How Religion Targets the Vulnerable: Beyond Belief

Give me a genie and three wishes, and I’d probably ask for the following: an end to poverty worldwide, give people the desire and ability to protect and restore the environment, and an end to religion.

Religion is at the root of much of what’s wrong with the world. When we go chasing after invisible gods, all of our worst human tendencies remain, but are given God’s stamp of approval. I’m sure you’ve noticed how what God wants so often matches the desires and prejudices of the person saying what God wants. That, or they’re parroting what the people who wish to retain power over them tell them God wants. Either way, the desires always track back to people.

Image is the cover of Beyond Belief

And in Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, we see just how destructive and devious religion can be. This book is full of slices of fundamentalist life from a broad range of faiths. The editors, Susan Tive and Cami Ostman, wanted to explore the commonalities between women who found themselves sucked (or born) in to extremely restrictive religions. They weren’t intending “to refute or belittle religion.”

They didn’t have to. The religions do that quite well all by themselves.

One common theme I noticed, and that infuriated me, was the way all of these sects, from Judaism to fundie Christian to Jehovah’s Witnesses to Islam and more, preyed on vulnerability.

Within hours of the Twin Towers falling, members of a cult were at a vigil on a college campus only a few miles away. They weren’t praying for the victims so much as seeking people whose world had just come crashing down, and preying on them. Spreading Jesus was more important than rendering aid.

Another cult used a young woman’s intense desire to heal her mentally ill brother to suck her in, turning her into another money-collecting drone for the cult.

Women searching for clear, simple rules to navigate complicated lives. Women trying to overcome anxiety and depression. Women trying their best to be what pastors, parents, prophets and parishioners want. Women needing to feel loved and safe and whole. Religions descended on them like hyenas, tore them apart while promising to put them together, and spit out the pieces. Taught them to fear the wrath of God and hell so viscerally that they would do anything for salvation. Taught them they were worthless and damned if they strayed from that incredibly narrow path.

The stories these women tell grab you by the gray matter and demand you pay attention, no matter how awful they become. We sit in a mortuary chapel with Naomi Williams, surrounded by the stench of decayed human bodies, as the pastor conducts the congregation’s regular service and the parents lie.

Why couldn’t these people, who had not the slightest hesitation about telling their children that they would burn forever in hell when they died, be honest about the real-world manifestations of death? Here, surely, was the real “end” of man – dead, breaking down into volatile organic compounds, a mortician’s project. Talk about a powerful object lesson. But all we got by way of explanation was dead fish.”

We kneel on the carpet in a pastor’s office with Pamela Helberg, as her father and pastor pray “the demons of homosexuality” away.

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.”

We stand in Leila Khan’s room as she rejects an arranged marriage, and faces her mother’s wrath:

You have disappointed us so much. If you refuse to marry Amir, I will curse you so that you never succeed in life. You will fail and fail, and when you come crawling back to me, begging for forgiveness, you know what I will do to you that day?” She stared at me with unblinking eyes. “I will kick you so hard in your face, you will never be able to get up.”

These women all overcame their indoctrination and have gone on to live rich, fulfilling lives. These glimpses into their lives before freedom are infuriating, inspiring, and always riveting. They’ve given me a deeper understanding of life within the confines of a constricting religion. That little piece of them will always be with me.

How Religion Targets the Vulnerable: Beyond Belief

8 thoughts on “How Religion Targets the Vulnerable: Beyond Belief

  1. 3

    I find myself somewhat conflicted over sweeping condemnations of all religion as inherently bad. I grew up in a very moderate church, and simply don’t have the kind of personal experiences that lead to such a conclusion, although I know that religious extremism is certainly a force for evil.

    Then I read something like this – a relevant and very eloquent post that addresses this issue.

    Again – is it the religion itself, or the extremist manifestation that is the problem? I know that it will be pointed out to me that religious indoctrination makes people more vulnerable to this sort of thing. Still trying to sort these things out…

  2. rq

    Oh! I think I read that blog a while back, thanks for the link. I found it extremely enlightening.
    I think if religion kept itself as a mere cultural phenomenon and truly worked only functioned as a form of community support – and was truly expressed in a non-intrusive, loving manner – it would have a good place in our society.
    I think it too often is used as a tool to try to determine the lives of others, even in its mild and moderate forms (with which I grew up with as well – it was a very friendly catholic church, with modern music at mass, and my parents weren’t even hardcore about religion at home, it was just mass every Sunday, and then holidays and stuff… not terrifying at all!). But.
    Then there’s the intersection of the mild-and-moderate forms with their cousins, the fundamental aspects of the same community, because – as in catholicism – supporting your local church also, indirectly, supports the entire structure of the catholic church, so it is an indirect support of all the negatives the church engages in.
    Also there’s that whole aspect of unquestioningly following god’s will… At least my dad has the sense to be in chemo instead of prayer groups.

  3. 5

    So after posting this comment, I left to go pick up my Mom from church and take her home. She still drives, but when the weather or roads are bad she usually will not venture out on her own. The church is an important part of her social support network, and since isolation is a huge problem for the elderly, I feel that it is good for her to go as often as possible.

    I find the notion of atheist “churches” kind of silly, but I think that there is a need for the sense of community that a church can provide. I don’t think that online communities will fill the bill, at least not for an old fogey like me. As much as I enjoy communicating with people at ETEV, it’s not the same.

  4. 7

    Religion is at the root of much of what’s wrong with the world.

    I am dubious about statements like this. My reasons are different from those of Lithified Detritus. It seems to me that the largely secular China has not been less wrong than other parts of the world. From the Wikipedia article on Confucianism:

    The core of Confucianism is humanism, or what the philosopher Herbert Fingarette calls “the secular as sacred”. Confucianism focuses on the practical, especially the importance of the family, and not on a belief in gods or the afterlife.[2] Confucianism, broadly speaking, does not exalt faithfulness to divine will or higher law.[3] This stance rests on the belief that human beings are teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor especially self-cultivation and self-creation. Confucian thought focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics.

    Sounds fine eh? Read further, have a look at the Wikipedia articles ‘Lessons for Women’ and ‘Three Obediences and Four Virtues’. Whoops! What happened there?

    I am not dubious about this statement: Patriarchy is at the root of much of what’s wrong with the world.

  5. 8


    I am dubious about statements like this.

    10 years ago I would have agreed with Dana.
    These days, I agree with you. While I don’t know what lay at the root of what’s wrong with the world, I think religion is one aspect of a deeper issue. Abandoning the shackles of religion might well be a good thing for humanity, but as we’ve seen in the Deep Rifts, many problems still remain (and just to be clear, I don’t think Dana is hinting that eliminating religion will fix the problems of the world)

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