If you knew about me, you might ask, “Why does a former executive decide to abandon retirement and devote herself to writing a book about women leaving religion?” Of course if you knew me well, you would understand that I must have a worthwhile project. Idleness is not in my nature. But the path that led me to the publication of Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion is, hopefully, an interesting one and reveals a shy girl, born in the nation’s hinterland, who matured into an ardent feminist and then moved on to expressing that feminism through writing about women and atheism.
When I mention in interviews that I grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota, most are able to guess that I was likely raised as a Lutheran. And they are correct. Trinity Lutheran Church, at the time a beautiful church with amazing stained glass windows, was the center of my life. Recently, my sister and I, who calls herself an agnostic, sang old hymns together on a road trip. With a 55,000 year history, it is no wonder that music leaves a deep impression on us. With long gowns, we walked down the aisle at Trinity singing “God’s Word is Our Great Heritage” in youth choir. It was a singular experience in my life that has no equal. This ALC church was fairly liberal though at the time there seemed to be a bit of a war going on with Catholics. Why else would I have asked my father at the tender age of seven if it would be okay if I married the Catholic boy who had just walked me home from school? Unpacking why I would think of marriage at seven must be left to another day. Learning Martin Luther’s catechism was arduous. I can honestly say I never understood it at all.
Deciding to enroll at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota actually started me on my long path to atheism. My first class, Religion 101, taught the different oral traditions of the Bible, examining the difference between J, E, D and P writers. If our pastors at Trinity had learned that in seminary, they had kept it to themselves. No longer was the Bible a monolithic book inspired directly by God. Other courses in religion revealed the liberal nature of the college: I wrote a report on the book Gay World and took a class taught by a Catholic monk. Father Emeric Lawrence, OSB, had us read a weekly Catholic newspaper and comment on an article each week. Never having done a personal diary, this journal that I still have today is the closest to revealing my thoughts at that age. I clearly was questioning the doctrines of both faiths.
When I attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, it was easy to drift away from church. To me church was composed of my family and neighbors, not strangers. It is no surprise that most of my fellow graduate students did not attend church or synagogue either. But it is here that I learned to be a feminist. The early seventies were ripe with opportunities to explore women’s rights. There were organizations to join, focus groups to participate in, and rallies to attend. But perhaps the best lesson for me was to run for president of the Teaching Assistants’ Association, an AFT local, that had collective bargaining rights with the university. When we went on strike in 1980, I was one of the two spokespersons. Attending a meeting of just the women strikers, I was taken back when one asked, “Well who will speak for us?” I immediately replied, “You each should speak up. I can assure you the boys are not choosing any representatives to speak for them.”
Unfortunately, academic jobs were hard to come by and I ended taking a position as Field Representative for the Oregon Federation of Teachers. In that position, I defended many women who had been fired, unjustly disciplined, or not promoted. I remember one woman who confided in me that she had been sexually harassed by her boss. Even with my pleading, she was too afraid to pursue a grievance. I ended my career as executive director of the Oregon State Bar supervising a staff of 90 and representing the state’s 14,000 lawyers.
In the 1990’s I read most of the books of the Jesus Seminar and found this objective historical look at the New Testament fascinating. But it also led me to abandon religion. When I finished reading Bishop John Shelby Spong’s “Resurrection: Myth or Reality,” I was done. My atheism lay dormant until the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby in 2014. In that decision, based on its previous decision in Citizens United that allowed corporations to act as individuals and contribute to political campaigns, Hobby Lobby’s claimed “religious beliefs” allowed it to avoid providing certain forms of birth control to their employees. I was incensed. Were we still fighting for women’s reproductive rights? How could a store have religious beliefs?
And that decision spurred me to action. I assembled an amazing group of 22 women who told their personal stories of leaving religion. They outlined the shame and guilt that continued to impact their psyche from their religious upbringing and they talked about being a woman and being seen as the originator of sin. A black woman from Africa talked about the imposition of Christianity on her people and the acceptance of men having multiple wives, just like in the Bible.
I am so proud to have been able to give voice to these stories. I hope that you will have the opportunity to read them and enjoy them as much as I have
Karen L. Garst has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She recently retired as executive director of the Oregon State Bar. She has a blog at http://www.faithlessfeminist.com and is on Facebook and YouTube as the Faithless Feminist. Her twitter handle is @karen_garst. In 2016 she wrote a book entitled Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion that chronicles the stories of 22 women who have left religion.