Gayle Jordan is the executive director of Recovering from Religion. She is a former Southern Baptist who left the faith ten years ago when her then-teenagers began asking questions she could not answer. Her research led her (and her children) into the light of reason and rationality. Years later, she still feels the effects, both positive and negative, of that dramatic shift in perspective and attitude. It is this sympathy and compassion that drives her to reach out to help others navigate the emotional and physical process involved in leaving one’s faith.
Jordan is an attorney and former personal trainer. She lives on Freethought Farm in Tennessee, where she spends her days amongst her longhorns, goats, donkeys, chickens, and dogs. She blogs about life on the farm, endurance event training, and secularism at “Happy. Healthy. Heathen.”
Amy Couch: Tell us about Recovering from Religion and how you became the executive director.
Gayle Jordan: Leaving an authoritative religion is an intense process that can involve longstanding social and emotional challenges for the apostate. Learning how to live after questions, doubts, and changing a belief system is a different journey for each of us. At Recovering from Religion (RfR), we are intimately familiar with this undertaking, and we support each person on his or her individual path. We provide transitional emotional support and tangible resources to people facing the myriad of issues that arise by disengaging from doctrinal belief. We create positive and encouraging networking opportunities for individuals seeking support within the secular and non-theistic community. We also educate religious and secular communities on both the process and negative impact of indoctrination in the lives of our target client base. We have two forms of support available: peer support and professional support, which include a hotline with trained agents; a secular therapist project, connecting clients with registered and vetted secular therapists; and support groups in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and South Africa.
Darrel Ray, one of the founders of RfR and author of The God Virus: How Religion Affects Our Lives and Cultures, was one of the first people I met when I attended my first secular conference in 2011. I was so impressed with his vision and drive, and his body of work was remarkable. He reached out to me in the fall of 2015 to see if I might be interested in the position of executive director. I jumped at the chance to not only work with Darrel, but for this incredibly vital and important organization.
Couch: Do you have a personal recovery story? How does that help you in your work with RfR?
Jordan: I do. I was raised Southern Baptist. I was fully integrated into the faith from birth, experienced personal salvation at age six, and participated in every aspect of Baptist education, from Sunday school on Sunday mornings, Training Union on Sunday nights, Acteens on Wednesdays, and worship every Sunday morning and Sunday evening. Lest you think my church experience was all busywork and no personal calling, allow me to assure you that I took every one of those responsibilities very seriously. I do not believe anyone with whom I served, or anyone I taught would dispute that. My faith was the driving force behind my work at church; my highest street cred of a genuine faith was that I committed to rearing my beloved children in that same faith. That is my Baptist pedigree.
After having raised my children in the church, when they became teenagers they began asking me questions I couldn’t answer. “Six million species, mom? On one boat?” and “6000-year-old Earth?” There were also the questions of scholarship: “Where are the original manuscripts?” “Three sets of Ten Commandments? And they’re not the same?” and “Divinely inspired writers didn’t know the earth moved around the sun?” And then came the questions of morality: “God did THAT with children who teased Elijah?” and “Lot gave his daughters up for rape?”
So, I set about finding answers for my children, and for myself. A point of irony here is that even as a believer I was considered a liberal and a radical because I was reluctant to accept the Baptist party line for all the above questions. I had to repress my own critical thinking skills to accept those party-line answers my whole life, and I was not about to allow my children to go without the information they asked me for.
This quest took me in a direction heavily weighted toward science. I found my church and its larger organization to be of little help in theory or application. I found earnestness and routine explanations, but no answers. I did, however, find tremendous amounts of information outside the walls of the church and greater institution. I found sound science. I found rationality and reason. I had moments of utter astonishment, seething anger, and sublime joy. I have this passage written by Robert G. Ingersoll committed to memory:
When I became convinced that the universe is natural, that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell. The dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world, not even in infinite space. I was free—free to think, to express my thoughts—free to live my own ideal, free to live for myself and those I loved, free to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread imagination’s wings, free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope, free to judge and determine for myself . . . I was free! I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously faced all worlds.
Couch: In your experience, what are the biggest challenges people leaving authoritative religions in the US face?
Jordan: In the calls and chats we receive on the helpline, often our clients report a range of lingering symptoms: lack of community, a feeling of inadequate understanding of science, sexual frustrations, but by far the most common struggle is fractured relationships. Many authoritative religions embrace “disfellowship,” which means extremely limited communication with an individual who leaves the faith. Additionally, clients often report family members who will no longer accept and love them. It is not uncommon for a client to lose their entire family and social support. Some clients also experience what Marlene Winell, director of Journey Free coined, “religious trauma syndrome” (RTS). RTS symptoms include cognitive, emotional, social, and physical components and are often intense and intrusive. Dr. Winell partners with us here at RfR to help clients get the therapy and treatment they need.
Couch: If you could offer one statement of encouragement/comfort to someone beginning their journey of doubt, what would it be?
Jordan: You are not alone! As the world grows more secular each year, more and more of us are questioning, doubting, and leaving authoritative religions. RfR can connect you with support groups, counselors, podcasts, and many other resources to help you find your own community.
There is so much more light, air, and space on this side of the decision to leave religion. Rational thinking and the discarding of dogma and superstition gives one the opportunity to live a life full of wonder, and compassion, and maximized potential.