Apostate Women: The Sacrifice Doubt Demands
Katie Christine Gaddini on Ayala Fader
My body betrayed me. It committed treason, until my mind stumbled after it and grabbed hold of it as if to say, “We don’t do that anymore!”
A few months into my research with single evangelical women, I experienced this peculiar disjuncture of mind and body. I attended a Sunday evening church service with a woman called Maddie, and as the rock band belted out songs from the stage, and multi-colored lights grazed the audience, I wanted to join in. Though I had not attended church in years, I longed to close my eyes, tilt up my head and reach my hands out in space as if to touch the transcendence that once bathed me during Sunday worship services. At this worship service my body acted of its own volition.
What does it mean, I wondered afterwards, that my body still retains traces of a religion long after my mind has let go?
In Ayala Fader’s book Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age, an Orthodox Rabbi evocatively describes this phenomenon as “srefes ha-neshoma ve-guf kayem [immolation of the soul with the body intact].” Rabbi Wach issued the warning at an anti-internet rally in Queens, organized by Orthodox Jewish leaders. In his talk, Rabbi Wach likened social media to a “culture” that could stealthily lure members of the Orthodox community away from the faith by facilitating their relationships with the world of unbelievers. He warned against this invisible transformation which caused men and women to appear faithful on the outside while their souls slowly burned.
Hidden Heretics, based on Fader’s research with Orthodox Jews in New York, explores the world of so-called ‘double lifers’ – those who appear devout on the outside but secretly harbor disbelief. These double lifers are having “an affair with another culture,” according to Dr. Katz, a psychiatrist specialized in treating Orthodox doubt. The degree of doubt and piety that Fader’s interlocutors inhabit varies: the mark of doubt sometimes presents like a port-wine stain that discolors the bearer’s religious practice; at other times, doubt pulses imperceptibly, only occasionally breaking the surface.
Fader finds that for many double lifers the body and mind are separate religious instruments, and the relationship between them is often incongruous. For example, Esty continued enacting most of the mitsves, or religious obligations, of Orthodox Judaism, including modest dress, while secretly wrestling with disillusionment. Zisi, on the other hand, experimented with growing out her hair under her wig, forbidden for women in her community, though she still prayed and believed in God.
Treating the body as a distinct register of faith, Fader also chronicles countless stories where religious doubt, that gnawing and dreadful feeling that starts as a seedling and flourishes into an unstoppable weed, first manifests with a physical act. After her fifth child, Chavi grew depressed and gradually began questioning her faith, though it wasn’t until her husband caught her using her cell phone on the Sabbath that her disbelief became visible to others. In this example, and others like it, the body serves as an external clue as to an internal state of apostasy.
If enacting religious rituals can form one’s interiority and create a pious subject, which Fader has argued elsewhere, then the reverse is also true. Certain embodied rituals and habits, such using a cell phone, can cultivate disbelief just as easily as observing daily prayers can foster belief. Orthodox leaders seem to understand this.
In Hidden Heretics, we meet an arsenal of specialists whose job it is to bring double lifers back to the fold: kiruv rabbis, spiritual guides, Orthodox therapists, and Jewish life coaches who specialize in treating doubt. Time and again these specialists emphasize the mind/body divide, holding to the principle that religious discipline can retrain “unruly interiors.”
In the community Fader studied, the internet often triggers religious doubt, opening the pious up to a world they haven’t been able to access and connecting them with likeminded sceptics. A rabbi even circulated a warning about the internet to readers of an ultra-Orthodox magazine. In an article titled “Imposters Among Us,” he called attention to those in the community who were externally pious and obeyed religious practices yet were secretly defecting. ‘The Orthoprax,’ he called these religious frauds. I came to know many ‘Orthoprax’ Christian women over four years of studying evangelicalism in London, New York and California.
However, the very structure of evangelicalism is less formally ritualistic so evangelical doubters don’t have to abide by the same rules of secrecy and aren’t compelled to live distinct double lives. In other words, their affairs are less scandalous. The rituals and habits that cultivate disbelief in evangelicals are necessarily different too. For Orthodox Jewish double lifers, the internet, cell phones, and secular books fostered doubt. For evangelical women, doubt emerged from engaging with secular universities, feminist texts, and dating unbelievers.
They may not have used the internet as a portal to apostasy, but these women did translate their internal doubts into external signifiers, just like the double lifers in Fader’s book. It became clear that embodied signs of discontent were often slight in the beginning, growing in magnitude over time, and in proportion to their internal experience of disenchantment.
Julia, for example, began distancing herself from her church friends once she started a master’s degree in fine art. In time, she also began frequenting dance clubs and drinking alcohol, often reaching the state of “tipsy” while never sliding over into “drunk.” Another woman, Zibby, was exiled from her evangelical community after breaking off her engagement to one of the pastors at a megachurch. In time, she found a smaller church near her home to attend, though by then she’d already begun to question many of the teachings she had received. “I just go late and leave early, so I can avoid any social encounters,” she admitted, wearily. A few women, like Fader’s interlocutors, even changed their speech patterns: incorporating more profanity and sexualized comments into their conversations as the distance from their evangelical community swelled. Bodies and language were the mediums these women used to indicate their disbelief in God, in the religious institution they still subscribed to, or both. New ways of speaking also helped apostates feel more comfortable in themselves. By aligning their language with that of the secular world, the women I met renounced religious teachings – such as Ephesians 4:29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths” — again and again. These acts of repetitive disobedience helped to usher their new selves into being.
Fader documents these micro-adjustments in Hidden Heretics, showing how even the most ordinary objects, such as the length of a skirt, locate an Orthodox Jewish defector along the continuum of doubt. By providing us with a detailed examination of how disbelief occurs on a spectrum, Fader pushes us to understand how staying or leaving a religion does too. “Those living double lives did not experience a radical conversion from belief to disbelief … instead, living a double life was a drawn-out, messy process,” she writes.
The women I spoke with seemed likewise to vacillate between staying and leaving, moving like chess pieces on checkered squares, sometimes forward, sometimes back, their investment in their faith waxing and waning as time went on. I refer to these movements as a “continuum of investment,” to emphasize the active role a believer plays in nurturing or neglecting their religious practice.
For example, Barbara was a resolute and devout evangelical when I met her seven years ago, though she now calls herself “Christianish,” based on Dan Savage’s idea of “monogamish,” which signals her weakening faith. Over the intervening years, I’ve watched Barbara slowly move along that checkerboard: starting as a church employee and worship band leader, passionately defending the relationship between faith and feminism; then, as she wearied of battling a majority-male church leadership, her church attendance grew more and more infrequent; and now, after many tears and crippling doubts, Barbara has arrived at Christianish. Movement along this continuum is not always linear or straightforward. Julia vacillated between wholehearted commitment and withdrawal over a period of several years.
When we walked in Central Park South one autumnal afternoon, Julia announced that she needed to take a break from church. Her annoyances had reached a climax. But six months later, when we met for coffee in Soho, she spoke with pride about the new leadership role she’d taken at the church, hoping to bend the institution toward her aspirations of gender equality. Her relationship with Christianity resembled a spinning top, the rotation speed and direction varied, yet movement continued at pace.
Paradoxically, for these women and Fader’s interlocutors, advancing along the continuum of (dis)investment from their religious communities and disengaging from the beliefs that sustain them requires a tremendous amount of faith in what is on the other side of religion. The mental fortitude and capacity to believe the unseen, which religious systems promote through discipline, ritual and prayer, ultimately works against the system.
When I first met Maddie, she invited me to a church service at a large evangelical church in London. Arriving late, we snuck upstairs into the rafters, searching for her Bible-study group in the darkness. I trailed behind and noticed their heads turn as they scanned the audience for Maddie, their missing sheep. I saw the recognition in their eyes, followed by embraces. Back then, Christianity was Maddie’s whole life. She filled her Sundays with church services, her Wednesdays with a Bible-study group, her Friday nights with an outreach ministry to the homeless. “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have my Christian community,” she told me at one point.
But in the past year, Maddie expressed her growing doubts about evangelical Christianity: the rules about who to date and how to remain sexually pure; the gendered traits valued by the church, such as compliance, docility, agreeableness; the unspoken pressure to marry. At the same time, Maddie started pulling away from the Christian community – spending less time at church events and Bible study groups, and more time with her other friends. The same courage Maddie summoned to dive wholeheartedly into evangelicalism a decade prior returned now to secure her exit out of the faith.
When we meet for dinner at an Indian restaurant in south London, I ask Maddie if she still calls herself a Christian. She shakes her head. “After a while, I just felt like a fraud going there, and I couldn’t stand that feeling any longer. It was like my body was still sitting in the pew, but mentally I’d already left.” As she speaks, I consider the myriad ways she altered her entire life to conform to the evangelical model, only to sit here, in an empty restaurant at the start of winter and renounce it all.
Writing about Tsiri, a married mother who lives over 3,000 miles away from Maddie, Fader reports that she, too, felt betrayed by the system once she stopped believing the ultra-Orthodox teachings. One that had promised so much and delivered so little. Even when it had made good on its promises and provided a supportive community, a faithful spouse, a child, the system deceived women by demanding their obedience to a gendered hierarchy that placed them firmly at the bottom. In fact, for many evangelical women, gender discrimination, more severe for single women, is the main trigger moving them toward the exit. Anger propelled them out of evangelicalism but also intensified once they detached themselves from the mainstays of the evangelical community and reviewed the sacrifices they had made during their years of piety.
Maddie and Tsiri demonstrate how leaving a religion can look very different. Today, Maddie calls herself ‘agnostic,’ and never attends church. Tsiri reamains part of the ultra-Orthodox community, but she has stopped believing—in her words, she “crossed over.” Indeed, most of the evangelicals in my research and the double lifers documented in Fader’s book never inhabit either category of ‘staying’ or ‘leaving.’ Etsy and Blimi, and Barbara and Julia still believe in God, though they have lost faith in Orthodox Judaism and evangelical Christianity, respectively. They, like so many others, continue along that checkerboard of commitment to their religious systems, the continuum of investment, speeding up or slowing down as life experiences intervene and intellectual contradictions unfurl.
The Talmudic expression “Srefes ha-neshoma ve-guf kayem [immolation of the soul with the body intact]” reminds us that interior states and exterior expressions are distinct registers of religious devotion. These registers shape each other, but they do not always align. And instances of contradiction offer insights on the life-rending experience of leaving.
Allowing oneself to pursue doubt instead of resisting it requires sacrifice. For many women, it means forfeiting certitude in a religious system that guides everyday choices and makes meaning out of their life. And if indulged for long enough, doubt demands other sacrifices as well: family, friends, spouse, community, belonging. These women, these hidden heretics, unbelievers, apostates, or those in transition have faith that a different life is waiting for them. Though not necessarily a better one.
It is a life that will require complicated navigations and incur many mistakes; it will arouse disappointment and regret, even grief, and in return offer moments of liberation. Elation will surface, but for many it won’t be sustaining. Above all, it’s a life that they can only access and explore on the other side of the conflagration.
Katie Gaddini is a sociologist at the Social Research Institute, University College London (UCL). She is also an associate researcher at the University of Johannesburg, Department of Sociology. Her book The Struggle to Stay: Why Single Evangelical Women are Leaving the Church is forthcoming with Columbia University Press.