In the first week of June, secular voters converged at the Lincoln Memorial—atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and unbelievers of all stripes, came to celebrate what they have in common, to raise awareness among their representatives, and to fight bigotry.
The Reason Rally, as it is called, was a reminder that secularism isn’t going away anytime soon.
According to studies, institutionalized religion is losing its grip in The United States. Those who identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated (“the nones”) in America—persons who check “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “none of the above” on surveys—rose from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014. According to Pew Research, atheists make up 3.1 percent of American adults today; in 2007 it was 1.6 percent. Evidence shows that “the nones” are quickly losing their belief in God and becoming increasingly secular.
While there are significant demographic changes occurring in the U.S., as a phenomenon, atheism is still a long way from having the lion’s share of the American identity; religion still dominates our social world.
America is still “Christ haunted”—to use the words of Flannery O’Connor. Fears of public shunning and the risk of losing family connections and employment, keep many atheists quiet about their identity. There is a significant difficulty in being honest about disbelief in a country where prominent religious leaders warn that it leads to a nation’s demise.
“This liberal godless kind of what they call ‘reason’ should concern every freedom-loving American,” said Franklin Graham, about The Reason Rally on Facebook. “Here’s a warning— If you remove God, you remove God’s hand of blessing. That’s been shown over and over throughout history.”
In a study from 2014, which asked Americans to rate how open they were to having some religious and nonreligious persons becoming family members, the only group that ranked lower than atheists were Muslims. For those Americans who have left a faith and felt the costs, this is not shocking news.
“I have 5 grandchildren now, and 4 of them I have never held,” says Dave Warnock, a former pastor and now board member for The Clergy Project (TCP), a safe place and network for former religious professionals who no longer have supernatural beliefs. (Full disclosure: this author is a member of TCP.)
“They [his children] also withhold relationships from my wife—their mother, simply because she stays married to me, an apostate. They really do believe that the best form of love is to shun me and pray that the pain of that will bring me to repentance and back to God—from whom they think I am just running. They cannot conceive of the fact that I no longer believe that a supernatural god exists.”
Dave is one of 710 members of TCP, whose reach is global. Most have a Christian background, but a few are from Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim traditions, though not all are out of the closet about being nonbelievers.
After 36 years in the Evangelical Charismatic movement in Tennessee, Dave left his faith. “For me,” he says, “it all started with a critical examination of the Bible and how it came to be…when I quit making excuses for the inconsistencies and contradictions, it started to have some gaping holes in it.”
After enough time in rigorous study, he says he saw the Bible as a collection of books written by very human individuals. Now he’s a stranger and pilgrim in a foreign land. “I feel like an alien here in the south. It’s all about where you go to church here,” he says.
Dave is not alone.
“My faith was the deepest, most sincere kind,” says Samantha (last name withheld), a former conservative Christian, who was firmly entrenched in the world of biblical inerrancy and Creationism. “Every thought in my mind was literally, how can I please God?”
Featured at the website of Answers in Genesis—the controversial creationist organization responsible for the Creation Museum and the forthcoming Ark Encounter—for her promotion of Creationism and awarded a scholarship from another creationist organization, she was a true believer. She was married at 19—saving herself for her husband to be—and like many evangelicals, submitted to a patriarchal order once married.
That is when her problems began, she says.
“Marriage was a very harsh disappointment for me,” she recalls. “He…took advantage of my beliefs that a wife is supposed to submit to her husband, and was very controlling and verbally abusive. It was like a very cruel game of Simon Says.” But she believed that it was God’s will for her, so she stayed married.
Her faith didn’t begin to unravel until she took a class on the Bible in college in 2011. She discovered the historical context in which the Bible was written, how it came together, and the more she learned about it, the less she believed. She also discovered that she had to leave her ex-husband, simultaneously coming out not only as an atheist, but also as bisexual.
While her siblings and parents continued to embrace her, she found other relationships crumbling.
“I knew I was leaving my husband, but I did not expect to lose my whole social structure of Christian relationships and support. I was shamed for leaving my marriage, abhorred for being attracted to women, and I was even told that my newfound confidence came from the devil.”
While she misses the community she had in her church and her marriage ended in divorce, Samantha has found that through her initial trial she now has a richer life.
“I feel like I gained more than I walked away [from]. I do not feel inequal as a woman. I have had delightful sexual relationships with men and women—none of which have ever made me feel ashamed about my body as my husband did.”
Gender and sexual identity as presented in the Bible are common themes among those who leave Christianity.
“I came out as an atheist publicly almost two years ago,” says Alexis Wesley, a former missionary and now an orphan advocate living in California.
“I spent 30 years as a very devout evangelical Christian,” she adds. “I became disillusioned with the Bible only after many years studying it.” For a while, she was able to explain away its passages that portrayed women as seductresses, as weaker than men, and as their property, but eventually she came to see how damaging this was to marriages.
She and her husband, who remains a Christian, immediately felt the ramifications of her leaving her faith in her social life.
“I was told by a close family member that I should stop fostering or adopting, and definitely not have another biological child since I shouldn’t bring them into an atheist household.”
Those who helped support their adoptions financially began openly expressing their regret.
“Another Christian friend in my adoption support group said during a discussion [that]…it would be better for kids to die orphans who loved Jesus after hearing a missionary talk about him, than to bring them into homes where ‘Christ wasn’t honored.’”
Those closest to her didn’t yell or threaten to disown, as she expected. “It’s been harder in some ways than that,” she tells me, “cold shoulders, strained looks, nervous conversations, forced prayers, and fake pleasantries….hide heaps of anger or hurt.”
Others found steep economic and personal identity costs in their departure from their faith.
Mark Farmer was a dedicated missionary and in ministry for most of his life. “We had been totally committed as missionaries who had no fixed salary and never requested donations,” he tells me. They lived on the hope of God leading others to send them money through their missionary society. By his 40s, and after he and his wife, Jean, raised three children in Western Europe, he managed to secure a position with salary and benefits while continuing his ministry.
It was that dedication to his faith, as well as liberal arts and seminary educations, that pushed him to study his faith deeper and presented troubling questions about the Bible.
“In my early sixties, serving as pastor of an evangelical church in the Midwest…it dawned on me that not only was Christianity a human construct and the Bible a thoroughly human book, none of it was plausible any more….I no longer believed in a supernatural god.”
His children had already left their faith after becoming adults, though Jean remained a liberal Christian; they remain happily married. Deconverting meant breaking with a significant part of his wider social network—he separated amicably with his church, though he did retain some Christian friends. It cost him a “sense of self,” and left life economically unstable, he says. “The idea on which I had based my life had turned out to be an illusion.”
Stories like these are not uncommon among nonbelievers. Many reiterate that departing a faith is not something they take lightly, but they often have to choose between being honest about who they are and losing family, friends, a job, or all of the above.
As more deconversions happen, it may produce less of a social shock for these unaffiliated expats. Until then, events, like The Reason Rally, and its sponsoring organizations, are representing the concerns of secular individuals and encouraging others to make their presence known as well.