The death of well-known Christian singer-songwriter Rich Mullins in 1997 was a turning point in the life of Seth Andrews (47). As a radio DJ for the KXOJ radio station in Tulsa, it fell to him to announce the death of Rich Mullins to his listeners. Andrews tried to offer them comfort by saying that Mullins had been called home by God.
“While I was talking, I realised that I was putting a very positive twist on what was a tragic and senseless accident”, he tells me on the phone. Mullins had lost control of his steering wheel on a highway in Illinois and was thrown out of his Jeep. A truck that swerved to avoid his vehicle then ran over the severely injured musician, who died at the scene. “Why had God made his child a star, only to reclaim him in such an awful way, leaving behind millions of devastated fans? How could this ever be part of his Big Plan?”
This incident marked the start of a long journey to apostasy for Andrews. He eventually 'came out' as an atheist in 2008. Since 2009, this Oklahoma radio DJ has been the figurehead of The Thinking Atheist podcast, a show in which he helps 1.2 million monthly listeners to deal with the stigma of being atheists. “What upsets me most is the way children are indoctrinated by fundamentalist parents. I had this in my own childhood, growing up in an echo chamber, away from anyone with different religious views.”
Andrews was born in Tulsa and was one of six children. His father was a Lutheran and his mother a member of the Pentecostal church. However, the family did not attend church every Sunday to benefit from God's teachings. Because Andrews' father Andrews was hard of hearing, television ministers and discussions filled the hole that the absence of the church left at home. “My parents encouraged us to ask questions about our faith while we were praying. However, if we arrived at an answer that was different to the teachings of Jesus, that was our fault. We were told that we had misunderstood the Bible and to try again. It was a real set-up".
Without acting on the religious doubts he had felt following the death of Mullins, Andrews left KXOJ in 2000 to became a DJ at the Clear Channel radio station. Then 9/11 happened. This was an major event for Americans across the board, including Andrews.
"I was the only Christian present at the radio station at that particular time and colleagues asked me to lead them in a prayer. They wanted to ask for mercy and forgiveness, so that God would bring an end to this terrible tragedy. However, the more I prayed - against a background of burning buildings and people becoming engulfed by the rubble crashing down around them - the more ridiculous I felt. If God had really cared about these people, he would have made sure that the terrorists responsible had got caught up in traffic."
Struggling with questions about faith, Andrews set out to find the answers he needed. “Unfortunately, every answer I got from theologians and members of my family just drove a bigger wedge between me and my belief”. Growing up in the state of Oklahoma - widely known as God's Country - the doubts I was having were a sin. Andrews quotes Mark 9:23: “And Jesus said unto him: If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.”
The situation stopped Andrews from 'coming out' and admitting his apostasy for many years. Instead, the podcaster withdrew, just as many other like-minded people choose to do. “If you have been brought up to believe in God heart and soul and you find that everything you have learned is nothing more than a fairytale, the consequences are huge. Many people just decide to 'check out' in situations like this: quote God when appropriate, but otherwise live a secular life”. After all, why would people want to expose themselves to the stigma attached to being a disbeliever?
No public office
Because religion is 'big' in the US. In 2011, research by the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon showed that respondents trusted atheists as little as they would rapists. Anyone who wants to be elected President in the US will have more chance of achieving success as a Muslim or homosexual than as a disbeliever. The constitutions of Seven American states - Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas - even contain provisions that prevent individuals who do not believe in a higher being from holding any type of public office. Although these discriminatory constitutions have been declared illegal at federal level, the states refuse to remove the provisions in question.
On bad terms
As a man in his 40s, Andrews was no longer willing to hide his views, despite the consequences involved. He was well aware of the toll 'coming out' had taken on the private lives and careers of like-minded people around him. “It might have been because of my age, but I just couldn't cope with people telling me how to live my life any more. I was tired of having to continually apologise for wanting things to make sense.”
So, he 'came out' as an atheist in 2008 and lost his relationship with his immediate family as a result. "My parents are traumatised and see the situation as a failure on their part. They have now dedicated their lives to getting me back on the right track. However, what they don't understand is that I have never felt as comfortable in my own skin as I do now. I'm free to ask myself questions every day without having to start to answer them straight away”.