A Non-Believer’s Road Trip Through God's Country
For me, this trip was also a surprise re-encountering of a day when I imbibed an evangelical zeal, a youthful faith that eventually vanished like a phantom.
Approximately, 150 miles South on I-75 from my Ohio home is the former site of what we call “Touchdown Jesus”—a massive 62-foot statue of Jesus from the waist up with his arms outstretched. It often serves as a road-marker for family or friends traveling to Ohio; a text with “at Touchdown” or “at the Jesus statue” means they’re almost here. During a storm a few years ago, Touchdown was destroyed by lightning; ironically, the Hustler store just down the road remained unscathed.
Touchdown Jesus’ demise did not last long. He was eventually replaced with a tall and more huggable lord and savior, this time with a complete body. As a recent road trip across the American Southwest reminded me, monuments to Christian fetishisms (like Touchdown) dot America’s landscape, and reinforced that being a secular humanist—an atheist—in America remains a minority “religious” demographic.
This wasn’t supposed to be the message of our 4,600 mile adventure—a long overdue rush to visit seven national parks and recreation areas within 15 days. This was a chance to return to the road trips I loved in my childhood, to get in some hiking, and briefly forget what’s happening in the world.
Starting from our home—mostly flat and beautiful farmland at 630 feet elevation—we found ourselves at heights above 10,000 feet, awestruck by the staggering scale of the Southwest. The expansive horizon of the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest were overshadowed by the depths of The Grand Canyon. (I hadn’t been there since I was a young, budding creationist and thought it was formed by Noah’s flood.) The terrain of Zion National Park was like landing on an alien planet; the glowing orange hoodoos of Bryce Canyon was akin to stepping into the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula.
At the Arches in Moab, we day-hiked in 102 degrees and admired Ute Indian petroglyphs, bringing back with us the bold red and ocher soil embedded in our boots. We even tried glamping (also known as camping cheating) for the first time at Under Canvas—nothing says roughing it like a king-size bed and shower in a tent in the desert. And in Mesa Verde, we climbed down into the abandoned cliff dwellings of ancient Pueblo people.
It was a trip ripe for Instagramming; it was a refreshing reminder of what is great about America, that we modern humans occupy only a few (dangerous) seconds on this planet’s billions of years of history, and that our national parks still need protecting.
But for me, this trip was also a surprise re-encountering of a day when I imbibed an evangelical zeal, a youthful faith that eventually vanished like a phantom. As I drove, religious billboards soared above my head. They shouted the in-your-face Bible passages, reminding me that evolution is a lie, or that Jesus loves me, but it’s a weird love, because (since I’m no longer a Christian) he is also sending me to hell.
When I was younger, I was a soldier in the still ongoing evangelical culture wars. Today, however, I see that conservative Christian enthusiasm in the United States as showing some signs of weakness. As it did once with me, I believe it too will one day lose its grip on the American psyche.
There were many stops along my religious journey before exiting Christianity entirely—Free Methodist, Baptist, Reformed Baptist, 50 shades of Presbyterian (it’s not as sexy as it sounds), and Episcopalian. I’m the son of a Baptist pastor. I started my life as a strong conservative and progressively moved left. I went to evangelical schools, published with evangelical publishers, and taught religious history at an evangelical seminary in the Midwest. I was raised in the world of Bible tracts, the end-times, and creationism.
By the end of my faith, however, even my younger self would have wanted to evangelize me.
As I frequently describe it, the more of an academic historian I became—analyzing my faith like I’d do any other religion—the less of an adherent I stayed. When I finally left Christianity, I realized it was only right to also leave my job at the seminary. Seminaries do require faith, after all, and I had become a secular humanist—a non-believer.
I occasionally taught at a local university and began covering religion as a freelance journalist, with the irony being that leaving religion actually made it more interesting. I was able to step away from it, compartmentalize myself more, and let others speak freely for themselves.
But on a road trip across America—when your mind wanders—you get to discover how many of those memories of an evangelical former life are still living rent-free in your head.
On this trip, for example, sex-shaming messages along the South, warning that “fornicators will not inherit the kingdom of God,” reminded me of a conservative sex-education partially delivered to me by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. (Yes, the same James Dobson that John Oliver excoriated on Last Week Tonight.)
Preachy messages were flashbacks to my early teen days when—with all good intentions—I too said judgmental things to others, or passed out distasteful Bible tracts, or believed that which I now know is contrary to scientific evidence. Our conservative church family frequently (and unintentionally) attracted the theological fringe—even the billboard-making evangelist types, though they usually didn’t stay long. One group, having predicted a date for the second coming of Jesus, put up billboards in our town to preach their jubilant message of doom.
And it’s not simply billboards that took me back, but crosses are everywhere along the interstate—giant crosses, in fact. Some even competing for being the World’s Largest Cross. Religious radio stations circumnavigate the dial, and especially in the South where familiar itinerant evangelical radio ministers travel the electromagnetic highway. Churches—sometimes only a shade different in theology—competed like good capitalists across the street from each other.
At first sight, and for someone with my background, there is something old-fashioned and quintessentially American about these memorials to old-school evangelism. They are like finding a car plastered with angry bumper stickers, and suddenly realizing you are looking at someone who hasn’t yet discovered social media.
And yet, for a person like me who was somewhat recently born-again into faithlessness, they are a stark reminder that I’m now part of a minority demographic in the United States.
America is a country where Senators, Representatives, and even the U.S. Navy, repeatedly, actively, and formally discriminate by rejecting the chaplaincy applications of secular humanists who want to serve our non-believing military.
America is a country where few open atheists can successfully run for office. And when they do, they are labeled “dangerous” and anti-faith, as was the case in Tennessee, when Lt. Governor Randy McNally opposed Democrat and atheist, Gayle Jordan’s run for state senate. America is a country where former House Speaker Newt Gingrich can score points by demonizing atheists as “an equally or even more dangerous threat” than Muslim terrorists.
America is a country where the theology of our president’s evangelical influencers manifests itself in his policies on Muslim immigrants, women’s healthcare, or the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans. Even the EPA’s Baptist head, Scott Pruitt, dangerously rejects the consensus on anthropogenic climate change, making policy based on theological positions rather than sound scientific facts.
“The biblical world view with respect to these issues,” Pruitt once told The Christian Broadcasting Network, “is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we’ve been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind.”
And America is where school shootings are first followed up with “thoughts and prayers” and putting “In God We Trust” in schools, rather than in crafting serious and nationally comprehensive reform. (By the way, non-believers view “thoughts and prayers” the way the NRA sees “Gun-Free Zone” signs.)
But a little like my own story, I also see a different future for America.
Regardless of the America I experienced on the road, there are signs for a different kind of religious American landscape on the horizon. Because—also in America—“the Nones,” those who are spiritual (but not religious), atheist, or agnostic, are now roughly 24% of the U.S. population, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. America has never been as religiously diverse as it is now. Recent numbers from an ABC News/Washington Post poll even show that “Evangelical white Protestants’ share of the total adult population has gone from 21 percent in 2003 to 13 percent last year. Non-evangelical white Protestants have gone from 17 to 11 percent.”
Additionally, a new report in January from Barna Group shows that being an atheist for Generation Z is “no longer a dirty word.” In fact, “the percentage of teens who identify as such is double that of the general population (13% vs. 6% of all adults).” Similarly, according to a new study from Pew Religion, while nine in 10 Americans “believe in a higher power,” only a “slim majority” (56 percent) say they “believe in God as described in the Bible.” Young adults—those under the age of 30 (43 percent)—are less likely to believe in a biblical God.
Small demographic changes like these now will eventually become big ones. As Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute once told me, “the ballot box functions like a time machine that takes the demographics of the country back a couple of presidential election cycles,” and changes occuring now won’t be felt until “the 2024 election cycle.”
America is the religious, the spiritual, and atheist together seeking a just society and protecting our public lands from special interest.
And while I would love for there to be more non-believers in America, I’m also grateful for this growing and diverse constituency. I hope this rising mosaic will inevitably lead to a reinforced wall of separation, to politicians hearing the concerns of a larger number of citizens, and not simply privilege those like my younger conservative Christian self.
“We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness,” as President Obama said in 2009. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers” (italics mine).
And soon that strong patchwork may finally be impossible for politicians to ignore. But when I hit the road again this summer for another national park adventure, I expect to be reminded that I’m a non-believer passing through a religious land.