Overview:

Former evangelicals foresee an incoming wave of disaffected ex-Christians who didn't simply drift away from their faith, they fled it.

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Religion News Service posted an article recently about the group exodus of nonreligious bloggers from Patheos over the last few weeks, along with the launch of OnlySky, a new multimedia platform aimed at reaching an ever-broadening population who are no longer looking for heaven to solve our problems. When we look up, we see only sky.

If it weren’t for John Lennon, what would agnostics and Unitarians have left to sing when we gather?

Toward the end of the RNS article, the author quotes religion and media professor Diane Winston:

“There are people passionate about secularism, atheism and agnosticism, perhaps because they don’t like what they see about religion in the news…But that’s a small minority of the people who make up the unaffiliated or disaffiliated. A lot of those people don’t care one way or another.”

Statistically speaking, she’s not wrong. Among those who answer “none of the above” to the religion question (currently around 30 percent of the American population), only about 30 percent of that group call themselves either atheist or agnostic. Those labels have a very limited usage, and they lose their relevance in decreasingly religious contexts. They say more about what you don’t believe than about what you do.

Abandoning ship

What these statistics don’t show is how many of those who are currently driving the numbers up are leaving their faiths under circumstances more traumatizing than we typically saw in the past. When I broke up with Jesus about a decade ago, people largely kept such matters to themselves for fear of reprisals (and many still do). You had to go looking to find others like you. Now it seems like every week, I hear about a new celebrity minister or Christian recording artist who’s come out of the apostasy closet.

The relentless politicization of the American church is to blame for much of this. Ever since the shotgun wedding uniting Evangelicals and the Republican Party at the dawn of the Reagan era, the Church in America has relied on the GOP to learn what it’s supposed to be upset about. First it was feminism and porn (and Russia), then it was abortion and gay marriage. Here lately it seems to be devolving into conspiracy theories, cults of personality, and white Christian nationalism.

Related: “What does the Bible say about abortion?

You can’t really leave a faith that already left you, and I think more and more people are beginning to feel that way.

Ever since the shotgun wedding of Evangelicals and the Republican Party, the Church in America has relied on the GOP to learn what it’s supposed to be upset about.

For this reason, I also suspect a growing proportion of those who leave their faiths used to be in leadership positions prior to joining the ranks of the Nones. I call these the Dones—they’ve already been there and done that, and they’ve probably still got the t-shirts. They are the exvangelicals who left not because they didn’t care enough, but because they cared too much. They did exactly as they were told, and that was their biggest mistake.

Perhaps after watching their heroes succumb to Trumpism, they finally had their Wizard of Oz moment and could no longer stand behind the curtain, turning wheels and pulling levers in order to keep producing The Show. They’ve spent a lifetime pursuing the Wizard, only to wake up one day to find that it’s them—they are the person behind the curtain, and they just can’t do it anymore.

The RNS article suggested few people care to delve so deeply into understanding what makes religious communities tick. I think it understates how many people are facing crises of faith in the midst of a global pandemic, and it overlooks what we stand to gain from broadening the conversation.

Those of us who had to think our way out of our faiths can shed some light on why people fall so easily for bad ideas and misinformation, especially in large groups. We’ve had to learn to distrust our own programming and perceptions, developing our critical thinking skills to the point that many of us can smell bullsh*t from a mile away.

Ready for company?

The way things are going, I foresee an incoming wave of disaffected former believers who didn’t simply drift away from their faith, they fled it. They left it intentionally, just like they do everything else, and they still have a lot of questions.

In other words, I think the sort of Nones we will see in the coming years will have more to unpack than ever before. These aren’t the people who were always tangentially connected to religion anyway. They are the ones who were there at church every time the doors were open. In fact, they probably had the keys.

The better job we do providing an online place for these people to land, the more we will get to hear their stories and learn from them. The breadth and depth of their experience may surprise you, and I want to hear what they have to contribute. Now that we’ve explored the God question to our own personal satisfaction, I want to know: what’s next? That’s what OnlySky is ultimately about.

Now that we’ve explored the God question to our own personal satisfaction, I want to know: what’s next? That’s what OnlySky is ultimately about.

Over the last few months, I’ve lost count of how many movies and streaming series I’ve watched that clearly were written to deconstruct and critique religion from the perspective of someone deeply familiar with its inner workings. I feel like I could spend weeks unpacking the symbolism woven throughout Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House alone, but the list of titles goes on and on. Most recently it was Mother! and just before that even Don’t Look Up had a thing or two to say about the role of religion in public life.

We are joining in on conversations already in progress, and they’re only getting better. I’m seeing more artists and thinkers exploring their own personal deconstruction projects—and not always just from religion–in ways that engage us on a deeper level than blogs alone could do. I’m excited to see what’s next, and I feel like we’ve found a place to keep the conversation going.

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...