A lot of love still exists between Crossroads Christian Church and former pastor Carter Warden.
That’s even though he no longer believes in God.
Now East Tennessee State University’s assistant director of student activities, working in the university’s Student Organization Resource Center, Warden spent the vast majority of his life as a practicing Christian. For much of that time, he was the pastor of large groups of believers.
Living in East Tennessee, he was brought up in the United Methodist faith and eventually found his way to the Church of Christ. He went on to get a bachelor’s degree from Milligan College, then his master’s from the Emmanuel School of Religion.
Those days are now long behind Warden: he recently came out as an atheist at the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after having used the pseudonym “Adam Mann” for nearly 10 years as a founder and part of the Clergy Project.
“I was trapped by the disheartening position of being a member of the clergy who no longer finds himself believing in a god or the supernatural,” Warden said during his speech at the convention, which is in full on the FFRF’s YouTube page.
Warden has served as a youth pastor, preaching pastor, small groups pastor, worship pastor and the administrative pastor at Gray’s Crossroads Christian Church. It wasn’t bad experiences that turned him away from religion, but studying the arguments of atheists, scientists, philosophers and more.
He emphasized that it was his quest for knowledge that ultimately led him to made the break.
When he realized he didn’t have answers to tough questions he might receive from his fellow believers, he began voraciously educating himself with both Christian and atheist readings.
“Between July 2008 and April 2009, I read over 60 books, listened to hundreds of hours of lectures and debates,” Warden explained. “I watched 25 documentaries and movies. I went through eight college-level courses from the teaching company, on philosophy, evolution, New Testament, world religions, biology and human behavior.
“I balanced it with Christian writers as well as nonbelievers.”
After his vigorous study, Warden asked himself if there was an “an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving, intervening God, as revealed in scripture.”
He concluded that there isn’t.
Warden pointed to one of the foundational stories in the Bible, that of the Garden of Eden, where the Christian God tried to keep mankind away from the Tree of Knowledge.
“Shouldn't that be a red flag to people?” he asked. “Shouldn't that be a warning sign, when open, honest inquiry is discouraged and even squelched?”
For Warden, it was that open inquiry that was his path away from the church. After realizing this about himself, as “Adam Mann,” he reached out to the Clergy Project — which is a group that seeks to provide support, community and hope to current and former religious professionals who no longer hold religious beliefs. The group has approximately 770 members, many of whom hold positions at churches and can’t couple belief with what they see as evidence that disputes many religious claims.
Warden’s experiences with his friends and church family members were all positive, and he hopes to hold onto those relationships in this new chapter of his life. He did have some bumps along the way back from his religious beliefs, but settled on being most honest with himself, his family and loved ones, even if they were members of his church.
It sounds as if he has the support of Crossroads Christian Church.
Curtis Booher, lead minister at that church, gave the Press a statement about his former pastor’s departure from the faith.
“One of the great freedoms given to each person by God is the opportunity to choose to believe or to not believe,” Booher said. “I understand that Carter has chosen, in his words, ‘to discard my faith.’ Our choice is to not discard a relationship with Carter. Carter and his family were a part of Crossroads Christian Church for many years and we still consider them family. We love Carter and we want only good things for him.”
John Shuck knows the situation all too well.
As there are “out” members of the Clergy Project, and those who are still closeted, Shuck is an active member who has been “out” since he headed First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton. Shuck has since moved to Portland, Oregon, where he’s the pastor at the Southminster Presbyterian Church.
He hosted the radio program “Religion For Life” on WETS 89.5 FM, and it has evolved into its present form, which is called “Progressive Spirit.”
But he knows the pressure of coming out as someone who doesn’t believe in the supernatural but has a career of preaching Scripture, which is rife with claims of the supernatural.
Shuck is technically an atheist, but he said there’s a lot of baggage with that word, and he hopes Warden is able to make this transition under that designation without trouble.
One of their fellow members of the Clergy Project, a current Canadian minister, is facing the possibility of being defrocked because of her admission that she no longer believes.
He said that because the pressure of religious belief is so pervasive, it’s good that Warden — or as Shuck knows him “Adam Mann” — is breaking up what’s considered the standard in a place like East Tennessee.
And whether people are comfortable with the potential of their church’s pastor coming out as an atheist or not, Shuck said the numbers of the Clergy Project continue to grow, and he welcomes it.
Shuck said churches should prepare their congregants for this and help those who lose their belief assimilate into secular society rather than shun them to the point where they’re left with little to nothing.
Warden is unsure of the future, but he’s proud to be openly honest about himself and his lack of beliefs.
“I did not lose my faith — as though it was something that regrettably slipped away — rather I chose to disregard it because it no longer made sense to me,” he said, before later going on to explain what could happen next.
“I don't know what the future holds for me,” he said. “I don't know how my wife or extended family will react or how I'll be treated in my community, If they fault me for being honest, than so be it. I’ll live with reason as my guide, and I'm an atheist.”