Leaving religion but finding community

Mark Poprocki / iStock In my nearly twenty years reporting on Americana Christianity, I’ve observed a growing number of Christians … Continued

Mark Poprocki / iStock

In my nearly twenty years reporting on Americana Christianity, I’ve observed a growing number of Christians becoming weary with the institutional church playing politics and amassing wealth instead of issuing a prophetic voice on social issues. When bestselling Christian pastors waffle on issues like marriage equality and even progressive emergent church gatherings continue to be led by white males who self-identify as straight, an increasing number of people choose to leave behind a faith that no longer speaks to them.

The statistics from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reflect this shift where one-fifth of the U.S. public and a third of adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated. Within this group, only four percent currently identify as atheist or agnostic though an overwhelming 88 percent say they are not looking for a religion. Those hawking their wares on the Christian author/speaker circuit may promote a kind of Christianity beyond religion that promises to create an insurrection where love wins. But these nones will not be lured back. Like Elvis, they’ve left the building.

Since the Clergy Project established an online presence in 2011, this confidential resource for active and former clergy who no longer hold supernatural beliefs has grown from 52 to 470 members. Presently 80 percent or their members are based in the United States with the majority of these ex-clergy coming from evangelical and pentecostal traditions. While filming
Refusing My Religion
, a documentary about these religious leaders who’ve lost their faith and become atheist activists, co-directors Michael Dorian and Marc Levine documented a grassroots-level development of “godless congregations” (based on a Christian model) to provide people who’ve left religion with the “sense of community” they miss once they leave their churches.

Comedian Troy Conrad, co-executive producer of “Set List: Stand-Up Without A Net” is representative of the growing number of former fundamentalist Christians whose quest for truth led them out of the church. “Through doing stand-up comedy, I discovered how we all find our own truth in creating meaning out of what we see in life.” This revelation led him to become an atheist though he still longs for the community he used to experience on Sundays.

While Emery Emery, host of the Ardent Atheist podcast and a former evangelical Christian, doubts he would attend these churches personally, he expresses interest in taking part in these gatherings. “What became my church was getting together with like minded believers and figure out how to get the message out and build a community.”

Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association observes that as the overall numbers of people coming out as atheists grows, the large minority that do want to get together to share experiences is also on the rise. “Many have estimated that the true majority of non-theists haven’t been involved until now, because they’ve been waiting in the wings for just such a fulfilling opportunity as only a robust community can provide.” The interest surrounding groups like the Humanist Community Project at Harvard, the Sunday Assembly and Community Mission Chapel indicates the need for a community by those who abandoned the institutional church.

Chris Stedman, Assistant Chaplain with the Humanist Community at Harvard, notes how these communities can help achieve dialogue between religious and nonreligious people. “Visible nonreligious communities are well positioned to challenge anti-atheist stigma and partner with religious communities on campaigns for the common good on issues like LGBT rights.” For example, Rev. Mykal Slack, a transman of color and founder of 4Lyfe Ministries, reflects on his recent experience leading a workshop with the Humanist Community at Harvard on creating trans-inclusive spaces.

When we talk about what it means to be intentional about making room for different lived experiences and how important it is to grow comfortable with sometimes being uncomfortable with those differences, I know they took those messages to heart in some of the same ways any other caring group of people would.

Moving forward, I’ll be watching how the spirit moves when the Sunday Assembly co-founders Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones come to the United States in November with plans to launch around 40 atheist churches.

Becky Garrison
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  • WmarkW

    We talked about this under Herb Silverman’s column last week. Atheism has done (deservedly) well at selling its intellectual merit, and needs to recognize that its growth is likeliest among that people who are still in the churches for other reasons. Seven million Americans do not continue to practice Mormonism because they find compelling the factual basis of the gold-plate translation story, the planet Kolob, or the ancient Israeli voyage to the new world.

    Atheism will not grow until it finds a way to replace the appeal of gathering with a large group for an inspirational talk in a pleasant suurouding, singing together and celebrate life’s milestones. Thinking this only appeals to people because of their intellectual delusions is the path to nowhere.

  • David Thompson

    As more communities become available, there will be people who are Christian in name only that will join these organizations, because they do provide community. Good article. Thanks.

  • Khartet

    always distressing to see the post use the limited space devoted to faith matters for articles on those with no faith. it is interesting that they are trying to become a “church”. we always have space for one more at any Sunday service in the Episcopal church. Or you could attend any of the many variations of Christian, Jewish or Muslim congregations in the area. it is never to late to join. we will pray for you to return.

  • vijayk

    Where is “Faith” in going along with what you see or flip-flopping from one belief to another? I agree with the writer that Church has become institutionalized. It’s become all about the numbers, measurements and the more you get to agree with you the more correct you are and the more successful you are. Faith cannot be measured or counted because it has no end.

  • Hildy J

    Certainly faith has an end, if one can reason. Children have faith in the Tooth Fairy. Eventually they realize that adults made up the story to ease the pain of loosing a tooth. Similarly, eventually reasonable people realize that heaven is just a story made up to ease the pain of loosing a loved one. A similar analogy would be Santa Claus and god.

    If you think about it, the supernatural is silly and unnecessary. The natural is enough. And part of our natural nature is that we seek community, as the article points out.

  • vijayk

    I know for a fact that I woke up one morning and there was a quarter underneath my pillow and one morning there were toys underneath the tree and the only reason it stopped was because the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause in my life told me they were not going to do it anymore. There is much more to Faith than just belief. It is acting, living, trusting on what I believe. My faith may change directions but it doesn’t end.

  • Tender Hooligan

    Is not the point of a forum on faith a chance to discuss and explore the reasons why some people feel they need faith in a god, and some don’t. I don’t wish to encourage people to one side or another, I am interested in why there are these different types of people. In a similar way, for some people placebos work, and for some they don’t. I am aware that there is nothing real in the placebo, yet the affect can be real. I don’t think god is real, but I can see that the belief in god has a real affect on some people. More and more people are finding that they don’t need this belief in their lives. I would have thought anyone with an interest enough in faith as a concept to follow this site would also take an interest in this observable trend.

  • Catken1

    So…believing in, living by, and acting on beliefs for which you have no evidence is a virtue?


  • Catken1

    In other words, “Whiiiine! My religion isn’t the center of everyone’s attention for ONE WHOLE ARTICLE! WHIIIINE!”

  • An-Toan

    Everyone is welcome to learn what the Buddha taught about meditation!

  • vijayk

    I do have evidence. I am here not because of anything I did. I Love, I lust, I crave, I want, I hurt, I heal, I grow, then I don’t, I get old, I die. I have DNA & fingerprints that are unique to me. I do not remember when I started breathing or when my heart started beating and I really don’t a whole lot of control over when I stop. I can dream dreams but I can’t choose them. There is Good and Evil , there is light, there is evidence.

  • Tender Hooligan

    Vijayk, those things are true for me too, although I see good and evil as adjectives not nouns. Yet for me that gives no evidence of a higher power. I would need a lot more evidence than the fact that living things exist to make the leap that god exists.

  • efavorite

    khartet – thanks for the invitation, seriously, but people will join the group that seems most suited to them – and i that’s a group that does not believe in the supernatural, then it won’t be your church.

  • efavorite

    khartet — if you had just told someone that you didn’t care for spinach — how would you feel if that person offered you some spinach and told you of the many places you could obtain spinach?

  • 3vandrum

    “Leaving religion but finding community” That is great. Most religions religions are outdated and do not belong to the 21st century. Science offers explanation for many mysteries and has eliminated the need for God and religions. No wonder youngsters do not feel the need to belong to any religion except for social reasons. You can find community outside of religion and be involved with community service outside of religion. you don’t need outdated religions for that

  • mrtmrsh

    I find it odd that someone would think that one day I picked up a book and now I’m a believer, when there is so much more to it.
    I can’t fathom why some people are touched and others aren’t, but I do know the truth.

  • vijayk

    Tender would you consider that there is order in living things?

  • Joel Hardman

    I find it odd that “some people are touched and others aren’t” because that’s not how knowledge works in any other sphere of human activity. You wouldn’t say that some people just accept geometry and others don’t or some people accept gravity and others don’t.

  • Tender Hooligan

    Vijayk. Indeed there is order; there is order in chemical reactions, there is order in the way that DNA can replicate, there is order in transfer of protons through membranes, which allows energy to be generated, powering all metabolic reactions. Still no need for a higher power.
    I think you have to realise that many people (in increasing numbers) find deep satisfaction in the knowledge of how things work. I think understanding the science of life makes it so much more amazing than the idea that some entity made it.

  • Catken1

    Mind you, one does not have to believe in a god to study what the Buddha taught, nor does one have to follow the Buddha’s teachings exactly to be a Buddhist (he himself said one ought to carefully evaluate beliefs on their own merits, rather than accepting them as a matter of faith).

  • Catken1

    “Order” does not imply God, much less your particular god.

  • Tender Hooligan

    By the way, in the UK, if we say someone is ‘touched’, it means they are mentally ill. Now I’m not saying that there is a connection between being religious, and having some deficiency in mental faculties, just that this post read that way to me in first reading, and I didn’t realise for a while that it was not what mrtmrsh meant.

  • Rongoklunk

    Of course there is much more to religion than just believing stuff out of midair, on a whim. It normally takes most of childhood to produce a believer, whether it’s Mormonism, Hinduism, Islamism or Evangelicalism, or Anglicanism, or whateverism. You don’t find many Muslims believing in Christianity, and you don’t find many Anglicans believing in Hinduism. We believe whatever we were raised to believe. Even if it is absolute nonsense – if we are raised to believe something, we will believe it. It doesn’t have to be true. In fact it’s almost certain that all supernatural beliefs are nonsense. And that includes life-after-death. Yet if we are raised to believe it, we’ll believe it. All religions prove this to be true.

  • Rongoklunk

    The trend is definitely away from ancient superstitions and towards science and commonsense. And why not? After all this is a great age of science and technology, with greater access to knowledge than we have ever had before. We are being educated beyond religion. We look to science for our understanding of reality, and it makes a lot more sense than religion.ever did – showing that god, the devil, heaven and hell are as mythical as the gods of the ancients. And 9/11 taught us what a stupid and dangerous concept faith is. We should move on from religion before we all get blown up.

  • itsthedax

    Huh. Since these non-believing groups have no biblical reference of morality, shouldn’t they have slaughtered themselves and each other by now?

  • arwash

    I am not apart of a religion but I am apart of kingdom principles. The first one is to Love the Lord with everything within me. Next is to love my neighbor(not to agree with everything he/she says but to love them). Not going through all of them but not lying on my neighbor or obsessing or envying anything that they have. One key to note is the Lord spoke about not committing adultery. So Christian men and women who have broken this, don’t caste stones so quickly on other sexual behaviors when you have done this. Repent and then go back to second one I typed before we start trying to have talks with those who have sex before marriage or same gender sex.

    Also for those calling believing on Jesus Christ a superstition, where is your truth and how do you determine this truth.

  • arwash

    If faith is such a dangerous concept, then why even follow the rules? Make up your own. Even smaller than a mustard seed my friend.

  • Rongoklunk

    Faith is a dangerous concept. The 9/11 terrorists had faith didn’t they? And now we know they’re just dead. But they had faith that they would survive crashing planes into the WTC, and would fly off to heaven collecting 72 virgins each as a bonus from Allah for duty over and above. And they expected a celestial vacation lasting for all eternity. They only did it because of their stupid faith. If they had been sensible, rational, un-superstitious nonbelievers, they would still be alive.

    “Faith is believing what you know ain’t true” wrote Mark Twain. Faith is a belief in something unlikely to happen. If it’s likely to happen we can have expectations, not faint-hearted faith. Faith is just another word for hope. And to hope for something means it’s not very likely to occur. It’s just a maybe.

  • Healing Science Today

    As a reporter who covers religion, I’m seeing the same evidence this article speaks of. It’s interesting. It would be easier to understand if we weren’t so bent on stereotyping one another, but alas, stereotyping is an ingrained human habit.
    People are leaving outgrown thinking, but many are still thinking, and quite often coherently. Worth the story.

  • larryclyons

    Science and Engineering build Aircraft that can go around the World. Religion flew those aircraft into buildings.

  • larryclyons

    Not by referencing a book mostly written by 8th century BCE semi literate sheep herders.

    (Ancient Israel where men were men and sheep nervous).

  • larryclyons

    Very true, Just look at Chaos theory. No god needed there to offer a good empirical explanation.

  • csintala79

    2 + 2 = 4, water flows downhill and other truths of a mathematical system or the physical world. There is no truth regarding the supernatural and the unseen. Truth is to be found in the realm of science while opinion, faith and belief are found in the realm of religion and other systems based on the supernatural. If an article of faith becomes scientifically verifiable it becomes a truth and is no longer a belief. The idea of salvation in Christianity is based on belief, not facts. If there was verifiable scientific evidence that heaven and hell exist few would choose hell. For the notions of free will and grace to have any meaning, salvation depends on belief in the unseen The religious gain nothing from their search for historical evidence of the Bible narrative. Doubting Thomas had to put his fingers in Christ’s wounds to finally accept that He had risen.

  • csintala79

    Yes, the cure for the contraction of smallpox is an inoculation, not a prayer.

  • csintala79

    Khartet, why would an atheist, agnostic or seeker choose a religious community that dictates the belief of it members with a creed or other profession of faith? There are religious communities that leave it to the individual to determine what to believe, e.g., Unitarian Universalists, most Society of Friends (Quakers). There are even communities of non-believers and secularists. One need not give up one’s will to another human. There are no prophets or holy men that are anymore in touch with whatever is than any other human.

  • csintala79

    Compare the statistics on the mortality rate of individuals vaccinated against common childhood diseases such as diphtheria with those of individuals depending on prayer or other supernatural incantations and rituals. Science wins. There are plenty of secular groups that meet peoples need for community, e.g., the VFW. Religion is dying when it begins to sell itself as a source of experiences that can also be provided by secular institutions. Take God away and you only have a social fraternity.