Outsider Looking In: A “Tradition” of a Different Name By John Erickson

The following is a guest post by John Erickson, doctoral student in Women’s Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University.  His research interests involve an interdisciplinary approach and are influenced by his time as the director of a women’s center and active member in the GLBTQ and women’s rights movements.  His work is inspired by the intersectionality of the feminism, queer identity, and religious political and cultural rhetoric.  He is the author of the blog, From Wisconsin, with Love and can be followed on Twitter at@jerickson85.

I often read on this blog about the effects various religious traditions have on people’s personal and professional psyches.  As I sit in class, I listen to people tell their harrowing stories of how they “escaped” restrictive religious practices or were able to “work within” their religious community to attempt to or even in some cases create the change they wanted to see.

Although I enjoy listening to my peers talk about the issues that have followed them along throughout their life, I find myself struggling to personally validate these experiences in relation to my non-religious background.  More specifically, I want to associate with your feelings but I just cannot seem to relate in any way no matter how hard I try.  

I must admit that I never felt this way until I arrived at Claremont and everyone on the first day aligned with others who were “from” or “grieving from” their religious traditions, I found myself asking, “Why did this subject matter never come up back in Wisconsin?”

Furthermore, after living with an individual who was seriously scared from Catholicism (the tradition my mother tried to raise me in) I began searching for a community and tradition I called “home.”

I found myself relating to Peppermint Patty.   While people sat and listened to their religious and spiritual leaders preach weekly and were indoctrinated into whatever religious tradition they hailed from, I could not simply help but “fall asleep.”  More importantly, while Charlie Brown attentively tries to listen to what the teacher is saying, I, like my trusty friend Peppermint Patty found myself so bored because I (like the viewer of the cartoon) was unable to actual comprehend what she was saying.

Instead of reading “The Good Book,” I devoured Austen, Bronte and Dickens.  I found myself absorbing social and cultural history on a different level than my peers who claimed to have been saved by a man named Jesus.  While my classmates went to Bible study to talk about Jesus, I often found myself asking, “Well what about Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Gloria Steinem?” because they were the ones that saved me but no one seemed to care because they did not die on a cross for their sins.

I often wonder, why I do not care, when it comes to religion?  Why am I so apathetic to the whole matter? Why do I have no moral opposition to talking about serious issues?  In the words of Phil Zuckerman, a Pitzer Professor I greatly admire, why does the sentence: “the hot, sticky blood of Christ” (a line he used to open a talk he gave at the start of my M.A. program) not bother me in the same way as my religious friends?

I often feel that the voices of the agnostic or even the atheistic individual are not taken seriously.  Although I align myself with more of an agnostic point of view, I wonder why, when people discover that I did not have a religious upbringing, they brush off what I have to say?

I have discovered over the past two years, after finishing my M.A. in Women’s Studies in Religion that it all comes down to one thing: community.  People tend to flock towards individuals who make them feel more comfortable or will listen to their experiences.

Although I did not have a religious upbringing and remain, to this day, very apathetic towards it, I found myself congregating around feminist and queer activists.  Instead of reading “The Good Book” or being saved by Jesus, I was saved by bell hooks or Gale Rubin.  I worshiped at a different alter but one, that nevertheless, is valid.

I often try to navigate my radical feminist nature with my academic religious intent.  How do feminist agnostics, who gather more on the side of Roe v. Wade rather than the First Amendment, navigate their way through a school that is deeply religious?

Although I do not know the answers to these questions, I find myself struggling to accept my place within a School of Religion where the agnostic or even atheistic opinion is not validated.   Even though I know I am an outsider in more circles than just religion, I often sit back and ponder what it would feel like for one day if I could just fit in?



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6 replies

  1. I feel like non-theists and progressive theists really ought to be working together for social change and to combat the extremists on both sides. It makes me sad when religious people jump the gun and consider all atheists/agnostics “the enemy” without even knowing them as people, and it makes me sad when atheists do the same (considering all believers to be just as bad as the worst fundamentalists and that religion needs to be wiped off the planet).

    Sadly, while we all know about sexism perpetrated in religious spheres, I think the privileged white male dominated atheist community has issues with misogyny as well. Whether we like it or not, we all have the same problems and the potential for the same abuses. They don’t come from religion, or from atheism, and they aren’t solved by crushing each other’s ideologies. Human nature will continue to have a dark side no matter what it believes in.

    The good people of the world, who exist in all creeds (including non-belief), need to focus on our common ground and focus on decrying oppression in all its forms.

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  2. i found this article just fascinating. I too have wondered what the great fascination with the bible is, when I find Mary Daly, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sonia Johnson, Audre Lorde, Matilda Joslyn Gage, even Suze Orman far more fascinating. The bible to me is just one long tale of male domination, male gods… and I can’t sit and listen to men preaching ever…

    But what I do love are all the things that bring lesbian feminists together in woman centered worlds, and I enjoy women gathering around all things. That said, what I do love about male centric christianity is music… Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Mozart… and I love sacred music in other languages that I don’t quite understand, because then the sexist lyrics don’t bug me.

    Religion is well, too male contaminated for my tastes, but a lot of women seem to love the stuff. Women are the backbone of catholic churches, for example. Even right wing christian men report that women love fundie churches, but the husbands are bored and don’t relate. So something about male priests running masses might be appealing to straight women who have a safe ‘celibate” man to show up in costume now and then.

    Sacred texts to me are feminist, visionary. Nothing like the greats of the 19th century, or I’ll discover a lesbian foresister who founded a women’s group in the 1940s, and that is dynamic and exciting. All the women of the left bank of Paris circa 1909 to the 1930s and 40s are amazing. Romaine Brooks, Natalie Clifforn Barney… just amazing, and those are my sacred paintings and texts as well.

    As a lesbian feminist, I just find the whole reclaim the evil male texts a complete and utter boring waste of time. I always wondered why women would major in these subjects in school or want to teach this stuff. Why not focus on community building with other sacred works… or if you really must use the bible, it is more interesting as a kind of mythic story… love the manger scene, and the three kings, love the christmas music, and a cute little baby is a nice winter tale. And hey, grim as it is, one of my favorite childhood bible stories is about Harod slaughtering the baby boys. Loved it as a kid, and adults found this peculiar, but to me later, it meant I was defending myself against pigs of boys who were bullies, sexists, idiots… so the happy slaughter of them was comforting to my 7 year old nerdish girl’s inner life.

    Mary Daly hated the bible and was bored by that. I loved her for saying that!! I love knowing about real women, in real time… Susan B. Anthony is a great spiritual teacher, her letters and life amazing. The strong friendships romantic and otherwise of the 18th and 19th century make powerful spiritual reading.

    So perhaps a lot of women want something to do… so hey, why not get a degree in theology… professorships are pretty well paying and used to be secure jobs, girls do well in school, and these days you don’t have to battle it out with the boys in male dominated fields like engineering, the hard sciences and finance. So they all flock to the “light” liberal arts advanced degrees, meanwhile all the lesbians I know wouldn’t be caught dead in churches…. or if they did, lesbians would be running them.

    So you’ve got a great point John! What a breath of fresh air. Why not treat feminist works, or even Jane Austen as sacred text? Why are we stuck listening to bible readings, when there are so many great books to quote and be inspired by? Hey Judith beheading Holofernes is a great story, why don’t we read about that heroine now and then, as a sacred text? Why do we have to dig around for the crumbs between the male centric texts, when we could have pure radical lesbian Janice Raymond talking about women and friendship?

    And atheists…. well, male dominated pretty sexist… just read Rebecca Watson and “elevator” guy and Dawson’s dismissal of women’s concerns about rape in elevators at 4 am. Or hey, the serious male supremacy that is Occupy Wall Street… you know leaderless male dominated groups… women silenced and not given hours and hours…

    Radical feminism was and is my religion. I love the idea of the cosmic battle to end all male supremacy on earth, to end the over production of children, to create more and more collective wealth for lesbian nation, and any other women who want something big… say blocks and blocks of houses all owned by radical feminists… companies created… money generated… worship places for women… eccletic, invigorating, and yes, community. I can find sacred space with lesbian groups visiting lesbian artist’s spaces, for example. Or supporting a lesbian dominant chorus.

    But what is weird is you’ve got all these PdDs running around trying to write yet another boring bible babble book? And what gives here? Don’t get it, never have never will.

    It is a mystery, and more so because we have brilliant Sheila Jeffreys out with a new book, we have Mary Daly’s no sell out, don’t compromise brilliance… but, hey, women just love to run around wearing roman collars, preaching from pulpits and reading that damn bible… and we think that kind of set up frees radical women longing for true revolutionary space where the patriarchy doesn’t exist for once?

    Call me narrow minded, but sacred space is about women gathering, or women creating an all woman company, or reading the sacred texts of lesbians 200 years old!

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  3. I can appreciate how strange you must feel. Most people who pursue religious studies or attend divinity schools or seminaries usually do so because they have issues to work out in light of the traditions in which they were raised (as you rightly noted). Most who study these topics at the collegiate or graduate level never leave “the same” — some abandon their faiths entirely, while others seek leadership positions within them as they work on various reforms.

    Last year, three bright graduate students began their first year of doctoral coursework in Claremont School of Theology’s Religion, Ethics, and Society program. Of those three, two are self-identified atheists. Please know that I am not alone in valuing the contributions from talented students and scholars, whatever their religious beliefs or lack thereof!

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  4. So is it just a job choice then? Why would atheists be interested in a school of religion?
    I never met a Marxist in financial services, for example. People in my profession actually do the work they were trained for. So this whole religion / theological thing is kind of odd.
    Despite all the women who have entered christian companies (churches), not one has changed the actual doctrine of any of these places, which is at the root woman denying.
    Not one has actually toppled the male god, or was able to dislodge biblical texts, which are essentially male writing.

    Atheists might bring a much needed bit of objectivity to the believers in the schools of Claremount. And I think most atheists agree that if it weren’t for childhood indoctrination into the male religions of the world… Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, people just wouldn’t believe this odd stuff to begin with. It’s why there is so much emphasis on drilling the doctrine into innocent children, before they are able to defend themselves with critical thinking. So if born atheists or people not raised with any of these faiths decided to get advanced degrees in this stuff, it might change things.

    I think it’s why I enjoy so much atheist writing today… I got sick of feminists trying to embrace diehard patriarchy, when there was nothing that could save it from its patriarchal bias. You just couldn’t do it, but they continue to try.

    It’s kind of like the misguided belief that if lesbians get the right to marry, we can be just like heterosexuals. Why would I want to lower my standards to that degree? Why would I ever want my life to be about the enslavement of women, or the ownership of women, which is what marriage to this day still is all about. The history of it is too tainted for words.

    A bit off topic, but it must be interesting for atheists on campus at Claremount, and that I’d like to see :-)

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  5. Dear John,
    Though I am a Catholic my partner was raised Jewish and, I think, comes from a similar place that you do. He is agnostic but apathetic to religion; I think that if I didn’t talk about it with him on a regular basis (what I’m learning, etc) he could do quite well without it. I also know a good handful of atheists and agnostics who are pursuing advanced degrees in religious studies. I think that these voices are important in the diversity of reasons people pursue these advanced degrees; we all have different stakes or, sometimes, we have the same stakes but are coming at it from different angles.

    I think it’s deeply unfortunate that you have experienced silencing because of how you align yourself. As to your question of why aren’t “secular” texts held up as sacred – have you ever attended a UU service? Don’t worry, I’m not trying to convert you ; ) I simply bring it up because having preached in that environment I find often that a variety of “secular” texts included into the worship service and viewed as deeply important to human development.

    If I had a nickel for every time I have been asked why I am going to CST (a Protestant school) if I am a Catholic, I would have…a couple of bucks by now, so perhaps I have some idea of where you are coming from.

    My question is this: how would you want to feel included in a religious environment? what would have to happen for you to feel that your perspective is being heard, affirmed and validated?

    As an educator working with young people, many of who I would describe as agnostic even if they have not yet claimed that title for themselves (ex: 3rd grader who tells me the first day of class that he doesn’t even think G-d exists) your answer would be helpful in learning how to create a more welcoming and affirming environment.

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