This is an article by Pamela Whissel. It appears in the 1st Quarter 2013 issue of American Atheist Magazine. American Atheist is available at Barnes & Noble and Book World bookstores in the US and Chapters Indigo bookstore in Canada. You can subscribe to the magazine by clicking here.
Oklahoma, according to Seth Andrews, is known for two things: tornadoes and churches, and the tornadoes are easier to escape. Born into a family of six children, he was raised by devoutly religious parents who lived and taught a literal Bible. It was a life packed with religious discussion and debate—but never questions or doubts.
In his new book, Deconverted: A Journey from Religion to Reason, he talks about those first doubts and takes readers on a deeply personal journey of coming out. He has shared much of that journey on his website, TheThinkingAtheist.com, which he created as his response to his own “childhood indoctrination, the overwhelming wave of religious messages in our society, and the countless throngs who make ridiculous claims and dismiss skeptical voices with warnings of eternal torture.”
One of the missions of American Atheist is to be a handbook of how to come out as a non-believer, how to show someone else the way out, and how to live with the atheist stigma while working to eliminate it from public life. Seth’s story is a valuable page in the handbook.
When you refer to your childhood indoctrination, it makes me think of an extremely fundamentalist upbringing. Was that the case?
My father came from a conservative Lutheran background, but left that denomination to embrace a worldview that, if I had to pin it down, was probably closest to Baptist. My mother was the product of the Pentecostal church, right down to the belief in “speaking in tongues.” It was an unusual union, but it gave me an almost equal taste of both cultures, and their strong opinions were often fodder for spirited debate.
How did they decide which church to attend as a family?
We attended church, but not as a family, and not regularly. My father suffers from a profound hearing loss, so attending church as a family meant he would sit for 90 minutes without being able to hear a word of the sermon. My parents also had a thick religious vocabulary, so trips to church often digressed into a forensic examination of the pastor’s message.
So you were essentially home-churched?
My siblings and I were still encouraged to attend somewhere, and if we didn’t do that, the alternative was a potpourri of Sunday morning television preachers from Robert Schuller to Kenneth Copeland to the local pastor at Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa. It was a hodge-podge of doctrine, but my parents were usually close by, ready to correct any “false” or “disputable” teachings coming out of the TV.
What about school?
I was pulled from public school after third grade because I came home one day that year and shared with my parents what I had learned about Neanderthal man. So for fourth grade, they enrolled me at Temple Christian School in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. It was a tiny private institution—with “institution” being a very appropriate word. The dress code dictated dress slacks for the boys and homemade dresses for the girls. The only acceptable colors were red, white and blue. We were taught scripture as fact, right alongside history, math, and science. That place was literally a “biosphere,” as it was completely insulated from the outside world.
From the fifth grade through my junior year of high school, I attended Eastwood Baptist School, a less stuffy, more mainstream private school, and when it closed in 1985, I finished high school back in the biosphere.
When did the doubt begin?
Not until adulthood. You see, while I was outwardly encouraged to ask questions, if any answers fell outside the narrow confines of scripture, those answers were immediately discarded as false teachings. Doubt was a sin, or at the very least, the whisperings of Satan in your ear. We were often told the story of Doubting Thomas in John 20, with Thomas’ doubts being, of course, a poor example to follow.
I was raised to shrug and say “Father knows best” if something didn’t make sense. I once heard a conference leader suggest that believers should literally blink away doubts, because blinking interrupts any train of thought conflicting with God’s Word. The idea of a godless universe was unthinkable.
The first real seeds of doubt were planted in my own life after the 1997 death of Christian songwriter Rich Mullins. As the host of a religious morning show on KXOJ-FM in Tulsa, I was charged one day to inform our listeners that Mullins had been tossed out of his Jeep and horribly killed on the highway by an oncoming truck. As I spoke words of comfort to our listeners and callers, I struggled to reconcile the notion that the God of Matthew 10, the one who considered us worth “more than many sparrows,” would design or abide the taking of Mullins’ earthly life in such a pointless, gruesome manner. Why would God propel Rich Mullins into the spotlight merely to plunge millions of fans into mourning and leave his family and friends to grieve over a closed casket? And would the funeral even have been necessary if Rich had only been wearing his seatbelt?
How did you come to be a Christian broadcaster?
I wanted to work in the field of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), so in 1990, I applied for an announcer position at KXOJ and quickly advanced from part-time and weekends to be their morning show host. I was with them for a decade and then joined Clear Channel’s Tulsa radio line-up for a few years. I wanted to work in that field because I loved the music, artists, the culture, and the idea that as a broadcaster, I was helping Christ reach people.
Did you do anything with that doubt at first?
Not at first. The second major event didn’t happen until September 11, 2001. I have an entire chapter devoted to that day in my book, but suffice it to say that my increasingly suspicious mind was assaulted by the empty god-speak surrounding the stories of the fallen towers, the dead and wounded, and the assertions that the carnage was merely God’s way of chastising a rebellious nation. I looked at the death and debris, and I didn’t see God anywhere.
After 9/11 had rattled my religious cage, my faith went into a kind of muted, dormant phase. The pinging of doubt in the back of my head had amplified into a full-on siren, but I compartmentalized my questions and kept them in a kind of mental storage. Doubt was always there, but I focused on other things.
It was a cop-out, really. I was speaking the words of Christianity, but I didn’t attend church or pray because it seemed ridiculous. I addressed all topics about spirituality with a kind of nebulous, general attitude: Sure, the doctrines don’t make sense, but surely God is real. Now let’s talk about something else.
What brought the full-on siren out of mental storage?
Because of my insider’s perspective on the churches I served as a broadcaster and producer, I witnessed conflicting sermons within denominations. I saw pastors forced to surrender their pulpits due to all manner of afflictions, political posturing, and the occasional scandal. I watched people, largely uneducated about their own holy book, gladly shell out a portion of their hard-earned income in exchange for promises of blessings and favors from above. I saw firsthand how churches operate as marketing machines, striving to emulate the most attractive elements of secular pop culture in order to increase their attendance, income, and influence.
Ultimately, I observed that human beings were doing all of the work, invoking God but obviously functioning in the cause-and-effect world of human problems and human solutions. These people were adorning their efforts in flowery speech, inspiring songs, and long-winded prayers, but the window dressing didn’t mask the fact that they were doing all of the heavy lifting. God wasn’t their co-pilot. God wasn’t even in the vehicle.
I eventually stumbled onto a YouTube video of Christopher Hitchens. I was glued to the monitor as he fearlessly skewered the god I had been trained never to question. I had never seen an approach like his, and as lightning never struck him from above, I found myself emboldened to start asking some questions on my own. For the first time in my life, I read the Bible objectively and without a filter. It was like seeing scripture for the first time; the inconsistencies, the bloodshed, and the whole gruesome and contradictory mess left me with a host of questions.
I decided to present these questions to the “experts” in my own circle, but the ridiculous, lazy, and often offensive answers I received only drove me further from belief. The apologists charged to defend God’s Word actually propelled me toward and ultimately into apostasy. Every religious charge would become an opportunity for me to vet their information, to verify their claims against legitimate science and history, and invariably, the claims of Christianity vaporized under the white-hot light of scrutiny.
Certainly, they had passion. They’d attempt to bring me back into the safety of the fold with the entire arsenal of apologist weaponry. They claimed that the scientific community was merely a tool of Satan. They presented equations which proved that all manner of animals could indeed fit inside Noah’s ark. They sent links about everything from the Shroud of Turin to Hitler, to articles about the geologic column and sermons about prophecy. And, of course, when all else failed, they proclaimed that Christianity is real because they once had a “personal experience.”
Honestly, it took years for me to gain the courage to even challenge the Bible stories of my youth. I compare it to a hospital patient coming out of a long-term coma. In the movies, the protagonist wakes up from a deep sleep, immediately hops out of bed, grabs the girl, and saves the day. Of course, in real life, this is ludicrous. Emergence from a coma takes days, even weeks, with the patient often only marginally conscious and very disoriented. This is what emerging from religion is like for many. Achieving true lucidity often takes a lot of time and, in many cases, some real assistance from others until you have the strength to stand on your own.
When did you eventually feel that strength?
As my doubts came to critical mass, I didn’t jump out and exclaim, “Hey! This is all crap!” I strategized that it might be best to start with questions, and I started at the top…with my parents. Obviously, after a volley of emails, they got wise to the very real struggle I was going through and immediately went into rescue mode. I didn’t say the word “atheist” to them until late 2008, but they probably saw the train coming.
What was their reaction?
Of course, they were — and continue to be — heartbroken. I completely understand how difficult it must be for a parent to spend so much time and so many resources in a genuine attempt to protect a beloved child from hell. My parents sacrificed so much to keep me immersed in the faith; to see me take such a drastic and public stand against those values has strained our relationship for years. Even when religion isn’t mentioned at all, it’s the elephant in the room. It often seems like the words unspoken are louder than the small talk that masks them.
You’ve also sacrificed a great deal in order to be true to yourself.
I haven’t sacrificed much compared to so many in this world, but my apostasy has made the last few years a real gauntlet of difficult situations. It makes my own heart ache to know what my parents are going through, but I don’t blame myself for their pain. I blame the superstition that has convinced my mother and father that their beloved son is destined for an eternal torture chamber designed firsthand by the very god they give allegiance to. I blame the culture of insulation that kept me from even hearing about Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Dan Barker, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, Donald Prothero, and so many others. That culture delayed my true introduction to science for decades. I blame the happy-clappy institutions of ignorance that diminish this life and program its patrons to spend their entire existence working to achieve mansions and pearly gates in the sky.
Did you ever doubt your own doubt?
I struggled with the fear of hell for a few years, quietly asking myself, “What if I get this one wrong? Think about the consequences!” Fortunately, as I continued to emerge from my coma, and as I continued to educate myself about the obviously man-made notion of hell, those fears waned, and now I feel a sense of total liberation. My search for the truth continues daily, and I’ve always said that, if Jesus proves himself tomorrow, I’ll issue a public apology and refocus my efforts on Christ’s behalf. But I’m not holding my breath, and as science has provided the only truly satisfactory answers in my newly-freed mind, I can’t imagine ever crawling back into the religious cocoon.
How did you come to establish The Thinking Atheist?
I was motivated to start the website [TheThinkingAtheist.com] for two main reasons. One was to compensate for the physical isolation I felt in living Oklahoma, surrounded by Christianity. I wanted to connect online with other non-believers. The other reason was to share some of the information that I had found helpful in the hope of making the journey out of superstition easier for others.
I wanted to try and bring something fresh to the table, to produce compelling videos and present solid information in a way that was also entertaining. As a professional audio and video producer, I lamented the dearth of quality in the atheism-related materials I so often encountered online. There were a few gems among the coals, but mostly, the sites I visited were overwhelming text-fests that, in my opinion, simply weren’t going get the attention of many people.
It’s unpopular in some atheist circles to assert that our materials would reach more people if they were sometimes made a little “cooler,” punctuated with the features used all the time in television and films. Some resources will be thick and text-driven by necessity, but I’m convinced that many others could use a facelift. We should be presenting the most palatable message possible to our media-savvy audience. I’m just a humble video producer in a vast ocean of them, but I thought I might be able to have at least a subtle impact.
The impact has been more than subtle. I think you’ve nailed it.
The Thinking Atheist (TTA) videos remain popular on YouTube. The weekly radio podcast audience is growing, with more than 310,000 downloads in November, a 400% increase from the previous year. And I’m hearing a tremendous number of stories from TTA users about their own journeys toward reason. Free-thinkers are rallying together, challenging each other, supporting one another and becoming a greater force for reason every single day here in the United States. Religion remains on the offensive, but the resistance is growing.
What made you decide to write Deconverted?
I’ve been asked a lot if I would ever tell my story in detail, in book form. In an age when so many people are out there hawking their wares, I initially resisted, but I’ve come to the conclusion that my story can encourage those who are currently navigating the hard road out of religion and can educate lifelong believers about how the church operates. I also talk a lot about my tenure in Christian music, a topic which seems to fascinate people. Deconverted essentially walks the reader from deep inside the religious bubble to a behind-the-scenes look at The Thinking Atheist. I’m tremendously proud of it. If it helps just one person to embrace doubt, to entertain curiosity, to gain courage and to perhaps, one day, find freedom from superstition, well… that’s what it’s all about.
Deconverted is available as a paperback from BarnesAndNoble.com and Amazon and as a download on Nook and Kindle. The audio book is on Audible.Com and iTunes.
The Thinking Atheist Radio Podcast airs Tuesdays at 6:00 p.m., Central Time. Go to TheThinkingAtheist.com to hear the podcast, read Seth’s blog, watch his videos, and participate in the forum.
Pamela Whissel is the editor of American Atheist Magazine.