Preachers Who Awaken…:
“One indicator of religious decline in America is the significant
number of clergy who cease believing the supernatural tenets of their
churches. Deep, deep inside, some preachers gradually sense that their
lives are devoted to fantasy. They come to suspect that creeds, dogmas
and scriptures about deities and devils, heavens and hells, miracles and
messiahs, are fiction. But they don’t dare reveal such qualms, lest
they wreck their careers, their status, and their pensions. So they
hedge in the pulpit, speaking in metaphors, living a pose.
However, a few have integrity enough to chuck it all — to throw away
everything they worked hard to attain, and publicly disavow their past
beliefs. Such traumatic reversals require courage and honesty.
A couple of my friends, Richard and Dotty Kendig, grew up in
fundamentalist families, were married in Bible college, were ordained,
and became missionaries to Peru. They were deeply compassionate and
truly desired to help primitive Amazon villagers. But they were repelled
as they watched fellow missionaries abuse the natives, treat them with
contempt, and count them only as “souls” to be added to the convert
list. Some missionaries forced native women to cover their bodies, and
stormed into huts to smash yucca beer pots. After fifteen years, the
Kendigs quit, leaving with humanist values.
“We went there to convert the Indians, and they converted us,” Dick
sometimes told me.
How many other ministers undergo this type of pilgrim’s progress,
slowly abandoning supernatural faith? Here are some famous cases:
CHARLES TEMPLETON Growing up in Toronto, Templeton was afire with intelligence and
creativity. He became a teen-age sports cartoonist for the Globe and
Mail newspaper. Later he experienced an emotional conversion, started
his own church, and rose rapidly to be Canada’s top evangelist in the
1940s. He became a major broadcast preacher. He teamed up with Billy
Graham for huge revivals in arenas across America and Europe, “saving”
thousands. Together, they spread Youth For Christ International.
But Templeton began having intellectual problems with fundamentalism.
Trying to make his religion rational, he earned a degree from Princeton
Theological Seminary, then became a special preacher for the National
Council of Churches, then became head of evangelism for the Presbyterian
Church USA.The changes didn’t save his church career. His doubts wiped out his
faith. In 1957, he announced that he was an agnostic and renounced
Christianity — stunning the evangelical world in which he had been a
Templeton’s drive swiftly took him to new achievements. He became a
Canadian television commentator — then managing editor of the Toronto
Star — then a leader of the Ontario Liberal Party — then an advertising
executive — then editor of Maclean’s Magazine — then host of a
long-running daily radio show. By the 1980s, he had retired mostly into
writing, turning out novels and nonfiction books.In the 1990s, just before Alzheimer’s beset him, Templeton summed up his religious transformation in Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith. It was another slam to the church community that once adored him.
His book says Christianity rests on “fables” that no
scientific-thinking person can swallow. The church teaches “beliefs that
are outdated, demonstrably untrue, and often, in their various
manifestations, deleterious to individuals and to society,” the former
Page after page, he lists Bible miracles that are absurd to modern
minds. Then he asks how an all-merciful father-creator could have made
such a cruel universe: “All life is predicated on death. Every carnivorous creature must
kill and devour another creature. It has no option…. Why does God’s
grand design require creatures with teeth designed to crush spines or
rend flesh, claws fashioned to seize and tear, venom to paralyze, mouths
to suck blood, coils to constrict and smother – even expandable jaws so
that prey may be swallowed whole and alive?… Nature is, in Tennyson’s
vivid phrase, ‘red in tooth and claw,’ and life is a carnival of blood….
How could a loving and omnipotent God create such horrors?”
His book concludes: “I believe that there is no supreme being with
human attributes – no God in the biblical sense – but that all life is
the result of timeless evolutionary forces…. I believe that, in common
with all living creatures, we die and cease to exist.”
Templeton died and ceased to exist in 2001.
MARJOE GORTNER Instead of writing a book about his apostasy, Gortner made a movie.He was a remarkable denizen of the underbelly of religion. His
parents were California evangelists leading revivals that were
money-making hokum. Onstage, they exchanged secret signals while
manipulating worshipers to emotional peaks and extracting large
offerings from them. They sold “holy” gimmicks guaranteed to heal the
sick.They named their son Marjoe for Mary and Joseph, and trained him as a
squeaky child preacher, a religious sensation. They drilled him in
sermons and stage antics, sometimes holding his head underwater to force
him to memorize his lines, Marjoe later recounted.
At age three, he was ordained by the Church of the Old-Time Faith. At
four, he performed a wedding, triggering an uproar that caused
California legislators to forbid marriages by preachers under
For ten years, Marjoe the boy wonder performed across the South and
Midwest Bible Belt. He estimated that his parents raked in $3 million.
Then Marjoe ran off at fourteen and lived with an older woman who served
as both lover and surrogate mother. Eventually he returned to the
revival circuit, strutting and prancing onstage as his parents had
taught him. Money rolled in again.
Gortner knew that his religious act was a sham. Yet, strangely, he
had an honest streak and decided to expose his own fraud. He engaged a
film crew to make a documentary about his ministry. After revival shows,
the cameras followed the preacher to hotel rooms where he tossed
armfuls of money, crowing “Thank you, Jesus!”
The film, Marjoe, jolted the fundamentalist world when it was
released in 1972. As an ex-preacher, Gortner became a minor movie star
and recording artist. He went bankrupt while attempting to produce a
movie about a crooked evangelist. In 1995, he appropriately played a
preacher in Wild Bill.
During Gortner’s heyday on the revival stage, another star was
faith-healer A.A. Allen, who toured with jars containing bodies he said
were demons he had cast out of the sick. (Doubters said they were
frogs.) Allen disappeared after a show at Wheeling, West Virginia — and
was found dead of alcoholism in a San Francisco hotel room, his pockets
crammed with wads of cash.
Gortner said Allen once taught him how to tell when a revival is
finished and it’s time to travel to the next city: “When you can turn
people on their head and shake them and no money falls out, you know
God’s saying, ‘Move on, son.‘”
JAMES BALDWIN Some bookish Americans may not know that Baldwin, the great black author, formerly was a boy evangelist like Gortner.
Baldwin grew up in Harlem, where his tyrannical stepfather was pastor
of Fireside Pentecostal Assembly. In a New Yorker essay titled “Down at
the Cross,” later published in his civil rights book, The Fire Next Time, Baldwin recounted the bitter hopelessness of the ghetto, where jobless men fought and drank themselves into the gutter.The surrounding misery “helped to hurl me into the church,” he wrote.
As a child, at a prayer meeting, “everything came roaring, screaming,
crying out, and I fell to the ground before the altar. It was the
strangest sensation I have ever had in my life.” Newly “saved,” he
became a fourteen-year-old junior preacher at the family church and soon
was “a much bigger drawing card than my father.”
“That was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the
most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my
sermons – for a while,” Baldwin wrote. Since crime and vice filled
surrounding streets, he said, “it was my good luck – perhaps – that I
found myself in the church racket instead of some other, and surrendered
to a spiritual seduction long before I came to any carnal knowledge.”
While he tingled to the “fire and excitement” of Pentecostalism, he
nonetheless experienced “the slow crumbling of my faith.” It occurred
“when I began to read again…. I began, fatally, with Dostoevski.” He
continued handing out gospel tracts, but knew privately that they were
“impossible to believe.”
“I was forced, reluctantly, to realize that the Bible itself had been
written by men.” He dismissed the claim that the Bible writers were
divinely inspired, saying he “knew by now, alas, far more about divine
inspiration than I dared admit, for I knew how I worked myself up into
my own visions.”The ex-minister wrote that he might have stayed in the church if
“there was any loving-kindness to be found” in it – but “there was no
love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and
At seventeen, Baldwin left religion behind forever. He later called
himself a “nothing” theologically. Eventually, his switch to writing
enriched the world of literature immensely. In Down at the Cross, he summed up:“Life is tragic simply because the Earth turns and the sun inexorably
rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for
the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human
trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will
imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices,
steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the
fact of death, which is the only fact we have.”
For Baldwin, the sun went down a last, last time in 1987.
DAN BARKER How do supernatural beliefs die? Very slowly, year after year, in a
thousand small expansions of the mind – according to Barker, who evolved
from teen-age evangelist to co-president of the Freedom From Religion
“It was a gradual process, a growth,” he told an Iowa newspaper. “It
would be like asking you, ‘When did you grow up?’ You probably could not
answer that question with one defining moment.”
At fifteen, Barker experienced a typical hysterical conversion at a
California revival, then flung himself fervently into adolescent
religiosity. He carried a Bible daily, joined fundamentalist youth
groups, and preached to everyone in sight.
Keenly intelligent and a gifted musician, he rose rapidly in the
teeming evangelical culture. His preaching and music-arranging blossomed
for several years. He pastored small churches, married a gospel singer
and they toured the revival circuit for eight years, rising toward
But doubts insidiously crept into Barker’s innermost thoughts. Later, in his book, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, he explained:“It was some time in 1979, turning thirty, when I started to have
some early questions about Christianity…. I just got to the point where
my mind was restless to move beyond the simplicities of fundamentalism….
So, not with any real purpose in mind, I began to satisfy this irksome
intellectual hunger. I began to read some science magazines, some
philosophy, psychology, daily newspapers (!), and began to catch up on
the liberal arts education I should have had years before. This
triggered a ravenous appetite to learn, and produced a slow but steady
migration across the theological spectrum that took about four or five
years. I had no sudden, eye-opening experience. When you are raised as I
was, you don’t just snap your fingers and say, ‘Oh, silly me! There’s
Painfully, during his backslide, he suffered shame as he continued
leading church services. “I felt hypocritical, often hearing myself
mouth words about which I was no longer sure, but words that the
audience wanted to hear…. I became more and more embarrassed at what I
used to believe, and more attracted to rational thinkers…. I no longer
believed what I was preaching.”
Barker frantically sought an escape from his dilemma. He began a side
job in computer programming. His transformation wrecked his marriage.
Finally, scrupulously conscientious, he wrote a mass letter to former
church and gospel music colleagues, telling them: “I can no longer
honestly call myself a Christian. You can probably imagine that it has
been an agonizing process for me.”
Today, Barker is married to Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the
Freedom From Religion Foundation – and is just as exuberant for
intellectual honesty as he once was for fundamentalism.
HECTOR AVALOS Born in Mexico in 1958 into a Pentecostal family, young Hector was a
gifted child and became a fiery boy preacher. After he moved across the
border with his grandmother, churches featured him as a small denouncer
of the sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll liberation of the 1960s. At age 9, he
addressed hundreds of worshipers at a convention in Glendale, Arizona.
But in high school, he plunged avidly into science and philosophy —
and by his first year of college, he no longer believed in supernatural
deities. “Miracles went down the drain,” he recounted. After his
childhood faith evaporated, he switched his intellectual brilliance to
scientific rationality. He earned a doctorate from Harvard and became a
professor at Iowa State University.
“How Bible Study Made an Unbeliever Out of Me” was the title of his
testimonial in Freethought Today (August 1991). He wrote skeptic books
such as Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence and Se Puede Saber si Dios Existe? [Can One Know if God Exists?]
He became director of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of
Religion, and addressed a World Humanist Congress in Mexico City in
Dr. Avalos attacked “intelligent design” advocates who attempted to
sneak biblical Creationism into school courses in the guise of science.
He drafted a statement against ID that was signed by hundreds of Iowa
professors. He was featured in a 2008 documentary movie, Expelled: No
Other backsliding clergy handle their loss of faith in diverse ways.
The legendary Mother Teresa was plagued for decades by secret inner
doubts that either God or Jesus is real, and she often confided that she
was unable to pray — yet she lavished adoration on the deities in
public appearances, and prayed before television cameras.
In contrast, the great mentor Will Durant almost was ordained a
Catholic priest, but he ceased supernatural beliefs and withdrew from
orders. Later, he gave a talk about phallus-worship in religion — and
his bishop excommunicated him swiftly, announcing the action to
newspapers. Durant’s devout mother collapsed in shock and his father
ordered him to leave their home.
Even seminary professors can slip from certainty. In Walking Away From Faith,
Dr. Ruth A. Tucker of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids,
Michigan, wrote: “There are moments when I doubt all. It is then that I
sometimes ask myself as I’m looking out my office window, ‘What on earth
am I doing here? They’d fire me if they only knew.’” She left the
seminary in a bitter conflict, but remained religious, despite her
Similarly, Dr. Bart Ehrman, chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, described in Misquoting Jesus how he journeyed from born-again Christian to agnostic.
In addition to clergy, multitudes of lay churchmen likewise cease
believing. One was university librarian Edward Babinski, who told his
own story and related several others in Leaving the Fold. Similarly, former Los Angeles Times religion reporter William Lobdell wrote Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America. Once a born-again evangelical, he slowly realized that intelligent people cannot swallow magical tales.The process of secularization – erosion of supernatural beliefs in
Western society – encompasses many who once were devout, but came to see
church claims as fairy tales.
In addition to the few ministers who make dramatic public breaks, how
many more remain in the pulpit, reciting dogmas and creeds they no
longer believe, afraid to face their real selves? Perhaps, like
Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilytch, in the final hour before death, they will see
that their lives were meaningless…”