Search the world over and you’ll find a potpourri of religious beliefs—with one key feature in common between nearly all of them: men in power. Consider it a fatal flaw.
Irrefutable proof that religion is in trouble appears in a recent issue of Christianity Today in the form of research showing that for the first time, young women in the United States are “less likely to identify with religion than young men. … Among 18- to 25-year-olds, 49 percent of women are nones, compared to just 46 percent of men.”
Not that this trend is anything to celebrate. But as we seek to understand why women are losing faith, the obvious answer is patriarchy and misogyny.
Imagine if Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad had been born Abigail, Jessica, and Maureen with fully-functioning ovaries and wombs. Is there any doubt the world would be a more loving, equitable, and spiritual place? We’d bet our secret stash of frankincense and a treasured Pope Francis bobblehead to prove it.
This week, in a conversation with Rebecca Foster, Louise Omer describes the path she took to escape her Christian background—as detailed in her Holy Woman: A Divine Adventure, which earned a glowing review from Rebecca in Foreword‘s November/December 2022 issue. Should you be leaning “none,” we encourage you to hear Louise’s story.
I found the rotation of “before” & “after” sections very successful. What made you decide on this structure, and how did you go about recreating the emotionally charged atmosphere of evangelical services?
The dual narrative strands of Holy Woman was a brilliant suggestion that came from my editor, Marika Webb-Pullman, as I wrote the second draft. This required me to travel deep into my memories. I devised a list of “scenes”: my first time in the mosh pit at youth group, giving my heart to Jesus, the day of my wedding, the breakdown of my marriage. I sat at my desk in Dublin during the first round of Covid lockdowns and visualized myself putting on armor with the support of powerful female ancestors, before going down stone steps into a dungeon. I opened a heavy wooden door onto the scene I’d chosen for the day. Often I would type with my eyes closed. And if I remembered, I would visualize closing the door upon exiting. It was a beautiful, painstaking exercise that allowed me to discover my own truth.
For the “before,” you set up a deliberate parallel between your former husband and God. Why are these two figures together the key to understanding your past self?
“If god is male, then the male is god,” writes Irish American theologian Mary Daly. And feminist philosopher Carol Christ claims that “Religions centered on the worship of a male god … keep women in a state of psychological dependence on men and male authority.”
My marriage was marked by coercive control. It was never explicitly demanded, but my husband expected me to do as he wished. Over time, his authority—his love as reward when I obeyed, and his disdain and criticism when I did not—became almost parallel to the command of the father god that I worshipped. In Holy Woman, I capitalized the Husband and His pronouns to linguistically demonstrate the god-like power he had in my mind.
One might assume the social justice focus of the church you attended would make it stand out from the pack. But something more fundamental meant it still felt repressively patriarchal. Is there anywhere from your travels, or in your observations today, that you see Christianity being done “right?”
No. Because I fundamentally disagree with the philosophy of Christianity. Its cosmology is misogynistic and hierarchical. Eve was supposedly made from a man—thereby removing all of the mystical, supernatural power of female birth—and she was responsible for the fall of man. And the idea of the Father God (“King of Kings, Lord of Lords”) reigning over his subjects is a relationship based on domination. Even if Jesus was a radical socialist who was on the side of the marginalized, even if preachers interpret the Bible with liberation theology, even if church folk feed the poor or campaign for LGBTQ+ rights or march, shouting, on the streets, the foundational ideas are inherently patriarchal. However, I am only one woman—some people might ask the same questions I did, and come up with an entirely different answer.
You contrast submission as a desirable (and especially feminine) quality for people of faith with its sexual connotations. How did you hope to differentiate between your own hard-won sexual liberation and potentially abusive situations?
The French-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani claims that patriarchy sexualizes male domination and female subordination. While there are sexual subcultures which enact this with safety and consent, this played out in my life in a way that was not safe, nor nourishing, kind, and loving to me as a whole and worthy person. Patriarchy is an ideology of hierarchy and domination with a generous heaping of misogyny. Christianity convinces its believers the heart is evil, and the ensuing shame breeds masochism. I felt comfortable in a relationship that treated me like I had no worth. The philosophy of my worldview played out in the flesh.
At the time I was reading queer theory—Paul B. Preciado, McKenzie Wark, María Llopis—writers who saw sex and the body as a way to understand how we interact with the world. Or how we interact with power. It was important for me to explore the ways I participated in abusive situations so that I could understand the deep impact of Christian ideology on my psyche.
The notion of “defecting in place” becomes important over the course of your journeys. When is that a better option than leaving a religion, and what are some good examples of how to do it?
Everyone is different; there are a thousand ways to be free. I entered Pentecostalism independent of my family when I was fifteen, and was able to shrug it off like a heavy coat come summertime. But many are born into religion, and who and how they worship is interwoven with culture, identity, and honoring the family line. It’s an important question: when do I need to remove myself from a damaging system to protect myself, and when should I create change with the resources I have?
“Defecting in place” is a phrase from the Catholic feminist researcher Miriam Therese Winter. It means to subvert the dominant power structures from within. In my book I was inspired by women who gave new names to “god,” created new meanings for old rituals, and reinterpreted scripture from a feminist/liberation perspective. A young gay woman in Stockholm who prayed to a nameless, genderless divinity. Jewish people who participated in mikveh to mark life transitions. A theologian in Rabat translated hadiths, incorporating female lived experience. It’s backbreaking work, and it pushes religious culture forward.
You meet so many people and see so many different places on your travels. Is there one encounter that stands out in your memory, or one lesson that you still draw on daily?
It was a privilege to be welcomed by many trailblazers and freedom fighters around the world, some of whose conversations never made it into Holy Woman. But one conversation is in my mind. Dolores Whelan is a Celtic Christian who organized annual festivals for St. Brigid in Ireland. We met up for lunch in Dundalk, a town north of Dublin.
“Growing up in Ireland,” she told me over soup and soda bread, “there was an incredible religiosity. It was like everything was governed by the church. It was a really closed society. On Good Friday—there was always a sermon at three o’clock. And because there was communion, ye couldn’t eat anything for three hours before. Mam would say to us, don’t be hanging around the house. And I used to go down to the forest. Now, when I think of Good Friday, that’s what I remember: the primroses coming out. A part of my child soul knew that I could find God there. On Good Friday now, I never go to a church, but I spend the day out in nature.”
Dolores encountered a sense of the divine in the boglands, the gorse, the hills, the mist. In the threaded spine of an oak leaf, in the swooping loops of a swallow’s flight. This idea echoes through every day of my life.