Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion

272 PP.; $16.95

IN 2014 THE ARTS and crafts chain Hobby Lobby fought to exclude certain types of birth control coverage for its female employees based on its owner’s religious views of what constitutes acceptable family planning. The dispute went all the way to the US Supreme Court where five justices, all men and all with connections to the Roman Catholic Church, ruled in favor of religious beliefs over the human beings who didn’t share those beliefs.

At least one good thing would come from this “decision of startling breadth,” as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described it in her dissent. One woman would be inspired to seek out nonbelieving women who were free from religion and who wanted to share their experiences with the world.

The result is Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion by first-time author and editor Karen L. Garst. In the library of atheist literature there are countless male voices and male authors. Now, twenty-two women add their human perspective and experience to the mix. And it’s about time.

I knew a bit of Garst’s story, as we’ve both contributed to the Patheos blog Removing the Fig Leaf, and I follow Garst’s own blog, The Faithless Feminist, where I’ve learned more about the history of my own religion than I did in fourteen years of religious education.

The very first story in Women Beyond Belief is by Ann Wilcox, and it resonated thoroughly with me. There were just too many parallels between her story and my own, including her compulsion to list fundamentalist doctrines and describe each one. We don’t get indoctrinated from the womb to know this stuff and then just let it go when sharing our story.

Like Wilcox, one day when I was reading the Bible, I realized I simply didn’t believe any of it anymore. Suddenly my whole world was off balance. God was no longer the great and powerful Wizard of Oz; he was the man behind the curtain of collective imagination. My surprise was akin to Wilcox’s in that I honestly didn’t think this would ever happen to me. However, in my case this revelation came with an additional shock. I thought I was the only atheist in the world. That’s right—True Atheist: Population 1.

This isolating experience began the day I ran across a definition for atheism online. It read something along the lines of, “Not being convinced of the validity of a deity or deities based on the lack of evidence.” I felt that description was much too broad. In other words, I was horrified that the definition was extensive enough to include me, considering my family, friends, community, and entire identity were wrapped up in Christianity.

I balked at the label because, for one thing, I didn’t match the atheist stereotype—I was neither a scientist nor male. (And definitely not British, as that seemed to me to be a qualifying factor as well.) But on a more basic level, I thought all other atheists earned their atheism by actively hating and rebelling against God. I, on the other hand, came to mine humbly, honestly, and reluctantly. Atheists actively follow Satan, my thinking went, but I actively pursued God. Atheists were fools according to the Bible, and I was diligently seeking truth. Atheists had a ton of faith in their adamant belief that there was no God, and here I was hoping very much that God was real.

Clearly, everything I knew about atheists was learned from non-atheists. What a priceless treasure Women Beyond Belief would have been to the world’s loneliest atheist at that point in my life. I would have called it a godsend and a blessing in those first days of atheism, as I had no alternative language. And I would have thanked God for it before thinking that through. I was the kind of person who compulsively thanked God for bringing something to my mind that solidified my atheism, like a good metaphor or a scientific study, and then I’d realize what I was doing. It was just second nature to give full credit for thinking to God instead of my brain.

After getting to know many atheist women in the last few years, I didn’t expect Women Beyond Belief to delight and surprise me the way it did. I tend to think of formerly religious atheists as having had my experience, but I’m discovering that there is no quintessential de-conversion story. Sometimes the women in each chapter had nothing more in common other than their gender, and often a connection to the city of Portland, Oregon, where Garst first starting pooling stories together.

From Portand, this book took me to Peru, Zimbabwe, England, and a side trip to India. Some of the women authors don’t think of their atheism much, and use it dead last in a list of self-descriptors. Others cling to it as a freedom from their religious experiences. Others have been atheists a very long time—long enough to recognize the problems within their own community and to push for humanism in atheist circles. Lilandra Ra has me standing and cheering at almost everything she writes.

Not all these women have a writing background, yet every story is so masterfully wrought that the reader can’t help but experience these women’s feelings: Emma Graham’s fear of God’s lightning, Taressa Straughter’s loneliness as a Black atheist, Marsha Abelman’s religious zeal, and Michelle DeBord’s utter, devastating heartbreak at losing her sister to bad doctrine.

Taylor Duty describes every Christian summer camp I’ve ever attended. Karen Brotzman makes me confront my prejudices as she describes the goodness of people in her religious buffet experience: Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and Mormons. Then there’s Sandy Olsen who writes about spirituality in such a beautiful and relatable way that doesn’t contradict science or the natural world. Even the most severe naturalist like myself who avoids “woo” could thoroughly appreciate her experience.

Gender discrimination, especially for those from religious backgrounds, pops up again and again as a latent theme in the collection. Some grieve the lives they could have lived had they not been constrained by what they thought God wanted women to be and do. Most of the writers are feminists, yet one speaks out against feminism (applying the word “victim” to feminists much as I’ve heard some religious people apply the word “sad” to atheists) and ends with a defense of the character Bella from the Twilight books. If I was under any impression that atheist women are all cut from the same stock, I was thoroughly set straight.

Another general theme I found in the various stories was how those who were never very religious are happy to live symbiotically with the religious, and reflect on religious practice as an oddity, while those with religious backgrounds are more wary of religion, given their first-hand experience with the harm it brings. The juxtaposition is most evident when Kay Pullen, who has no issues with religion, writes about her vegetarianism. It’s evident she’s had the freedom to choose her own values, and respects others for theirs. In contrast, Gayle Myrna mentions how she can never go full vegetarian after years of religious restrictions on food. It’s almost as if it would be a threat to her newfound freedom. Religion can be escaped, but it still haunts a person.

I hope these women go on to write more. I’ll read them. I hope Garst goes on to publish a sequel or two, with more atheist voices. I’d love to hear from more lesbian, transgender, and queer women. I’d love to hear from women with disabilities. I’d love to fill my library with their stories, because on the atheism side of my bookshelf it’s something of a gentleman’s club.

The last story of the book is “Not Quite an Atheist” by Nancy J. Wolf. She lists areas in her Christian faith that don’t quite add up or make sense. And there I am again, reflected in one of the stories. Someday maybe she’ll discover a definition of atheism that feels right, as I did. At the very least she’ll know she’s not alone.