Jehovah Died on the Challenger

By Sarah Braasch

In Loving Memory of My Baby Brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

I was working on this piece when I received news that my beloved youngest brother, Jacob, had taken his own life by hanging himself in my parents' basement.

I was ten, almost eleven when my mother told me and my brother and sister that she was pregnant again. I didn't speak to her for weeks. I was a good little Jehovah's Witness girl back then, but I'm pretty sure that the present day equivalent of my little ten-year-old interior diatribe would be something like, "You stupid bitch."

Our family was on the verge of cracking open and oozing out onto the ground like a rotten egg. "Was she trying to drive my abusive father to killing us all?" I asked myself. Our financial situation left something to be desired as well. The last thing we needed was the introduction of another stressor, another mouth to feed and another victim. I was so angry that I couldn't find the words to express my rage, so I just stopped speaking.

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. And, my baby brother was born. If by born you mean torn out of my mother's body as a corpse before being brought back to life by a team of doctors. I remember assembling in the school library to watch the news footage of the Challenger exploding in the sky. I remember feeling numb.

I had been so overexposed to constant violence and the constant of impending catastrophe. My Book of Bible Stories was replete with images of apocalyptic mayhem and destruction. I was in full anticipation of being torn from limb to limb by demons at any moment. And, I lived my life in constant terror of my father's fickle and vindictive temper. I didn't have anything left to give to the Challenger. My entire world was exploding in a ball of fire.

When I was told that the state had taken custody of my baby brother, I thought, "If only I could be so lucky." He had needed an immediate life-saving blood transfusion at the moment he came into this world. Of course, my parents refused. Jehovah's Witnesses view blood as sacred and blood transfusions as a mortal sin against Jehovah God. So, the hospital called a judge in the middle of the night, and my baby brother became a ward of the state.

I blamed my mother. I blamed her for everything. She didn't protect her children from abuse, so it seemed fitting that her body would try to kill my baby brother in the womb rather than try to nourish and protect him.

I decided that all of our woes were the result of the fact that my parents were terrible and sinful Jehovah's Witnesses. They were not strong in the Truth. My father's only interest in Scripture was as justification for his maltreatment of his children. He rarely attended Kingdom Hall meetings, and he never went out in service, i.e. going door-to-door, witnessing the Good News. My mother was not the Jehovah's Witness she should have been. But, I would be.

My martyr/savior complex reared its ugly head. I decided to show them up. I would be the best Jehovah's Witness ever. I would keep our house together. I would take care of my siblings. I would be such a good little Jehovah's Witness girl that Jehovah would not only protect me from demons, he would protect me from my own parents.

I enjoyed the feeling of spiritual superiority. I couldn't smite my parents, but God could and would. One day. And, I would save my siblings too. And, we would make new lives for ourselves in an earthly paradise in the new system of things after judgment day, free from our parents' abuse.

While my mother and my baby brother remained in the hospital, I became the mistress of the house. I cooked and I cleaned and I washed clothes. I made sure that my other siblings got to school in the morning. I took care of and fed all of the pets. I worked and I scrubbed and I toiled. And, I imagined that Jehovah was looking down on me from heaven, utterly enamored by my righteousness.

One day, my father said something cruel to me. He said something cruel, but of no great or particular import. He said something about the condition of his eggs. He said something about my obligation to serve him. I don't know why exactly, but, in that moment, I lost my faith. Or, I started to lose my faith. But, not just my faith in God, not just my faith in Jehovah, not just my faith in the Jehovah's Witnesses or the tenets of their religion or their governing organization, but in humanity.

I turned off the stovetop, and I slammed the iron skillet down hard. I realized in that moment that no one loved me. I realized that my father viewed me as something of a dispensable and replaceable slave, as divinely sanctioned by Jehovah. I realized that my mother viewed me as the property of her husband. I realized that I was storing up spiritual riches in an imaginary heaven for a just future that would never come.

I screamed in anguish at my father without regard to the consequences. I wasn't really upset by my father's thoughtlessness. I was heartbroken. I had lost my God. Jehovah had abandoned me.

I screamed at my father to cook his own eggs, wash his own clothes and clean his own house. I expected to be backhanded, but nothing happened. I think he was in shock at the force of my rage. I stormed off to my bedroom, threw myself on my bed and sobbed into my pillow. I had never felt so alone. No one was going to save me.

I sunk into a deep depression. My insides were turning into poisonous, black lead. My limbs felt heavy. It was difficult to move. I was less than enthused when my father announced that we were all going to visit my mother and baby brother in the hospital.

I sat in my mother's hospital room. I gazed out the window at the inky black night. I wondered if I would be able to break the glass, if I threw the full weight of my tiny form against the window. I imagined myself crashing through the window and plummeting to the sidewalk below.

I glowered at my mother. She felt the full force of my rage. The sight of her disgusted me. I wanted to hit her. At first she looked at me with incredulity, but her expression quickly morphed into disdain, then irritation and, finally, anger. I wanted to provoke her. I wanted to anger her. I wanted to impose my presence upon her consciousness. I wanted to force her to react to me, to recognize my existence, my humanity.

My father looked at me with more love in that moment than he ever had, either before or since. He looked at me as a kindred spirit, a pained and tortured soul. I understood him as no one else ever had or ever could. I understood everything he had endured during his childhood. I understood his feelings of desperate helplessness. I understood both his longing and disgust for human affection and connection and intimacy. He had made me in his image. I was his baby Frankenstein, an emotional aggregate of all of his childhood traumas and hurts. And, he loved me for it. I was his little girl with rosy cheeks engorged with the blood of impotent fury.

My mother kept harassing him and tugging at his sleeve. "Get her out of here," she said. "I can't take this. I can't stand her right now. Get her out of here. I can't even look at her."

I just kept glowering at her underneath a furrowed brow with my chin tucked into my chest. I felt nothing but the purest, most unadulterated hatred for her.

The more hatred that oozed from my pores, the more love I felt radiating from my father's form.

He responded to my mother, "She's fine. Just leave her alone. She's fine."

My mother kept clutching at my father's sleeve and nagging him to remove me. But, he refused. He was kind to her, but unrelenting. My mother shot me a look of absolute hatred. My father had betrayed her. He had taken my side. The only time he had ever done so. He had protected me from her.

I finally understood why my mother allowed my father to abuse her children. She didn't care. She didn't love us at all. And, worse than that, not only did she not love us, she saw us as a threat, as competition for our father's affections. In that moment, I think my mother would have enjoyed watching my father strangle me.

I wasn't concerned about antagonizing my mother. She had dabbled in physical abuse when we were little, but that was no longer her modus operandi. And, at the moment at least, I had my father in my hip pocket.

Our father finally suggested that we leave my mother to sleep while we visited our new baby brother in the ICU.

When I was little, I loved hospitals. I loved staying in the hospital when I had my tonsils removed. I loved being doted upon and cared for by the doctors and nurses. I loved being away from my parents. I envied Jacob.

He was bloated and his skin was a putrid shade of yellow. He looked like a little corpse, as if he had drowned and been plucked from the water a couple days later. He was encased in a tomb-like, clear plastic incubator. He was covered with tubing – in his little arms and legs, in his mouth. Every one of his breaths seemed to require a monumental effort on the part of his tiny body.

We took turns putting our gloved hands through the holes in the side of the incubator, so that we could gently stroke his little bloated body. He grabbed my finger with his little hand.

I tried to communicate with him telepathically. I tried to tell him not to fight quite so hard to live. I tried to tell him not to be in such a hurry to get out of this place. I tried to tell him that the world is cruel and loveless and might not be worth the trouble.

In my mind, I said to him, "I would trade places with you, if I could, you poor, stupid baby. You poor, stupid baby." But, I could see that he was fixed upon surviving.

And, then I decided to save him. And, I fell in love with him. I focused my attention on his little fingers clasped around my index finger, and I thought, "I will protect you. I will love you. I will take care of you. I promise. Everything is going to be ok, baby."

I had a reason to live again.

February 23, 2010, 6:50 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink33 comments

Ni Putes Ni Soumises Organizes a Protest for Rayhana

By Sarah Braasch

Rayhana, a French-Algerian playwright and actress, was attacked last week in front of the theater in Paris where she is performing her provocative play, "At My Age, I Still Hide My Smoking". Rayhana speaks out against Islamism and obscurantism and the Muslim culture of female oppression in Algeria. Her play takes place in a hammam in Algeria and portrays nine women sitting together and discussing their daily lives. The two men who attacked Rayhana grabbed her from behind, forcing her to the ground, and poured gasoline over her head and in her face, momentarily blinding her, and then attempted to set her on fire by throwing a lit cigarette on top of her head. Prior to this incident, Rayhana had been harassed verbally. Despite the attack and the threats of violence, Rayhana is determined to continue performing her play. She has received many offers to stage performances from theaters throughout France, in response to this outrageous criminal act.

Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives), a French women's rights organization that condemns cultural relativism and fights for women's rights as universal human rights without compromise, organized a protest to support Rayhana on Saturday afternoon, January 16th. A huge crowd assembled in front of the theater, la Maison des Métallos, where Rayhana is performing her play. The crowd included women's rights activists, government officials and representatives from some of France's political parties. Sihem Habchi, the President of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, condemned the attack on Rayhana and proclaimed, "It is her job to be in the theater and our job to be in the streets."

[Editor's Note: Sarah provided some pictures of the protest, several of which are reproduced below.]

January 19, 2010, 7:39 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink6 comments

Blood Transfusion Foe Defies Party on Health Care Bill

By Sarah Braasch

The following is a parody of a recent New York Times interview with Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, which may be read here:

This parody constitutes a 'fair use' of this copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C. § 107

Representative Sarah Braasch often endures things others find unbearable. She crisscrosses a Congressional district so vast that some constituents live eight hours apart and so cold that the beer at her beloved football games sometimes freezes. Years ago, as a state trooper, she blew out her knee chasing a suspect, and she has since had so many operations that she now returns to work the same day, toting crutches and ice.

After her younger son committed suicide in 2000, using the congresswoman's gun, Ms. Braasch soon resumed her predawn commute to Washington and her solid voting record with the National Rifle Association.

Now she is enduring more hatred than perhaps any other member of Congress, much of it from fellow Democrats. Her name has become a slogan: "Stop Braasch!"

Ebonmuse, her chief of staff, said wearily, "I can't tell you how many New Yorkers have called me up and yelled at me about this Braasch woman."

With final negotiations on a health care overhaul beginning this week, complaints about "the evil Braasch amendment," as the congresswoman dryly called it over dinner here recently, are likely to grow even louder. The amendment prevents anyone who receives federal insurance subsidies from buying blood transfusion coverage – but critics assert it could cause those who buy their own insurance difficulty in obtaining coverage.

Ms. Braasch insists that the final bill include her terms, which she says merely reflect current law. If she prevails, she will have won an audacious, counterintuitive victory, forcing a Democratic-controlled Congress to pass a measure that will be hailed as an anti-blood transfusion triumph. If party members do not accept her terms – and many vow they will not – Ms. Braasch is prepared to block passage of the health care overhaul.

"It's not the end of the world if it goes down," she said over dinner. She did not sound downbeat about the prospect of being blamed for blocking the long-sought goal of President Obama and a chain of presidents and legislators before her. "Then you get the message," she continued. "Fix the blood transfusion language and bring the bill back."

Ms. Braasch says her stand is a straightforward matter of Jehovah's Witness faith, but it also seems like the result of a long, slow burn. As dinner progressed, the congresswoman described years of feeling ignored, slighted or marginalized by her party for her anti-blood transfusion views.

"We're members without a party," she said. "Democrats are mad at you, and Republicans don't trust you."

Ms. Braasch, 57, with a mane of thick auburn hair and the stare of a law school professor, is a Yooper, a resident of this state's Upper Peninsula – snowy and hushed in winter, lush and tourist-filled in summer.

Her father attended the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead before marrying and later also sent his 10 children to the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead until the money ran out. As a state trooper, Ms. Braasch worked the highways but also trailed Ku Klux Klan members and drove home drunken state legislators. She attended law school at night, spent a term in the State Legislature, and then ran for Congress in 1992.

In the primary, she beat a candidate who supported blood transfusion rights. But when she tried to hire Democratic political consultants for the general election, they refused – with expletives, she says – to work for a candidate with her views.

Ms. Braasch won anyway, and her freshman year in Washington, she requested but did not receive a seat on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. "I had one or two members tell me I'd never get on because I'm right-to-blood," she said.

She cannot run for governor, she continued, because no one with her stands on guns and blood transfusions can win in Michigan.

When Republicans ruled Washington, her fellow Democrats had to listen to anti-blood transfusion views, she said. But, with Democratic victories, blood transfusion rights supporters felt their time had come.

"You're never getting a right-to-blood amendment," Ms. Braasch said Representative D, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee, told her during health care negotiations. "We have pro-choice Democrats in the White House. We have majorities in the House and the Senate. You're done."

In a phone interview, D said she did not recall the conversation.

But Democratic control of the House carries a paradox: because the party expanded by winning what had been Republican districts, it has more members who oppose federal financing for blood transfusions and restrictions on guns. Ms. Braasch's measure on blood transfusions passed the House with the support of 64 Democrats.

"Before, when we talked about pro-blood Democrats, you'd get a snicker and a laugh," she said. "We were just always overlooked. We're not overlooked anymore."

Now the disagreement over blood transfusion financing has become a game of chicken, with Ms. Braasch saying she and 10 or 11 others, whom she would not name, will vote against a final bill that does not meet her standards, and some backers of blood transfusion rights threatening to do the same in what is expected to be a close vote.

Last fall, Ms. Braasch told constituents that even if her amendment failed, she would still vote yes on the overall health care legislation – she merely wanted to vote her conscience first. Now she says that statement applied only to the bill's early version.

"You fight for a principle you've believed in your whole life, then you fold up the tent?" she said.

Some of Ms. Braasch's colleagues on the other side of the blood transfusion issue offer a different version of her lonely-woman-of-principle story. She has hardly been an outcast within her own party, they say; two years after being elected, she joined the Energy and Commerce Committee, and now serves as chairwoman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. Like Ms. Braasch, they say they have worked for months to avert precisely this sort of standoff. And they accuse her of being less of a brave holdout than an instrument of conservative Jehovah's Witness and anti-blood transfusion organizations.

"The National Right to Blood Committee and the Governing Body of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society saw this as a way to vastly increase restrictions on choice," said Representative Slater, Democrat of Colorado, who is a chief deputy House whip and co-chairman, with D, of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.

Ms. Braasch was "not given very much negotiating room" by those organizations, Slater said. Now "she's gotten herself into a corner where she says it's my amendment or it's nothing."

(Ms. Braasch says she urged the Governing Body of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society to toughen its stance on the legislation; representatives from the Society and the National Right to Blood Committee did not return calls.)

For now, as she mulls her return to Washington, Ms. Braasch is canvassing her district, adding to the 180,000 miles on her Oldsmobile, and grilling – in the snow, without a jacket – at her lakeside log-cabin home for her wife, Ophelia.

She is trying to pass the health care overhaul, she insists, not sabotage it, and predicts that the legislation will ultimately collapse for reasons apart from blood transfusions. But she will be blamed anyway, she is sure.

"I get the distinct impression that I'm the last woman the president wants to see," she said.

January 16, 2010, 10:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink61 comments

Representative Theocracy

By Sarah Braasch

Representative Bart Stupak from Michigan was paraphrased in a recent New York Times interview as saying that his resolve to defeat the healthcare reform bill, unless the bill includes his anti-abortion amendment language, is a straightforward matter of Roman Catholic faith. The article states that Representative Stupak said that he actually urged the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to toughen its stance on the legislation. Representative Stupak is also quoted as saying: "It's not the end of the world if it goes down."

What?!?! Let me say that again. WTF?!?!

I don't understand how something like this goes unnoticed and unmentioned.

How does he get a free pass on saying something like that in his capacity as a US Representative? How does he not get called out on that?

He just proclaimed to the press that he holds religious law in higher esteem than the US Constitution. He just stated, unequivocally, that he intends to impose religious law upon the American citizenry. He just asserted that he intends to defeat healthcare reform unless religious law is deemed the supreme law of the land, usurping the position of the US Constitution.

I am trying to imagine the reaction if Representative Keith Ellison from Minnesota were to say something similar. Keith Ellison is the first Muslim member of the US Congress. I am trying to imagine the resulting tumult and uproar if he were to defy his Democratic Party and vote in opposition to its platform, all the while maintaining that he was doing so as a straightforward matter of his Islamic faith, because he holds the tenets of Islam in higher esteem than the US Constitution, because the Quran and the Hadith demand that he impose Sharia (Islamic Law) upon American citizens, as a matter of principle and conscience. Does anyone honestly believe that a comment like that would go unnoticed in a New York Times interview?

Representative Stupak took an oath to support and defend the US Constitution. He is openly admitting to violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by attempting to establish religious law as US Federal Law. He may not seek recourse under the Free Exercise or Free Speech Clauses, because federal congressional legislation is textbook government speech. He is not acting as a private individual citizen when he acts in his capacity as a US Representative in Congress.

Is there something about the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution, which Representative Stupak fails to understand? I find it fairly straightforward myself. In case you had forgotten, I am including our glorious First Amendment to the United States Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

There is no religious test for public office, but there should be a competency test for public office, to determine if one is capable of maintaining the separation between church and state, if one is capable of NOT violating the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution, if one is capable of comprehending the difference between government speech and the private speech of an individual citizen.

If immigrants desiring citizenship must take a test that demonstrates their knowledge of the United States Constitution, then maybe we should require the same of our Representatives and Senators, since they are also being asked to take an oath or affirmation to support and defend the Constitution and all.

For the record, I am not Catholic. I reject Roman Catholicism. And, I am deeply and personally offended that Mr. Stupak would abuse his position as a US Congressman by attempting to force me to kneel to Roman Catholic doctrine as a matter of US Federal Law in direct violation of our Constitution.

And, even if I were Catholic, what entitles Representative Stupak to interpret the tenets of Roman Catholicism on my behalf? I didn't realize we had a Theologian Laureate in the United States of America. Thank God for Representative Stupak from Michigan. Thank God we have Representative Stupak to interpret Catholic doctrine and then legislate accordingly on our behalf.

I can sleep easy now. Congress is looking after my spiritual wellbeing. Congress is looking after my soul.

Of course Representative Stupak doesn't care if healthcare reform passes or no. Of course he doesn't care how many American citizens continue to die unnecessarily. He isn't interested in saving our lives. He's interested in saving our souls. For Jesus. Nothing unconstitutional about that.

January 12, 2010, 6:51 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink52 comments

Stigmata Scars

By Sarah Braasch

I'm scared to expose myself like this. But, I'm tired of the shame and the guilt and the fear. I have something important to say. And, I want to comfort other victims of religious abuse who feel alone and afraid.

I grew up in an abusive Jehovah's Witness home. When people ask me what my childhood was like, I usually describe it, in all seriousness, as something like growing up in a war zone. I don't mean to belittle or demean the experiences of children who actually grow up in literal war zones, but I struggle to find a more apt description.

The sky was always falling. We were constantly under threat of demonic attack. We expected Armageddon to befall us at any moment. As children, these threats of annihilation all around us were all too real. Demons could murder you, rape you and torture you, psychologically or physically or sexually. The desire for the death and destruction of mankind permeated the doctrine. Of course, this theater of horrors was exacerbated and intensified by my father's abuse and my mother's deranged denial.

I cried through my entire high school graduation ceremony. It became a joke amongst my classmates. It was the strangest thing. I just couldn't stop crying. I think I just couldn't believe that I had made it, that I was free. I was just so overwhelmed with emotion.

My father's parting words to me were to tell me that I would amount to nothing without him. He told me that I would come crawling back to him on hands and knees, begging him to take me in. I told him to wait for me. And to hold his breath.

It was a battle to finish my undergraduate education. If I hadn't gone to family court at sixteen to get a restraining order against my father, I wouldn't have been able to secure the financial aid necessary to continue my studies. I had to present a copy of the order to the university to establish myself as financially independent from my parents.

Also, I was in a tremendously fragile emotional and psychological condition. I had severed all ties with my family. I was socially retarded. I was completely alone. I felt totally disconnected from the university community. Interpersonal interactions were difficult and uncomfortable for me. I had trouble making eye contact. And, I thought demons were stalking me.

Being alone in the university dormitory during school breaks was the hardest. I would sit up all night in the lobby watching TV and chatting with the overnight security guards, and I would sleep all day. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what was happening to me, and my childhood had been nothing if not a study in secrecy. But, I willed myself to keep it together, to go to class, to work, to do research. I presented as normal a face as possible to the outside world. I gravitated towards other outsiders and social pariahs. The goth transvestite with pet snakes. The bisexual Jamaican dancer.

So, at 22 years old, I had spent five years at the University of Minnesota. I had two summa cum laude engineering degrees, in aerospace and mechanical engineering. I had a French minor. Somehow, some way, I made it through. The world was, seemingly, my oyster.

I decided to continue my education. It just seemed like a good idea. If education was good, then more education was even better. I was racking up prizes and awards and scholarships and fellowships and internships and whatever other honors I could get my hands on. I wanted medals and certificates and esteem. Mostly esteem.

I was fueled by rage and hatred. Hatred and rage. It was driving me forward, relentlessly. But no amount of accomplishments or successes could sate me. I was on a mission for revenge and retribution and justice. But, it was not to be found. I was playing a chess game against my parents, except that I was playing a chess game against no one, because my parents weren't playing, because they didn't care.

That was the cruelest lesson of my twenties. I realized that my parents were not sitting up nights worrying about my wellbeing or lack thereof. My parents were not racked with guilt over their mistreatment of me. My mother and my father were continuing their lives as if they didn't have a care in the world, as if they'd never had a little girl named Sarah.

I couldn't even hurt them. They didn't care. My success was not the best revenge or any revenge at all. My success was meaningless to them. They didn't care. I had to let it go. Their gas-lit alternate reality didn't include me, or even a notion of me or even the idea of me. My anger and bitterness was going to destroy me and no one would care.

I headed off to grad school at UC Berkeley. The moment I landed, everything came crashing down. Something inside of me snapped. It surprised me. I wouldn't have thought it would have occurred then. I was further removed from all of my torments, both geographically and temporally. But, all of my demons were still with me — in my head.

I couldn't sleep. I was terrified of the dark. I spent my nights sitting in the bathtub, searching out the corners of the well-lit bathroom for demons. I would pray to Jehovah throughout the night, in an almost chant-like fashion. I did this to ward off the demons, to call upon Jehovah for protection, and to stop the bad thoughts. If I cursed Jehovah God in my head or asked for Satan, I would scream and cry out to Jehovah to save me. Then, I would begin chanting again. Sometimes, a part of my brain knew that what I was doing was crazy, but I couldn't stop. And, sometimes, I didn't know. Sometimes, I knew that there was a demon there, torturing me, trying to hurt me, trying to get me to kill myself.

I stopped going to class. I stopped going to the lab. I stopped bathing. I spent my days either sleeping or writing out rambling tales of demons and demonic possession. I had a complete nervous breakdown.

In a rare moment of lucidity, I realized that I was either going to drive myself totally and irrevocably insane, or that I was going to drive myself to suicide. I knew it. I had to choose.

There was something alluring about letting the insane parts of my mind just take me, just pull me out to sea and drown me in darkness. I wanted to completely disassociate from reality. Insanity would obviate the need for suicide. Suicide was scary. I had no fear of hell. (Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in hell.) But, I had grown weary of violence. I didn't really want to inflict more violence upon my poor, tired body. But, I decided that my insanity wouldn't be a happy or peaceful place. My insanity would be hell, full of pain and anguish. If I had thought that my insane mind would have taken me to a dreamy heaven, full of cotton candy and angels and down-filled cushions, I would have gone.

I wasn't sure if I could still extract joy from life. I wasn't sure if I could find meaning in life. I wasn't sure if I could determine a purpose for my life. But, I decided to try. I decided I needed drugs.

I headed to the student health center on campus. I told the staff psychiatrist how I was feeling about my tenuous grasp on reality, my views on demons and my thoughts of suicide, and he gave me drugs. Lots of drugs.

The drugs worked. I was walking through life in a hazy fog, but I liked it. I could sleep at night. I didn't think about demons all of the time, but they never left me completely. I went to class. I went to the lab. My productivity left something to be desired. I had been drained of any semblance of a personality. I even spoke really slowly. I gained a lot of weight. I was kind of like the walking dead. But, I was alive. Sort of. And, I could function. Kind of.

I got it in my head that I needed to leave Berkeley. I grew tired of living like a zombie. As often happens, I decided that I didn't need the drugs anymore. I decided that I just needed a new environment, a change of pace. So, I left. I took the first job offer I could find, and I moved to Los Angeles. Things were going ok for a while. Then, I decided to save my siblings. With tragic consequences.

I basically strong-armed my older sister and my younger brother into moving out to Los Angeles and into moving in with me. I had grandiose visions of bestowing new lives upon them, of blessing them with new horizons, of freeing them from the shackles of our hellish family and childhoods. I would be their savior. (And, I hoped it would irk my parents to no end.)

This ill-formed plan, of course, quickly turned catastrophic. Three emotionally damaged and traumatized adult siblings living in close quarters and grappling with reconstructing their lives and identities is a recipe for disaster. Trust me on this one. Things quickly spiraled out of control.

My sister was the first to abandon ship. She saw the light before I did. When my sister left so did any hope we had of building a functional family out of the shards of our broken lives and psyches. She was the sane one. My brother and I descended into a co-dependent psychodrama hell of childhood trauma revisited.

I became cruel to him. He embodied all of my worst fears. He couldn't get out of bed. He imploded in on himself. I couldn't allow that to happen. I forced him to get a job. I forced him to pay rent. I forced him to clean. I was all about the tough love.

He became more and more detached from reality. He would stay out all night, wandering the streets of LA. He would tell me that he had broken into people's homes. He brought home swords, which I quickly re-gifted. He would tell me that he saw a girl, whom he knew from back home, at the restaurant where he worked. He thought he might have raped her during a drug binge. He told me that she sat at the bar and stared at him without saying a word. He told me that she had come to LA to tell him that she was pregnant. He told me that he could hear the thoughts of the customers at work. He could hear them thinking about him, laughing at him. He told me that the patrons in the restaurant were always talking about him, making fun of him. He told me that he often met and saw demons as he wandered LA in the middle of the night. He told me that he challenged Satan to a fight.

I knew he was schizophrenic, but I thought I could talk him out of it. I know it sounds ridiculous. He would have moments of lucidity. I would try to reason with him, to get him to see the distinction between reality and psychosis, to teach him how to recognize the difference.

Then, one night, my brother snapped. He was asking me pointed questions about whether or not my sister and I had been sexually abused by our father. And, I was giving him pointed answers. He responded violently. I had to call the police. I was never afraid of him until that point. I probably should have been, but I wasn't. Even when he told me he was hearing voices and seeing demons, even when he brought home swords.

The next day, I kicked him out. I gathered up all of his belongings after he left for work, and I dropped them off at the restaurant. And, I've never forgiven myself. But, I was scared. I panicked. I was afraid that he would kill or rape or hurt me if I let him stay. Eventually, he made his way back to the Midwest.

My brother is currently being heavily medicated, so that he does not pose a danger either to himself or to anyone else. I tried to save him, but I drowned him instead.

When I think about my brother, I think about how he held me as I cried out my testimony against my father in family court, about how my words became sobs, about how he put his arm around me. And, I hate myself for abandoning him.

Religious abuse exists. Religious abuse is real. Who knows how many unacknowledged walking wounded limp through early adult life, struggling to put themselves back together again. Of course, there are varying degrees and types of religious abuse, just as there are varying degrees and types of sexual and physical abuse. Religious abuse is a form of psychological abuse. As a society, we are loath to acknowledge this fact. We are loath to acknowledge that raising children in religion is abusive.

We are sending millions of young persons out into the world handicapped by religious childhood traumas and indoctrination and social retardation, including religious idiocy, delusion and hatred. For the greater part, these psychological and emotional pains remain unaddressed by our mental health profession. Religion is not addressed as the prime mover.

I am not an aberration. I am your high school friend. I am your co-worker. I am your law school classmate.

I am not unintelligent. I am not crazy. I have two engineering degrees and a law degree. I have traveled the world. I am well educated and well read. I am a human rights activist. I am a writer.

I am an adult survivor of childhood religious abuse. And, so are you.

January 4, 2010, 6:54 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink49 comments

Christian Missionaries Are Doing God's Work

By Sarah Braasch

I leaned over to one of my teammates. "Why are there so many fat, white people on the plane? We're going to Ethiopia. We're flying Ethiopian Airlines."

"They're missionaries," she responded, completely uninterested.

"What?" I gasped. It had never occurred to me. I was not pleased.

Everything became so obvious. The Texas drawls. The recitations of Bible verses. The prayers. The seasoned braggarts recounting their prior trips to the Horn of Africa. The newbies airing out their nerves. They couldn't wait to get to Africa to start saving souls for Jesus. I wasn't sure I could take a full day of travel with a cabin full of bombastic Texas Christian missionaries, giddy with evangelical fervor. I tried to force myself to sleep.

As I slept on the plane, I dreamt of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Opening Ceremonies. The fifty or so pick-up trucks circling hundreds of cheerleaders as they moved into formation, spelling out the words, "How Y'all Doin'?" The firecrackers exploding over the international crowd of tens of thousands. Then-President Clinton's pasted on smile, which looked more like a grimace of pain and mortification.

When I awoke, I felt troubled. I didn't want to be a missionary or an apostle. The very thought conjured up excruciating childhood memories of door-to-door witnessing as a Jehovah's Witness. I didn't want to be an imperialistic colonizing Westerner, bringing the good news to a nation of Godforsaken heathen hordes. I wasn't bringing them a religious message, but I was bringing them a universal human rights message. I was bringing them the good news of individualism and democracy and rule of law. I was bringing them the light of women's rights and constitutionalism and secularism. Wasn't I?

I leaned over to my teammate again. "We're not like them, are we? I mean, the missionaries. We're not like the missionaries, are we?"

"Yes, I'm afraid we are," she replied with the world-weary wisdom of a millennia-old sage.

"But, we're not going there to impose our beliefs on them. We're going there to learn, to study their political and legal systems. I mean, yes, ultimately we intend to make policy suggestions in a report, but it's not the same thing, is it?"

"Hmmm. Well, ultimately, we think we know better than they do how they should be running their country, so, really, it is the same thing," she said with tenderness and as little condescension as possible.

"Really?" I looked at her plaintively, as if I expected her to grant me absolution.

"Really." And, she shrugged her shoulders as if to say it wasn't hers to give.

"Then why do you do it?" I asked her in all seriousness.

"Because I can't do nothing, you know?"

"Yes, I do know."

"I think it's good to constantly question your own motives, to have that interior monologue, to struggle constantly with that ugly truth of human rights work, that, ultimately, we are going to a land not our own and telling a people whom we do not know how they should be living their lives," she said encouragingly.

"I like to think of it as liberating the oppressed. We're not telling them how to live their lives. We're saying that they have the right to decide for themselves how to live their lives."

"But, they're already doing that. They just don't place the same value on individualism that we do."

"I don't buy that. I just don't. I think that that cultural relativist stance is very convenient for those in power who wish to maintain the status quo. And, everywhere I've been people are struggling desperately for their individual rights. And, anyway, groups don't have rights. People do."

I spent the rest of the trip ruminating on this conversation. As soon as we were in the hotel shuttle van, I was thrilled to be rid of the missionaries. I didn't want to see another American, let alone another Texan, for the rest of our stay. Then we arrived at the Ghion Hotel.

The Ghion was a sea of entitled whiteness. The only dark faces were those of the employees and the babies. Throngs of white couples and families were milling around with their newly adopted Ethiopian newborns and toddlers. Even the youngest of these infants had huge, terrified eyes, as if they understood that they were being severed from their kindred irreconcilably. And, the missionaries were there. Many of the same faces that I had had the misfortune to encounter on the plane were there. They attacked the front desk with the same self-important hubris with which they attacked the un-baptized.

There was something about the entire scene that turned my stomach. The reek of colonialism sickened me: Ethiopia as baby and soul factory. I would have been more than happy to forego any creature comforts to not be staying in the same hotel as every other overfed Westerner in Addis Ababa. I was starting to hate myself by association.

We took refuge in the sanctum of our hotel room. My roommate immediately fell into a deep slumber. I decided to soak in the tub for a little ablution.

After my bath, my cigarettes were calling to me. I headed out to the lobby. I ordered a Coke from the bar and sat myself at the most isolated table in the room. There was a family with school-aged children watching the television at the opposite end of the room. They were obviously missionaries. They wore the telltale earnest expressions, sensible footwear and frumpy clothing. I didn't pay them any heed. I was concentrating on enjoying the novelty of my indoor cigarette.

Why can missionaries and evangelicals and proselytizers sense a former believer like sharks detect blood in the water, like rapists and child molesters can smell the lingering odor of victimization emanating from the pores of the abused?

"Are you in our group?" she asked me.

I tried to maintain a benign expression. "No, I'm here with my human rights clinic from my law school."

She sat herself down beside me. "Oh, wow. That's so interesting. Did you know that this is a Muslim country?" She looked like she could barely contain herself, she was so excited to get past the small talk and begin her theocratic spiel.

"Well, actually, it's a secular country. I mean they have a secular Constitution with freedom of religion. On paper, anyway." I can never bring myself to be really cruel or rude to someone, even if they are being obnoxious themselves. It's just not in my nature.

"Did you know that they chop people's hands off for stealing here?" Ugh.

"Actually, Ethiopia has had a large Christian population almost from the advent of Christianity. They're Coptic. Have you heard of the Solomonic line of kings?"

"That doesn't sound Christian," she responded. I was so not in the mood. I stared blankly off into the distance and blew smoke in her direction. It didn't seem to help.

"Are you Christian?" she asked me. She was eager to get a head start on her conversions to show off to her companions, and I'm sure I cut a far less intimidating figure, what with my white skin and Western demeanor.

"I was raised Christian, as a Jehovah's Witness."

She winced, "They're not Christian."

"But now I'm an atheist. And, a human rights activist."

She winced again. She looked a bit fearful, like she had bitten off more than she knew how to chew. This was an unanticipated challenge that had not been addressed in her preparatory apologetics and theocratic ministry education. She bit her lip. She decided to try again.

"Our church does human rights work too. Especially for women and children. Of course, we don't call it human rights work. We just call it God's work."

Both my cigarette and my patience were finished. I bade her good night and headed off to bed.

I couldn't sleep. My mind was racing. Why had I allowed her to upset me so much? Why was I so indignant? Of course the missionaries are obnoxious and ignorant and embarrassing. Of course they are doing more harm than good. Of course their barely disguised self-interest belies any superficial attempts at philanthropy. But, I couldn't quite put my finger on why I was so personally offended. Was it simply a matter of being forced to grapple with the morality of human rights work?

I couldn't turn my brain off. I was incensed. I replayed the conversation over and over again in my mind, and each time I came up with wittier, more acerbic and more biting comebacks. I wished that I had screamed or yelled. I wished that I had shamed her into packing up and going home. How did she not understand the harm she was causing?

Spreading the gospel is not human rights work. Missionaries spread ignorance, hatred, death, disease, famine, overpopulation and war. They spread AIDS. They propagate the sexual slavery of women and girls. They encourage the torture of witches. They are the apocalypse.

I think the missionaries are right. They are doing God's work. And exactly what kind of work is God doing in Africa? Apparently, he instructs parents to pour acid onto their children's faces to rid them of demons at the behest of church leaders. He leads parents to abandon their albino children, because they have been condemned as witches by their churches. He sends missionaries into communities that practice sorcery to teach them to torture one another for so doing as the Bible demands. And the American churches that established these Christian communities in Africa? They disclaim any responsibility for these atrocities. But, what happened to God? Apparently, God left when the missionaries did.

And, then, it hit me. Christian missionaries are undermining our ability to advocate on behalf of universal human rights. Undermining it to such an extent, that most of the world rejects international human rights as a strictly Western, and explicitly Christian, ideology. To the majority of the world, it is tantamount to the venom and vitriol spewed forth by the Christian ignoramuses imposing themselves upon the heathen Third World nations.

This phenomenon threatens not only the credibility and viability of international human rights organizations and activists from the West, but also of homegrown, grass roots movements within developing nations. Their governments attribute a Christian (i.e. Western) agenda to all human rights activists. This has become a particularly virulent epidemic in Muslim nations, especially for women's rights activists.

This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that, for most of the world, state and church are one and the same. There is no separation between religion and government. Thus, not only are Christian missionaries undermining human rights activism around the world, they are undermining the US government's ability to advocate on behalf of universal human rights. (This wasn't made any better by the previous US administration's explicitly Christian agenda.) Christian missionaries, unfortunately, are viewed as an aspect of US foreign policy. I shudder to think. Throw in some overt Christian proselytization by the US military, and you have a recipe for disaster.

We don't need anyone to think that the US military or government is doing God's work. I think we need a campaign to educate the international community that Christian missionaries represent only themselves and not very well at that. We need to start reminding the rest of the world that we are indeed a secular state, just like France. And, not like Texas.

December 14, 2009, 10:09 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink53 comments

Jehovah's Witnesses Hate the Smurfs

By Sarah Braasch

In the early 80's, the primary preoccupations of the Jehovah's Witnesses were Armageddon, Smurfs, Michael Jackson and demonic attack, but not necessarily in that order. As a young Jehovah's Witness girl, my worldview was what you might describe as surreal. Smurfs were little blue imps disguised as Saturday morning cartoon characters. They were capable of murder, rape, violence and general mayhem, and, as such, all Smurf paraphernalia had to be either banished or burned or both from any respectable Jehovah's Witness home. Armageddon was regarded with frenzied anticipation. We couldn't wait for the bloodletting of the wicked to begin. Demons roamed the earth, along with Satan the Devil. They lurked behind every corner, literally, just waiting for an invitation to wreak havoc on one's mind and body. And Michael Jackson was the subject of many rancorous sermons at the Kingdom Hall. Michael Jackson and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom replaced the Smurfs as the most blatant signs of the end times, the last days of this system of things.

I didn't know whom Michael Jackson was when I began to hear his name breathlessly bandied about with great agitation and interspersed amongst the cautionary tales of Smurfs and demon-possessed antiques. I knew I didn't have any of his tapes or records. I felt much relieved. When news of the Smurfs' demonic nature had come to light, I had to rid my bedroom of Smurfs, and I wasn't able to sleep for months thereafter. I was convinced I had inadvertently invited demons into my life.

Apparently there was something quite different about this Michael Jackson. He had been one of us. He had been a Jehovah's Witness. This information blew my little mind. What?!? How could a Jehovah's Witness do the horrible things the elders accused Michael Jackson of having done? How could someone abandon Jehovah God after having learned the truth? Was he demon possessed?

We were given explicit instructions in how to handle the Michael Jackson situation. He was definitely NOT a Jehovah's Witness. We were told to deny him. A Jehovah's Witness would not do the things he did. A Jehovah's Witness is not merely someone who claims the identity. A Jehovah's Witness must walk the walk, not just talk the talk. A Jehovah's Witness demonstrates his identity via his behavior. Michael Jackson might have attended a few meetings. His mother might be a Jehovah's Witness, but that did not make Michael Jackson a Jehovah's Witness. Deny, deny, deny. We were read an official letter from the governing body of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society in New York.

All of this commotion was very exciting and titillating. We had a betrayer in our midst. He was the purveyor of worldly sex and sin and demonic imagery. We secretly relished the notoriety and the attention his fame brought us. What good was it to be God's chosen people, the only ones with the truth, to be better than everyone else, unless everyone else knew of our superiority? Battle lines were drawn. There was a fight to be had, in the public eye, in the center of a scandalous controversy. It was so delicious.

It was also a matter of life and death and demons. JWs love to whip themselves up into a veritable frenzy. They love to terrorize themselves and their children. Everything is a cosmic battle to the death between the forces of good and evil. Even Smurfs and Michael Jackson and Indiana Jones.

One day I was the odd but accepted fixture of Lincoln Elementary School in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and the next day I was the cool kid. Everyone was jealous of me. Not despite the fact that I was a Jehovah's Witness, but, miraculously, because I was a Jehovah's Witness. That was something new. I was supposed to denounce and disown Michael Jackson, but, suddenly, everyone wanted to know me and be near me, because Michael Jackson was also a Jehovah's Witness. I remember little girls telling me, “You're so lucky, because you're a Jehovah's Witness just like Michael Jackson.” All of the little girls in my grade had huge crushes on him.

I felt torn. I loved the attention and the admiration, but I was terrified of being attacked by demons if I strayed from the organization's instructions. I strived to achieve both aims. I milked the association for all it was worth and denounced his worldly ways at the same time. I convinced myself that I was doing this in order to proselytize to as many of my classmates as possible. That was the other thing. We were told to take advantage of this situation to spread the good news to people who were now open to hearing it.

While I was able to withstand the siren charms of MJ, I knew another little JW girl who was not. My sister and I often played with a little Jehovah's Witness girl named Sandy whose mother was also named Sandy. I found that so strange. I found that to be the height of arrogance for a mother to name her daughter after herself. It seemed almost like self-idolatry. I was both intrigued and aghast.

Their family was particularly devout. They sold their home. They moved into a mobile home to simplify their lives, so that they could devote more of their time to the preaching effort. They gave us their dog, Yickey (some kind of weird Swedish name – only in Minnesota). They didn't want to spend time taking care of a pet that they could spend out witnessing the good news. Sandy and her little brother were not allowed to watch television or listen to the radio without adult supervision. Their every move was monitored.

But, Sandy's and her little brother's parents had both previously been married and divorced. To other people. I was scandalized by this information. Sandy had led a pre-Jehovah's Witness life. Her family's righteousness was newfound. Sandy had a hard time conforming to her newly strict and ascetic lifestyle. She had a secret life in which she indulged in wicked worldliness. But, just a little bit. I was both repelled with fear and disgust and wholly enthralled by more than a little fear and disgust.

Sandy and I bonded over this shared attraction to the dark side. My mother had not been a JW until she married my father. As such, she was far more lenient than most Jehovah's Witness mothers regarding our daily activities. I was probably worse the wear for it. It almost made me Catholic, the extreme guilt that I felt. But, it was even worse, because my guilt was coupled with sheer terror, because I was certain that I was deserving of demonic attack.

One day at Sandy's house, she led my sister and I into her bedroom to exchange confidences and demon attack horror stories. Then, she revealed her deep and abiding love for, of all things, Michael Jackson. I think I might have shrieked. Then, she opened up the top drawer of her dresser and flung her undergarments onto her bed, revealing a huge stash of Michael Jackson pictures that she had cut from the pages of magazines and whatnot. How she had escaped her mother's watchful eye long enough to do so was beyond me. Pictures of Michael Jackson in concert. Pictures of Michael Jackson in his videos. Pictures of Michael Jackson posing for photo shoots. She handed some of the images to my sister and I.

I didn't want to touch the photos. I was literally terrified. It was as if she had pulled voodoo dolls or a Ouija board out from her dresser. Nothing is more terrifying to Jehovah's Witnesses than the Satanic Ouija board. I thought demons were going to appear at any moment. I thought I was being possessed at that moment. I almost fainted. I started to cry. My sister looked scared too. I begged her to put the pictures away. Scaring one another with tales of bad Jehovah's Witnesses who had been rightfully tormented by demons was one thing. But, actually inviting demons into our lives was something else entirely. And that's what those pictures were. They were portals to the spiritual world, the evil spiritual world. They were doorways, and demons were waiting on the other side, itching to get in through my fingertips.

It's truly amazing and horrifying how brainwashing and inculcation as a child stays with you throughout your life. I am an adult. I am well educated. I have not been a Jehovah's Witness for many, many years. I am an atheist. Most of the time. But, sometimes, especially when I'm stressed out and tired, I'll start to feel that old sense of panic and anxiety. I'm sure I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I will still call out to Jehovah to protect me from demons, but only every once in a blue moon. And, I feel the need less and less. These moments of psychosis become more and more rare. I'm really looking forward to the time when they will cease altogether, if that ever happens.

I became addicted to the drama. It was such a rush, such a high. A constant battle with demons. The ever-incipient apocalypse. The community wide martyr complex. I sometimes wonder if maybe it permanently damaged my brain. I was constantly pumped full of adrenaline, high on terror, living on a knife's edge, waiting for the next demonic attack.

That lifestyle has maintained its grasp on me in myriad ways. I overreact. I am hyper-emotional. Everything's a matter of life and death. The problem is two-fold. I'm addicted to the rush of chemicals in my body, and I never learned how to distinguish between the real emergency and the fake one. When pictures of Michael Jackson might contain demons, something about your life is slightly skewed.

I fell into something of a depression when Michael Jackson died. I was unbelievably sad. I was embarrassed to tell anyone. I had enjoyed his music, but I had never been a huge fan. I had never purchased any of his albums. I had never seen him in concert. I had never met him, of course. But, his death opened up a lot of childhood wounds. I felt like I knew a part of him. Like I understood in a way that few others would.

I knew the pain of growing up in an abusive Jehovah's Witness home with a subservient and submissive mother and a domineering father. I knew the pain of loving a mother who will not protect you, because she believes that God will condemn her for doing so. The pain of loving a mother who will not leave the man who believes it is within his God-given authority to beat you. The pain of loving a mother who would rather watch you suffer in misery than expose Jehovah God or his organization to public scorn and shame.

Growing up, I loved my mother more than anything, but she didn't love me more than anything. She loved her religion more. It still makes me cry. So when Michael Jackson died, I cried. I cried for the little girl who was terrified that demons were going to rape her in the middle of the night. I cried for the little girl who begged her mother to leave her father. I cried for the little girl who begged Jehovah God to kill her, so that the pain would stop. And, I cried for the little Jehovah's Witness boy that Michael Jackson had been.

I worry about Michael's kids. I know that sounds silly, but I think about them. I hope they are safe and well. I worry that they are being inculcated in that apocalyptic cult of demonology and terror that is the Jehovah's Witnesses. It is not a healthy environment for children. Not to mention the fact that that cult once denounced and disowned their father as wicked and sinful.

I worry about Paris. The Jehovah's Witnesses espouse the subjugation of women and girls as part of Jehovah's divinely ordained plan. Raising children as Jehovah's Witnesses is abusive, especially for girl children. It is also dangerous. The Jehovah's Witnesses provide a safe haven for pedophiles, abusers and molesters. I imagine that Michael Jackson suffered greatly as a result of having been raised as a Jehovah's Witness.

I worry about Katherine Jackson raising those kids as Jehovah's Witnesses. I don't know her. I've never met her. But, I am tired of hearing her spoken of as if she were some kind of saint for remaining with her tyrannical husband all of these years. I am tired of hearing her spoken of as if she were some kind of saint because she's religious, because she's a woman of faith, because she's spiritual.

My mother was spiritual. My mother was a woman of faith. My mother was religious. My mother is still married to my father. They still live together. I haven't spoken to either of them in nearly twenty years.

My mother chose her husband and her religion and her God over her children. She stood by and did nothing as her children suffered at the hands of her husband. She stood by and did nothing as her cult terrorized and tortured her children. She sacrificed us for her faith. She sacrificed us for her loveless marriage.

I got down on my hands and knees and begged my mother to protect me. I begged her to choose me. I begged her to love me. And she said no.

So, you'll have to excuse me if I don't think women should be canonized for holding their faith in higher regard than the protection of their own children. And, I'm not sure they should be rewarded with even more children to neglect in this way.

I don't want Michael's kids to have to beg.

November 11, 2009, 1:41 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink128 comments

Maybe Jesus Will Save Us After All

By Sarah Braasch

I think I destroyed someone's faith yesterday. Or, in truth, I think I may have struck the definitive blow. This doesn't bother me. Unlike what many atheists espouse, for fear of being labeled evangelical proselytizers of disbelief, I actively seek the de-conversion of humanity. I actively seek to destroy religion. Not spirituality, but organized religion. I believe that if we do not destroy it, it will destroy us.

And, when I say de-conversion I mean just that. I mean de-conversion, not conversion to an atheist creed or dogma or doctrine, because none exists. Atheism is simply the absence of faith. It is not a similarly blind faith in science or logic or reason or philosophy or individualism or liberal constitutional democracy or anything.

But, I admit, I am feeling some qualms since yesterday. I am struggling through some pangs of conscience since egging on a crisis of conscience.

In order to protect the innocent, I have altered all identifying characteristics.

Amina is a beautiful black French Muslim girl. She is a French citizen, but her family hails from Guinea in West Africa – a former French colony. She speaks Mandinka. She is Mandinka. She also speaks fluent French, decent Arabic, and very little English. She is very proud. She is very religious. She is also very sweet and loving. She would never wish to hurt anyone's feelings, but she does not hesitate to defend her faith, even from the mildest of chastisements. She does not wear the hijab or headscarf. She looks like a typical French teenager in her blue-jeans and t-shirts.

Amina was struggling with the burqa question. She supports women's rights, but she feels the possible ban in France as an attack on her religion and her culture. She doesn't want to think about Islam as inherently misogynistic. She still believes that Islam is God's (Allah's) final revelation to man. She still believes that the Quran is the infallible word of Allah. If Islam is inherently misogynistic, then that means that Allah hates her, because she is a woman. She cannot cope with the dissonance that this creates in her head. She asserts that women absolutely do freely choose to don both the niqab and the burqa as expressions of their love for Allah. She avers that women absolutely do freely choose to fulfill their God given roles as women in Islam according to the Quran.

She asked me what I thought about the potential burqa ban in France. I paused and sighed deeply. She said that it is a difficult question. I agreed.

I told her many things. I told her that I am an atheist. I told her that I abhor all religions as the sexual slavery of women and the psychological torture of children. I told her that I do not believe any of them to be true. I told her that I have read all of the so-called holy books, and that I was not convinced that any of them could have been divinely inspired or dictated. Not in the least. I told her that I think religion must be destroyed in order for humanity to survive.

She told me many things. She told me that she does not think that religion is the problem. She told me that she thinks men pervert and misapply and manipulate religion for their own aims, sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly, and sometimes disingenuously.

We looked upon one another with the same vaguely supercilious, rather patronizing pity. We felt sorry for one another. I pitied her ignorance and inculcation, and she pitied my ignorance and inculcation. The difference being that I had escaped the iron grasp of a cult through years of struggle and effort. I could fully demonstrate my knowing choice to be free of dogma and superstition.

She told me that she had not read the Bible, but that when she reads the Quran, she knows that she is reading the words of Allah. She spoke of so many of the same arguments one hears by Christians defending the Bible. The alleged way-ahead-of-its-time science in the Quran, including something about salty seawater and fresh ground water, and something about the earth being round, and something about embryology. She spoke of the evil and dissolution of the surrounding societies during Mohammed's time and how Mohammed introduced an as yet unheard of morality. And, she spoke of women's rights. She told me that the Quran lists right after right for women. She told me about the entire chapter on Mary, the mother of Jesus. She told me that men pervert the message of the Quran, but that the Quran itself is perfect.

Needless to say, I was hardly won over by these arguments.

And, even after having told me that she had never read the Bible, she began to compare the Quran to the Bible and disparage the biblical text. Of course, this is neither here nor there to me, as I find both texts equally unconvincing.

She told me that the Bible contradicts itself and is incoherent. I agreed. She then told me that the Quran has a single, singular and coherent message from beginning to end. I was silent.

She told me that the Bible was written and assembled by the clergy. This is why there are so many perversions and errors and mistranslations of God's intended revelation. She told me that there is no clergy in Islam to muddy the waters of the direct conduit between Allah and man, as, originally, there were no intermediaries between Allah and Mohammed (save Gabriel). She proudly proclaimed Mohammed's illiteracy as ostensible proof of the Quran's greater authenticity.

This claim has always left me perplexed. First of all, there is most assuredly a clergy class in Islam. It just isn't referred to as such. (Much in the same way that Muslims do in fact worship Mohammed; they just say that they don't.) In fact I have seen very little evidence of the vaunted ijtihad in Islam, which is individual study and reflection and interpretation. In my opinion, Islamic scholars have a stranglehold on Quranic exegesis and doctrinal interpretation, including the hadiths, Sharia and issuing fatwas. Second of all, the fact that the Quran is allegedly the secondhand account of a series of direct revelations to an illiterate peasant doesn't seem to be much of an improvement over the Bible's divinely inspired theory.

But, I agreed with her arguments regarding the Bible. I saw an opening. I lambasted the Bible and Christianity mercilessly and, in particular, the divinity of Jesus.

I told her that the Bible is ridiculous. She nodded fervently. I told her that the Bible contradicts itself relentlessly. She nodded and smiled assiduously. I told her that the Bible excludes many apocryphal texts, which were left out for this or that reason by men. She nodded and smirked avidly. I told her that the Bible was obviously written by and for men in the pursuit of their earthly preoccupations, namely conquering lands and raping and enslaving women. She nodded forcefully. She beamed. I understood.

I moved on to Jesus. I spoke of the seemingly limitless number of almost identical Sun God myths floating around the Mediterranean and the Middle East for thousands of years before Jesus Christ showed up. She concurred. I spoke of all of the ways in which Jesus' story matches these other Sun God tales of virgin birth, crucifixion and resurrection. She agreed.

I rattled on about the Nicene Creed and the Council of Nicaea and Constantine and the Roman Empire. I spoke of Constantine's desire to unify his empire under a single Christian creed. I spoke of how the divinity of Jesus was brought to a vote at the Council of Nicaea, along with other doctrinal elements of this new religion. And she nodded approvingly and encouraged me.

I spoke about how the gospels were written at the very least 3 or 4 decades after the supposed death of Jesus Christ. How they conflict with one another. How they are plagiarisms of one another. I spoke about how Paul and the other earlier, but still not contemporaneous, biblical authors, wrote not of an earthly man who had been born, lived, performed miracles, preached, and died, but of the same Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Sun God as heavenly archetype as everyone else had done.

Then, I hit her with the punch line. Given all of this information, all of these facts, many, not all, but many scholars do not believe that there is any evidence at all that anyone by the name of Jesus, as described in the Christian Bible, ever existed. Jesus was an archetype. He was an amalgamation of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Sun God myths. Not a single contemporaneous historian ever speaks a word about anyone named Jesus who even comes close to matching the Jesus in the Christian Bible. First century Palestine is a very well documented era and geographic location. Had someone actually been walking around performing miracles, causing turmoil for the Jewish and Roman leadership, been crucified, and, finally, been resurrected, in front of eyewitnesses, someone would have recorded it. Someone. Anyone. But, no one ever did. He never existed at all. No man. No rabbi. No preacher. No traveling salesman. No prophet. No farmer. No leader. There was no Jesus. No one at all.

Her beautiful, proud eyes that had flickered with the fire of her religious conviction fell into a momentary downward glance as she grappled with a fleeting spasm of doubt. I read the doubt on her face, clear as day.

She caught herself after just a moment, just as she was about to fall off the edge of her flat earth. One of her flailing hands caught a shrub, and she was able to pull herself back up to a more secure footing. She became an automaton. She fell back into her rote, prepared spiel. She said, "Me, I believe that he existed. But, he was just a man. I do not believe that he was the Son of God. He was a great teacher."

But the hairline crack of doubt remained in the slight, barely visible furrow of her brow.

I decided to lessen some of her pain. I explained to her that, for the most part, the scholars who believe that there might have been an actual Jesus believe so for a single reason. This reason is the great labors and pains taken to match Jesus' personal history with the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. If there hadn't been an actual Jesus, there would not have been any need to go to such arduous lengths to get him to Bethlehem, for instance, and into the house of David.

I suddenly felt a spasm of guilt. What had I done? Had I tricked her? I knew what I was doing. I had manipulated her. I argued my point in such a way as to lure her into a boxed-in corner. I wasn't upset, because I had caused her to doubt her faith. On the contrary, that was a victory. But, I was upset, because of my methods. I felt slimy and smarmy and unctuous. I felt like a Jehovah's Witness. I was reminded of all of my childhood witnessing tricks of the trade – the specious and disingenuous arguments, the rhetoric gymnastics of semantics and semiotics, the fatuous and fallacious non-logic. I was a little bit disgusted with myself.

But, I hadn't said anything untrue. My only sin was the fact that I knew where my argument was heading, and she did not. Predestination in microcosm. I think I just empathized with her emotional pain. I know it. I knew it. Leaving one's faith can feel like tearing one's self in two.

Then, something occurred to me, which I am sure is no great revelation to anyone else, but it was a tremendous personal revelation.

Jesus is the key. Jesus is the key to destroying the three great monotheisms. Judaism is out of luck. The Messianic ship has sailed. No one in their right mind could ever be made to believe that someone yet to come is the Messiah. Anyone from here on out claiming to be the Anointed One will be sent straight to the loony bin. Unless, of course, some as yet unknown alien civilization attempts to take advantage of our credulity and shows up in a space ship more advanced than our wildest sci-fi fantasies. Islam is a very poorly cobbled together plagiarism of both Judaism and Christianity. Despite their seeming antipathy for one another, Islam is wholly reliant upon the other two. Islam is discredited the second that either or both Christianity and Judaism are discredited. Jesus' existence is the easiest to discredit. There isn't a shred of evidence that he ever existed at all, while there is a mountain of evidence that he was merely a knock off Egyptian Osiris. While Mohammed may have been a bloodthirsty pedophile warlord, he was also an actual flesh and blood human being who managed to hold sway over the minds of thousands upon thousands of credulous souls. But Jesus probably didn't exist at all. Muslims want desperately to concur with all of the criticisms of Jesus, every single one, right up to the point where you say that he didn't exist at all, not even as a lowly man. And, the Quran lives and dies with Jesus. Every word of the Quran is supposedly the infallible word of Allah. The Quran is all about Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Thank you Jesus.

October 28, 2009, 6:49 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink125 comments

Hooker Hunting in God's Country

By Sarah Braasch

[Editor's Note: Please welcome Sarah Braasch back to Daylight Atheism for her second guest post! You can read Sarah's bio from a post last month.]

A few months ago, through some fault of my own, I found myself on a driving tour of Naples, Italy, assiduously avoiding the unwanted sexual advances of some US Navy boys. I was not enjoying myself much at all when one of the sailors suggested we go hooker hunting, as he so charmingly phrased it. I was suddenly rapt with attention and very keen to experience the famed seedy underbelly of Naples. I was also more than a little concerned that my companions intended to do more than window shop, but that was not about to dissuade me from witnessing the Neapolitan sex industry first hand.

I will never forget their eyes. They were either vacant and dead or hostile and menacing. Some were Eastern European. Some were from the Maghreb. Some were sub-Saharan African. Almost all of them wore either mini skirts or hot pants with fishnet stockings and bustiers. All of them wore heavy makeup. Most of them were at least decently attractive, with long, thin legs. They were congregated in small groups of twos and threes, seemingly along racial or ethnic lines. The Eastern Europeans were leaning against street signs outside of the train station in the middle of the night. The Africans relieved themselves next to their shaded deck chairs along the side of the highway.

I could tell when I made eye contact with them that they knew I was a curious but casual sexual tourist, not an active participant. I wondered if it made them angry or embarrassed. I wondered if they felt shame. I wondered if people ever took pictures of them. Suddenly, it felt very shameful to be viewing these women, as if I were conducting a laboratory experiment. It reminded me of a very painful memory from my distant past.

When I was an undergrad, a classmate and I were interns at Boeing in Seattle. I had accompanied her to Los Gatos, in the Silicon Valley, just outside of San Francisco, to visit an elderly couple, distant family members of hers. They must have been in their late eighties or early nineties. They were charming and kind and hospitable. They took us on a driving tour of all of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. Then, they drove us through East Palo Alto, an economically depressed, crime-ridden area with a high minority population. They called it East Palo Africa. They rolled up the windows and locked the doors. They pointed at the black men, women, and children and laughed. I was in a state of shock, and I was paralyzed. I knew that they were very old, but I couldn't believe that people still behaved like this. I knew that I should have done something. I should have said something. I should have asked them to stop. I should have jumped from the car. I should have yelled or screamed. But, I didn't. I didn't do or say anything. And, I've never forgotten it, and I've never stopped regretting my inaction.

"This is different," I tried to tell myself. "I'm doing this so that I can write about this experience, so that I can expose this atrocity, these human rights violations." But, as much as I tried to convince myself otherwise, I felt sick and vile, like a monster, and I wanted to go home. The sailors continued to point and laugh and make prurient and lewd jokes.

The nonchalance of the entire enterprise baffled me. Cars pull up to negotiate their sexual purchases while the vendors hawk and flaunt their wares. No one bats an eye. Twenty feet away, families greet one another with loving embraces after long journeys. Police cars roll by. On Sunday, we watched desperate trollops chase after wary buyers on the freeway. Apparently, there is no Sabbath for streetwalkers. How can human beings be so inured to the suffering of their fellow creatures? As a human rights activist, I am sometimes awestruck by the absence of humanity in humans. And, how to account for the insensitivity? It is in our nature? Or, can we rise above? What is holding us back?

I think religion is holding us back. It is all too easy to view human beings as unworthy of your sympathy and care if you think of them as the damned and filthy heathen hordes shunned by your Almighty. I should know. This is how I used to think as an inculcated Jehovah's Witness child. It's amazing how easily the prevalence of religious law lends itself to lawlessness. I was flabbergasted by the lawlessness. The irony was not lost on us. Here we were, in the ancestral home of the Catholic Church, in one of the most religious countries on earth, where 85% of the population considers themselves Catholic, and the market for cheap sex was apparently insatiable.

I have visited some of the most religious and some of the most irreligious places on earth. I have yet to experience this so called disparity in morality, in favor of religion, which the advocates for religion seem to assume exists. In fact, as far as women are concerned, my experience has revealed an inversely proportional relationship. The more religious the society, the worse the human rights violations perpetrated against women, the less "moral" men behave towards women. I find the claims to some sort of moral superiority on the part of religious societies and pundits to be specious at best, if not down right disingenuous, not to mention sexist, patriarchal, and misogynistic.

I guess it all depends on your definition of morality. If it includes, as it does in so many religious societies, the reproductive and sexual enslavement of women by men, then, yes, of course, religion does impart morality.

July 3, 2009, 10:07 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink42 comments

Mystery Does Not Equal God

By Sarah Braasch

When I was about seven years old I almost died. It wasn't the only time I almost died, but it was one of my most colorful near death experiences. I had acquired some sort of flu bug or food poisoning or I don't know what, but my mother, in her either infinite ignorance or indifference, failed to procure anything in the way of medical attention for her ailing child. In all fairness, at first, I attempted to minimize my illness in order to be able to participate in a planned trip to a local amusement park.

I know it sounds silly to say that I almost died from a flu bug in the US during the later part of the 20th century, and, yet, my story is true. I hadn't eaten anything solid for about two weeks, and I couldn't remember the last time I'd been able to hold down water. It seemed like I was either vomiting or dry heaving non-stop. I was parched and too weak to lift my head off of my pillow. I hadn't realized it at the time, but my mother later told me that I looked like a little concentration camp survivor, I had lost so much weight.

I remember that there was an old black and white movie on the tiny television on the dresser at the foot of the bed. I remember that the movie took place in a faux harem in a faux Middle Eastern palace in a faux Arabia. I think Gregory Peck may have been involved.

I wasn't scared. I just remember how I wanted nothing more than for the overwhelming waves of pain and nausea rolling through my body to stop. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I couldn't drink. I couldn't move. All I could think about was the pain. I didn't have the strength to dry heave anymore, but I kept dry heaving while lying on my back. I didn't even have the strength to turn onto my side or even turn my head. My body was convulsing involuntarily. Then, the convulsions started to fade. My body no longer possessed the ability to exercise its involuntary impulses. The ripples in my stomach waned. Everything slowed down. My heartbeat. My breathing. I felt nothing so much as relief. I just didn't want to feel anything anymore. I lost the will to live.

It was so strange how everything came into such clear focus at that moment. I remember the bizarre brown and gold patterned wallpaper. I remember these tiny clip on cabbage patch dolls I had purchased at the local five and dime. I remember the huge yellow plastic bowl I had been throwing up in, when I still had something inside of me to vomit. I remember the bedroom furniture and the way the bedspread draped over my legs and feet. I remember the light in the room.

I was completely still. My little legs began to rise. Actually, my entire body began to rise, but flat as a board, as if someone was lifting me by the feet, but my head was secured to my pillow. I watched this with great curiosity. I realized that my legs remained swathed in my nightgown, even as my legs were lifted higher and higher, until my feet were directly overhead. Then I watched as my body swung back down, in the same manner, towards the bed. As I watched my legs and feet return to the bed, I discovered that my body was also still on the bed, covered in the bedspread, completely still. This occurred multiple times. My head never left my pillow. I didn't feel fear, only intrigue, and, even, amusement.

At that time, death was not particularly terrifying. I had no fear of hell, not because I thought I was without sin, but because I didn't think hell existed. I was a little Jehovah's Witness girl, and Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in hell. But, I was confused. It seemed to me as if a version of me, a spirit, a soul had left or was trying to leave my physical body. But, I had been taught that I was a living human soul, but that I didn't have a soul, which survived the death of my physical self.

My feet were directly overhead again. It felt final. It felt like I was being asked to make a choice, like I was on the edge of a precipice, about to jump. It felt like my feet were being tugged on, but something inside of me was resisting. My head remained securely on my pillow, as if it were attached. Not exactly terror, because I wasn't afraid, but determination, and, maybe, panic washed over me, almost instantaneously. Then, I chose. I wasn't ready. But, I wasn't sure how to get back inside myself. I didn't know what to do. I wasn't sure I had the strength to do anything.

With everything and anything I had left inside of myself to give, I screamed for my mother. It came out as a barely audible, raspy plea. I tried again. Louder. Again. Then, she was beside me, looking down at me.

"What is it?" she asked, seemingly unable to see that which I could see.

"Mommy, why are my feet up there?" I asked.

"What are you talking about?"

"My feet are up there, in the sky."

"No they aren't. They're right here." My mother sat on the bed, placing her hands on my lifeless limbs under the bed covers. It was the strangest sensation. It was like I fell back into myself. My mother looked terrified. She called the doctor.

I guess it would be pretty easy to chalk up the entire experience to an illness induced hallucination, but I've never forgotten it, and I've never stopped feeling as if there was something more to it than just dehydration or religious fervor induced psychosis. It was hardly my only mystical experience as a child, or even as an adult.

I've had tons of mystical and spiritual (i.e. allegedly nonmaterial, supernatural) experiences. I was able to conjure up transcendental experiences at will as a child, which could probably best be described as astral projection, although I wouldn't have understood that term at the time, of course. But, somehow, I knew that I had separated from my ostensible physical self. All I had to do was contemplate the unfathomable idea that nothing would have ever existed if Jehovah God hadn't chosen to create everything, including existence itself. I would float around in outer space, amongst the planets and stars. It was the strangest feeling. It made me feel high, even after I'd returned to my body. I became addicted to it, and it became more and more difficult for me as I got older. I would spend hours alone in my room trying to recreate the sensation. As I grew older, it also got scarier. I had been raised to believe that anything even remotely attributable to spiritism and the occult was the product of demonic influence. I became obsessed with the notion that I was inviting demons into my life.

I've seen what would commonly be referred to as ghosts, demons, and angels, not to mention the future. I practically have a mystical experience once a day. None of these experiences, past or present, compel me to believe in God, certainly not the God as typically conceived by any of the major mainstream religions. There are lots of things in the world, which I neither understand nor can explain, starting with my personal existence. This doesn't presume a divine source. This doesn't even presume a supernatural or metaphysical cause.

The very act of employing the term supernatural is rather arrogant when we understand so little of our natural world. How do we know that these mystical experiences aren't the result of interacting with alternate dimensions or alternate universes or alternate versions of ourselves? As our perception of reality approaches our wildest science fiction fantasies, we realize just how disappointing, prosaic, and mundane the world's religions' gods are, seemingly endlessly fascinated and preoccupied by the quotidian sexual exploits of my next door neighbor.

With the ever exponentially telescoping expansion of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, I believe that we are moving closer and closer to answering those most difficult ontological and teleological existential questions. We will know the nature of God, and we will discover that God is nature. General relativity, special relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, M theory, supersymmetry, the multiverse. We just keep getting closer and closer.

I am not troubled at the thought of losing life's zest and purpose once the mystery is gone. First of all, that point is far, far away, still, despite our amazing progress. Second, just imagine the possibilities. The infinite universes to explore, the infinite selves with whom to acquaint oneself. Ultimately, we will harness our ability to shape our myriad existences and universes. Time and materiality will be of little consequence. We will become gods with the ability to determine our own destinies, our own realities. And I, for one, unlike Jehovah, Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah, will not be much bothered with the sexual goings-on of my neighbors.

June 4, 2009, 6:47 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink64 comments

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