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Creating a Safe Harbor for Nonbelievers

March 19, 2012, 6:00 AM

In my essay "Into the Clear Air", I wrote about how people leaving religion often go through a stage of profound darkness. In the end stages of deconversion, there's acceptance and peace - even a sense of joy at rediscovering the world. But to get there, people from intensely religious backgrounds often have to leave behind everything they knew and believed, deconstructing their own value system down to the foundations.

To people who have to make this journey on their own, it's an emotionally painful and frightening voyage, like being alone and adrift on dark seas without an anchor. But the good news is that, with help and support from other atheists, this process can be greatly shortened or even skipped entirely. As the secular community grows stronger and more confident, this is something we ought to think about doing more of. We've got summer camps, student groups, lobbying organizations - how about some kind of shelter for people who are escaping religious backgrounds and need somewhere to land on their feet?

Consider the phenomenon of atheists in the clergy. This does happen; even people who become priests or ministers with the best intentions in the world, people who were deeply and truly religious when they started in their career, sometimes experience the slow spread of doubt and find themselves no longer believing in the supernatural.

Imagine the horrible situation these people find themselves in. The performance of their everyday duties requires them to lie to others about what they believe, preaching beliefs they may now consider to be wrong or even harmful. Their entire social life is interwoven with the church, so if they were to walk away, they'd lose most or all of their friends. Their professional skill set leaves them unsuited for any other job. In many cases, ministers are even dependent on their church for housing.

It seems like an almost impossible predicament. But wait - did I say that no one has a use for their skills? That's not quite true. I can think of one social and political movement that needs exactly these qualifications: in public speaking, in organizing and motivating people, in knowledgeably debating and critiquing religion. Ex-ministers bring all this to the table and a compelling background story too. They could be a great asset to the secular movement, if we could help them get out of the pulpit and into a position where they could do us some good.

And it's not just ex-clergy, either. There are people from all kinds of fundamentalist backgrounds who would escape if only they could. For every Mary Johnson or Deborah Feldman, someone who successfully cuts ties with an ultra-religious community and prospers, there are probably ten more people who want to leave but are daunted by the challenge, or don't have the resources to do it on their own. Some people who want to sail across that dark sea to the far shore are daunted by seemingly impassable reefs and shoals. But what if we could show them that there's a way out after all?

What we need is to create a safe harbor - a place where people escaping religion can land in safety, where we can help ease their transition back into the world. I don't know if this need would be best served by making it a physical shelter, like those established for survivors of violence, but it should be more than just an internet forum: it should be a way to provide real, meaningful assistance to those who need it. Even if it was just a network of freethinkers with spare bedrooms to offer, that alone could make a real difference. (There's also this very promising project, with thanks to J.T. Eberhard and the Secular Student Alliance.) For people sailing that dark sea of doubt, the secular community ought to shine out like a lighthouse, a beacon calling them to a safe harbor where the lights of inns and homes glimmer in welcome through the dusk.

Naturally, religious leaders will do their utmost to hide the fact that such a thing exists. Particularly in insular fundamentalist communities, they don't want their flock to know that they have options, and so getting the word out to would be the first and most daunting challenge. If something like this were created, maybe we could have atheist billboards include a link to it. If we make clear the path for people who want to leave their religion, we might find more people taking us up on our offer than we ever imagined!

Image: shutterstock.com


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