Out of the closet: More Americans identifying as atheist, agnostic

One-fourth of Americans aren’t religious — making them members of the nation’s largest “religious group,” according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

Newnan resident Kay Furlong is a member of that “religious group.” As an atheist lesbian transwoman, she also makes up the 56 percent of LGBT individuals who are religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2016 Gallup poll.

Furlong was raised Catholic, being baptized, confirmed and married in the Catholic church.

“Based on the doctrine, the previous pope … he was very anti-LGBT. I got a sour taste then and that was about the time I went through a divorce with my first wife. She had said multiple times that she couldn’t be with a transgender female,” Furlong said. “At that time I sort of lost any faith I had, because what kind of god would make a person like me? That’s when I sort of started questioning.”

Furlong isn’t alone in her reasons for leaving organized religion. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, many non-religious Americans were raised in religious households and drifted away from religion as adults. Nearly 30 percent of this demographic — and most of this 30 percent women — said they chose to leave organized religion because of “their experience of negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people.” Young adults also cited this as a reason for leaving.

“You don’t end up with a lot of atheists or agnostics who say you’re going to hell because you’re LGBT. It’s because of their religious view,” she said. “There isn’t a whole lot of secular reason or rationale for not giving LGBTs the same rights.”

To believe or not to believe: That is the question

American Atheists, the nonprofit borne from a 1959 Supreme Court case that challenged prayer in public schools, defines atheism “as the mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a lifestyle and ethical outlook verifiable by experience and scientific method, independent of all arbitrary assumptions of authority and creeds.” Agnostics, on the other hand, generally believe that it’s impossible to know whether or not a higher power exists, or they are noncommittal on whether they believe in a deity or not.

Eryn Viscarra, a sociology lecturer and doctoral student at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, specializes in gender and sexuality. She said many LGBT individuals feel rejected by organized religion, especially certain denominations of Christianity, leading them to atheism or agnosticism.

“Especially in the South. They believe it’s a choice; that you can change it,” Viscarra said. “I think they feel really rejected. Also, parents are religious and people who come out to their parents, being gay conflicts with their religion and a lot of time people will get upset, and not have a relationship with their kids.”

When Furlong first started distancing from organized religion, she began calling herself agnostic.

“I said, ‘Well, maybe there is a god and I don’t believe in formalized religion. I don’t know if Jesus was the one or Muhammad,’” she said. “You’ve got 2,000 religions out there. They can’t all be right. I’m very much into science, the Big Bang and how the universe formed … I’m thinking, is there really a likelihood of an all-powerful being sitting up in the sky causing earthquakes; causing children to be killed by their parents? If there is an ultimate being, why would he be doing all this horrible stuff to people he said he loved?”

A little more than half of the religiously unaffiliated do believe in a higher power, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. According to the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of atheists say they do not believe in God, and 82 percent say religion is not at all important to them. Most seldom pray, and frequently wonder about the universe. 94 percent of atheists believe homosexuality should be accepted; 92 percent favor same-sex marriage.

Becoming a ‘none’

According to the Pew Research Center, most of the non-religiously affiliated, or “nones” — a moniker given to those who mark “none” on survey questions about religion — are under 30 years old, and less than 30 percent are over age 50. Most atheists are white men, and those with higher incomes are more likely to identify as atheist.

Though atheists do not participate in organized non-religious services, per se, they can become politically active with groups like American Atheists. Its main focuses include promoting freedom of thought, advocating for the separation of church and state, advocating for a secular education system and promoting the study of arts and sciences.

“For people who are questioning [religion], I would not stay in a church that is anti-LGBT,” Furlong said. “But there are churches out there, either in the same denomination that they’re in, or they can switch to one like Episcopalian that tends to be pro-LGBT.”

And for those considering leaving religion behind, Furlong advised looking for groups of like-minded individuals on social media. There are atheist and agnostic groups, and also groups that aren’t anti-religion but more “anti-bigotry using religion as a shield.”

“A lot of people in those groups are religious, but they don’t believe in those tenets of the religion,” she said.

Despite her non-religion, Furlong joins with her family for a variety of holiday celebrations. Her daughters from her previous marriage still attend Sunday school and they celebrated Christmas together, and with her wife, a Buddhist, Furlong celebrated Solstice.

“We do a little bit of everything,” she said.