When Leaving Religion Costs You Everything

June 28, 2016

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.

“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.

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