Conflict of careers: My journey from ministry to freethinking

Carter Warden’s speech, edited for space, was delivered Oct. 7 at FFRF’s 39th annual convention in Pittsburgh at the Wyndham Grand Hotel. He was introduced by Dan Barker:

It was the day after Easter in April 2009. I was in the office and I got a call from a Church of Christ minister from east Tennessee who told me, kind of whispering, that he had lost his faith, but was still stuck in the ministry. I knew that feeling. I told him about this Dan Dennett/Linda LaScola study (of preachers who are not believers), and he jumped at the chance to participate, as long as his privacy was guaranteed. He said he wanted to be known by the name “Adam Mann.” That’s what I know him as. In fact, I just checked my email . . . I have more than 1,600 emails from “Adam Mann.”

Then, when The Clergy Project launched in March 2011, Adam was an active participant, and he established the online forum and did all this admin work. You might have seen he was featured on “ABC Nightly News” in 2010, interviewed — behind a screen — by Dan Harris.

But tonight, after being a closeted atheist in the pulpit for many years in the biblebBelt, Adam Mann is going to come out here publicly as an atheist.

Let him know what true heathen fellowship is all about. I’m going to let him tell you his real name tonight. So Adam Mann, come on up so I can start calling you by your real name.

By Carter Warden

Wow, eight years ago I did not know what a freethought convention was, let alone ever dream that I would one day be speaking at one.

My story, while unique to my personal situation and experiences, is unfortunately not unique across this country and even around the world, because others have also found themselves trapped in the disheartening position of being a member of the clergy who no longer believes in a god or the supernatural. It is my hope that my story will bring hope to those in that perplexing situation.
Who am I? For the last eight years to many I have been known as Adam Mann, but my real name is Carter Warden. I have lived in east Tennessee since I was 4. My early religious upbringing was United Methodist, and then as teenager and young adult transitioned to the Christian Church / Church of Christ, the instrumental version as opposed to those that use no instruments in worship, because we all know how segmented the faithful can be. So I was born smack dab in the middle of American Protestantism.

Why did I choose ministry? I was an automotive technician by trade with a two-year associate degree. I have always been mechanically minded, seeing things as very black and white. Something either worked or it did not, and there was always a logical reason and corresponding repair. But after a few years of work and deepening involvement in my local church, I sought a more meaningful purpose for my life. Religion provided that for me at that time. I had married my high school sweetheart. We just celebrated our 33rd anniversary, and we now have two grown children. Early on, my wife and I decided our lives and marriage would be dedicated to ministry. I returned to school to receive an undergraduate degree in bible with a minor in sociology from a local Christian liberal arts college. I was ordained in ministry in 1988 and began preaching in a local church.

25 years a minister

The Christian Church does not require its pastors to be seminary graduates. However, a few years later I enrolled in seminary as I wanted more education and eventually received my master’s degree in religion. So for well over 25 years, I was involved in active ministry as a youth pastor, preaching pastor, small groups pastor, administrative pastor, and a worship pastor, all in the Christian Church. And then most recently, until two weeks ago, I was a part-time musician and worship leader for a United Methodist Church.

So what changed? My spiritual demise, as some would say, but what I call my intellectual enlightenment, began in July of 2008, after nearly 20 years in full-time ministry. I was leading a small group bible study where we read a Christian book entitled UnChristian. The book looked at the way the world views Christianity, focused specifically on “Mosaics” and “Busters,” those 19- to 29-year olds that the church always loses when they go off to college.

The research presented the top six criticisms that non-Christians have about Christians. They are hypocritical, anti-homosexual, sheltered, conversion-motivated, too political and judgmental. Pretty accurate, wouldn’t you say? I began to look at the big picture and I tried to step back to see what we Christians looked like from a nonbeliever’s perspective. As I seriously thought about it, I realized that if I had been approached by a nonbeliever on the subject of evolution, for example, I could not carry on an intelligent conversation. This was because most fundamental evangelical believers have shunned all secular and scientific teaching about evolution, because it is taught by the church to be “evil” and directly contradicts the literal interpretation of scripture. So I realized the indictment of non-Christians was correct: I was sheltered and ignorant in many subjects. This book challenged me to do research so that I might know my secular audience better, so that I could win them to Christ.

Getting educated

I began reading anything and everything on the topics of evolution, biology, cosmology, cognitive science, philosophy and world religions. Eventually I found myself secretly reading books and watching debates by each of the four horsemen of the new atheism: Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. I read books by Bart Ehrman, Dan Barker, Michael Shermer, Guy Harrison, Greg Epstein, John Loftus, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Prothero, Eugenie Scott, Victor Stenger, Jerry Coyne, Andrew Newberg and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as well as the writings of Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Robert Ingersoll, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, to name a few.

I knew that if Christianity were true it would withstand the distorted truth promoted by worldly wisdom. God could and would honor my sincere inquiry into the “big questions” of life and faith. Surely searching for understanding and truth would draw me even closer to him. I had always said that a faith unchallenged is really not faith at all. I loved then to quote Francis Schaeffer, who stated that for faith to have conviction of the whole person, it must be based upon the mind as well as the heart. So I found myself plunging into areas of study I had never seriously contemplated.

Between July 2008 and April 2009, I read more than 60 books, listened to hundreds of hours of lectures and debates, watched 25 documentaries and movies. I went through eight college-level courses from the Teaching Company on philosophy, evolution, New Testament, world religions, biology and human behavior.

I also audited a graduate-level class on the historical life of Christ to see what the most recent scholarship had to offer in an attempt to recover my waning faith.

The class only solidified my skepticism by showing how little we can really know about the life of Christ as recorded in the New Testament documents and outside sources, as well as the plethora of variations, inconsistencies and contradictions in the text. Realizing that I was not the first person to wrestle with doubt, I shared my struggle with a select small group of people that I knew I could trust.

No satisfactory answers

Over a period of almost one year, I met with four different bible college and seminary professors, three pastors and even a professional Christian counselor, who told me I was experiencing a “conflict of careers.” While I respected each of these people, none of them had satisfactory answers. In fact, the majority of those I spoke with suggested I leave fundamentalism and minister in a more liberal denomination.

They told me I was interpreting the text too literally. While this solution might work for some, I saw it as avoiding the ultimate question at hand: Is there really an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving, intervening God as revealed in scripture? My conclusion, after 10 months of intense study and still to this day is, no there is not.

So instead of deepening my faith, my intense study left me no choice but to abandon my once precious faith. I did not lose my faith, as though it was something that regrettably slipped away, rather I chose to discard it because it no longer made sense. Some of the major reasons I no longer believe are: the contradictions in the biblical texts, the discrepant and despicable character of God in scripture, the questions of theodicy or unexplained suffering in the world, the fallacy of answered prayer, the denial of modern science, and, in general, the harmful teachings of religion.

I agree with Dan Dennett, who, in the book Caught in the Pulpit, states that “the church has its hands full if it seeks to protect its laypeople and even religious leaders from influences of the real world.” Modern technology makes information readily available for anyone seeking answers. Therefore, the church of today faces the same dilemma that God himself fictitiously faced, rather unsuccessfully, in the garden when he tried to keep humankind from the tree of knowledge. Shouldn’t that be a red flag to all people, a warning sign when open honest inquiry is discouraged and squelched? Faith and knowledge do not go hand in hand; to me they are more like oil and water. You can temporarily mix them with constant vigorous physical and mental work, but left alone to their natural state, they repel each other.

Taking the first step

So what is a nonbelieving clergy member do? I think it was the day after Easter Sunday in 2009 that I called the Freedom From Religion Foundation and asked to speak with Dan Barker. I was sitting in my church parking lot and had blocked my cell number, in case this unknown atheist tried to turn me in to church authorities or the secular news agencies. I had read his book, Godless, and just had to speak with someone who had experienced what I was going through. I told Dan that my entire life had been given to God. My wife and children and extended family were all strong Christians. Our lives revolved around the church. We were consumed by Christianity.

It was incredible to find someone who understood, someone who had once been passionate about God, ministry and the church, but changed his mind. Allow me to read part of my email to Dan the next day. Note the fear of being identified, which almost all nonbelieving clergy have.

“Dan, I appreciate you taking my call yesterday. I am writing under a fictitious name and have created this email account just for such correspondence. I am interested in you putting me in touch with the person doing interviews for the Daniel Dennett project. . . . Again, I want to emphasize the need for confidentiality with you and your organization as well as any contact I have with the Dennett project. I know you understand the need for this. I give you permission to give my email to the Dennett contact person. Sorry I cannot remember her name. Adam”

Thus the beginning of “Adam Mann” and the first of more than 2,500 emails with Linda LaScola, whose name I will never again forget. So in 2009 I became one of the active clergy members in the original Tufts University study. After that, Linda and Dan Dennett orchestrated secret interviews that I was eager to do with ABC’s Dan Harris (2010) and with the Canadian Broadcasting Company in 2011 and 2012.

‘I am not alone’

Since Linda has shared my involvement as a secret founder, website technical administrator and eventually a forum moderator of The Clergy Project, I will only share what I learned about myself and the now nearly 770 Clergy Project members. I learned that I am not alone. I learned that reason and science are the best tools for people to discover truth, freedom, happiness and purpose for this life. I learned that goodness and morality do not come from a god. Goodness, morality, happiness, compassion, love, selfless sacrifice, and the desire to make this world a better place can be found within each of us as we accept our role as the most privileged species on Earth.

I saw this firsthand in March of 2013 when a former Catholic priest who was a member of The Clergy Project shared on the private forum that he had just been diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. Roger’s amazing positive attitude and willingness to share his pain and resolve with complete strangers was a very powerful testimony that there truly are atheists in foxholes, and that death without the hope of something beyond is not only fathomable, but to be viewed as a welcome experience in this journey of life. Roger and I exchanged emails and spoke on the phone as he awaited his imminent death. I actually interviewed Roger for more than an hour by Skype before his death. He gave me permission to edit and eventually share the video that we titled “The Acid Test of Final Farewells.” Linda and I hope to share that story and video soon on her blog.

Interviewing Roger, he told me how inspiring the work of Dawkins and Dennett had been to him. Wanting to do something special for Roger, I wrote Dennett and shared Roger’s story and phone number. One day later Roger wrote me saying, “Adam, if you did anything to facilitate the call, I thank you from the depths of my heart. It was a very heartwarming surprise and damn near midnight his time. I had often watched him as one of the four horsemen: one of the purer essences of the goodness of this universe.” Roger died peacefully at his home less than two weeks after my interview and Dennett’s call. Peace, compassion, purpose – all exhibited in the lives of those who are not believers. Truly a real testimony of goodliness without godliness.

No more pretending

So why go public now? While doing one interview for The Clergy Project, I was asked what fears I had. I answered then that “my greatest fear is doing nothing at all and pretending to be someone I am not for the rest of my life.” All of us nonbelieving clergy have our own reasons for remaining closeted. Many, like me, refrain from telling others because we do not want to hurt or embarrass family members and friends. Combine this with the financial stress of trying to change one’s career midstream and you can see why many learn to tough it out and put up with the cognitive dissonance and the gut-wrenching feeling of inauthenticity. Yet I longed for the day when I could be completely honest and transparent about the journey from faith to reason, especially with those I loved the most.

In 2013, I realized I had to give up some of my responsibilities with The Clergy Project so I could truly focus on changing careers. Thankfully, I found a good job at a local university and quietly oozed out of full-time ministry. But because of the financial needs of my family, I worked part-time as a music minister. Maybe I should have been happy with the way things were, because who knew the difference? God didn’t seem to care and what the people don’t know won’t hurt them, right? I really tried for almost two years to see if I could live under the radar. I logged off of The Clergy Project forum and gave up my role as moderator and website administrator. I stopped reading about and corresponding with anyone from any freethought organizations. I even stopped emailing Linda, Dan Barker and Dan Dennett for an extended period of time. Maybe I could learn to live with the tension? And I did for a little while, but I still ultimately had to live with myself.

‘Tell people now’

During that time, I attended several funerals and actually sang at many of them for family and church friends. I would think, “I do not want to be remembered as a spiritual person. I am not a man of faith. I am a man of reason and science. I want to enjoy this one short life I have. I want people to know I rejected faith and lived a meaningful, happy life without it.” I told that to my daughter one day and she replied, “Dad, it won’t matter when you are dead, so tell people now.”

My true voice has been suppressed and silenced and, as a result, I have been living a life of secrecy, duplicity and hypocrisy. But that stops today. I finally found the boldness to openly proclaim to the world that I am no longer a member of the clergy or a person of faith. I live with reason as my guide and I am an atheist.

Freedom From Religion Foundation