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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.