Interview with Gayle Jordan – Executive Director, Recovering from Religion

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Gayle Jordan is the Executive Director of Recovering from Religion, Founder of Murfreesboro Freethinkers, Co-Founder of NaNoCon, and Assistant State Director of American Atheists Tennessee. She ran as an openly secular Democratic candidate in 2014 in Tennessee.

In the light of the massive work for secular progress and, more importantly and interrelated with it, women’s equality or gender equality, the ideological fundamentalist religious and ultra-patriarchal male okie-doke holds lesser evidence-lacking and reason-less sway in more sectors of the public sphere.

Jordan’s run and other women’s victories in latter-2018 in the United States reflect this. Here we talk her life, views, and work.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did religion and secular thinking come into early life for you? How did this continue throughout development, in brief?

Gayle Jordan: I was a religious person until I was 40 years old. I raised my 4 children in the Southern Baptist church. When those children became teenagers, and began asking questions about the faith, I entered into a journey of discovery and knowledge with them. Ultimately, one by one, we lost confidence in our beliefs, and left religion. This opened my eyes to the impact religion has on individual, communities, and politics, and I launched into secular activism with vigor.

Jacobsen: You ran unopposed in the Democratic primary. Why – the run and the lack of opposition?

Jordan:  Like many small southern communities, ours experienced the wave of religious Republicanism in the 1990s. When I decided to run for state senate in 2016, Tennessee had a Republican supermajority in both legislative houses. There were many seats that had not see a Democrat candidate for years. Our bench had deteriorated, with many rural counties not even having a county party in existence. I could see the effect of this lack of progressive voice and felt a moral calling to run as an advocate for healthcare (Tennessee has not expanded Medicaid), workers’ rights, education, and infrastructure. 

Jacobsen: How does running as an openly secular person change the tenor of the conversation around secular citizens, and secular women, in politics?

Jordan: My atheism became a major topic in the 2018 race. I had not intended to run on my secularism, but neither would I hide it. I received messages of support from a surprising number of non-believers throughout the campaign, that continues even now. Just as important, many believers thanked me for voicing my support of the separation of church and state. This is a Democratic principle that progressive religious people recognize is at tremendous risk, and that will require fighting to uphold. Conversely, it’s my opinion that my willingness to be open about my lack of belief fed directly into the fear many conservative religious people feel about religion losing its influence and position of privilege, so unfortunately, it likely has only widened that gap.

Jacobsen: As the Executive Director of Recovering from Religion, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position? What are some of the more heartwarming stories of recovery of which you know about or have been a witness?

Jordan:  It has been one of the great joys of my life to serve as the ED of RfR. Our simple mission is to provide hope, healing, and support to those folks struggling with issues of doubt and non-belief. Now in our 10th year of existence, we staff a 24-hour telephone and internet chat Helpline, host an online Community and local support groups, and maintain a database of secular therapists. We are an entirely volunteer non-profit organization, which means every donor dollar goes directly into growing our programs and reaching those folks who desperately need the offerings we provide.

Because we have clients from the entire spectrum of religion and belief, the stories shared with us on the Helpline and in the Community reveal the deepest of emotions. Indoctrination, doubt, and recovery are all topics of conversation, but chief among the reasons a client reaches out to us is fractured relationships. Leaving religion is often a protracted and arduous process, and to have it compounded by the loss and/or hostility of one’s loved ones, friends, and support network can be devastating, particularly in isolated, highly religious areas. 

To be able to help someone who is in possibly the lowest point in their lives, and to accompany, support, and encourage them as they discard dogmatic beliefs and seek reason and rationality is a privilege I can’t begin to describe. Many of our trained volunteer agents, many of whom have personally made this journey, cite this as the motivating reason they have partnered with us for years.

Jacobsen: How is religion a positive? How is religion a negative?

Jordan:  There is no doubt that there is appeal to a life philosophy that offers immortality. So appealing, in fact, that folks discard their logic and skepticism in hope of never having to suffer the very natural human emotion of grief. I understand that even though I don’t embrace it. There is also appeal in being instructed how to deal with very challenging concepts of sexuality, racism, inequality, human relationships, and human suffering, among others. In our fast-paced society, it is much easier to lean into dogma about some of these issues rather than wrestle with understanding and educating oneself. I think that religious people identify these perceptions as a positive. 

However, these are the exact reasons why I see religion as a net negative. Progress requires engaging in our social problems, working toward resolutions, and implementing the solutions. The human condition, in my opinion, in enhanced precisely because of its impermanence, and allows us to more fully appreciate this fleeting opportunity we each have. I believe we as a society can only thrive when we accept the truth of reality, and the supernatural beliefs found in every religion by definition impedes that ability.  

Jacobsen: You founded Murfreesboro Freethinkers. Why? What are its ongoing activities and objectives?

Jordan:  I founded this local group purely because I wanted to socialize with other non-believers. When my children and I left religion, I lost my entire social network. As they began to leave for college, I felt certain there were other folks who were experiencing something similar, and I began a simple Meetup group for Freethinkers in 2012. It has now grown to a group of 1500 members who gather for socializing, civic engagement, rousing conversation, and community. The group attends lectures and shows, hosts speakers, offers welcome coffees for new members, presents topical debates, and enjoys pub nights and trivia contests.  

Jacobsen: You co-founded NaNoCon. Why? What is it?

Jordan:  NaNoCon is the Nashville Nones Convention (Nones being those folks with no religious affiliation). It began in 2016 as a one-day, affordable conference offering speakers, panels, workshops, and fellowship. Nonbelievers in the southeast are overwhelmed by religious culture, and this conference has exceeded its attendance goals each year it has been presented. Speakers include Matt Dillahunty, Anthony Magnabosco, Mandisa Thomas, Darrel Ray, David Silverman, and many other leading voices from the secular community. As it launches into its 4th year, March 23, 2019, we again hope to draw attendees from the entire southeastern United States for this dynamic and timely gathering.

Jacobsen: Side question before politics, how did you get involved in Ironman athletics and triathletics? What are the benefits of it? How can others become involved in it, potentially benefit from the health positives of intensive exercise?

Jordan:  I love this topic, and there’s actually a connection between my triathlon experience and my atheism. In my questioning religion, I began to seriously research science, including evolution and human anatomy/physiology. As I began to learn that humans were not designed, but rather evolved, I became curious about how nutrition and movement factored into that process. This led to a new interest in fitness, and sparked a drive to compete and test my physical limits. I started with 5ks and short races, incorporated bicycling and swimming into my routine, and they rest is, as is said, history. 

I am stimulated by the training, the camaraderie among competitors, the results I experience when experimenting with nutrition and exercise, and here recently the effect of fitness on aging and its symptoms. I’m also a proponent of fat-fueling as opposed to sugar-fueling, which is comfortably controversial and drives me to read, understand and self-experiment more.

I encourage others to eat well and move, but it’s not necessary to participate in extreme sports to receive the benefit of fitness. I support everyone finding their own joy and groove by trying, failing, experimenting, and trying again.

Jacobsen: You are the Assistant State Director of American Atheists Tennessee. What tasks and responsibilities come along with us? Also, this may be changing too, with a move to another state.

Jordan:  American Atheists is one of the leading secular organizations in the US, which fights for greater acceptance and understanding for atheists, and also fights to maintain church/state separation. Those objectives align with my personal convictions, and I have partnered with them to organize and coalesce nonbelievers in Tennessee. They have a clearly-communicated and finely-develop protocol for organizing groups at the state level, and it’s so beneficial in highly-religious areas like Tennessee for secular people to have a means of support and direction. 

As I contemplate a permanent move to Oregon, to be nearer my children, it’s my intention to continue to partner with AA as state or assistant state director.

Jacobsen: In terms of the political activity, what were the big lessons for you?

Jordan:  In all of the blue wave that the US experienced in November, TN Dems made no gains. I’m not entirely sure of what’s uniquely wrong in Tennessee, besides the grip religion has on its citizens. I do, however, have an opinion of how to fix it, based on my experience. There is a lot of conversation about how to craft our message, how can Democrats make more appealing our points about healthcare/unions/education/etc. I think it’s less about how to pretty up the message, and a whole lot more about simple organizing. 

The older, white, religious, rural folk should not be our target. Tennessee has enough non-voters and new voters to make up the difference, and our time and effort should be spent on the old-school precinct-captain model, neighborhood by neighborhood, house by house. And I see 2 things that are going to make this method of organizing even more critical in the days to come: 

1. People are leaving religion in numbers, even in TN, and the party can step up and step in to help create non-church-based communities. That trend will only increase.

2. The current administration has so damaged our national unity, our communities are going to be starved for cohesiveness and harmony once again. The Democratic party can lead the way on this neighborhood rebuilding effort.

Jacobsen: How can other secular political hopefuls bear in mind regarding these lessons?

Jordan:  I wouldn’t presume that this is a lesson that can be replicated in all districts. What I do think is universal, however, is for secular people to run and be visible. Over and over I was able to talk about how both my campaign and my life are based on equal parts compassion and reason, and that I was compelled to run because governmental policies affect how Tennesseans live and die and suffer. It brought attention to what a secular person values, even if they tried to distort my message with their strawman arguments. 

That visibility is everything. Not to be too dramatic, but if someone is questioning whether to run, I would say that we know that we have truth on our side, that many people are listening, that we are speaking for religious freedom for everyone, that we are letting other nonbelievers know we’re here, and that we are not allowing religion to dictate who runs for public office (regardless of the outcome).

Jacobsen: What seems like the negatives and positives of coming out secular as a political person?

Jordan: I suppose the negative in my experience would be that it likely cost the election. But that loss simply revealed what needed to be exposed and fixed, not that I shouldn’t have come out as secular. Living a life guided by reason and truth so far outweighs any elected office it’s not even a fair comparison.

Jacobsen: What states would be the easy wins for secular people in the United States? Should secular political hopefuls look to those states to make a change in the public perception and representative of secular people in general and secular women in particular?

Jordan: Having lived in the deep south, and now living in the Pacific Northwest, I can certainly say that there is a tremendous difference in culture from state to state. And because of the grip religion has on the south, tactics that may be successful elsewhere are not likely to overcome that influence. When people become convinced that their voting instruction comes directly from a deity, that it is sacred, there is no amount of reason and logic that can alter that. 

That is why I so fervently believe we have to support efforts and organizations that work to protect the 1st Amendment, the Johnson Amendment, and other legislation that keeps church and state separate. The Secular Coalition of America is the lobbying entity that works tirelessly to achieve that. American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation constantly file lawsuits and write amicus briefs in the fight for religious freedom.

Jacobsen: With some hindsight, what were some of the more horrifying responses to your political life? What were some of the more amusing? Did most of the negative, or positive for that matter, reactions to your political life reference being a woman politician or a secular politician more?

Jordan: When I am invited to present a talk about my experience running for state office, I share via Power Point images of some of the horrendous flyers the Tennessee Republican party printed and mailed to households. Distorted pictures of my face, language about my “kooky liberal beliefs”, criticism of my support for the LGBTQ+ community, and hateful rhetoric about atheism and atheists are all tactics my opponent used. I have an email that my opponent sent to all area pastors urging them to tell their congregants to “vote against the atheist in this special election”, clearly an unconstitutional violation of religious liberty. The Lt. Governor of Tennessee called me the “Most dangerous woman he’s known in his 40 years in politics”, and the chairman of the TN GOP called for the Democratic candidates for governor and US senate to publicly disclaim my candidacy.

Sadly, those tactics were effective, but it also helped expose the lengths and depths to which the GOP will go in order to gain a seat. Many area Republicans reached out to me to express their vote and support, and the leader of the local Tea Party even publicly announced his support of my campaign due to my opponent’s unethical and unconstitutional behavior. 

In your question you ask whether I got more resistance being a woman or being a secular person. In this case, without a doubt my atheism was much more of an issue than my being a woman. 

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Gayle.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

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