Americans are losing their religion. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of the American population that identifies as Christian dropped 7.8 percent between 2007 and 2014. And while there was a 1.2 percent increase in the number of people who identify with non-Christian faiths in that same period, the percentage of Americans who don't identify with a religion rose 6.7 percent.
But what about when your faith is your livelihood? After years of study and seminary, after building an entire life around your faith, what do you do when you realize the link between you and your higher power has disappeared?
The Clergy Project is an online support group that exists for former religious professionals who have found a better fit for their spiritual selves with atheism. Formed in 2011, the group aims to help ex-clergy deal with the inevitable ethical and philosophical questions that arise when leaving a faith, as well as help them adapt to life away from the spiritual world.
We spoke to several former clergy involved in the Clergy Project about how and why they abandoned their faith.
Shlomo Levin, Former Rabbi
As a rabbi, you are responsible for and called upon to answer questions. These questions range from the more profound, like, "Rabbi, what happens after we die?" to the very mundane, "Rabbi, is this yogurt kosher?" As I became older, I began to feel much less confident in my ability to know the answers to all of these questions. I found it very burdensome to have to have all the answers. People will ask after a funeral, "Can this person still hear me?" And I just have no idea. I couldn't say, "I don't know." It really weighed on my conscious to give people answers that I knew could be hurtful to them. I think a lot of people find Orthodox Judaism a source of joy. I'm all for that, if that's what they want. But at times, it was clearly not. Some people were just made to suffer.
I found it very liberating to not have belief. It's hard to live knowing that there's a God in the sky that will punish you if you don't do a certain ritual at a certain time in a certain way. It's a lot easier this way. I don't miss it at all.
John Gibbs, Former Methodist Minister
When I was in my 20s, I had a personal crisis, kind of after a breakup. I had graduated from college, but I just didn't really have any real direction. I just felt like I was drifting and that I didn't like how that felt. I started going back to church then, and it was pretty soon after that that I decided to do what people my whole life had been asking me to do, which was to follow in my father's footsteps. So I went to seminary. Then I fell into a faith crisis. I didn't get to the point where I could say I was an atheist yet, though, but it was more just questioning the specifics of Christianity, like the divinity of Christ and the resurrection. I never really had a strong belief in those things to begin with, though. I began looking at Christianity as a myth, and not in a favorable sense. From then on, I really struggled with that question of: What am I doing here? I began to regularly ask myself how I could get out.
So I spent a year or so preaching out of the Old Testament and working on how to wrap my head around Christianity's mythological perspective. When I decided to leave, my congregation were relieved. They saw what I was going through, and it wasn't pretty. Some of them were glad to see me go; others were concerned for my well-being. But I think everyone felt like me being removed was for the best.
I didn't know what to do with myself on Sundays besides go to church, so I didn't really leave the church... Then I realized that I had been looking for something that I repeatedly had not found. I know a lot of people think there's not enough community around. Religion is about the community. It's about feeling validated. I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to bring some resources into the secular culture that I think are valuable. Like some warmth. Some basis for community to coalesce around.
Scott, Former Monk Within the Self-Realization Fellowship
I always thought there was something more deep to life, rather than just what the eye could see. I got really into eastern practices of religion when I was in college. I was at a party and a friend recommended The Autobiography of a Yogi [the autobiography of Self-Realization Fellowship founder Paramahansa Yogananda] to me. I got hope from it, and frankly a lot of that was wishful thinking. I wanted there to be more than the eye could see. Once I joined, it was stifling in there. You weren't officially allowed to read other books or see other movies. We got to see movies once a month, and they were screened and censored. Same with the books. Self realization should be about just that—realizing yourself. It's a frustrating feeling. That was what led me out. It wasn't really the "God" question; it was more, "Why doesn't the system work?" I wasn't feeling what I thought I should, and I was putting it back on myself. I would tell myself I wasn't practicing it right. But then I realized, no, I was just beating myself up. It's not me, it's the system.
EJ Hill, Founder of a Dutch-Reformed Church in South Africa
I was born into the Dutch-Reformed Church of South Africa, but at the age of 16, I had a "supernatural experience," or at least, that is how I interpreted it at the time. I was convinced that God revealed himself to me, because I was chosen to fulfill a special purpose. For almost 21 years, I spent most of my free time in Bible study and apologetics. Slowly, but surely, I started looking at the Bible more critically. I quickly discovered that the God of the Bible approved of many things that I simply could not approve of, namely forced abortion, slavery, misogyny, and deception by proxy to name but a few. I quickly realized that all I, and everyone else for that matter, was doing was to confirm in our own minds that which we believed God approved of. The "small still voice" in our heads, were in fact ours, not God's. Losing my faith was one of the worst experiences of my life. My whole world fell apart. Lost many friends. Lost my wife. Lost my credibility. I had already left full-time ministry a few years earlier to pursue an independent Christian ministry. My online and offline followers were devastated. I received a lot of requests for clarification, hate mail, and criticism.
I certainly do not hate the church. I love people. Even those who disagree with me. Even those who dislike me. Despite their beliefs, churches do feed, clothe, comfort, and educate a large number of people. To simply discount that would be dishonest and short-sighted, to say the least.
I do, however, think that they are wasting a lot of time, effort, and money on nonsense.
Drew Bekius, Former Baptist Minister
I was part of what's known as "ceaseless prayer," which is the idea that you always have a constant conversation with God going on in the back of your mind at all times. During this time in my life, it turned to me begging and pleading with God to erase my doubt, to rebuild my faith. The Bible makes a lot of promises that you just have to humbly seek God, and he will restore your faith. I'd say, "OK, I'm seeking you. So build it. I've been seeking it. Please help me. One more time, please, please help me. You promised to rebuild it. So rebuild it." I was constantly seeking and constantly confessing, continually crying out.
When you're a regular person going to church, you might come across these questions, and you say, Of course, I'm just a regular person, this isn't my profession, and I haven't studied it, so of course it doesn't make sense to me. But you also might think, But it makes sense to the guy up there preaching. But we're all up there, and we're like, Well, it doesn't make sense to us either. It's kind of like Dorothy looking behind the curtain and seeing that this great, big flaming Oz is really just a guy pulling levers. That's what it's like for us, too. We've looked behind the curtain, and it's just a bunch of levers.