A former Christian Fundamentalist, Samantha Eyler now longs for a world where we don’t have to choose between our individual freedom and the collective strength provided by our religion.
At 17, I lost my religion. Today, at 27, I want my faith back, but I can’t find it again.
And how I wish I could.
The kind of religion I used to have has been in the news recently after Bill Nye the Science Guy debated the founder of Kentucky’s creation museum, Ken Ham. It’s called Biblical literalism (or what my preacher-father used to proudly term “independent, fundamental, Bible-believing Baptist”) and its logic is straightforward: Everything written in the King James Version of the Bible is taken to be true and right in a literal (including scientific, historical, documentary, and moral) sense.
Hence, if the Bible says the world was created in six days, that unquestionably is what happened; and so on ad infinitum for everything from Noah and the Flood to the morality of homosexuality to the appropriate roles for men and women in the family and society. When I was growing up, the Bible—supplemented by interpretation from a hierarchy of males in my life (father, pastor, teachers)—was the final authority on all of life’s questions.
This has some serious implications for a person’s internal moral compass: You don’t develop one. If you are unlucky enough to have been born a woman in this religion, you are taught that your judgment is inherently subordinate, a muscle not to be flexed. Every quandary is resolved by appeal to an external authority, to someone who is more right than you by virtue of his status as laid out in the inspired Word of God.
Thus, when explaining to his rebellious 11-year-old daughter why I couldn’t ever become a doctor or a senator, my father quoted voluminous passages of Scripture to silence me:
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. (Genesis 3:16)
And of course:
Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. (1 Timothy 2:11-12)
Nevertheless, being religious wasn’t all restriction and subordination. I was very earnest about my relationship with God, and memorized huge swathes of the Bible, loving the texture and cadence and poetry of the old-fashioned words. I spent long hours enjoying nature, lifting up prayers for my loved ones, meditating and trying to understand transcendence. I sang in a choir, and felt the sublime human beauty of sharing harmonies with hundreds of people. I spent post-service Sunday afternoons eating roasts and fried chicken at potlucks in the homes of friends from our congregation.
By the time I was 15, I would be torn away from those friends due to yet another of my father’s endless doctrinal quibbles with the lay preachers about the nature of the Apocalypse. This would lead to my family being thrown out of our church and Christian school. But at the time, I was extraordinarily happy.
I started college as a devout 16-year-old with waist-length hair, floor-length denim skirts, a brain crying out for intellectual exercise, and a heart looking for the “Christian fellowship” I’d lost because of my father’s beliefs about the Second Coming of Christ. In my freshman year, I devoured religion and philosophy courses, read the Koran, the Torah, the Ramayana, Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Russell. And my faith started to fall apart as I watched helplessly.
I lost my religion like one loses a beloved family member: with denial, bargaining, acceptance, then grief. For the first time I began evaluating my faith against my own values, and to my broken-hearted dismay, the former continually came up wanting. The Deuteronomic rules governing sexuality, for instance, were clearly abusive, unethical, making use of female hymens as social currency. When in a religion class I re-read Deuteronomy 22:28’s prescription that a perpetrator of rape must pay his victim’s father 50 shekels and then marry her, I felt aghast, disappointed, and betrayed by the God I’d trusted so unquestioningly.
Obviously, many moderate Christians have managed to more loosely interpret the Scriptures that had become an intellectual and moral glass house for me. But the problem is that I didn’t know very many of those people then, and the ones I did know I had been taught to demonize as “backsliders” or—that worst of fundamentalist slurs—“compromisers.”
Within three semesters, I had covertly traded my denim skirts for blue jeans on my college campus, and I felt right about it. When my father found out, he demanded to know how I dared defy the Bible’s prohibition against women wearing male clothing, and I confessed in tears that I simply couldn’t believe that anymore—I wasn’t capable of believing it. He threatened to throw me out of the house if I didn’t quit college, give up my scholarship, move home, and “get right with God.”
Even as unused to using my own moral compass as I was at age 18, I intuited that quitting college couldn’t possibly be the right thing for me to do then. So I let myself be thrown out, kept studying, moved away to England, and reinvented myself as an activist for feminism and social justice.
What happened to me then is something I have seen happen to many other young people who’ve escaped from Biblical literalism: I became, by default, an agnostic obsessed with intellectual rightness, terrified of ever again being brainwashed into believing anything so illogical and destructive as fundamentalism. My religious sanctimoniousness translated quite tidily into secular dogmatism, and I became aggressively anti-faith.
It wasn’t until I became more involved in Latino communities that I realized everything else I had lost when my faith collapsed. I went to Las Vegas after college to campaign for Obama in Hispanic communities, and became close friends with an undocumented immigrant from Mexico City. One Sunday morning I let her devout mother drag me along to a mass, where I was the only gringa in the room.
I watched in amazement as 500 Mexicans, who in public lived a life in the shadows to forestall any attention that could result in their illegal status being noticed, joined their voices to recite long strings of incomprehensible rosaries in Spanish for hours at a time. And it occurred to me that in the frightened, dislocated life of an undocumented immigrant, faith represents everything good in their lives—the community and shelter and acceptance that they would likely find almost nowhere else in American society.
And for that faith, I envied them.
I live in Colombia now, one of the most fragmented societies in the world. I am still a feminist activist, and I worry deeply about how chauvinistic this country is, in large part due to the gender roles, the sexual rules, the Madonna/whore dichotomy, received unquestioningly from Catholic dogma.
Ironically, the women here—the ones most hurt by the restrictions of their faith’s buttressing of patriarchy—seem to be the most committed believers. But who can blame them? I see them herding their families in enormous groups to mass on Sundays, the little kids’ hair intricately braided or slicked down with gel, and I see love, family, community, faith in a better future, strength in numbers. Where else would they get that outside of their churches? Is there a way to push this society toward gender equality, without them having to lose this?
My younger brother was closeted for all of his youth, and in the process of coming out and claiming his identity he saw his own faith shattered, as I did. Right now, he’s not sorry about that, but I’m sorry for him. I long for a world where we don’t have to choose between our individual freedom and the collective strength provided by our religion.
So, moderate people of faith, those of you who can endure the cognitive dissonance of espousing progressive politics while gleaning support in religious traditions that are thousands of years old—I ask you to please speak up. There are many of us who need to hear your voices much more loudly.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.