Windows into Religion
There are many different roads to humanism. Many humanists were raised in secular and non-theistic households; but a great many others were raised in religious families.
Many of those who grew up with religion have struggled with the contradictions between the magical thinking of the beliefs they were raised with and the observable evidence in the world around them.
For many humanists it was only when they put their religious beliefs behind them that they were able to look at their former religions objectively and discovered how flawed those belief systems really were. For many of us it was a difficult journey, but for those of us who have left superstition behind, there is a nearly unanimous consensus that it was a journey that leads to a happier, freer, more fulfilling place.
Below are a collection of personal accounts of life deep within different religious organizations. Hopefully you will find them interesting and revealing; and perhaps they will help inform your own personal journey as you consider your own system of philosophy and beliefs.
On Scientology (As Told By an Ex-Scientologist)
By Troy Conrad
“I’m looking to get away from organized religion,” I told the man at the Church of Scientology, where he sat in a tall black leather bound chair in a room lit with a dim yellow light, and the ambiance of a small home office. “Well then,” he said, “You’ve definitely come to the wrong place. We’re the most organized religion in the world.”I sought out Scientology not to completely step away from my fundamentalist past, but to add to it. It started with a personality test. I then made an error that many people make when they are about to step into Scamville: I distrusted my intuition, and the facts, and believed the test, a test that showed I needed help. Scientology help.
I grew up non-denominational Christian, and through my teens my faith surpassed that of my parents and most of my peers. I sought out Scientology because I thought they were offering a way to make people better. I didn’t see the big picture, that they were actually selling a ludicrous science fiction mythology wrapped in some well-designed applied psychology courses, and behind the scenes, were one of the most corrupt organizations since [enter name of any other major religion here].
Now it was time for my E-meter test. As I watched the levels move back and forth, part of me detached from it wondering how accurate a couple of cans could be. Another part of me wondered if they knew something I didn’t.
Could it read my mind? The questions streamed through my mind. Will the cans be able to tell that I don’t recycle? I took a number of E-meter tests. I don’t remember what functional purpose they had, as the only result I ever got was feeling hungry for soup.
I don’t know if this is still an issue, but there was a strange crusade against aspirin. A number of chain-smoking ministers (for some reason tobaccophilia was rampant there) told me that aspirin was a dangerous drug to be avoided as much as possible, and would “suppress your thetan.” This made me wonder if thetans were the real cause of strokes. Maybe Rick Santorum’s campaign will eliminate the middleman, and recommend just holding a thetan between one’s legs as a form of contraception. This whole aspirin doctrine came from Hubbard, who is not a deity, unless you’re from the IRS and asking for tax purposes.
Now, to the credit (or discredit, depending on how you see it) of Scientologists, my sense was that very few people really, truly believed in the crazy space stuff. Some of them did, but I felt that most people were there to better themselves and wanted to be a part of something new—something with a future. They couldn’t have been more wrong. No one in Scientology’s upper levels counted on the free exchange of information that the internet has provided. Pre-internet, it was easier to silence critics. But now, individual Orgs are now on Yelp and people know about Xenu, which previously required a small fortune to find out about in upper level elite courses. In the end, Scientology will be like the L. Ron Hubbard film Battlefield Earth. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but those who bought a ticket are left frustrated and wanting their money back.
The best course I took was a communication course. I liked it. It was effective in helping me get a message across. It might be surprising to hear that some of the low-level courses in Scientology are well-designed applied psychology classes, but this was my experience. If they decided to drop the tax-exempt status, become a for-profit business, lose the alien/sci-fi theme, agree to not harass those who leave, charge a fair price for classes, eliminate the support for homophobia, and decided to come clean and admit they have been manipulating people instead of inspiring them for the past fifty years, they would really be onto something.
In case anyone makes the mistake of thinking Scientology is worth a try—think again. There’s a good chance the experience will leave you penniless, though slightly more confident in your communication skills. Those skills can be quite useful should you decide to represent yourself in bankruptcy court. Maybe you’ll be seated in a room with four of your peers, as I was, under excruciatingly high pressure to sign a “contract for eternity,” which essentially said I would commit to working for the church for almost no money. It’s a religion sweatshop, and that high-pressure contract day was my last day of my year in the Church of Scientology.
I stayed low-level at my Org. I didn’t get into it enough to know if people literally believed in “thetans” wholeheartedly, but I assume that no one would blow themselves up over the matter. I was fortunate not to personally witness the intimidation, scandal, and family breakups that are commonplace. The people I met were kind, considerate, and genuinely cared about the future of the world. It’s a shame that these well-meaning people were part of an organization that has been exposed and marginalized, because I believe that most of those individuals truly wanted to make a difference. In college, I sold Bibles door to door in Kentucky. We were told to sell the idea of “enhanced salvation,” and the book sales would follow. Scientology does something similar. It sells the idea of self-improvement, and does indeed deliver it at times, but mixes it with a closed, secretive system, high-pressure sales, and aliens. It’s like buying a time share in another galaxy, with lots of fine print in the contract, and plenty of hidden “cleaning fees.” It is also not unlike a giant corporation in a Tom Clancy novel. It pays no taxes, uses coercion to survive, has no sense of responsibility, and is full of good people who in the beginning, thought they could change things for the better.
Long story short, I later became a Baha’i, then agnostic. Fifteen years later, I was hired to perform at an American Atheists conference. It took me 6 months to absorb what atheism truly was, and I am proud to say that atheism is part of who I am, and I’ve never felt better spiritually, morally, and intellectually.
The only thing that really saved me was not having money. Surely if I had a trust fund, Scientology would have yet another tall building in Hollywood, and I would be polishing E-meter cans on the Sea Org off the coast of Florida in exchange for soup. One of the reasons why so many Hollywood actors are Scientologists is because it does have technology that helps one attain goals, and communicate better. I can only assume that some people stay with it because they are getting value, but many others are afraid to leave because it’s not easy. When I left I was bombarded for years with mail and phone calls. The people calling didn’t do so to intimidate me, they were volunteers putting in hours to earn free classes, but it was low-level harassment and a huge waste of thousands of trees.
Here’s something nice about Scientology: they hardly ever kill anyone. As a matter of fact, Scientology would have to kill exactly 128,767 people per day until for all of 2013 just to catch up to the combined totals for the murders committed by all other religions. The fact that they only occasionally kill someone is a huge perk. It’s a wonder that fact isn’t used in their marketing materials. “Free personality test today – and if by rare chance we ever kill you, it will almost certainly be an accident.” Scientology rarely kills in the literal sense, because they don’t need to. When their lawyers are done with you, you’ll wish you were dead. I can only recommend Scientology to the person with no real character, unlimited funds, and a strong need to get away from their family forever. Are you listening, Kardashians?
Troy Conrad is an award winning filmmaker, comic, creator of the hit improvised stand-up show, Set List, and director of the satirical mountaineering film RUNYON: Just Above Sunset. He has performed at comedy festivals around the world and speaks and performs worldwide at atheist and freethought conferences. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, orange dog, and one-eyed cat. To this day he has an aversion to soup. His Twitter is @troyconrad and he is ComedyJesus on YouTube.
On Jehovah’s Witnesses (As Told by an Ex-Jehovah’s Witness)
By Eric McMullan
“Eric McMullan is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Seems like a pretty straight-forward sentence, right? Though I wasn’t in attendance that night, I am sure that is the exact statement that was read to my friends on a Thursday evening in November of 2008. Those nine words, though, are far from simple. They are a death sentence of sorts. Everyone in that auditorium knew immediately what those words meant: Eric has been cast off, expelled, excommunicated, disfellowshipped. I was dead.
This was a far cry from the five-year-old boy who stood, curious, hanging on his mom, wondering who the two ladies at the front door were. Even then, as a kid, I thought it was a little strange for ladies with dresses and book bags to be at our front door. But mom seemed interested, even excited! These ladies, Kate and DeeDee had good news, mom said. The answers that her and my stepdad had been looking for had literally just walked up to the front door. It could be nothing if not divine direction, right?
I could never have known then, at five years old, what those two ladies showing up at our door would mean for the next quarter century of my life. Soon, my mom was having regular “Bible Studies,” as the Witnesses still call them, out of a book called, “You Can Live Forever in a Paradise Earth.” That sounded like a great promise to my little brain. Death is scary! Mom says we can live forever!
It wouldn’t be long before we were going three times a week to the local Kingdom Hall for Meetings. I was hooked! This new place had really nice people, all sorts of wonderful promises, and lots of new friends to play with. But, our “play” would be a little different than what I was used to. My brand-new He-Man play set (that even then likely cost $50) would have to be thrown away. “But why, mommy? I just got it!” Mom explained that He-Man is full of spiritism, and our God, Jehovah, doesn’t like that. You don’t want to displease Jehovah, do you? After all, he’s giving you all of these wonderful promises. “Well, of course’,” I thought. I don’t want to make Jehovah mad! I was glad to see my favorite toy go in the garbage.
And so, with that aim of not displeasing my newfound God, I joyfully waved goodbye to the things that kids do. There would be no more toy guns since Jehovah hates violence (funny, given the Old Testament). Birthdays were out, since only two were recorded in the Bible, and they were both in honor of bad people who killed God’s servants. Christmas? Gone—it’s a pagan holiday in honor a pagan sun god. Easter? Nope—pagan fertility celebration. How about Fourth of July? What could possibly be pagan about the Fourth of July? Nationalism. Yes, Jehovah’s Witnesses are supposed to be strictly neutral politically. No voting, no holding of public office, and you had better not enjoy the fireworks or you’re siding with your country over God.
I wouldn’t think twice of all the other things that really set us apart as strange, even cultish. We were allowed to associate only with other Witnesses. After all, according to 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Bad associations spoil useful habits,” or some such nonsense. After all, how could we presumptuously qualify someone as a “bad associate” for no other reason than not being exactly like us? For me, there would be no chance to hang out with normal kids my own age. School sports were out. Too much time away from spiritual matters, and besides, more bad association. School dances? No way. Worldly and inappropriate behavior. Necessary interaction with classmates, co-workers or non-believing family members was accepted, but we were not to develop friendships with “worldly” people. We were also forced to keep our distance from our non-Witness family.
In second and third grades, I got it in my head that I really wanted to be sure that people knew I was one of Jehovah’s servants. I proudly wore a suit and tie to school and carried my little book bag stuffed neatly with Watchtower and Awake! magazines so that I could tell my friends and teachers the same wonderful news I had been given. My teacher was outwardly gracious, though I can only imagine what she was thinking. My classmates weren’t so kind. I remember crying, thinking I had let Jehovah down, when my classmates tore up one of my Watchtowers. I was comforted, though, in the thought that Jehovah would make things right, even if it meant destroying these obstinate, disrespectful non-believers at Armageddon.
For the remainder of my time in school, my behavior would be a bit more restrained. I would sheepishly make some justification why I couldn’t accept a classmate’s invitation to a party. I would try to think of excuses to tell the various coaches when they would say, “Hey Eric, you should come out” for this sport or that sport. I would mumble something to my teachers when they would ask what universities I had applied to. Secondary education is discouraged, or at least limited, by the Witnesses. Our “career” was already set. We were to spend as full a share as possible in the preaching and teaching of the good news that Christ set forth. You didn’t need to be an engineer or lawyer to do that—a window washer, bricklayer or janitor could do it just as well. After all, Christ called men who were “unlettered and ordinary” (Acts 4:13) to be his disciples in the first century; why should we be any different?
Once out of school, I would quickly marry, as so many Witnesses do. Marriage is limited to other Witnesses. My goals remained the same, do whatever basic work I could to support myself while I gave my all to “The Truth,” as they like to call their faith. When I was twenty-three, I became a “Pioneer Minister,” meaning that I committed myself to spend at least seventy hours a month in the ministry that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so known for. A year later, I was appointed as a Ministerial Servant. “Servants” are the assistants to the Congregation Elders. I would liken their role to that of a Deacon.
From the age of seven, I was enrolled in the Theocratic Ministry School, a public speaking course that the organization conducts weekly. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was a skilled orator. I would routinely be given 15 to 25-minute speaking assignments at congregation meetings. I was often the go-to speaker to fill in last minute if someone wasn’t able to deliver their assignment. Before too long, I was delivering “Public Talks,” the equivalent of Sunday Sermons. At the height of my role as a Servant, I was giving a Public Talk monthly, whether at my home congregation, or neighboring Kingdom Halls.
At that time, the Talks were 45 minutes in length (they are now 30 minutes), and each week would be a different theme. In order to ensure a uniform message, the “Governing Body” would provide the speaker with a one-page outline from which to develop his material. Straying from the outline was highly frowned upon and could result in the speaker not being called upon any longer. Some of the outlines I remember having were “Human Rule Weighed in the Balance,” “How to Conquer Evil with Good” and other bible-themed talks.
My life as a JW (pronounced Jay-dub) was pretty “normal” by the standards of other believers. At the time, there were five meetings a week, conducted at three different times. On Tuesdays we had the “Book Study” for one hour. This meeting was a question-and-answer discussion of a Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (JW’s) publication, along with the Bible. As a ministerial servant, I was used to fill in as the conductor when the Elder could not be present. Though it was a question and answer, the audience would essentially just regurgitate the material that was printed in the publication.
On Thursdays, two meetings were held. First was the Theocratic Ministry School, which I mentioned earlier, followed by the Service Meeting. The School involved both training courses and student deliveries on a variety of topics, with the focus to make everyone a more capable minister and public speaker. Of course, as with other misogynistic religions, women were not allowed to teach, so they simply learned to conduct better bible studies. The Service Meeting had three parts. First were the announcements, when congregation matters were discussed, or the all-important disfellowshippings were announced. After the announcements were two parts covering how to be more effective in the door-to-door ministry. We were taught how to overcome people’s objections, and to hopefully be persuasive enough to start a Bible Study with them, just and DeeDee and Kate had done with my mother.
Sundays were a two-hour meeting that began with the Public Talk and concluded with the Watchtower Study, a question-and-answer consideration of the magazine of the same name that the JW’s are known for. Like the School and Service Meeting, Sundays were opened and closed with song and prayer. As you might expect, JW’s have their own brand of hymns so as to separate themselves from Christendom as a whole.
Their hymns aren’t the only thing that makes them different from mainstream Christianity. They are not trinitarian; they believe Christ is the son of God, and his vassal king, but not equal to God, Jehovah. They don’t believe in the personage of the holy spirit, but rather that it is God’s active force. They believe in the literal truth of the Bible, including the creation account in Genesis. So, evolution is out. Witnesses don’t accept life-saving blood transfusions because of an archaic prohibition in the book of Leviticus from eating blood. Acts 15:29 similarly commands Christians to “abstain” from blood. For this reason, thousands of Witnesses have refused life-saving medical treatment and gone to an early death. Those individuals felt that doing so, giving up this life, was actually preserving their relationship with their heavenly father, Jehovah, and thereby ensuring everlasting life.
The door-to-door ministry is probably the most recognizable part of the Jehovah’s Witness religion. We’ve all seen the cartoons and jokes and spots in sitcoms when two Witnesses show up at your door with a Watchtower in hand. Members are encouraged (a euphemism for forced) to spend time in the ministry each month, preferably at least ten hours or more. The whole purpose to even being a Witness is to go in the ministry. We were taught that the public ministry is what sets us apart from the “False Religions” that surrounded us. We were trained for it, equipped for it … we had to do it. It isn’t natural for anyone. It’s not easy. You are mocked, spit on, laughed at, have dogs called to attack you, even have guns pulled on you, as I did twice. But you are convinced that you have to do it; the message is just that important.
JW’s are also known for their teaching that only 144,000 individuals will actually go to heaven with Christ. This stems from two visions in the book of Revelation in chapters 7 and 14. The remaining faithful members of the religion are promised eternal life in paradise on earth, as the book my mom received at the door had promised. To hear the organization tell it, the number of these “anointed” 144,000 dates back to the Last Supper (which they call the Lord’s Evening Meal). There are still, allegedly, some thousands still here on earth. The number changes, and has actually gone up in recent years, which is counterintuitive since the number should only go down as “anointed” ones pass away. Currently, the number is just shy of 12,000.
The Governing Body is made up of such anointed ones, and is the “earthly” leadership of the religion. The number is not set, and I believe is currently at seven, though I have been away from the organization for some time and it may be different. The Governing Body acts with complete authority and autonomy. They claim to be “spirit directed” by God through Christ in their efforts to direct all aspects of the organization. Despite this “spirit,” former Governing Body member Ray Franz wrote in his book Crisis of Conscience about frequent divisions and disputes among the body. Rules that would affect millions of Witnesses’ everyday lives were passed by slight majorities and with seeming disregard for the immense hardships they would pose to all members of the faith.
The organization has a world headquarters (they call Bethel) and other branch offices in many countries. For decades, the world headquarters was in Brooklyn, New York. Thousands of volunteers, called Bethelites, put their lives on hold, move into JW-supplied housing, and work for free, mainly producing the endless amount of JW literature that is pushed on people at their doorsteps. In the rank of JW’s, being a Bethelite made someone special or elite. After all, you really loved Jehovah when you were a Bethelite.
There is rank within the congregation, as well. Elders, usually numbering between two or three up to a dozen or more, rule with authority. The only check to their power is the biannual visit from a “Circuit Overseer.” Elders and their wives often, though not always, act with an air of superiority. Ministerial Servants are next, probably equal to the Pioneers, those who spend large amounts of time in the ministry. Cliques invariably form, though they are officially discouraged from the platform (pulpit).
For my entire life, this type of structure and organization wasn’t at all unusual. It was all I knew, my whole world. Like most Witnesses, I never questioned what I was taught; I never wavered in what was expected from me. When the elders said, “Spend more time in the ministry,” I did. When I was encouraged to Pioneer, I did. When large amounts of work, like maintaining the congregation accounts and remodeling nearby Kingdom Halls was dumped on me, I smiled and considered it a privilege. After all, I did it for Jehovah and his glory, right? He promised me that this wicked world was soon to end at Armageddon, to be replaced by His paradise earth. I lived every day with a sense of urgency, knowing this promise was imminent.
When I was 27 years old, I lost my only sibling, Jill, to natural causes. Her death was sudden and unexpected. Her son, Tyler, was left without his birth parents, as his father had died two years earlier, also due to natural causes. Jill’s death shook me to my core. I couldn’t believe that this could happen. I had faith in the teaching of the resurrection, but why this, why Jill? Why would Jehovah allow this? Was it to test me? After all, he promised me at 1 Corinthians 10:13 that I would not be tested beyond what I can bear. I honestly didn’t know.
I spoke at Jill’s funeral. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and the words I thought would bring me comfort just rang hollow. I begged God in prayer to comfort me, to hold me as he promised he would, to support me. I had devoted my life to his service. I gave up a university education, a career, a life, for him. I needed him. For a year, I prayed for comfort. Nothing.
I started to doubt … I wondered if it was me. Was I not worthy of his comfort? I hung my head and stumbled through my spiritual routine. My attendance at meetings decreased. I all but stopped my ministry. The elders, the men supposed to comfort me and support me, found time only for the occasional guilt trip. And then it happened–for the first time in my entire life, I started to think. As in actually think for myself! It was remarkable and gut-wrenching all at the same time. Everything I had held on to, everything that I knew to be true, it started to decay.
As it crumbled, so did I. I found myself on a destructive course that ended my marriage and left me depressed and angry. This brings us full circle, to where we started. Those words, “Eric McMullan is no longer…” The week before the announcement, I met with three elders, friends I had known for decades, in a “Judicial Committee.” They had deemed me an “unrepentant wrongdoer.” I had to be expelled from the congregation. The sanctity of the congregation had to be maintained.
The wheels had fallen off; everything was gone. My belief structure was gone. Friends I would have died for now refused to make eye contact with me or speak to me. Anything I had ever known that had given me comfort or security was ripped from under me. The depression that ensued was almost crippling. I was angry, bitter. Shocking thoughts were going through my head, thoughts of lashing out or hurting myself. It was at that point, I knew I couldn’t live that way. I found a qualified psychotherapist and sought help.
For anyone reading this that has been down a similar path, regardless of the religion, I can’t encourage you strongly enough to seek help. It can be a support group of other former members. It can be a therapist. Something! You cannot lose your entire life and be shunned completely and find emotional, psychological, even spiritual health on your own.
Time passed, therapy and introspection continued. The hole left in my psyche was healing, evolving. I found a new me, one that wasn’t counterfeit or put on for the benefit of others. That’s not to say that there aren’t still setbacks at times. When I see an old friend around town, and they shun me, there’s still a part of me that hurts. I don’t know if that ever goes away. But I move on. I move forward. I fill the void with new things, with new people, with new love. My beautiful baby girl, Mazie, was born on July 5, 2011. She is the greatest part of me. She is how I will live on. As far as it depends upon me, she will never know the pain of being a part of a cult. Along with my fiancé, I strive every day to create a home for Mazie and her two brothers where they are free to explore new ideas, to think freely.
Over time, and with lots of reading, I finally found beliefs and morals that I’m comfortable with. Like so many others before me, I’m happy to call myself a humanist. I finally know that my accountability isn’t to some god that can never be satisfied, but to myself, my family, my friends and my community. I don’t have the foggiest idea what happens to me when I die. None. But I do know that I get this life, right here, right now. I am going to make the best of it. Does it suck that I gave up over a quarter century to an oppressive, totalitarian cult? Sure. But at least I got out. At least I’m free of contrived notions of sin and atonement and other beliefs that only burden us. I’m free to support ideas and concepts that I agree with, not things I’m told to do by some religion. I can grow, I can learn, I can be … human.
Eric McMullan is a former Jehovah’s Witness who spent roughly a quarter century in the religion. He currently lives in Valparaiso, Indiana, and enjoys raising his family without the influence of religion.
On Catholicism (As Told By an Ex-Nun)
By Elizabeth Murad
I was born and raised in North Bergen, New Jersey, in 1939, the eldest of six children. My dad was a CPA, my mom an at-home multi-tasker. Our family was devoutly religious, but not painfully so. Mass on Sunday and mac and cheese on Friday were as natural as any weekly events. We moved to Hasbrouck Heights in 1950, and I started 7th grade in a new school. It was rather a culture shock; the kids there were a lot more mature; boy-girl relationships seemed to be the main focus of attention, and I felt in over my head.
It was during this period that I began to think about being a nun. I became very absorbed with religion; I wrote about religious topics for almost every assignment. Even my science papers were about reconciling evolution and genesis– much to the dismay of the sisters. This continued into high school when I was forbidden to even say the word “evolution.”
No one knew of my hopes to become a nun. When I finally told my parents, they were pleased with my choice of vocation but wanted me to wait till I had a college or at least a high school education. Our parish priest convinced them that if I “lost” my vocation because I waited to follow God’s call, we’d all go to hell. So, off I went, at age 15, to what was called the “juniorate” to begin my religious life.
Talk about culture shock! Here we were, 30 to 40 girls, ages 14 to 18, living, dressing, working, schooling together. At that period, we should have been learning to dress, to use make-up, to carry purses, to notice boys, to become women. Our instincts had to be smothered or redirected. We wore identical uniforms, were make-up free, and we were to focus our attention on God and Jesus and how to please them. (The way to do so was to please our superiors.) Probably the most difficult adjustment for me was the absence of any signs of affection. At home, we kissed and hugged at every hello and goodbye, at every good morning and good night. Here, there was “untouchability”; one was not allowed to show any physical signs of affection. We were to be “Brides of Christ,” and all our love was to be directed heavenwards.
All was not misery; we had a wonderful choir/choral group; I sang 2nd soprano. We performed at mass and other religious ceremonies, but we also gave concerts for the public. One of my classmates was a gifted musician and wrote a series of songs that were professionally recorded. (I wrote one of the songs and still have the record!)
In August of 1957, I was accepted into the convent proper. The stages of “nundom” are as follows: novitiate, which consists of one year each of postulancy (the first stage), noviceship, and first professed. Then there are five years of annual renewal of vows followed by a second novitiate of one summer, and then final or perpetual vows. The nun who trained us was called “Mother Mistress.”
All through the juniorate, we were tantalized by the hint of “secrets” of convent life. Now we were going to learn some of these secrets! There was “Grand Silence” from 1pm to 2pm and after 9pm till morning. Only in extreme emergencies were we allowed to say a word. Silence was a virtue; it gave us the opportunity to think about God. Most of our meals were consumed in silence. As we progressed through the three years, we learned more and more secrets. When one made a request, one knelt in front of mother mistress, kissed the floor and said “Benedicite mother mistress, may I…”
No secret was made as to the purpose of our training; it was to break us down and rebuild us into humble, pure, and obedient nuns. And it was done with our complete and wholehearted compliance. During that first year, we began our courses to get our B.A. in elementary education.
In the second year, we were given the habit and a white veil and a new name. This last was symbolic of “dying to the world.” My name was now Sister Mary Concordia. We were now strictly cloistered (separated) not only from the world, but from the rest of the convent. We continued our education, but took all the theology and philosophy courses. And learned more secrets!
You must understand that, in order to be as perfect as possible, it is vital to learn mortification of the senses. There were numerous ways to do this. There was “custody of the eyes”—keeping one’s eyes cast down so as not to see the world, closing one’s ears so as not to hear it, fasting to control one’s appetite, folding one’s hands under the scapular so as not to touch or be touched. (Funny, there was nothing taught about our noses!)
And then there was the big one—The Discipline. Every Friday evening, we retired to our cells (cubicles) for this ceremony. We had been given small metal whips to mortify our flesh. We threw our habits over our heads and whipped ourselves. We had been told not to do it hard enough to draw blood, just enough to hurt. Another practice was called Chapter of Faults. On Thursday afternoons in the novitiate, we gathered in the community room with Mother Mistress. We’d kneel, place our ropes around our necks, and openly confess our faults. If we forgot one, Mother would remind us! Again there was floor kissing, or at least bending to the floor and kissing our crucifix.
It was during this year that I experienced one of the deepest, most painful lessons of my life. We had heard from the beginning of our juniorate that we must avoid, at all costs, “particular friendships.” It seemed to me that that meant having a best friend. But I realized during this year that it must have meant more. So, during a weekly session with Mother Mistress, I asked her what it meant. She explained that it meant loving another woman as one would love a man. I was shocked; this idea had never entered my mind. I exclaimed, “Oh Mother, I’d never want something like that!” She replied, “Don’t worry; no one could ever love you that much!”
That moment was seared into the very fabric of my being—the sights, the sounds, the scents, the tactile sensations. Time stood still for a brief eternity. At that moment, I realized that I was totally unlovable and that my only hope for happiness was to be a very, very good nun, totally dedicated to God. I actually saw her words as valuable to me, helping me to achieve holiness. There is a theological truth that the more we suffer on earth, the greater will be our reward in heaven. So this misery was a blessing in disguise.
At the end of that year, we made our first vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. We continued our education, again focusing on religious matters, but also took some basic educational courses in teaching principles. After we renewed our vows, we were sent to various parish schools to teach. We would take one or two courses at night to further our education. When we returned to the Motherhouse for the summer, we would go to Seton Hall and take three to five more courses. It took me 13 years to get my B.A. degree!
Finally, it was time to make our final vows. Although I was plagued with doubts, I was told that it was a test from God (or a temptation from the devil). It was called “the dark night of the soul.” I was told I had to “take the leap of faith.” So, logic and reason be damned, I took that leap and made my final vows. I waited and waited for the burst of joy promised to me. It didn’t happen.
Looking back, I realize I had been “infected” by an early form of humanism. With the advent of Vatican II, I felt that things would change for the better. There would be openness. But I had underestimated the power of entrenched beliefs. I finally realized that the god these nuns adored was a miserable construct of a puritanical mindset. I still believed in a god, but a much nicer one. Just as man had once conceived and made a god that embodied his most inhumane traits, I manufactured one that typified all the best of humanity.
In 1969, I finally had the courage to request a dispensation from my vows. The first response was to send me to a psychiatrist to see what was wrong with me. (That’s a story in itself!) Then, they sent me on a two-week retreat so I would come to my senses. I persisted in my requests. I had to write a letter to the pope, stating that I was weak and sinful and was not brave enough to continue to keep my vows, but at that point, I would have said anything.
The dispensation came through, and the Friday before Mother’s Day in 1970, I was free! I arrived home the next day, and my mother considered this a Mother’s Day gift. My family welcomed me home with great warmth and love. Lots of hugs and kisses. How I had missed all that affection!
I finished my last course and received my B.A. in elementary education. I then went on to Rutgers and got my degree in clinical social work. While there, the studies opened my eyes to logic and reason, and I no longer considered them to be temptations. I still believed in a deity; I checked out Judaism, Buddhism and a number of the newer forms of religion—nothing quite fit.
Neither did I find a satisfactory relationship. It appeared Mother Mistress was right; no one would love me. But I resolved to find a happy life for myself as a single person and I was well on my way to doing so. I moved to Miami Beach, where I was hired for a social work position at Goodwill Industries, and later fell in love with the psychologist who hired me after he left his post to open a private practice.
My life since then has been wonderful, even in the midst of desolation. My Jim died in 2005 after a long illness. Jim had introduced me to the ideals of humanism; it was emphasized in his Ph.D. studies at the Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. As he explained this to me, I realized I was already a humanist, too. Our first letterhead stationary read “Center for Humanistic Psychotherapy.” We had often discussed our newly-found reasonable, logical and, for us, mind-blowing ideas. We were not aware of any local groups in our area; in retrospect, I doubt there were any. But we were content.
After his death, I longed to talk with someone about humanism and my feelings and beliefs about death, and my life again bloomed when I found two local groups: Treasure Coast Humanists and Atheists of the Treasure Coast.
So, I’ve come a long, long way. I now live with my best friend, Marann (also a humanist), our dogs, Jack and Azziza, and our cats, Romeo and Boots. I wear my humanist pin and chat about freethought. We started a humanist writing group. I’m a hospice volunteer and I emphasize that I am a humanist and especially interested in assisting non-theistic patients.
Life itself is my goal—to live as fully and freely and as long as possible. My mind has become a vast playground where I joyfully read, listen, ponder, speak and write. Unlike some brilliant theologian, my mind is not constricted by such bugaboos as faith and infallibility. There are no “do not trespass” signs. Every idea is grist for the mill of my mind.
Elizabeth Murad is a former Catholic nun who later liberated herself from the convent and all religious bonds. She was married to her husband, Jim, for 29 years, and now devotes herself to the study and practice of humanism in all forms.
Mormonism (As Told by an Ex-Mormon)
By Nancy Martin
*This is based on 17 years of church going including years of “perfect attendance” and listening to the gospel preached and reading the church literature. Any errors may be because life in the church has changed in the past 50 years.
Mormons (or members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) are most certainly Christians. They are a prayerful people, praying individually and communally and constantly. To whom do they pray? To “My Heavenly Father” or to “My Father in Heaven.” How do they end their prayers? ”In the name of Thy son, Jesus Christ, amen.” They do not pray to Mary, Joseph, or any of the Catholic saints or to any of the prophets of the Old Testament or the prophets of their special book, the Book of Mormon. Mormonism is as Christian as a religion can get. In fact, they believe they are the one and only true Christian church of God.
Not baptized a Mormon? Poor soul, you won’t get to the kingdoms of glory in the life hereafter—well, not without earthly intervention. Your descendants or others can be baptized in your name after you have been dead a sufficient period of time. Thus, there is hope for those who disbelieve during their life. Why did you think they were so interested in genealogy?
Mormonism is not a cult. They do go to church a lot. However, these days they squeeze most of their meetings into Sunday so it doesn’t affect one’s family, social or business life so much. I used to go two or three times a week plus special classes before each school day. They have no more and many fewer rules than certain Protestant, Jewish or Muslim religions about behavior, food or clothing. They do follow you around! When you move, your membership in the church moves with you. Soon after a move you will find the Elders (two males who have received “the priesthood”) at your doorstep to encourage you in the faith and to let you know where your nearby church house is. It is very hard to get this to stop, but they don’t force you to talk to them! They politely go away if you tell them to.
They are a patriarchic bunch following the Old Testament in church and family organization. The father/husband is the head of the household. The prophet is the leader of the church. Only males can hold the priesthood—and thus be bishops or prophets. Surprisingly, they do still believe in polygamy–but only after death. That is, a man can be “sealed” (married to) more than one woman in the life hereafter, but marriages on earth must be serial. And since women are the helpmates of men, women certainly can’t be sealed to more than one man, or to each other, or men to men even in the hereafter.
The church is very rich and gets involved in political issues it believes affects the lives of its members and the authority of its doctrines. They admittedly put millions of dollars into the ballot measure that repealed the same sex marriage provision in California. They have excommunicated those who speak too publically against church doctrine. They will excommunicate for adultery (I know of one case where the woman was excommunicated but NOT the man!). Yet, they will look the other way countless times when members are discrete in disobeying the doctrine. They have no problem with birth control. And notice they had no problem with Mitt Romney’s somewhat progressive views when he first ran for Governor of Massachusetts. But you’d better give 10% tithing to the church off the top.
Since the prophet does have a direct line to god, church principles can change. Such was the cause of the relatively recent change allowing men of color to hold the priesthood. Who knows? Maybe one day God will tell the prophet that women can hold the priesthood, or that same-sex marriage is okay, or that there is really only one degree of glory in the hereafter and that all beings are automatically admitted.
Nancy Martin currently leads an active retired life as a grandmother, volunteer and board member for LEDA and Red Butte Gardens, and is an active humanist. She received a B.A. in mathematics from Stanford University and an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in computer and communication science.
A 9/11 Story: From Catholicism to Atheism
By Diqui LaPenta
I grew up in a Catholic family, attending church every Sunday and catechism every week. When I started college, I stopped going to church except on holidays or for family funerals, and I finally became free of the dreaded, boring church services replete with fairy tales and admonitions. I was agnostic without openly or even consciously defining myself that way. If someone had asked if I believed god existed, I probably would have said that I wasn’t sure. It seemed unlikely, but I hadn’t shaken off years of indoctrination.The morning of September 11, 2001, started like any other morning. I woke up as late as I could and grabbed coffee on my way to class. On my drive in, I turned on the radio and heard about the fallen towers and two other planes that had crashed. I was horrified, but I thought of it as happening far away and not as much of a direct threat to me. I got to my classroom, completed my lesson for the lab, and went into the stockroom for supplies. That’s when I heard that United Flight 93, traveling from Newark to San Francisco, had crashed in Pennsylvania. I got worried.
My boyfriend, Rich Guadagno, had been in New Jersey to celebrate his grandmother’s 100th birthday and was flying home that day. I didn’t know his flight numbers, only that he was flying from Newark through San Francisco and then home. I left class, found Rich’s parents’ phone number, and called them. His father Jerry told me that Flight 93 had been Rich’s flight.
My breath was knocked out of me, and I cried so hard I threw up. One of my coworkers called my parents for me. The campus paramedic was called because I was hyperventilating. My housemate was called to come get me, and he and another colleague had to carry me to his car.
My parents arrived two days later, having driven all the way from San Antonio, Texas, and we flew to New Jersey for a memorial service for Rich. Some very religious relatives planned to meet us in New Jersey. I asked my parents to ensure that those relatives refrain from religious platitudes. I didn’t want to hear that Rich was in a better place or with God or that it was all part of some plan that God had for us. From the moment I heard that Rich and thousands of others had been killed, I knew that the all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God of childhood stories absolutely could not exist. Rich was not in a better place. There was no place he would rather be than with his dog Raven, me, his family, and his friends. I would never see Rich again, as there is no afterlife. Pretending that I would see him again would make it impossible to heal.
Before 9/11, I’d never considered myself an atheist. After that day I was, and I let people know it. When asked what church I attend, I reply that I don’t. If prompted to explain why, I say that I’m an atheist. Some people say, “But you have to believe in something!” I do. I believe in the power of rational thought and critical thinking. I believe that we should live thoughtful, peaceful, moral lives because it’s the right thing to do and not because we’re afraid of punishment or hopeful for a reward beyond the grave. We have this one life, and we should make the best of it for the short time we are here.
That is how I honor Rich’s life. I took care of Raven in the manner that he would have done. I do my best to take care of the environment and donate time and money to causes that were important to him and remain important to me. I struggle to let go of the past, live in the present, and work toward a better future where my government won’t use the deaths of innocent Americans to justify its immoral wars. And I don’t need God to tell me these are the right things to do.
Diqui LaPenta lives with her husband and their three dogs in northern California where she is a biology professor. She enjoys traveling, running, and eating vegetarian meals.