Beyond Belief

The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions


Edited by Cami Ostman

Edited by Susan Tive

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Beyond Belief addresses what happens when women of extreme religions decide to walk away. 

Editors Susan Tive (a former Orthodox Jew) and Cami Ostman (a de-converted fundamentalist born-again Christian) have compiled a collection of powerful personal stories written by women of varying ages, races, and religious backgrounds who share one commonality: they’ve all experienced and rejected extreme religions. Covering a wide range of religious communities—including Evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Calvinist, Moonie, and Jehovah’s Witness—and containing contributions from authors like Julia Scheeres (Jesus Land), the stories in Beyond Belief reveal how these women became involved, what their lives were like, and why they came to the decision to eventually abandon their faiths. 

The authors shed a bright light on the rigid expectations and misogyny so often built into religious orthodoxy, yet they also explain the lure—why so many women are attracted to these lifestyles, what they find that’s beautiful about living a religious life, and why leaving can be not only very difficult but also bittersweet.



Reflections from the Editors
Cami Ostman and Susan Tive

We met in a memoir writing class taught by author Laura Kalpakian in the fall of 2006. Susan was writing about her years spent in Orthodox Judaism, her difficult divorce, and the disorientation of transitioning out of living an Orthodox life. Cami was writing about how her journey to run a marathon on every continent was helping her find her way after a divorce and a profound change in her relationship with God. As we shared our respective stories—both in class and over coffee or wine outside of class—we discovered surprising parallels in our lives. Both of us had chosen to enter religious communities we weren’t raised in. We had each adopted faiths that asked us to eschew many personal “freedoms” and choices most nonreligious women take for granted. Though Cami was not asked to cover her head or stop wearing pants as Susan was, she was asked to believe that women shouldn’t teach men in church and that her husband should be her “head.”

Comparing notes further we realized that, despite the differences in our respective religious practices, we could empathize with each other’s difficulties reintegrating into the secular world and shared the doubts and second-guessing of our decisions to leave. We understood the self-blame and guilt that comes with leaving strict religion behind. We experienced similar struggles surviving the wistful, nostalgic, and sometimes heart-wrenching emotions that arise from missing familiar community and ritual.

The more we talked, the more we began to ask ourselves, “Why did we choose to join such restrictive religious practices?” Even more compellingly, we wanted to explore both “Why did we stay so long?” and “Why was it so hard to leave?” After all, although we each experienced intense emotional and psychological pressure from friends and family to stay, we were not obliged by fear of violence as some women around the world are. What did we gain by staying—what kept us in even through years of serious misgivings?

As we formulated more questions and explored our own answers to them, we began to wonder about all the other women who, like us, had lived or were living through their own version of this story and were grappling with many of the same experiences, emotions, and questions. As our friendship with each other taught us, women living life inside extreme religions have much in common despite their differences of practice and belief. Sharing our stories with one another through writing and in conversation helped each of us to feel less isolated, learn from our experiences, and become willing to dig deeper. Realizing that the commonalities of our lives within extreme religion far outweighed the differences of our particular paths inspired us to widen the conversation. We decided to share our stories and give other women the opportunity to tell theirs. Thus, the seeds of Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions were first sown.

Far and wide we flung our net, asking writers the same core questions we had asked ourselves: Why did you, a modern-day, liberated woman, join a religion that restricted your autonomy? What did you experience inside? What compelled you to stay? What compelled you to leave? How did you leave? What do you miss? How do you make sense of the world without your faith (or with an altered understanding of your faith)?

As Beyond Belief began to take shape, the one question we were asked most often by contributors was, “What’s your working definition of extreme?” It’s true that the word extreme is an extreme word! For some of our atheist friends, any religion that espouses a belief in any kind of supreme being is extreme. Yet for those who live inside orthodoxy or fundamentalism, what they live is not extreme to them at all: It is quite normal and sensible.

We agreed that we would let women who resonated with the term extreme define it for themselves. As editors, it’s not our place to pretend we have an objective, unbiased definition of what is extreme that we can apply like a measuring stick to other people’s experiences. What we do know is that, looking back on what we put ourselves through at an earlier time, we now see our religious commitments as extreme in comparison to our current lives. We hope you, the reader, will keep an open mind to the stories contained in Beyond Belief, and employ empathy as you read, even if certain writers’ beliefs don’t resonate with your own.

Another question we encountered when we made our call for submissions was, “I was born into a family that practices this religion. Can I still submit a story?” Our answer at first was no, but we changed our minds. Although we originally hoped to find women, like us, who chose to enter their faiths in adolescence or adulthood, we came to understand that, except for some women who risk their lives to leave their religion behind, even those who were born into a particular faith must choose to stay in it at least for some period of time (often because the consequences of leaving were, while not deadly, quite huge).

Finally, potential contributors asked us, “I’ve left a conservative branch of my religion, but I still attend a more liberal church/synagogue/congregation. Does my experience count as ‘leaving’?” Again, our answer was yes. We understand firsthand that faith and spirituality can be in flux. Where we are today may not be where we’ll be tomorrow, and so it’s best not to judge as definitive where other people happen to be on their spiritual journeys at any given moment.

In fact, it is precisely because we do not consider ourselves judges of other people’s experience that we asked our contributors to write “slice of life” stories rather than informative or opinionated essays. It is not our intention to refute or belittle religion. On the contrary, we, as editors, wanted to spark a conversation about the commonalities of women’s experiences in restrictive religions. The fact that most of the writers included in Beyond Belief have since left or greatly altered their religious practices is a reflection of our longing to hear from those who share the trajectory of our journeys and should not be read as a suggestion that women should leave. This book is entirely about sharing experiences in the way women do: by telling stories to one another.

In Beyond Belief you will find appreciation and gratitude for experiences of faith side by side with deep resentment and anger. Some writers are still grappling to make sense of their lives both in and out of extreme religion, while others are absolutely clear about how to understand their histories. We have made every effort to include women from as wide a range of religious backgrounds as possible. And while we couldn’t include every single religion out there, we are proud of the quality and diversity of writing that has come together to form Beyond Belief.

It’s our hope that you’ll see yourself, your friends, and even a few of the people who irritate you in these pages—and that your curiosity will be piqued and your compassion stimulated. We hope that in reading these stories you will become inspired to enter into open-ended conversations such as the ones we strive to nurture in our own lives.


Church Bodies

Naomi J. Williams


This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men . . . do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship.

—The Westminster Confession of Faith, XXI:8 (1646)

Going to church was of paramount importance in my family. Church was so important that we went twice every Sunday, morning and evening, and also Wednesday nights for prayer meeting. One Sunday morning when I was seven, I woke up with agonizing stomach pain and vomiting, and my parents took me to church anyway—that’s how important it was.

We lived in Long Beach, California at the time and attended Pilgrim Reformed Baptist Church, a congregation so new and small we met mostly in people’s homes. On the morning in question we met at the home of the Wheaton family. They stuck me on a daybed in one of those dark 1970s dens with no books, provided me with a bowl to throw up in, and proceeded with church in the living room. I lay there for an hour, racked with stomach cramps, until a large Siamese cat jumped up on top of me. Terrified of the animal, I hobbled out of the room and into the hallway, doubled over in nauseated pain, until Mrs. Wheaton noticed me. She shooed away the cat and closed me back in the room. To this day, I’m phobic about vomiting. I’m not overly fond of cats either.

Otherwise I liked Pilgrim Reformed Baptist Church. Everyone else’s house was much nicer than our downscale apartment, and my younger sister, Mari, and I befriended some of the other girls. And I liked the grown-ups too, particularly the pastor, an Englishman called Ron Edmonds, and his wife, Thaïs. Mrs. Edmonds was Brazilian and had jet-black hair coiffed with meticulous, unliberated perfection. The Edmonds were genteel and never talked down to children. This mattered a lot to me.

But my father, a fractious individual, had a falling-out with Mr. Edmonds, the first of many such estrangements. When I asked why, he said it was complicated, a disagreement between men over how the church should be run. One Sunday morning he woke us up and told us we wouldn’t be going to Pilgrim anymore. I cried. He found my grief touching; I remember sitting on his knee while he comforted me. He wasn’t a heartless man, my father, however much he pressed his family to extreme religious observance. My mother, a practical and unsentimental Japanese woman, had more moderation. But she rarely overruled my father.

Leaving Pilgrim didn’t mean we’d be skipping church, of course. I don’t think we took even one Sunday off. But where to go? My parents always disparaged “church-hoppers”—ecclesiastically promiscuous people who cannot commit to a church family but keep shopping around in an endless, vain search for the ideal place of worship. But we did a lot of church-hopping ourselves. My Sunday memories of our post-Pilgrim years in Southern California are mostly of being on the freeway as we drove—and drove and drove—to one church after another. And although we were Baptists, almost all the churches we visited were Presbyterian. Orthodox Presbyterian.


Our first parents, being seduced by the subtlety and temptations of Satan, sinned in eating the forbidden fruit. . . . By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body.

—Westminster Confession, VI:1–2

The churches we attended belonged to a subgroup of Protestants who call themselves Reformed. Reformed here alludes to the Protestant Reformation and describes a motley ecumenical category that includes Baptists, Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, Brethren, and even the occasional Episcopal outliers who see the Puritans as their spiritual forebears and point fondly to a 1646 document called the Westminster Confession of Faith as a summary of their core beliefs. They are, in a word, modern-day Calvinists.

Christians of most stripes believe in some concept of sin. But Calvinists go for total depravity, the belief that people are entirely incapable of right action without God and deserve His wrath simply by virtue of being alive. In tandem with this bleak diagnosis is the doctrine of predestination, by which only those elected by God from before time will be saved from eternal damnation. I won’t dwell here on the myriad ways in which this peculiar and anachronistic set of beliefs played on my mind as a child. Suffice it to say that I lived with a level of terror—of death, of Judgment Day, of not being one of the elect—that years later would prove a bonanza for more than one therapist. I was also one of those hideous children who casually told playmates that they were going to hell.

For Christians of the reformed persuasion, like my parents, adherence to these Calvinistic tenets was far more important than broader denominational labels like Baptist or Presbyterian. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was, and may still be, one of the largest networks of reformed churches around. That’s why, after the blowup at Pilgrim, we often ended up with the Orthodox Presbyterians.

I was not very clear on all this back then, of course. I remember more than one playground conversation that went something like this:

“What religion are you, Naomi?”


“Oh, do you go to First Baptist?”

“No. We go to a Presbyterian church.”

“But you said you were Baptist.”

“We are.”

“So why don’t you go to a Baptist church?”

“Because the Presbyterian church believes more what we believe.”

“Doesn’t that make you Presbyterian?”


“That makes no sense.”

“I can’t really explain it. So what religion are you?


“Oh. Too bad. You’re going to hell, you know.”


Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace.

—Westminster Confession, XXVIII:1

The only difference I could see between the Presbyterians’ and Baptists’ beliefs was baptism. My father told me that church government was another point of departure, but at age seven I couldn’t quite grasp that. (Years later I would come to appreciate this difference when the actions of a dictatorial Baptist pastor and his henchmen elders, accountable to no one, nearly destroyed my family, but that’s another story.) There was also a cultural difference I could sense even as a young child, and that had to do with volume. The Baptists were louder. Louder and more theatrical in the pulpit, in their singing, in their professions of faith. Presbyterians, on the other hand, practiced their dread faith with a certain polite restraint.

But baptism was clearly the distinguishing field mark. Baptists baptize by immersion and reserve the Sacrament for professing believers only, while Presbyterians, like most other Protestants, baptize by sprinkling, and administer the Sacrament not just to new Christians who haven’t been baptized previously but also to the infant children of Christians.

The logic of the Baptist position, articulated by my father, seemed unassailable to me. In the Bible, John the Baptist baptized converts, not converts and their babies. And this was no misting of houseplants; it was a manly Sacrament, performed in rivers. People got wet. Of course no Orthodox Presbyterian believed that baptizing infants conferred salvation. The children of believers were as depraved and hell-bound as the most unchurched pagan of those humid places where missionaries went. But the Presbyterians argued that infant baptism demonstrated the parents’ public commitment to raise their children in the truth.

Baptism was a problem for me. I wanted to become a Christian. I prayed for this every day. And although I knew baptism wouldn’t save me, it seemed a convincing proof of one’s election. But I had never learned to swim and couldn’t even put my face in the water. Hell, I was afraid of taking showers. How would I ever endure baptism by immersion? If we were Presbyterian, I would’ve been baptized as an infant and that would’ve been that. What rotten luck to have been born to Baptist parents!

I did have occasion to be thankful that at least we weren’t Brethren. Once during those church-hopping years we visited a Brethren church while they were baptizing a large crop of new Christians. The Brethren, like Baptists, practice believers’ baptism. But they do triple immersion. The baptizee goes under three times, once for each person of the Trinity.

The service was interminable. And one of the baptizees, a girl not much older than I, had obviously never learned to swim either. She spluttered and gasped each time she surfaced and tried to say “Wait!,” holding up her arms, heavy in soaked and clinging baptismal robes, to resist the pastor. But he kept pushing her down again: “In the name of the Father,”—dunk—“the Son,”—dunk—“and the Holy Spirit”—dunk. People around us tittered, but I was swallowing hard, trying not to cry.

It was a relief to return to the dryness of the Orthodox Presbyterians after that. They were a friendly lot, the OPs, frequently inviting us to their homes for lunch after the morning service. Our doctrinal differences rarely came up, but when they did, it was always good-natured.

“One day a Presbyterian pastor runs into his friend, a Baptist pastor,” began a joke told at one of these gatherings. “They begin to talk about baptism.

“‘What if a person gets in the water only up to his feet?’ the Presbyterian asks. ‘Would that count?’

“‘No,’ the Baptist minister says. ‘You have to go in farther than that.’

“‘How about up to his knees?’ the Presbyterian asks.

“‘No,’ the Baptist says. ‘That wouldn’t count.’

“‘Up to the hips?’

“‘No, no, no.’

“‘To chest level?’


“‘How about the chin? That’s almost all the way in.’


“‘Up to the eyes.’

“‘No,’ the Baptist insists. ‘You have to get the top of the head wet.’

“‘The top of the head? That’s what matters?’


“‘Well, we’re in complete agreement!’ the Presbyterian pastor declares. ‘We get the top of the head wet too!’”


God is to be worshipped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily.

—Westminster Confession, XXI:6

Many evenings after dinner, my father would call us together for family devotions. Lasting about half an hour, it usually included a Bible reading, some catechism, and a closing prayer. It was torture, especially for Mari. We had to memorize our fair share of scripture verses—in the King James version, of course. Worse was having to memorize the Westminster Shorter Cathechism. This document, completed in 1647 by the same good people who brought us the Westminster Confession, consists of 107 questions and answers about doctrine presented in gorgeous seventeenth-century English. I can still perfectly recall questions 1 and 4:

Question 1: What is the chief end of man?

Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.

Question 4: What is God?

Answer: God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

My father spanked us if we failed to correctly recite the assigned passages. I had a knack for on-demand, short-term recall, and avoided getting hit. My sister was often not so lucky.


God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it; and endued him with power and ability to keep it.

—Westminster Confession, XIX:1

The summer after I finished second grade, my parents sent me and Mari, who’d just finished first grade, to Vacation Bible School. It went for one week, meeting two or three hours every weekday evening at the OP church in Garden Grove, one of the many places where we’d occasionally worshipped. Mari and I had to carpool with an OP family we didn’t like very much: April was snotty, Andy bratty, their mother meek, and their father quiet except when he exploded with violent rage at one of his kids.

The theme for the week was God’s Law—always a crowd-pleaser with the elementary school set. The hymn for the week, which April and Andy’s parents made us practice in the car, was #450 from the Trinity Hymnal, the official hymnal of the OPC:

Most perfect is the law of God,

Restoring those that stray;

His testimony is most sure,

Proclaiming wisdom’s way.

O how love I thy law! O how love I thy law!

It is my meditation all the day.

O how love I thy law! O how love I thy law!

It is my meditation all the day.

Bible stories illustrated the theme throughout the week: the stalwarts who followed God’s ways, no matter how repugnant or illogical—Abraham, who showed God he was willing to kill his own child; Moses and the Israelites, rampaging their way as instructed through the Promised Land; the brothers James and John, who abandoned their father, Zebedee, at a word from Jesus. Counterexamples were also presented for our edification. Look what could happen if you didn’t obey God! Jonah, swallowed by a whale; Ananias and Sapphira, who dropped dead after lying about money in church; and poor Achan, who couldn’t resist sneaking forbidden war booty into his tent and was stoned and burned to death along with his entire family.

Mari and I were in different classes for the week, and we both had problems with our teachers. An aide in my class had big, bleached blonde hair. She wore short skirts, low-cut knit tops, perfume, and makeup. She had a distinctly un-Presbyterian name—something like Deena. But this was the clincher: she didn’t know the Bible stories. I finally accosted the head teacher and told her Deena did not seem like a Christian.

“Well,” the teacher whispered back, “she’s not a Christian.”

“She’s not?

“We thought helping out with Vacation Bible school would be a great way for her to be introduced to the Gospel,” the teacher explained. “Can you please pray for her?”

“Oh. Okay,” I said, but I was appalled. What were they thinking, foisting an unbeliever on unsuspecting kids? What if she, you know, led us into error?

But at least Deena was nice, whereas Mari’s Vacation Bible School teacher told her that she wasn’t coloring correctly. At home this was met with more outrage than my news that one of my teachers wasn’t even a Christian. Mari was a very talented artist. I give my parents credit for this: they took their total depravity seriously and harbored no illusions that Christians were better or smarter than other people. They gave Mari to understand that this woman who’d criticized her drawings was an idiot. “Pay no attention,” my mother said. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

Though my notions of Presbyterian common sense and courtesy were sorely tested that week, they were somewhat restored after class on the last day. On our way to the parking lot with Andy and April and their parents, Mari said she needed to go to the bathroom. The classrooms were locked up already, but someone directed us to the main building. Mari didn’t want to go alone, so I went with her.

The heavy double doors shut behind us, leaving us alone at one end of the long, dark, silent sanctuary. We hurried to the bathroom and finished as quickly as we could, then rushed back to the doors we’d come through, but the doorknobs wouldn’t budge. We pressed our small bodies against the double doors but nothing happened. It was Friday night, everyone was leaving, and we were locked in the church.

I have some memories of trying to be brave at times when I knew Mari was scared, but this isn’t one of them. I panicked, and Mari followed suit. We cried and banged on the doors, screaming for someone to let us out. The staid Presbyterian interior, so lacking in inspiration on Sunday mornings, was, in complete darkness, as terrifying as the most Gothic cathedral.


On Sale
Apr 2, 2013
Page Count
224 pages
Seal Press