Updated: Jul 14, 2019
Wanting my life to make a difference in this world has been an enduring aspiration of mine. It was religion that first kindled this yearning. As a freshman in college, I found a comforting and meaningful sense of order and structure to religion that gave my existence an anchor. It was also the arena in which my social life flourished and deep relationships formed. Through my involvement in a Christian campus ministry, I discovered I had leadership and speaking abilities that I could use to inspire and galvanize groups of people. It turns out that I was one of those persuasive, charismatic, and catalytic figures that others like to follow. All of this convinced me that I was called by God to be a pastor and engineer a spiritual revolution.
After graduating college, I was accepted into a seminary in Chicago where I earned a Master of Divinity degree. In my final year of studies, I joined the pastoral staff team of a mega-church – at the time, the largest in North America. The sprawling church campus covered 155 acres and attracted 26,000 people to its weekend worship services. My three-year experience at this church is what formed my thinking about ministry and fueled my ambitions to change the world.
With the blessing of this church, I set out on my own. I started a church in Nashville, Tennessee where I was the Senior Pastor for seven years. We began as a group of five people in a front room and grew to fill a movie theater where we gathered for worship services each Sunday morning. We especially attracted singles and young families with our hip music, practical teaching, social events, outreach mindset, and an overall renegade style to doing church.
In 2004 I had a crisis of faith. Things weren't adding up. Despite the appearances of success, we were having serious problems within the church. My weekly teaching of upstanding biblical theology did little to stave off issues in our congregation such as depression, addiction, domestic violence, divorce, and suicide. In a moment of brutal honesty, I admitted to myself that my pastoral persona did not line up with my internal brokenness, disharmony, and suffering. One day I realized that some of the theology I signed up to represent, I could not in good conscience believe or teach anymore. Shortly thereafter I resigned as senior pastor, left professional Christian ministry, and began searching for answers.
I created a blog where I began sharing the challenges and struggles of questioning my faith and leaving my professional ministry calling and career. What I shared touched a nerve with many others who were also in the throes of their own crisis of faith. Upon the encouragement of a friend who worked at a major publishing house, I started writing about my journey out of religion. I have published five books to date, spanning nine years.
Over the course of those years and books, my beliefs evolved considerably as I left behind most of the central doctrines of orthodox Christianity. I made a good faith effort to salvage what I believed to be the most useful ideas of the Christian religion, and even argued for the significance and relevance of Jesus regardless of one’s religious or non-religious beliefs. It wasn’t always smooth sailing. My books were becoming increasingly controversial to the Christian establishment, and ties were cut with my publishing house when the contents of my third book led to the charge of heresy.
Meanwhile, my Inbox was blowing up with emails from people who were sharing their stories of being deeply damaged and feeling betrayed by their involvement in religion. I addressed these issues in my later books, began working individually with people in recovering from harmful religious beliefs and practices, and created a course and other online tools to assist those in addressing the damage of toxic religious indoctrination and spiritual abuse. In recent years, the mental health field has invested more time and energy in understanding the psychological damage caused by some forms of religion. Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is the clinical term used to identify the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one's connection with their faith and faith community.
The desire to be a change-agent and make a difference in the world did not die off after abandoning religion, it just took different forms. For a season of my life, after leaving professional ministry, I served as the Executive Director of a non-profit social work agency in my city, and later as the U.S. Director of Education for an international human rights organization.
I wasn’t quite sure what to do with religion – write it off entirely or take on the role of a reformer. Ultimately, I decided that the interfaith movement was a strategic investment of my time and energy. There’s no debate that people of different faiths, getting along peacefully and working together for a common good is a monumental victory for humankind. I created a five-point manifesto, outlining the basis for interfaith unity and action, and shared it with imams, rabbis, priests, pastors, ministers and monks throughout my city.
Our common humanity is reason enough for all people to coexist peacefully, and operate with justice, equity, and compassion in our human relations. I believe in a Homo sapiens solidarity where all humans cooperate and collaborate to reduce suffering and increase flourishing. In my view, whatever your religious, spiritual, secular or philosophical beliefs are, you are responsible for thoughtfully scrutinizing them and dismissing what doesn't promote a common good.
Even as a staunch critic of harmful religious beliefs and practices, I can find something enriching and meaningful within every religious and spiritual tradition. But in my personal spiritual journey, I was finding more affinity with non-religious philosophies of life such as transcendentalism, stoicism and humanism.
I particularly found the philosophy of humanism appealing. Humanism asserts human responsibility for solving our problems, shaping our destiny, forging lives of meaning, virtue and wellbeing, and building a world of less suffering and more flourishing. Not just that we are responsible, but that we are up to the task based solely upon the merits of being human, making belief in deities or the supernatural unnecessary.
In time I became certified as a Humanist Chaplain through The Humanist Society and started a chapter of the American Humanist Association in Nashville TN. This increasingly brought me into contact with a variety of secular, humanist and atheist organizations and initiatives. The more involved I became, the more I noticed a disconnect between the secular movement and ordinary everyday people.
Though I believed in the fundamental principles of humanism in theory, what I observed among those who identified themselves as humanists and other non-religious philosophies, was troubling. Some of them were combative and caustic against all religion and seemed to enjoy attacking, belittling and slandering all people of faith. It was also clear that the secular community was highly political and expected all non-religious people to adopt and advance a political ideology and agenda. I recorded and posted a series of videos on YouTube, sharing my concerns about the modern secular movement.
I learned from my experiences that both religion and non-religion were equally disappointing and failed people in their quest to lead meaningful, whole and fulfilled lives. Whether you are a zealous believer or devout atheist, you’re just as likely to be living a malcontent life.
People don’t realize they are making God and religion the reference point of their lives, whether they are for it or against it. The Christian and the Atheist suffer from the same problem. They both put supreme importance on God and religion, the former as a proponent and the latter as an opponent. Either way, their identity and fundamental philosophy of life is based on their view of God and religion.
Being zealous for or against religion can be rewarding, especially if you fashion a professional career, public persona or income stream out of it. People who are public figures because of their stance for or against religion have large followings, and cash in with books, speaking events, organizational positions and social clout. I’m not pointing the finger. For many years my vocation and income stemmed from being a professional minister. Upon leaving religion, the books I’ve written about my journey as well as my professional work, helping people recover from the damage of harmful religion has made me a public figure and generated a modest stream of income.
But in the last couple years some significant shifts have occurred inside me. I don’t claim a side in being for or against God and religion. I affirm what I see as good in religious faith or belief in God, and I speak out against the misuse of religion and the ways some forms of religion damage and poison people. I continue to offer various resources to those who are suffering the effects of Religious Trauma Syndrome and are in the process of disentangling themselves from toxic doctrines.
In my personal journey, I have pivoted away from religion to a different reference point for my life. I am no longer interested in investing my time and energy in making a case or perpetuating a persona either for or against God and religion. The last few years I have grown more indifferent toward the grand theological and existential questions about matters such as the origins of the universe, the meaning of existence, if there’s a God, and the afterlife.
Instead, the direction, inspiration and focus in my life was seized by one simple question: Am I living life well?
On the surface, it seems like a rather mundane and humdrum question. Compared to the ultimate questions about the universe, existence, God, death, and immortality, the matter of “living life well” appeared peripheral and inconsequential. But the more I drilled into the layers of this question, the more I was convinced that this is the most significant question a person can ever ask.
My upcoming book is meant to catapult that question into our collective consciousness as human beings. It’s the question I believe every person must stop and deeply consider, the implications of which are far more consequential than debating theological or existential questions for which there are no conclusive answers.
Am I living life well? When properly understood, it’s a question that I believe can transform the world if each of us individually and all of us collectively devote ourselves to answering. The contribution I am now compelled to make is to lay this question before humankind.