Empathy Over Agreement: Ruth Nasrullah Shows Us How to “Get It Right” When Writing About Religion

by Jennifer Furner, guest blogger

This post is part of a HippoCamp 2022 recap series, with guest blog posts written by HippoCamp attendees. Learn more about our conference for creative nonfiction writers.

Even though I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for a long time, I’ve only recently started writing about my Catholic upbringing. But writing about religion can be tricky, especially when you don’t have particularly nice things to say. In addition to the fact that many of my loved ones, people I respect and care about, are still members of the church, there are also millions of Catholics around the globe, and that is a lot of people I could potentially piss off.

The previous night, at the HippoCamp 2022 Night of Nonfiction Debut Author Showcase, Sarah M. Wells, before reading a selection from her memoir American Honey, mentioned how the Bible verse about wives submitting to their husbands, which had inspired the excerpt she was about to read, was a particular passage she struggled with in her marriage (I wasn’t surprised to see her at this session). And even though I have issues with the religion I was brought up with, and even though I resent that religion for several reasons, there is still a covenant that must be followed when writing about religion, which I now realize, thanks to Ruth Nasrullah’s presentation. And that covenant is that writers must value empathy over agreement.


“…writers must value empathy over agreement.”


Ruth spoke from a journalist background. She is used to researching and talking with people of religions with which she is unfamiliar, and what she encourages every writer to do is approach religion without one’s own biases. Some religions get bad raps in the media; Ruth has dealt with that firsthand. As a Muslim woman in America when 9/11 happened, she faced much prejudice simply because of how she dressed. Ruth reminds us that, while religious beliefs are an important part of our identities, what writers need to remember is that every religious follower is first and foremost a unique person. For example, my mother is a devout (what I would call obsessive) Catholic. And even though I don’t agree with her often, I recognize that she is still a person who has plenty of wonderful qualities, a person who loves her family fiercely, a person who is always polite to strangers.

I think, by prioritizing that kind of empathy, seeing a person for more than their religion, will help me craft a narrative about my childhood that is much more balanced that it would have been had I not attended Ruth’s session that day.

>>See more HippoCamp 22 recap posts, content, and more here.

Meet the Contributor

Jennifer Furner’s writing has been featured in numerous anthologies. Essays of hers have been published in Huffington Post, Belmont Story Review, Santa Fe Lit Review, among others. She is the Associate Nonfiction Editor at The Dodge. She lives in Grand Rapids, MI, with her husband and daughter. For more of her writing, visit jenniferfurner.com.

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