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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

1st place — Grad student essay contest: Emily Carsten

Emily Carsten

FFRF awarded Emily $3,500.

By Emily Carsten

When thinking about problems caused or worsened by religious beliefs, the list of possible contenders is extensive. However, for me, one stands out above the rest. 

My mind goes back to my therapist’s office six years ago when I, at age 19, learned for the first time what consent was. I had just finished explaining a situation I had been in and my therapist suggested that I may have been sexually assaulted. “No,” I said, “I know what that is. It involves a stranger and a weapon, and if that happened, I would have tried to fight. That’s not what happened to me.” 

In my mind, my verbal dissent being ignored seemed very benign in comparison to the violent scene I had imagined. I learned that day that my “no” had power and that it should have been enough. How did I get to the age of adulthood without knowing this? The answer: Religious fundamentalism.

My family’s religious values did not align with teaching children about bodily autonomy. I had never been taught how to set boundaries or what to do if my boundaries were not respected. I also had no sex education whatsoever. My family’s intention was that keeping me naive would keep me “pure.” In reality, it only made me easy to take advantage of. Unfortunately, my story is neither unique nor uncommon. 

Religious fundamentalism is the belief that one’s religious texts should be interpreted literally, can only be interpreted one way, are the source of ultimate truth, and should be applied to all contexts. Religious fundamentalism is not limited to one particular religion, and it often involves upholding inherently sexist views that are derived through the literal interpretation of sacred texts. 

For example, there is a passage in the fourth chapter and 34th verse of the Quran that advises husbands to strike their wives if they are not obedient. There is also a passage in the bible (Deut. 22:22-25) in which it is stated that if a man has sex with a married or engaged woman, both the man and the woman are to be put to death. The passage also states that the reason the woman is to be punished is because she did not scream for help, specifying that this was indeed a case of rape. 

These views often lend themselves well to rape culture, or a culture in which sexual violence is normalized and victims are blamed. Seeing as how one in six women in the United States is a victim of sexual assault, rape culture is definitely a problem. 

Society’s adherence to “rape myths,” or false and prejudiced beliefs about sexual assault that create hostility toward victims, is a large contributor to the problem of rape culture. It is important to note that rape myths can also be held by victims. For instance, my previously held belief that sexual assault had to be committed by a stranger was a rape myth. 

A study of college students found that those with fundamentalist religious beliefs were more likely to accept rape myths and have a negative view of victims. Belief in traditional gender roles, which is often upheld by fundamentalists, was also correlated with supporting violence against women. Another study found that people who hold fundamentalist views were more likely to hold sexist views, and the correlation was stronger for men than for women.

As shown, adhering to fundamentalist beliefs that include sexist ideals can be harmful and dangerous for everyone involved. However, what can be done about it? I propose that comprehensive sex education, including information on consent, should be included in all middle school and high school curricula. 

Studies on the relationship between fundamentalism and rape culture should be brought to fundamentalists’ attention on a large scale in hopes that they can see that their views are getting in the way of their children’s safety. A community cannot teach its girls to be quiet and submissive and then be surprised when its women do not speak up; it is a natural progression. The system did exactly what it was intended to do. The only solution is to change the system in order to stop perpetuating sexism and promote safety for all. 

Emily, 25, attends St. Catherine University and is working on her master’s degree in library and information services. 

“I am an educator, currently working at a public elementary school in Minneapolis, and pursuing my master’s degree to become a school librarian,” Emily writes. “My passion is educating children, particularly through literacy, as well as empowering them with the tools they need to educate themselves.”