Why Don’t Women Just Leave Fundamentalism?

Why Don’t Women Just Leave Fundamentalism? March 16, 2015

I can tell sometimes that it gets really frustrating (or as folks said in my old church, “flustrating”) for non-Christians to see people suffering under Christianity’s supposed easy yoke and light burden. Women, especially, get thrown under the bus for putting up with the excesses and injustices dealt out by extremist Christianity. Understandable, since they are the visible face of its very worst aspects. “Why don’t they just leave?” you hear people saying. “Why would they ever put up with this treatment?”

Speaking as one of the women who managed to crawl out from under that bus, I thought I’d share why I converted to a flavor of Christianity that is today known as one of the most suppressive, oppressive, unjust, mean-spirited, unfair, and beyond-sexist of all of the many tens of thousands of flavors of the religion–fundamentalism–and why women might stay in a faith system like that, or even, as I did, voluntarily convert into it.

An Old Woman Praying, circa 1655, by Nicolaes ...
An Old Woman Praying, circa 1655, by Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693) – IMG 7382 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was raised Catholic by a very fervent mother with a super-duper-Catholic extended family. My mother was as feminist as someone with her upbringing could be. She tried to make sure I had accurate information about reproduction and insisted that I learn office skills, all because she knew how very wrong the Christian life script can go for a woman. She tried to instill in me the knowledge that I had value and worth and didn’t need to put up with injustice for any reason.

And everything still went totally pear-shaped.

When I was in high school in the mid-1980s, an acquaintance invited me to a Southern Baptist church function, which proved to be the beginning of my time as a right-wing Protestant. By sixteen I was a Pentecostal, and at twenty I married a lay preacher angling for full-time ministry. About five years later I deconverted and we broke up. All that was over twenty years ago, but there are a lot of things that happened back then that are burned into my mind so deeply that I don’t know if I could ever forget them.

I want to keep this brief so I’m going to focus today on why I found myself attracted to a religion that was the very antithesis of everything my mother tried to teach me (and which is the very antithesis of everything I think is good and noble about humanity).

Alas, what my mother taught me and how she actually lived were two different things. Though she wanted me to be brave and strong, she herself had married an awful man the first time around and an even worse one the second time around because she didn’t feel confident about her ability to make it on her own. My parents’ married life was, to say the least, unstable. Once in my early teens I asked her after one of their knock-down, drag-out screaming matches why she didn’t leave. “How could I?” she asked me point-blank, her frustration for once boiling over. “Where would we go? I can’t support myself and two children.”

The pain of her honesty seared me for life, and later on I’d find in Pentecostalism a set of strict rules for how men and women should interact–rules meant to produce much happier relationships. If I behaved and did what I was told, then I’d get in return a husband who would treat me like a princess. Sure, it all seemed kinda unfair by “the world’s” standards, but that’s because “the world” had no idea what was good for it. In my newfound faith system, men and women had their certain restrictions and their expectations, and if everybody performed exactly as they should, then it all worked beautifully–just like it had in the Good Ole Days that we imagined had existed in the 1950s before liberals and feminism had tainted everything. Because my mother was Catholic, she hadn’t known those rules, so she’d married a man who was at best a lapsed Christian. Obviously “God’s” perfect, ideal arrangement wasn’t in the cards for my parents.

But maybe it could be for me.

I saw in fundamentalism a very clear life script and assurances that I didn’t have otherwise.. There wasn’t much about me that fit into my new faith system’s expectations for women, who were pushed into cookie-cutter molds and made to feel terribly guilty if they couldn’t fit. I tried my best. Outside of fundamentalism, I didn’t know how I was supposed to act or when it was okay to speak definitively or stand up for myself. But within fundamentalism, the rules were crystal-clear. If they were also impossible to fulfill, well, that was sorta my problem.

I didn’t notice that the demands were unreasonable, only that I finally had a clear vision of how to achieve respect and standing in my community. I didn’t have much else going for me. My church discouraged all clubs and community activities that weren’t part of their world; I was at church most days of the week, sometimes for many hours at a time. I volunteered extensively and studied my Bible in my off-time–and most of it while attending school full-time! Though I did well in classes, all that really mattered to me was my “walk”–meaning my spiritual life and devotions. I wanted the approval and admiration of my peers and leaders–and I wanted to have what all of them seemed to have: this deep, rich, two-way communication with “God.” I ached and hungered for it, and assumed that once I figured out what I was doing wrong, I’d find it. (Much later I’d discover that many of them were “speaking truth to power”–or in other words, faking it till they made it. At the time, I trusted that they were all being perfectly honest about their experiences and that I was the only one experiencing anything different.)

And, too, fundamentalism fit in very well with my very black-and-white way of looking at the world, and gave me a great deal of certainty about that world. Nobody ever has to wonder about much of anything in fundamentalism, or struggle with difficult questions. Every answer was easy and simple–even if putting that answer into motion was impossible, at which point the problem was me, not the answer, which was seen as totally infallible and unquestionable.

And yes, I was terrified of going to Hell.

Oh, hello there, there’s the H-word. You knew it was coming, right?

Fundamentalism told me that if I didn’t follow these rules and put up with these injustices, I’d go to Hell. If I was married at the time of my disobedience then my husband would start mistreating me (I didn’t recognize what he was already doing as mistreatment); if I had kids they’d start acting up and doing drugs or worse; the list went on and on and it was nauseatingly detailed. Any time anything bad happened to me, I wondered if I’d been disobedient somehow and start cataloguing my sins and frantically atoning for anything I might have done. Any time I shared news of some misfortune with anybody from church, the question loomed, sometimes asked, sometimes unspoken: did you maybe do something you shouldn’t have?

When someone mistreated me in fundamentalism in a way I actually recognized as mistreatment, I didn’t think about leaving the church. Instead, I concentrated twice as hard on my own “salvation.” (A pity I didn’t spend any time figuring out if that “salvation” was a real thing!) I thought that our finite lifetimes were very brief, but eternity was forever–and I was not about to let someone else cost me what I was sure was eternity. It was bad enough to face the injustice and sheer, constant, rankling unfairness of my everyday life and to be reminded with every single intake of breath that by sheer dint of my gender I was never going to have the opportunities that the men around me got, and that I was the inferior of every one of those men no matter what, always doomed to be the servant no matter what I did or how much I wanted anything different. That was bad enough. But to let that unfairness and mistreatment cost me my golden mansion in the clouds? Unthinkable. So I tried my best not to let it get to me.

But my anxiety went deeper still than just a terror of Hell.

Once I got deep enough into this religion, getting out proved difficult. I was married to a lay preacher who took all that sexism to heart in a major kind of way, and I knew he wouldn’t react well to any show of defiance–and indeed he didn’t. Every one of my friends was a fundamentalist, and I knew they’d probably drop me if I got too out of line–which they did. I had to totally relearn how I looked at the world and to examine every one of my opinions–and had to navigate every bit of that reinvention without the feeling of a divine safety net, because as precarious and unpredictable as it’d always been, at least it’d been something.

So when someone says, all exasperated, “Why do so many women stay in a religion that unfair?” I’ll tell ’em exactly why at least this woman stayed as long as she did.

I was afraid of so many things. I craved security. I wanted safety. I needed structure. I ached to see the reality of the spiritual world I’d been taught since toddlerhood existed all around me. I wanted to be part of something much bigger than myself.

And I didn’t know any other way of doing it at the time.

I didn’t know I was sufficient unto myself.

I didn’t know I’d always been on my own, just that I had wrongly thought otherwise.

I didn’t know my own strength.

Thankfully, my desire for the truth eventually outweighed my fears and needs.

I began to see that the promises this religion made to me–and oh, there were many dozens if not hundreds of promises!–didn’t seem to pan out the way my pastors and the Bible said they should. I noticed that reality never lined up with the Bible’s promises around prayer–or history, or science, or reality in general. I recognized at last that what my church leaders said about “complementarianism” (that’s Christianese for “separate but equal”) simply didn’t result in a harmonious society or even a smoothly-running, happy marriage–and that the people who were the most gung-ho about this strict adherence to gender roles seemed like the most abusive people I encountered. I don’t know when that easy yoke and light burden became a monstrous daily nightmare for me; it was probably very gradual and very early on.

Tremulously, I finally began to look seriously at this religion that had almost completely cowed me and beaten me into a cookie-cutter.

I was lucky. I didn’t have children to worry about, and aside from some explosive drama with my then-husband Biff and the aforementioned fair-weather friends, I didn’t really have that much to lose. A lot of other fundamentalist women are forced, as my mother was long ago, to stay with something really bad for them because they just don’t know any other way to live and are trying to do the best they can with a terrible situation.

And yes, some of them may well actually be living the high life in that religion; some women have the right temperament to actually flourish in that environment, buoyed up by male appreciation and used as the display model to tempt other women into the lifestyle. The one woman out of a hundred who does okay in fundamentalism makes the other 99 who fall as collateral damage totally worth it to the religion’s leaders, I assure you. Others may bristle at a lot of the religion’s demands but put up with it, thinking that it’s what a god wants out of them, like I thought years ago. Quite a few might not even recognize–even as I didn’t–that they’re being mistreated at all until they brush up against people who aren’t residents of the same bubble.

It’s not as simple as showing a fundamentalist woman debunks of her favorite apologetics author or showing her that Creationism isn’t real science. There’s a lot more going on in there than just the facts of science or real history. There’s a lot of expectations, demands, promises, threats, and community involvement going on keeping her in the pews, and if she ventures out of those pews she risks the loss of not only her entire social support network but possibly her entire extended family and even her job, home, and financial security–and then we get into the spiritual side of things: her soul, Heaven, Hell, and all that.

The real miracle is that even staring those risks in the face, a great many women are in fact leaving fundamentalism. Their courage and bravery speaks to that which is best about humanity, even as they peel themselves away from the worst about it. What they need is sympathy, validation of their frustration and questions, and emotional support, not accusations and judgment flung at them from a corner they weren’t expecting.

If I’d had that kind of support myself, maybe I wouldn’t have stayed in something that toxic for as long as I did. I don’t blame anybody but myself though. Back then nobody knew about deconversion. Now I can plead for a little understanding and kindness for the women in the same boat I was back then–women who might have a lot more to lose than I ever did.

Ironically, my mother’s anguished question about her marriage years ago defined my “marriage” to Christianity as well. I tried so hard not to duplicate what I saw as her mistakes that I ended up making the exact same ones she had and for nearly the same reasons. Dang, I never saw that one coming, I’ll tell you what!

Next time I’m going to talk about the moment I crossed my personal Rubicon–and I hope you’ll join me on Wednesday for it.

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