An Inspiring Story

Sheryl Kay. “Ex-minister walks atheist path.The St. Petersburg Times, February 17, 2006.

His message is clear: Jesus is not coming. Not today. Not ever.

At 59, James Young has spent almost a decade sharing his atheist beliefs with the public, driving every Wednesday morning from his home in Lithia to set up a tent at the University of South Florida Bull Market.

Even on the coldest morning, Young is there, ready to share, and sometimes debate, his views with anyone who will listen that there is, in fact, no such being as God.

…What may surprise some of these students is that in his early adulthood, Young was an evangelical minister, preaching in churches, and even on street corners, all over Tampa.

This wonderful story came to me through a Google News alert. Though the Rotunda is the usual category for current events and topical news stories, I found this one so inspiring that I could not help posting it in the Garden, the category of positive atheism and humanism. Mr. Young’s compelling tale fits into that category if anything does.

He was raised a Southern Baptist and at age 16 was introduced to a church that he called “a little more charismatic.” He found great comfort in the church, socially and spiritually, and eventually identified with the Pentecostal movement.

“I got on fire for God,” he said.

With Bible in hand, Young would often sit with friends comparing approaches to Christianity, he said. It was the first time that he recognized there might be different ways to interpret God’s word.

Yet at the same time he was being taught that those who did not follow the Pentecostal approach to Christianity were doomed, and that caused him great conflict.

“My church was teaching that other denominations were going to hell because they didn’t practice and follow Jesus’ teaching the correct way,” he said. “Well, what is the “correct’ way?”

Both realizations brought Young to the conclusion that the Bible was not perfect, and that these inconsistencies made it difficult to be a complete believer.

The idea that a fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal minister could end up deconverting to atheism may be shocking to some believers, but to a knowledgeable atheist, it is not at all surprising. In fact, such stories are quite common. As every atheist knows (or should know, if they don’t), it is not at all unusual to see lifelong, passionate theists end up deconverting. Even the most sincere, dedicated, highly educated believers one could imagine – ministers, pastors, preachers and missionaries – become atheists. Here are some former members of that category who were willing to tell their stories:

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are indeed “galaxies of others” out there, as Kenneth Nahigian wrote in his own deconversion story, and no doubt even more who, for one reason or another, have not yet come forward to discuss their experience. The evidence is overwhelming that there are people from all levels of commitment to theism who ultimately break free and become atheists.

The likely response from Christian fundamentalists is that these people “never really believed”, but those who say this are engaging in a tactic meant to assuage their own doubts, rather than deal with the evidence. These people’s past struggles and their current honesty offer as much evidence of their sincerity and their honesty as any human being could ever give to prove the truth of their convictions. If these people are to be written off in this way, then one would have to admit there are no grounds to believe that the large majority of self-proclaimed current Christians really believe either, since most of them are far less qualified than these deconverts.

Why is there such an asymmetry of reporting on these cases? For one thing, religious conversions usually happen in an intensely public environment, in the spotlight as it were, where the new believer’s decision is announced and celebrated far and wide by their fellow believers. On the other hand, deconversion is almost always an intensely private and personal experience. There are no comparable atheist organizations or infrastructure to reach out to new deconverts and disseminate the information, while believers are often frightened and disconcerted by such an event and have little desire to spread the news widely.

This is an unfortunate state of affairs, because stories such as Mr. Young’s deserve to be read as widely as possible. In the societal debate (such as it is) between atheism and theism, the question of where the evidence points is rarely brought up. Instead, religion’s major weapons against atheism are emotional, and lie in convincing the majority that atheism is a gloomy, hopeless lifestyle. This is an outrageous falsehood, and needs to be exposed as such – and the most powerful way to do that, by far, is to point seekers to testimonies such as Mr. Young’s. The authors of these testimonials constitute living proof, as it were, that atheism is absolutely compatible with a life lived full of happiness, meaning and love. (I encourage all my readers to e-mail the reporter who wrote this story, Sheryl Kay, at and offer her your compliments for having done so.)

There can be no doubt that there is a hunger for such stories. Every time a reporter or columnist writes a positive article about atheism, it seems to provoke a flood of thankful responses (as Robyn Blumner discovered in her column, “A Heartening Response“). It would be highly premature to declare our impending victory merely because of this, but I do think it strongly suggests that atheists are far more common than people realize, and that we are increasingly aware of the threat the religious right poses and ready to speak out in favor of freethought. (I offer this very weblog as Exhibit A.) It is not inconceivable that atheists are nearing a critical mass, one which when reached will inspire us to organize en masse. If such a thing were to happen, I have no doubt that we could become a tremendous force for societal change for the better. But even if not, there is another possibility: we may gain acceptance and influence one piece at a time, without there ever being a single defining moment – a quiet revolution, so to speak. Either scenario is a positive one, but of course, they both depend on every atheist taking every opportunity to speak out and to act.

Which brings me to the final point I wish to praise about this article. What heartened me the most was not the mere fact of Mr. Young’s deconversion, not even the fact that he was willing to speak out about it, but the fact that he has taken steps to act on it:

Several years passed, and Young quietly explored his newfound atheism. He joined a humanist group in Tampa and espoused their belief that all people must take responsibility for providing solutions to human problems in lieu of reliance on supernatural solutions.

Then, in the late ’90s, more fire and brimstone.

“All of a sudden the fundamentalist right Christians were becoming very militant, as they are today,” he said. “They’re only content when they’re forcing their religious beliefs on everyone in this country through legislation.”

Now when Young preaches, it is not the words of Peter or James that he recounts but the damage he perceives is happening because of the religious right.

Though I realize they are somewhat delayed, I offer Mr. Young my hearty congratulations on his deconversion, and my sincere gratitude for his labors in the cause of reason. Keep fighting the good fight, sir – we’re glad to have you, and I, for one, pledge to be there alongside you!

On the Importance of Firebrand Atheism
Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists
Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Archi Medez

    Thanks Adam, for your optimism and your celebration of these people. We need more of these deconversion stories.

    I’d like to have a look at some of the research on what trends or patterns emerge, based on hundreds of case studies, in people’s deconversion stories (e.g., one fairly common theme is that the person actually became more familiar with the scriptures and didn’t like what he/she found). I’d be interested to know what are the most common factors associated with loss of faith. (In fact, I’m interested in the whole process psychologically, how belief becomes established, maintained, and lost).

    It would also be interesting to look at the similarities and differences between deconversions from Christianity versus those from Islam. Whereas leaving the Christian faith is not always received well in a religious population such as the U.S.’s, leaving Islam publicly (anywhere in the world) entails a whole additional set of problems. Apostacy is generally regarded among Muslims as the equivalent of treason; penalties range from ostracism, to financial loss and loss of employment, to jail terms, to execution. Those ex-Muslims who come out publicly to criticize their former religion are routinely threatened with death, even in so-called modern western societies (Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a good example). Apostates Ibn Warraq and Ali Sina, who are also very critical of Islam, use pseudonyms to avoid persecution.

    A large set of Muslim DECONVERSION STORIES can be found here.

  • tobe38

    I completely agree that as much attention as possible should be drawn to cases like these. I have emailed Miss Kay with my support.

    I went through a phase of reading a lot of deconversion stories, and it seemed to me that the doctrine of hell was the most commonly recurring factor with deconversions from Christianity. I started a thread on IIDB about it

    I can’t say that it surprised me. I never refer to my switch from indifferent agnosticism to strong atheism as a deconversion, but Adam’s essay on hell was a major step in my total rejection of Christianity.

  • andrea

    I think the biggest reason I “deconverted”, is I actually read the Bible. I read voraciously and my dad challenged me to read the Bible. Not exactly a challenge for someone who sits down to read encyclopedias. So I read it and went “Ewww, *that’s* what God has done and has approved of?” Anyone who actually thinks can’t reconcile the Christian God with what he supposedly is: omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. What really got me is that God, being omniscient, had to know that Adam would fall because God made him flawed, that people would sin and that he would have to sacrifice his son to “redeem” mankind. What kind of sacrifice is it when you know you’re going to have to do it and you set up the reasons why you had to do it? Sounds exactly like an abusive parent or husband to me. And, to top it all off, you damn everyone who doesn’t happen to hear about the sacrifice *and* believe it *and* accept your son as their personal “savior”, through no fault of their own. And Adam’s essays have addressed all of this:)

    Being that extraordinarily few Christians have seemed to have read the Bible and even fewer self-described evangelical/born again Christians have, in my experience, this seems to be the one big factor in regaining one’s freedom.

  • Elohimus Maximus

    You guys are all heathen sinners…I would be weary of your kind. You guys are in for it!!! When you go to heaven, I will not put in a good word for you, and you will be cast to level 13 outerdarkness for ever!

  • Ebonmuse

    I was aware that a tenth circle was added to Hell in 1998, but I must say it came as a surprise to me that they’re up to 13 now. Business must really be booming down there for them to be expanding so rapidly.

  • Shawn Smith

    Elohimus Maximus,

    Quite frankly, I’d rather not exist forever, whether in Heaven or Hell. Forever is a very, very, very long time. Because your brain, and therefore your mind, is finite, forever is long enough to do everything you could possibly imagine doing ackerman(googolplex,googolplex)1 times. Existence would be sooooo boring at that point, I would be begging to end it all.

    1A function defined as follows:

    ack(0,x) = x + 1
    ack(x,0) = ack(x – 1, 1)
    ack(x,y) = ack(x – 1, ack(x, y – 1))

    It grows very quickly as the first argument increases. Basically, the first argument selects which operation goes on between 2 and the second argument, from incrementing, to addition, to multiplication, to exponentiation, to super-exponentiation (2 super-exponent 4 is 2222 is 216 is 65,536), etc.

    Adam, how about providing up a preview comment button?

  • Ebonmuse


    Will this do? :)

  • speedwell

    Shawn, that assumes that there are a finite number of things to do, so you need to do them over and over again. That may not be the case, especially if one of the things you do multiple times is “invent new things to do.” (grin)

  • Philip Thomas

    Yeah, the old “Infinity must contain every possible thing” fallacy.

  • Bill Kluck

    I recently viewed your website for the first time tonight and although a born again christian sympathize with your views on some of the problems with Christianity. I believe though that the doctrine of hell admittedly problematic is not our main problem apologetically. The reason I say this is because its Gods universe and he can do what he wants and its abusd to argue with a being who gave you your ability to reason in the first place.

    Our biggest problem is the ignorance of the laypeople in regards to the core problems of the faith. One of the core problems we face is that our foundation that being the Genesis narrative is based heavily on the Babylonian, Sumerian and Akadian myths of the day. Specifically, the Enuma Elish and Epic of Gilgamesh. You can learn about this in Tim Callahan’s book ” Secret Origins of the Bible”.

    The other core problem we have is the inconsistencies and contraditions in the Resurrection account. Was it one woman or several who discovered the tomb? Why does one account have one shadowy figure at the tomb and another account like Luke have two dazzling angels. Did Jesus die at noon or 3 PM. I would like something as important as the Resurrection to be more consistent.

    Heres what your up against when you confront Christians with a book like ” Misquoting Jesus ” by Bart Ehrman which contends that there are numerous errors in the New Testament. They get completly freaked out and totally close down to any logical argument. You’ve got to realize that they’re only going to listen to 5% of what you say because they’re emotions are going crazy.

    The second time I talk to my fellow christians about the problems of our faith they are much more receptive. Just remember that Christians are hard wired to be close minded bigots and you will not get much accomplished with them because they usually have no clue to what they’re talking about.

    Good luck and look forward to reading more on your site.

    William Kluck

  • Nes

    Bill Kluck:

    I believe though that the doctrine of hell admittedly problematic is not our main problem apologetically. The reason I say this is because its Gods universe and he can do what he wants and its abusd to argue with a being who gave you your ability to reason in the first place. [sic]

    Aside from us not arguing with God per se (that would be silly, as I don’t think there’s anyone there to argue with!), but more arguing against his alleged justness, maybe he likes to argue:

    Galileo Galilei:

    I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

  • OMGF

    Mr. Kluck,
    Thank you for your candor, although I have to disagree with this sentiment:

    I believe though that the doctrine of hell admittedly problematic is not our main problem apologetically. The reason I say this is because its Gods universe and he can do what he wants and its abusd to argue with a being who gave you your ability to reason in the first place.

    I disagree whole-heartedly that because god made us he can treat us in any fashion that he so chooses and/or send us to hell. The act of creating us does not confer some sort of right to not be held morally accountable for one’s actions. We would not be lenient on a parent that sent their child to hell, as we should not be lenient with god. When god created us, he brought upon himself a moral obligation to us, which goes unfulfilled when he sends us to hell.