Tom Van Denburgh’s transformation from believer to skeptic didn’t happen all at once, “a-ha!” moment.
Rather, it was a slow, steady march to a new truth.
Growing up in the northern New Jersey suburbs, Van Denburgh attended a private Christian academy with “too much emphasis on hell and brimstone” and an unhealthy preoccupation with Satan, he recalls.
Every Easter weekend, his family attended the church’s open-air Stations of the Cross exhibit where “a living Jesus, covered in fake blood, pretended to be dying on a normal-sized cross.” Tom and his older brother would cry in horror.
He quit going to church in seventh grade, but throughout his teenage years he struggled to explain the unease that plagued him when people talked about religion.
It was only at university that he found the words: he was an atheist, a “none”.
He is not alone. While still only a fraction of the global population, the proportion of atheists in the United States has doubled over the past decade, reaching 4% of all adults in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. Another 5% saw themselves as agnostics, claiming that nothing could be known about the existence or non-existence of a Higher Power.
The share describing itself as Christian, meanwhile, fell to 65% in 2019, from 77% in 2009. Protestant and Catholic identification both declined.
The exodus of organized religion that is remaking America did not leave it an impious nation. Polls show that most of those who have left religious institutions say they still believe in divine power.
Understanding the flight of faith, and what replaces it, will be essential to understanding American civic life in the future, as religious ânunsâ continue to become a major force.
Here’s a look at the journeys three men took, along with their sacrifices and revelations along the way:
Growing up in a staunch Muslim family in Pakistan, Muhammad Syed never encountered religious skeptics. âThere is a story about Muhammad flying to Jerusalem on a horse with wings. If you express any doubt about it you are called a heretic,â said Syed, who now lives in Washington, DC.
Syed moved to the United States in her twenties and attended graduate school in computer science. Like Tom Van Denburgh, he struggled to reconcile a skeptical and rationalistic view of the world with a religious tradition that required belief in the mysterious and the miraculous. Several years after completing his master’s courses, he decided he would no longer practice Islam.
Studies show that those raised in a strict religious upbringing are no longer likely to become Nuns, said Greg Smith, head of Pew’s national religion voting unit.
But their journeys are often more traumatic.
Jessica Koscielniak, USA TODAY
Shocked friends and family tried to convince Syed to return. When it became clear that he was gone for good, some refused to associate with him; others were so angry that they threatened him physically.
Overall, the Muslim community in the United States has grown in recent years. But nearly a quarter of high Muslim people no longer identify with the faith in a 2017 Pew study.
Today, at 42, Syed works in software development. He also runs Ex-Muslims of North America, a non-profit organization he founded in 2013 to help others facing the same difficult transition.
A survey conducted for the group by George Mason University found that “leavers” cited a wide range of motivations, but most expressed dissatisfaction with the doctrines and practices of Islam. Almost all of them have suffered a backlash for their apostasy, including verbal and emotional manipulation and broken relationships, said Syed.
Like many Americans who leave organized religion, he remains passionate about his spirituality.
âSpirituality is the connection with the people around us, with our context in the universe,â he said. âBeing part of the universe, seeing where we are as a species, where we come from, our understanding of it all, is a spiritual experience.
âI personally think serving humanity is important,â said Syed.
In high school, Tom Van Denburgh revealed his homosexuality to a friend. The news spread around the school. Classmates threatened and pushed him into the hallway and “Bible passages were thrown at me,” he said.
“I was told I was going to hell.”
Van Denburgh also began reading about the horrors of the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and other episodes in 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 director of communications for American Atheists, the civil rights group founded by activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. “I focus on protecting other minorities like myself from the negative aspects of religion,” he said in an interview.
In a landmark 1963 case in which the United States Supreme Court outlawed compulsory prayer in public schools, O’Hair explained the beliefs of atheists to judges.
âAn atheist believes that heaven is something we should be working for now – here on Earth,â she told the court. “An atheist believes that he cannot get any help by prayer but that he must find within himself the inner conviction and the strength to face life, to fight it, to master it and to enjoy it.”
Van Denburgh spends his free time political activities and lobbying for progressive legislation, including protections against LGBTQ discrimination. He thrives, he says, in volunteer work, friends and family, and learning.
Michael Karas, NorthJersey.com
He does not believe in superior powers but rather 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, professor in the religion department at Columbia University. 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 religious fervor, he said.
âPeople today tend to be more skeptical of all types of institutions,â Chuman said. âFewer people belong to clubs and young people tend not to join any institution or group. People are put off by right-wing churches and tend to despise churches because they are not liberal enough.
Jay Brown was born into a conservative Christian home to globetrotting missionary parents. He followed in their footsteps, traveling from his hometown of Iowa to California, Brazil and China to open the eyes of the unenlightened.
His spiritual journey took him much further.
Today, the 42-year-old graphic designer and father of two lives in Somerville, New Jersey, with no religious affiliation. He feels that he doesn’t need to believe in divinity to be a good person and lead a meaningful life.
âBefore, I had to see the bad things in the world as things that God had caused and I had to try to make sense of that,â he said. “Now I just see them as issues that we can try to resolve without having to blame anyone or ask why this happened.”
Kevin R. Wexler, NorthJersey.com
Brown grew up in western Iowa clinging to the words of Sunday School preachers and teachers. His family belonged to a small evangelical fundamentalist denomination called Plymouth Brethren.
As a child, he was encouraged to study the scriptures daily. Like other atheists, he discovered that something was just not working.
When he was 10 years old, Brown was troubled by a passage he read in the 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.
âI asked my mom about it,â Brown recalls. âShe gave me several explanations as to why Israel could do this against its enemies at this time in history. I was not at all satisfied with the answers, but I nodded and thought I would understand when I was older.
The family moved around the world, settling in new areas to evangelize. Brown was an active participant and along the way met his wife, who also did missionary work. The couple adopted two children abroad.
But he was never able to grasp the guilt of the Amalekites or settle other practical and theological questions that plagued him: “Do we freely choose to believe in Jesus for salvation or has God already chosen who?” would believe and who would not believe? “Will a body as a physical sacrifice pay a spiritual debt of sin?” And will over 70% of people throughout history go to hell just because they have never heard of Jesus? ”
The dissonance finally got too strong two years ago. Brown announced that he was an atheist. His 12-year-old wife was distraught, his two teenage boys confused, church friends aghast.
Its identity, occupation and worldview, all centered on Christianity, had collapsed. Life suddenly seemed very different.
As his marriage rocked, Brown said he and his wife stayed together determined to make the relationship work. He found Facebook to save his life, he said, allowing him to network with other atheist and humanist groups.
“I feel the beauty and joy of this world more deeply now. I now probably only have one life to live, which makes it precious and rare.” He is good “for the sake of being good, not because of a promised reward” or because of “gods who seem to only appear in stories,” he said.
“Nothing I do will matter to the cosmos,” Brown explained, “but it will matter to those I love.”
Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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