A longtime Tennessee pastor recently made a public announcement that he is an atheist.
At the opening night of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's recent convention in Pittsburgh, Carter Warden, a former full-time pastor at Crossroads Christian Church in Gray, Tenn., and part-time music minister at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Johnson City, Tenn., proclaimed his disbelief.
"Freedom of thought is a wonderful thing!" Warden exults. "My hope is that my story will bring encouragement to other clergy trapped because of changing beliefs as well as all people who fear openly identifying themselves as secular."
Warden described before an attentive crowd how growing up in the highly conservative East Tennessee area prepared him for a career in an evangelical fundamentalist church. Never questioning his faith as an undergraduate bible major or in seminary, he found work in the local church enjoyable.
But as he read, Warden formed doubts after 20 years in the ministry. He began a period of research and introspection when he first started questioning his faith. Rather than resolving his questions, his intellectual journey only intensified them.
"Instead of deepening my faith, my intense study left me no choice but to abandon my once precious faith," he said in his "coming out" speech. "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."
During those eight years, as he was grappling with uncertainty, Warden became a founding member under the pseudonym of "Adam Mann" of The Clergy Project, a support group for current and former religious professionals without supernatural beliefs. As "Adam Mann," Warden was featured on ABC News in 2010, interviewed by Dan Harris, now host of "Nightline."
"All of us nonbelieving clergy have our own reasons for remaining closeted," says Warden. "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 in midstream and you can see why many learn to tough it out."
But the burden of living an inauthentic life finally became too much.
"I longed for the day when I could be completely honest and transparent about my journey from faith to reason," Warden says. "Finally being able to openly share my beliefs was so liberating that it truly is hard to put into words." At the conclusion of his talk, Warden, a musician, singer and songwriter shared an original freethought composition about his journey, bringing the crowd to its feet.
He hopes that stories like his will provide a guide for others stuck in the same predicament.
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, a former minister and a co-founder of The Clergy Project, introduced Warden, who regaled the audience with a rewritten hymn following his speech, accompanied by Barker on the piano. Barker, along with noted Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola, co-author with Dennett of "Preachers Who Are Not Believers" and "Caught in the Pulpit," and a co-founder of The Clergy Project, joined Warden on a panel after his presentation.
"Adam was clandestinely moonlighting as an atheist for too long," says Barker, author of several books, including "Godless," about his own loss of faith. "We're pleased he's free at last."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 nonreligious members all over the country, including in Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has made sure that public school employees in an Indiana school district will not continue to impose prayer during school gatherings.
Back in April, a school guard at the Rise Up Academy (the alternative high school in South Bend, Ind.) delivered a prayer at a school-wide assembly. The prayer included the following: "We thank you for being the alpha and omega, the beginning and end. I want you all to say, 'Thank God! Thank God! Amen!'" The reference to alpha and omega is taken from the New Testament's description of Jesus in several verses and shows the prayer to be specifically Christian.
It is unlawful for any school-sponsored event to include prayer or to otherwise promote religion, FFRF reminded the school district.
"The Supreme Court has continually struck down formal school-led prayer in public schools," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to South Bend Community Schools Superintendent Carole Schmidt. "Prayer as part of an assembly at the school, hosted by the school, and during the school day certainly leads 'an objective observer acquainted with the [prayer to] perceive it as state endorsement,' to quote the U.S. Supreme Court."
Besides, religion is a divisive force in public schools and particularly inappropriate to impose on schoolchildren, given that young Americans are the least religious population in the country. Including prayers in the program isolates non-Christian and nonreligious students, sending them the message that they are outsiders in their own community, FFRF asserts.
The South Bend school district took FFRF's complaint seriously and launched an investigation.
"The South Bend Community School Corporation has a number of policies in place prohibiting religion in the classroom and in the curriculum," the district's counsel said in a recent phone message. "The issue in question was a spontaneous response by an employee, not part of our curriculum. It was not planned, and we were as surprised by it as anyone else. The issue has been addressed with that employee."
FFRF welcomes the response.
"We appreciate the explanation, and we trust this sort of thing will not happen again," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "School kids provide a captive audience for religious employees to impose their agenda, making the incident particularly unconscionable."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 nonreligious members nationwide, including 300-plus in Indiana.