By Joe Morrow
My name is Joe. I’m 49. I am an atheist and a former evangelical ordained Southern Baptist minister. I live with my wife and two teenage children in the buckle of the Bible Belt, near Nashville, Tennessee. I call myself a 2.0 atheist, meaning that I identify with those who feel strongly about being “out” and forthright about our disbelief.
I am not only a-theistic, but also anti-theistic. I reject religion and all other superstitions and supernatural claims entirely, on the basis that there is absolutely no evidence to support those ideas. And I see this position as positive and vital to the progression of humanity’s advancement. I assert that religious and superstitious belief is harmful to the individual and has a stagnating effect on society. Such beliefs and practices divide people and promote tribalism, fostering oppression, inequalities, justification for hatred, and fear of scientific progress.
Now, having said all that, I will also tell you that my Christian faith and role in professional ministry was once everything to me. In the past I lived a life devoted to bringing the “Good News of Jesus Christ” to a world that I sincerely believed needed it. Now I don’t.
It’s ironic, really. The Bible states in the book of John, chapter eight, verse 32, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The truth is there is no God, and this truth has truly set me free: free from guilt over my own thoughts, free from having to hate people who are not living the way my religion says they should, and free to embrace this one life on earth I get the incredible opportunity to experience.
This is my story.
The Beginning of My New Life
It was a pleasant morning in the fall of 2007 that felt more like late summer than mid-autumn. My wife, Lisa, had been up for two or three hours before me. Breakfast was over but still in the air, and sunlight was streaming through the kitchen window blinds, making stripes on the adjacent wall as I emerged from the bedroom. The sound of Nick Jr. was coming from the living room, where our two young children sat happily with full bellies, watching TV. I remember this morning vividly because it marked a new beginning in my life, and I was about to have a conversation with my wife about it. My “new beginning” would greatly impact her life as well, and the lives of our two children.
When I went to bed the night before, I was on a fence, one I had been straddling for quite some time. On one side of the fence was where I came from, my whole life up until that point. It was a life in which the supernatural was real, particularly the Judeo-Christian trinity—God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Through the whole of my adult life, I had been fully immersed in American Evangelicalism. In the church, I had been a leader, a teacher, and a preacher. I had been to the other side of the globe as a missionary. In my day-to-day career, I had been a pastoral counselor and a conference leader and speaker. My faith had been more than just real to me. It was my lifeline. It defined who I was. Virtually all my interpersonal relationships were with other Christians. Those relationships sprang from our shared belief in the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. That was my reality before I found myself atop that fence.
The territory on the other side of the fence, where I stood that morning, was unfamiliar, uncertain, and a little frightening, but not because I thought it was a mistake to be there. Rather, I feared rejection from so many people I knew and loved. I was turning my back on the life they still embraced as the only way to live. How could my social life survive in honesty with these people? Some were very close friends. A few were mentors, people I had admired and had gone to for advice and solace during difficult times in my life. How could I tell them that I was abandoning everything that brought us together in the first place? Many would take it personally.
They would see me as a different person altogether, one they didn’t recognize. And in some ways, they would be correct in that assessment. They would feel hurt, maybe even betrayed, and I didn’t want that at all. But there was no way around it. It just wasn’t in me to lie to myself or act like someone I’m not. I was in a new reality. My life was no longer based on believing that an invisible all-powerful supernatural entity loved me and had control over my past, present, and future, as well as everything else in his creation. My new reality would be a life in which I had no destiny or divine protection from horrible circumstances. A life in which supervolcanos, giant rocks from space, other astronomical occurrences, or humankind (maybe just a few humans) could bring down the planet’s ecosystem and all of human existence with it. A life that completely ends with physical death—no heaven, no hell, no anything, just nonexistence. That was where I found myself standing that morning. Still, even with the discomfort, fear, uncertainty, and relational conflict that lay in my foreseeable future, I had no desire to go back to the other side of the fence, or even to climb back up and straddle it for a second longer.
For a few days I had been teetering toward disbelief. And at that point in my mental wrestling match, all I really needed was one more night of rest. Sleep can sometimes make a real difference. We’ve all heard the verbal expressions. “Let’s sleep on it.” “Everything will look different in the morning.” “What you need is a good night’s sleep.” The brain doesn’t shut down when we sleep. Science has shown that the human brain can continue to work on conflict resolution as we slumber. In addition to feeling physically rejuvenated in the morning, we can wake with mental resolutions we did not have the night before. And that was exactly what happened to me that morning. I awoke and found myself with both feet firmly on the ground of disbelief. My long and arduous struggle between what felt right and what was logical, between faith and reason, was over. So after admitting this shift from belief in the supernatural to total denial of it to myself, I knew what came next. I had to tell Lisa.
Coming Out as an Atheist to My Wife
I have never been one to keep things to myself in our marriage, and this bit of information was way too significant to withhold for even a day or two. After all, she had a right to know. There would be very few aspects in our shared life that this news would not effect. So I asked her to sit down.
“I have something I need to tell you,” I said. I didn’t think that what I was about to say would catch Lisa by surprise. She had walked this road with me. She knew where I had come from and where I had stopped along the way. She knew what I was struggling with, and she knew how important it was to me to come to resolution. Yes, I was a little nervous, but telling her was not the source of the butterflies in my stomach. It was the idea of simply saying it out loud for the first time that had put them there.
What I told Lisa that morning went something like this: “You know I have been struggling for a while now to reconcile what I have learned from the sciences with my belief in God. What I’ve learned in the past few years about the history and science of the natural world and the cosmos, what I have learned about the evolution of life, just doesn’t congruently fit with the idea of a supernatural creator in charge of the whole thing. I can’t accept it and be honest with myself any longer. It doesn’t make logical sense. But science? From so many different angles, the sciences offer real, concrete explanations to the big questions of life. Why am I here? How did life begin? Why is there anything but an empty void?”
I told Lisa that science sheds real light on these universal “big questions”—and it does it experimentally, using the scientific method. Religion, on the other hand, answers the “big questions” with no regard for evidence or congruency at all. I talked about the scientific method of discovery and contrasted it with the way religion concludes what truth is.
The scientific method in a nutshell:
1. Ask a question
2. Do background research
3. Construct a hypothesis
4. Test your hypothesis by doing experiments
5. Analyze your data and draw conclusions
6. Communicate your results
The religious method in a nutshell:
1. Start with a result or conclusion for which there is no hard evidence
2. Search for evidence to support this preconceived result or conclusion
3. Pretend to have answers without any real proof
4. Communicate and spread unfounded speculations as truth
Religion is based on stories. It requires the believer to accept the stories as truth without any hard evidence at all. These stories often contradict what science has proven.
When confronted with the knowledge of hard scientific proof that contradicts religious stories, the thinking person can do one of three things. She can accept proven facts and reject the disproven. She can reconcile the two opposing perspectives by interpreting the religious story as allegory or symbolism. Or she can simply choose to ignore the contradictions. And honestly, the second option is really just a version of the third choice.
For example: The Bible states that God created the first man from the dirt and then the first woman from one of the man’s ribs, while science has proven that modern humans evolved from earlier primates. The problem with interpreting the biblical account as allegory is that Christianity needs the story to be literal—the whole religion rests on the origin story being something that really happened. Without Adam and Eve, there is no garden, no tree of the knowledge of good and evil, no tempting serpent and no fall of mankind. Without a fall, there is no need for a savior or messiah. If humans evolved from earlier primates, there is no first man. The Bible is pretty specific about Adam’s connection to Christ. Just look at Romans 5:19: “For just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [Jesus] the many will be made righteous.” Without a literal first man (Adam), the premise for the literal Gospel story of Jesus Christ falls apart.
I told Lisa that I had barely skimmed the surfaces of several branches of scientific study: “There is so much more to learn. And yet the knowledge I have gained thus far has been so eye-opening. The world’s religions barely agree on anything. In science, there are accepted proven facts and applications across fields of study—such fundamentals as Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity, Hawking’s theory on time and black holes or Bertram Boltwood’s radiometric dating method. I am not saying that the sciences have answered the big questions conclusively. But the answers the sciences do provide are real, proven conclusions. With this newfound understanding, I see life differently. I now find myself at an irreconcilable watershed in regard to religious belief. I don’t say this without a lot of searching and deliberating, but I can no longer agree with the idea that anything supernatural is out there. This morning, I have to honestly say that I now consider myself [saying it for the first time out loud] to be an atheist.”
The Consequences of Rejecting Religion
And there it was. With just a few sentences, I had changed forever who my wife was married to. I had gone from a man of faith who not only believed in God, but placed significant value on His direction and guidance for my life and the lives of my family, to a man who believes there is no god to look to for answers and guidance and everything else that comes with that. This means no need for church or religious rituals like prayers before meals or daily Bible study. It means no longer fitting into the same social settings. It means raising our children without religion in a part of the country where being “out” about religious disbelief could ostracize us, or being quiet about it could cause our kids to feel isolated or anxious that other kids might reject them if they found out.
When you live in the southern United States, going from believer to nonbeliever hugely affects (and I am not exaggerating) nearly every aspect of your life. And just using the taboo word “atheist” to identify yourself can make it even worse. To a lot of religious people here in the Bible Belt, atheists are on the same level as rapists, devil worshipers, and pedophiles. As a result, in hopes of lessening the blows of rejection, many nonbelievers who live here choose to refer to themselves as humanists or freethinkers rather than atheists.
Having been an atheist for nearly ten years now, I have come to know some other formerly religious nonbelievers. And I know of others still through books I have read. In many cases, marriages have ended over a spouse’s abandonment of religious belief. For a majority of Evangelical Christians, that is an irreconcilable deal breaker.
Lisa and I had been married ten years when I told her I was an atheist, and I felt pretty confident in her love for me. She was very understanding, as I had hoped she would be. But even so, I can’t express strongly enough how grateful I am to be married to her. Upon hearing me say those taboo words, “I am an atheist,” the love of my life did not pack up our children and walk out on me. She didn’t even put it out there as a possibility, as something she would have to think and pray about. I told my wife that morning that I loved her, and that I didn’t expect her to follow in my footsteps. I said that all I wanted for her was that she continue to use her own mind to find her own way and beliefs.
As I write this account, Lisa is also an atheist, and has been for several years. In fact, in many ways, her passion for causes related to disbelief now surpasses my own. Together, we no longer look to an invisible “daddy in the sky” for direction in our family life. Now we decide where we go and what we do. For the big and the small decisions of life, the buck stops with us, as it should.
As parents, we want our children to grow up and mature into emotionally and mentally healthy adults who can reason and solve problems for themselves, and not continually come back to us or a make-believe entity to manage the decisions of their lives. To raise them to continue into adulthood in a dependent relationship with us or a deity would be to stunt their mental growth and keep them in an adolescent state of immaturity. That would not be loving them. It would be not allowing them to grow up.
Questioning Your Religion? You Are Not Alone
On that first day that I acknowledged my disbelief, and for the next few years thereafter, I thought it all sprang from embracing the sciences. However, since then, I have done quite a bit more self-examination. I now recognize that my journey from Christian to atheist far preceded my newly found love of science. I had slowly been moving in that direction since my mid to late twenties, though I was unaware of it at the time.
I had been on a path similar to that of other former clergy who have authored their process from belief to nonbelief, people like Dan Barker and Jerry DeWitt. I walked a similar road, with similar thoughts and reasoning. So to those who may be where I was, I say this to you: I empathize with your struggle. It’s a scary place to be when you find yourself doubting everything you’ve based your life on for so long, when you find yourself at odds with so many people you have love. But brothers and sisters, you are not alone. Our numbers are growing. Come out with us! You are so not alone.
This week’s episode of the Recovering from Religion podcast is about the Clergy Project, whose mission is “to provide support, community, and hope to current and former religious professionals who no longer hold supernatural beliefs.” Click here to listen.