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5 Religious Leaders Who Gave Up the Faith and Became Outspoken Atheists and Agnostics

What if renouncing your faith meant losing everything?

The percentage of Americans who have abandoned religious faith has been growing rapidly in recent years, with one in five Americans citing “none” as their religious affiliation. Most of these people have little to fear when it comes to admitting they have no religion, but for a small subset of religious believers, quitting faith is one of the hardest choices they’ll have to make in their lives. What happens to people who lose their faith in God after they’ve taken on a position as a religious leader? Here’s an examination of five prominent skeptics of religion who used to consider themselves not just believers, but leaders, and how they’ve learned to cope with life after religion.

1) Dan Barker. Religion was a major part of Dan Barker’s life for more than two decades. He became an evangelical Christian in his early teens and entered a career as a preacher who specialized in spreading the Christian faith through music. He wrote popular religious children’s musicals, worked heavily with Christian singer Manuel Bonilla, and accompanied many other famous Christian musicians.

Over the years, however, Barker’s reading caused him to start to doubt the truth not just of Christianity, but claims of God altogether. In 1984, he publicly came out as an atheist. Since then,  Barker has become a prominent atheist leader and author, writing two books about his journey and working with the Clergy Project and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Despite his past--or because of it--Barker shows  no reticence in criticizing his former faith. “How happy can you be when you think every action and thought is being monitored by a judgmental ghost?” he asks, while affirming rationalism as the surer path to a happy existence.

2) Jerry DeWitt. For some, leaving religion exacts a high price. Jerry DeWitt lost his faith after 25 years in the Pentecostal ministry in Bible Belt rural America. DeWitt, who was converted at age 17 in Jimmy Swaggart’s church, hung onto his religion as long as he could, but finally could no longer hide his lack of belief.

While he found a welcoming community among atheists, particularly through the Clergy Project (devoted to helping ministers who have lost their faith) and the group Recovering From Religion, DeWitt still faced many practical concerns as a result of his deconversion. As  recounted in a profile for the New York Times, DeWitt lost his job, his wife, and much of his connection to his community in his hometown of DeRidder, LA. While he is getting back on his feet with his work at  Recovering From Religion and a  grant from the Clergy Project, DeWitt’s story shows that for many atheists, the price for being true to your conscience remains high.

3) Teresa MacBain. Teresa MacBain described to NPR the hell that is continuing to serve as a minister after losing your faith in God: “I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that's totally false.”

MacBain continued to serve as a minister despite having concluded that she didn’t believe in no small part because she feared the economic devastation that would follow if she didn’t have her job as a minister any longer. Eventually, with moral support from the Clergy Project, she moved on to become an outspoken atheist and the executive director of Humanists of Florida.

MacBain describes a lifetime of squelching doubts, going back to her adolescence, when she noticed the internal contradictions in the Bible. Despite decades of trying to ignore her doubts, her inherent nature as a questioner eventually came out. She described her deconversion to  American Atheist Magazine: “I didn’t want to lose my faith. I didn’t want to change or stop believing, but I wanted truth more!”

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