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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 skreporter@hotmail.com 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!

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