By Gayle Jordan, Executive Director of Recovering from Religion
I was born a Southern Baptist. That’s a bit of a play on words—Baptists do not believe you are born into the faith. That is an event of your own choosing, and in this case, I use the phrase to mean I was born into a family of Southern Baptists by several generations.
I was fully integrated into the faith from birth, experienced personal salvation at age six, and participated in every aspect of Baptist education: Sunday School (now Bible Study Fellowship) on Sunday mornings; Training Union (now Discipleship Training) on Sunday nights; first Sunbeams (now Mission Friends), then GA’s, then Acteens on Wednesdays; and Worship every Sunday morning and Sunday evening. Then came the Baptist Student Union (now Baptist Campus Ministries) in college, then on to teaching all of the above on my own as a young adult, wife, and mother. I served on every committee my churches have had, even the Committee on Committees, a concept that still makes me chuckle. I have served as Sunday School Director, Mission Education Director, Youth Leader, Vacation Bible School Director, and Sunday School Teacher.
Lest you think my church experience was all busywork and no personal calling, allow me now 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.
When those same precious children entered their teenage years, they began asking me the questions that relentlessly smart, thinking, driven children ask when they are asserting their independence.
There were questions about the contradiction of the faith with science:
“Six million species, Mom? On one boat?”
There were also the questions of the scholarship:
“Where are the original manuscripts?”
“Three sets of Ten Commandments? And they’re not the same?”
“Divinely inspired writers didn’t know the earth moved around the sun?”
Then the questions of morality:
“God did THAT to children who teased Elisha?”
“Lot gave his daughters up for rape?”
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, a radical, because I was reluctant to accept the Baptist party line for all the above questions. I had 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 information they asked me for.
I sought information from every avenue. This was the early era of the internet, and I capitalized on the new gift of the information age with vigor. I sought answers from old reliable sources—the institution of religion in general, and my church and its convention in particular. My prayers to my god were fervent, focused, and constant, and were breathed with confidence and patience. I also looked outside the faith, to be absolutely certain I had covered every possible angle, and to strengthen what I already knew with conviction: that despite those difficult questions, my faith would emerge right, and victorious, and applicable.
I found my quest took me in a direction heavily weighted toward science. I became a critic, employing experiment and application and hypothesis, and refused to accept dogma, conventional wisdom, and common practice without evidence. I was comfortable in this territory—I had trod a similar road in the 1980s when I explored conventionally accepted practices of living a credit lifestyle and refused to go along with that too, to my family’s better financial health. I refined my ability to spot an untested theory or unquestioned principle or faulty premise.
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.
My children, whose stories are their own, served as both pupils and teachers in my own process. Even now they leave me speechless with their courage and conviction, they challenge me with their intellect, and they amaze me with their insight and generosity. They are bright and driven and happy and kind and compassionate and moral, and I learn from them almost daily, now, in their young adulthood.
I am as happy a person as I have ever been. I am comfortable in my skin, I take great pride in my belief system, and I look forward to every moment of every day. I love moments with my family and friends and I am exceedingly grateful for the life I have had. I have faults and failings and frailties, and I make mistakes and act rashly. I forgive and am forgiven, I give and I receive, I learn and I grow. I am imperfect, but I am not evil or sinful. I embrace the journey that this life is, I seek adventure and new experiences with robust passion, and I am endlessly delighted at discovering science’s secrets.
Photo by Susan Steen, Amazing Grace Designs