Seeking Freedom from Religion

Three women who left restrictive communities share insights and warnings about life outside the mainstream

22 Oct 2019 | 11:42

In the years since Malkie Schwartz, Sarah Haider and Torah Bontrager left the insular religious communities in which they were raised, the women founded organizations that support others who wish to leave or have left such communities. Through that work, the three became connected and were propelled into conversations about the tension between personal freedom and restrictive religious traditions.

From those conversations came “When Rights and Religion Collide,” a conference that took place last Saturday at Westside Loft in Chelsea. The women brought together researchers, advocates and other people raised inside these communities to speak on issues such as religious liberty vs. secular rights, the psychological impact of joining and leaving religious groups, as well as personal stories from people who left their faith tradition behind.

Three Women, Three Escapes

Early on in the day, Schwartz, Haider and Bontrager joined together for a panel discussion to talk about their backgrounds and what inspired them to organize the conference.

Bontrager, who escaped her Amish community in the middle of the night when she was 15 years old, founded the Amish Heritage Foundation in 2018 to advocate for Amish people and assist those who want to leave the community. Haider, who left Islam in her late teens, founded Ex-Muslims of North America in 2013 to promote secular values, the acceptance of religious dissent and to help those leaving the religion. Schwartz, who grew up in the ultra Orthodox Hasidic community, founded her organization, Footsteps, in 2000 to give people still inside the community a link to “mainstream society.”

Bontrager said that when they found each other, they no longer felt “siloed” off. “We realized, especially as activists, that the three of us, as people who are organizing within these communities, that we faced a lot of the same social issues and restrictions and difficulties,” said Bontrager.

There are some misconceptions about insular religious communities that make it more difficult for those who leave to feel welcomed in the outside world, the three said during the discussion. One is how these communities are fetishized. “We’re viewed in this strange way as pure and exotic, as living an enchanting way of life,” said Haider. “There’s a sense in which we are not viewed as individuals who may have the same kinds of specific struggles as anyone else, but that we belong to this culture or faith tradition.”

"Dark Energies"

This fetishizing of the Amish serves those in power in the community, allowing them to oppress others, Bontrager said. “There’s an image of the Amish, that we’re this peaceable, gentle group. People think we commit no crimes, and it's perpetuated by reality television. And it really serves them to maintain this peaceful, gentle image.”

Haider said these fetishizations lead people to think of these communities as more “authentic.” She said people are thought to be authentic when they’re “true to their roots.” Growing up as Muslim, that meant she adopted a modesty-oriented dress code, abstained from certain foods and stayed away from the opposite sex. But she said this idea of authenticity can become dangerous when taken to the extreme.

“History, I think, shows us that this romanticism with an authentic life, whatever it is, can be exploited for a lot of dark energies, and I think that this is something to pay attention to,” Haider said. “Nationalists and ethnocentric groups all across time have frequently centered authenticity in their picture of this ideal, this purified society. In my work, I've seen many people fall into truly deep religious traditionalism, even fanaticism, in search for the simpler and pure way of life that is free from the taint of the secular world.”

The Obligations of "Outsiders"

Schwartz noted that while society fetishizes these groups, they also take an approach of “live and let live” that can be dangerous. “The one thing that we talked so much about is this idea of living insularly, and how for all of our communities, the insularity of it leads to the rest of the world saying, ‘You know what, as long as they're not bothering us, we're not going to bother them and we're not going to intrude on their lifestyle.’”

But when a community impacts the outside world, Schwartz said, the feeling toward these groups changes. “When there was a measles outbreak in Brooklyn, and there was a crisis around that, I was so enraged by the conversation that was going on,” said Schwartz. “What was upsetting was that the only reason attention was being paid to those kids who were not vaccinated was because the rest of the world was all of a sudden being threatened.”

It’s not enough for outsiders to act on problems inside the communities only when it benefits them, Schwartz said. More aggressive steps, she said, should be taken to ensure that the children inside are just as safe as those who don’t live in such communities. “There's a convenience here, as to when we're willing to call out religious practices. And it actually jeopardizes the lives and the liberty and the pursuit of happiness of the young people who grow up in these situations.”