. If you are an atheist then you can conclude that that is why it is in the Bible not to do such a thing, probably because some people had and it hadn’t worked out very well.

    My parents were atheist. They were abusive drug addicted alcholics who taught us that there was no hope and no God–which is really the worst form of abuse. All of you kid’s from the other side of the tracks that grew up with Peter Prophecy for a Dad and prayer warrior Pamela for a Mom, I feel for you and realise that those people can be very irritating. Honestly though, to this day I have never met one of you that suffered anything like what the children of atheist usually suffer on a daily basis. And to top it off now your just another group that acts like it hates my guts, which my parents already do, and you parents don’t like me either because they want to get you saved, no some junk yard dog’s kid down the street that now beleives in God.
    I guess what I am trying to say is stop blaming religion, if you parents are jerks that’s on them. Also stop being hatful towards religious people. Many of us didn’t start that way and are nothing like your closed minded parents, we don’t deserve to put up with your blind rage at all things and people religious. But I want to encourage you to critisize the church where it needs improvement. That is what we are currently doing. Stuff like Catholic sex abuse has to, it’s not the fault of the religion but the people in the organization and it has to change. However no religion is totally on the ball all the time that’s why God gave us brains to use. If your parents didn’t use their brains then I can see why you’re upset. However please, if your parents were pretty good people with just some annoying hang ups, realise it is very insulting to people that actually had abusive parents when you go around completely ungrateful, acting hateful towards everyone that beleives in God and pretending like it was the living end that your parents had hang ups. It wasn’t, and if you had good parents you should be grateful, and realise they probably would have done no better without a belief in God.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      No one is “blaming religion for everything”. You need to become more familiar with the issues. Religion provides excuses that are traditionally considered unquestionable; you’ve shown examples of that here. Theists rail, making claims about atheists being “angry” and calling themselves “civil”, because authority always does that to maintain its power. Again, you’ve demonstrated such here.

      • John Brown

        I used to be an atheist and was raised in an atheist household. So how am I ignorant about it? What, is there now some official handbook for “I don’t beleive in nothin?” 

        It’s not hard to not beleive in God or the supernatural. All you have to do is take all the wisdom of every human society in history and pitch it down the drain, because what did they know? And especially if you never study any religions at all it makes it all the more easy to stay ignorant to any of that wisdom or where it came from.

        Atheism is just as much of a prison as beleiving that you have to live your life never questioning the Pope. 

        The new power brokers are apparently Atheists ( that aren’t real Atheist anyways, they are pissed off at religion and religious people, which they wouldn’t be if they thought God really didn’t exist) and you’re now set to become just as big of a danger as some churches with their fake adherents. Atheists are now becoming politically powerful–forming your own churches, plus getting non-profits like this one to do your bidding tax free. You Atheist organizations are more like all those corrupt churches than you care to admit.

        It used to be that you could upset people by not believing in God in this country, but thanks to you “activists” Atheists now you can upset people by not believing in nothing. Isn’t that liberating? Now we have more people that are pissed off and demanding that others change about something that’s none of their business in the first place.