Americans are leaving their religions at a faster rate than ever before, and that means more are looking for help with the transition. People who are casually religious may walk away and not look back. But for others religion is at the very heart of their identity, worldview and community, and having a safe place to process doubts can be a metaphorical godsend.
“Reclaimers,” people who are actively working to rebuild their lives after a period of religious immersion, may struggle with harmful ideas and emotions from the beliefs they once held or the behavior of fellow believers. Alternately, they may find that leaving is lonely and disorienting. Marlene Winell, a human development consultant who assists people leaving their religion, coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome to describe a pattern she saw in some clients, in particular those leaving closed, authoritarian, fear-based communities. But even doubters who don’t experience this level of distress may find themselves feeling confused, afraid, self-doubting or overwhelmed.
Since 2009, a small nonprofit called Recovering From Religion, has worked to serve this population by establishing peer support groups, organizing “Recovering Your Sexuality” classes, and providing a matchmaking service for clients seeking therapists who are committed to a secular approach. In March, Recovering From Religion launched a hotline, 1-84-I-DoubtIt, staffed by a cadre of volunteers trained in listening and crisis triage techniques. From years of daily emails and calls to their office, the staff knew there was an unmet need. Even so, they were caught off guard by the response—over 1,000 calls in the first six weeks.
In this interview, Sarah Morehead, executive director of Recovering From Religion, talks about why her work is a personal passion and about the recovery hotline itself.
Valerie Tarico: Your commitment to supporting people in religious transitions comes from your own transition, which started with you as a life-long member of the Southern Baptist Convention and ended with you as an atheist.
Sarah Morehead: Yes. It was a long journey. Twelve years ago, I separated from my Promise Keeper husband. He had been violent toward me, but when he turned that on our kids, it was over for me. I found myself strapped financially, and in desperation I went to the benevolence committee at my church and asked for $600 to help pay the bills. This was a huge, successful mega-church, and the benevolence committee was their mechanism for helping members in need. The committee—all men—said they needed to pray about my request, and that regardless I needed to go to counseling about how to be a more godly wife so that I could lead my husband back to Christ through my submissiveness. They said this even though they knew he was physically abusive. Then, after praying, they let me know that Jesus wasn’t keen on them giving me the money.
As I was leaving I pushed open the church door and bumped into someone etching decorations on the outside, and I had an odd thought. I had just heard that God didn’t want me to have the $600 but this etching on the doors was totally cool with him. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but that was the point that it stopped adding up. You question one piece and then another and then another. Eventually my conscience outweighed my creedal viewpoint.
VT: The heart of your Christianity was belief in God and his word and your relationship to Jesus. But this question of compassion and support is what rattled you and created that first crack.
SM: It was a combination—the disorienting lack of support on the inside and then equally disorienting support from an outsider. We had neighbors, two men who lived caddy-corner across the alley. We kept our children away from their children because they had a flag that I thought was satanic. Now I know it was just pagan. They would have bonfires in their back yard, and it was terrifying to me.
After I got home from the church, there was a knock at the door and it was one of the guys from across the alley way. He said, “We don’t talk much but I know there’s a lot going on for you guys and here is a casserole.” It was one of the more surreal moments in my life. I remember standing there and in my mind asking God what he was trying to tell me. Would Satan tempt me through the kindness of macaroni and cheese?
Our homeschool support groups pulled away when they heard of the divorce, and then when they learned I wasn’t going to that church anymore they stopped letting their kids hang out with my kids. It was very isolating and scary because I didn’t know anyone, other than the neighbor I had met, who had really survived this idea of reconsidering religion.
VT: You were really on your own.
SM: The only people who had the courage to say that they didn’t have all of the answers were this couple, who as it turned out were gay—of course they were, but it took me a while to figure that out because they couldn’t be gay because they were nice and gay people were pedophiles.
VT: So there you were, trying to juggle the loss of your faith and your entire community, while taking care of your children, who were also dealing with abandonment.
SM: The loss of my faith wasn’t all at once, as it isn’t for many people. At first the changes were tiny. I remember the moment when I had the epiphany that American Baptists might not burn in hell. Later, Bible-believing Christianity stopped working for me, but for a long time I thought that was a problem with me, not with the religion. I was probably destined for hell, but I just couldn’t figure it out. Eventually I tried out more liberal religious viewpoints, like the Unitarian Church. When I finally realized I don’t believe this anymore, I didn’t know where I fit.
I had come on this huge, huge journey with no map, and I didn’t know where I was. But you go on the internet and connect with people who are struggling, people who are going through the same things. So, that’s my motivation. There are people who are scared and lonely and afraid and who think they are the only person on the planet who can’t figure it out. The relief some of these people experience when I talk to them—being able to offer them that bridge when there’s nowhere else to go—that is one of the most rewarding things imaginable.
VT: So tell me about Recovering From Religion—the organization.
SM: It was founded by Psychologist Darrel Ray in 2009, after he wrote The God Virus. The book kicked off conversations that made the need apparent, so he started the network of peer support groups. But his time was limited. I came on board in 2011 and started developing it into a cohesive program.
The hotline project came about because of the emails that we get daily. People need someone to talk to, and the groups themselves—we will never have enough locations that everyone has somewhere to go. So we thought, what if everyone could call and talk with one person, just someone respectful? There’s a lot out there that mocks religion and hates on religion. There’s a place for that, but for people who are gently feeling out where they are, they need a place that lets them have one foot in and out.
VT: You feel strongly about giving people space to be where they are at.
SM: We created a tool called the spectrum of belief and disbelief. It ranges from polytheism to atheism, so that people can consider where they want to be. Maybe a caller thinks, there’s something out there but it doesn’t tell me how to have sex and I don’t have to tithe. If that’s where people are at we respect that. The relationship and the person matter more than the religion.
I’m huge on boundaries. Religion takes away boundaries—you tell children from day one that there’s something out there that can see their thoughts—so people in recovery are just learning that they can have boundaries and ideas and limits and can say, no you don’t have access to that part of me. We want to give that back.
VT: So how do you train volunteers for the hotline?
SM: We have a training program vetted by two psychologists to make sure we stay within the bounds of peer support. It’s about 10 hours of training—software and process and simulated calls. Our volunteers don’t provide counseling; it’s really active listening. If the person has a belief in God we don’t question or challenge that. If they say they don’t believe but want somewhere to go, then we might help them create an action plan. When people have safe way to explore their doubts they often do start letting go and they feel good and empowered and that’s a really cool thing to have happen, but we are serious about simply providing respectful support, so we provide careful training and oversight.
We have sophisticated (and I might add, expensive!) call management technology. It’s the same system used by the Trevor Project which works to prevent suicide for gay youth. The system lets both callers and volunteers remain anonymous, and a supervisor can move between calls without being intrusive. All calls are monitored to some extent. We can flag calls if there are any concerns and review them and then provide feedback. There are a lot of pieces to this, which is why it took us two years to get this up and running.
VT: So tell me about that unexpected grand slam opening.
SM: We opened March 1 from 6pm-midnight during the week and 24 hours on the weekend. Within six weeks we had 1,000 calls come in! A thousand calls was a big surprise. Imagine trying to figure out how to staff for call volume when you have no idea what to expect. We estimated based on contacts to the office line. But it’s different when people actually see a banner that says 1-84-I-DoubtIt.
We are getting calls from all demographics, all ages. Some of the calls leave you in tears. People feel so isolated and alone because religion has permeated every aspect of their community. We get calls from people who are being threatened that their kids will be taken away because of their nonbelief. We get calls from teens who are being kicked out because they’ve decided they’re not the same religion as their parents.
We had one lady who called and said that she saw the hotline article on CNN, and she held onto the number for three weeks. She said that it was the first time in her life that she said the word atheist even though she had been for years. Isolation, desperation—people get trapped in their circumstances and for a whole lot of reasons many can’t just pick up and move. Most people don’t want to be famous or activists. They just want to be able to not go to church and have it be ok.
VT: Sometimes you try to hook callers up with other resources, especially resources in their own communities. What are the biggest service gaps? What do you wish existed?
SM: We’ve been out for two months, and we’ll have a better assessment after a year. Right now we’re still in the discovery process. For example, we just got introduced to Footsteps, which supports people leaving Orthodox Judaism. So, we’re not at the point of saying this doesn’t exist, we need it; we’re saying this is probably out there, let’s find it.
When people call in crisis or with urgent needs that are beyond our scope, then processing questions about religion takes back burner to managing that need. If they are in active crisis when they call, like active domestic violence, or suicidal, there are fantastic crisis-trained hotlines out there. We try to keep them on the line and give them the number and make sure they are connected.
Alternately, they may be in urgent need of a place to stay. We refer to social service networks in their area if they are comfortable sharing their location or to general crisis services, if they are not.
VT: What’s your next big challenge?
SM: The challenge is maintaining the staff at a rate that can take all the calls. We have about 40 volunteers in training. We will be expanding to 24/7 and then will integrate an online system that lets us take calls from around the world. Right now our volunteers are everywhere, but we only serve Canada and the U.S. We want to be a resource to people who aren’t local to North America.
Funding is also a huge challenge. None of the staffing or supervision is paid, including my position, which isn’t sustainable indefinitely. Here is the really hard part about funding: The people we are helping are unable to fund the service. We can’t ask for money when, for example, a caller is struggling to keep their business and all of their clients are at their church. So we are going to need support from the secular community as a whole and people who see the value in what we do.
Also, donor development is really tough for many former fundies. We’ve been drilled from day one that you don’t ask for money. Yes, there’s the hypocrisy that you give all of your money to the church, but you don’t ask for things for yourself. Former minister Teresa McBain and much loved atheist blogger Neil Carter have joined the team. But we’re very wary of the flashy, believe-in-us mentality, so we’re trying to find the right balance. We’re working with people who have more skill in that regard than we do.
VT: Any final thought that you’d like to leave with readers?
SM: Openly Secular Day was April 23, so it just passed, but I think the idea behind the Openly Secular Campaign is key, and something we can work on all year. The Religious Right works really hard to load language so that people may not even know what a term like atheist means, exactly, but they know it’s bad. Conservative belief creates a bubble, and everything and everyone outside that bubble is scary—whether it's baby killers or literal demons.
Things will really change when people who safely can say I don’t believe in this anymore do so. Those of us who can come out need to be that face—the friend, family member, neighbor—for the religious people in your life and for those who don’t believe but dare not say so and feel alone. Think of how transformative it has been to go from there are gay people to I know gay people, I love gay people. There is similar power in being able to say, I know someone who is nonreligious, I love someone who is an atheist.