They were a missionary, a Muslim and an evangelical but are now atheists. Why? – NorthJersey.com
Tom Van Denburgh’s transformation from believer to skeptic didn’t come in a sudden, “a-ha!” moment.
It was more like a slow, steady trek toward a new truth.
Growing up in the northern New Jersey suburbs, Van Denburgh attended a private Christian academy with “an overemphasis on hell and brimstone” and an unhealthy preoccupation with Satan, he recalls.
Every Easter weekend, his family would attend the church’s outdoor Stations of the Cross display where “a live Jesus, covered in fake blood, pretended to agonize on a full-sized cross.” Tom and his older brother would weep in horror.
He stopped going to church in seventh grade, but throughout adolescence, he struggled to explain the discomfort gnawing at him when people spoke about religion.
Only in college did he find the words: He was an atheist, a “None.”
He’s not alone. While still just a sliver of the overall population, the proportion of atheists in the U.S. doubled over the last decade, reaching 4% of all adults in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. An additional 5% considered themselves agnostic, claiming nothing can be known about the existence or nonexistence of a higher power.
The share describing themselves as Christian, meanwhile, dropped to 65% in 2019, down from 77% in 2009. Protestant and Catholic identification have both ebbed.
The exodus from organized religion that is remaking America hasn’t left it a godless nation. Surveys show most of those who’ve left religious institutions behind say they still believe in a divine power.
Understanding the flight from faith, and what’s replacing it, will be critical to understanding American civic life in the future, as the religious “Nones” continue to grow into a major force.
Here’s a look at the journeys three men have taken, and their sacrifices and epiphanies along the way:
Growing up in a devout Muslim family in Pakistan, Muhammad Syed never encountered religious skeptics. “There’s a story about Muhammad flying to Jerusalem on a horse with wings. If you express any doubt about that, you’re branded a heretic,” said Syed, who now lives in Washington, D.C.
Syed moved to the U.S. in his 20s, and attended graduate school for computer science. Like Tom Van Denburgh, he found it hard to square a skeptical, rationalist view of the world with a faith tradition that required belief in the mysterious and miraculous. Several years after completing his master’s coursework, he decided he would no longer practice Islam.
Studies show those raised in a strict religious upbringing are no more likely to become Nones, said Greg Smith, head of Pew’s domestic religion polling unit.
But their paths are often more traumatic.
Shocked friends and family tried to convince Syed to return. When it was clear he had left for good, some refused to associate with him; others were so angry, they threatened him physically.
Overall, the Muslim community in the U.S. has been growing in recent years. But almost a quarter or those raised Muslim no longer identified with the faith in a 2017 Pew study.
Today, at age 42, Syed works in software development. He also runs Ex-Muslims of North America, a nonprofit he founded in 2013 to help others facing the same difficult transition.
A survey for the group by George Mason University found “leavers” cited a wide range of motivations, but most expressed a discontent with Islam’s doctrines and practices. Nearly all of them experienced blowback for their apostasy, including verbal and emotional manipulation and shattered relationships, Syed said.
Like many Americans who leave organized religion, he remains passionate about his spirituality.
“Spirituality is connectedness with the people around us, with our context in the universe,” he said. “Being a part of the universe, seeing where we are as a species, our origins, our understanding of all of that, that’s a spiritual experience.
“I personally think serving humanity is important,” Syed said.
In high school, Tom Van Denburgh came out to a friend as gay. The news raced around the school. Classmates threatened and shoved him in the hallway and “Biblical passages were hurled at me,” he said.
“I was told I was going to hell.”
Van Denburgh also began reading about the horrors of the Inquisition, Salem Witch Trials and other episodes of history in which religion became a “justification for bigotry.”
Eventually, the Bible stories he was taught as a child felt “divorced from any sense of reality and nothing more than mythology,” said Van Denburgh, 34, who now lives in Plainfield, New Jersey.
He works as communications director for American Atheists, the civil rights group founded by activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. “I focus on protecting other minorities like me from the negative aspects of religion,” he said in an interview.
In a landmark 1963 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited mandatory prayer in public schools, O’Hair explained atheists’ beliefs to the justices.
“An atheist believes that heaven is something for which we should work now – here on Earth,” she told the court. “An atheist believes that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue it and enjoy it.”
Van Denburgh spends his spare time on political activities and pushing for progressive legislation, including protections against LGBTQ discrimination. He finds fulfillment, he said, in volunteer work, friends and family and acquiring knowledge.
He doesn’t believe in any higher powers but instead in “the need to protect and preserve human rights.”
Atheists are among the most politically active group in the country, relative to their numbers, said Ryan Burge, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University who has studied the rise of the Nones.
For many Americans, “politics is the new religion,” added Joe Chuman, a professor in Columbia University’s Department of Religion. From social justice warriors on the left to MAGA believers on the right, political activists often feel they have found the truth in a way that has a religious fervor, he said.
“People today tend to be more skeptical of all types of institutions,” Chuman said. “Fewer people belong to clubs and younger people tend not to join any institution or group. People are turned off by the right-wing churches and tend to look down upon churches for not being liberal enough.”
Jay Brown was born into a conservative Christian home to parents who were globe-trotting missionaries. He followed in their footsteps, traveling from his Iowa hometown to California, Brazil and China to open the eyes of the unenlightened.
His spiritual journey has taken him much further.
Today, the 42-year-old graphic designer and father of two lives in Somerville, New Jersey, without any religious affiliation. He feels he doesn’t need to believe in divinity to be a good person and lead a meaningful life.
“Before, I had to view the bad things in the world as things that God caused” or allowed, he said. “And I had to try to make sense of that. Now, I just look at them as problems that we can try to solve without having to blame anyone or ask why it happened.”
Brown was raised in western Iowa, hanging on the words of preachers and Sunday school teachers. His family belonged to a small, fundamentalist evangelical denomination called the Plymouth Brethren.
As a child, he was encouraged to study Scripture daily. Like other atheists, he found something just didn’t click.
When he was 10, Brown was disturbed by a passage he read in the first book of Samuel in which God commanded King Saul to kill the children of the Amalekites, an ancient tribe described in the Bible as relentless enemies of Israel.
“I asked my mom about it,” Brown recalled. “She gave me several explanations why this was defensible for Israel to do against their enemies at that time in history. The answers didn’t satisfy me at all, but I nodded and figured I’d understand when I got older.”
The family moved around the world, settling in new regions to evangelize. Brown was an active participant and along the way met his wife, who also did missionary work. The couple adopted two children while overseas.
But he was never able to dismiss the slaughter of the Amalekite children or settle other practical and theological questions that nagged at him: “Do we freely choose to believe in Jesus for salvation or did God already choose who would and wouldn’t believe? How did Jesus’ body as a physical sacrifice pay for a spiritual debt of sin? And will over 70% of people throughout history go to hell just because they never heard of Jesus?”
The dissonance finally become too much two years ago. Brown announced that he was an atheist. His wife of 12 years was distraught, his two teenagers confused, friends in church aghast.
His identity, occupation and worldview, all centered on Christianity, had collapsed. Life suddenly looked very different.
While his marriage was shaken, Brown said he and his wife have realized their love for one another was greater than their disagreement over religion. He’s found Facebook a lifesaver, he said, allowing him to network with other atheists and humanist groups.
“I feel the beauty and joy of this world more deeply now. I now probably only have this one life to experience, which makes it precious and rare.” He’s good “for the sake of being good, not because of a promised reward” or because of “gods who only seem to appear in stories,” he said.
“Nothing I do will matter to the cosmos,” Brown explained, “but it will matter to the ones I love.”
Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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