Why did former megachurch deacon Donald Wright go the nontheist route?

Most pastors are arrogant, demanding a position of stature that requires hero worship and many Black church members provide that accommodation.

Donald Wright, 65, is a nontheist and has some very bold and thought-provoking views on Christianity. He is the former deacon of a very popular Houston megachurch that found itself in the midst of a very nasty national scandal in the early 2000’s involving it’s very happily married pastor and accusations of homosexuality. Even though the scandal which was daily fodder for the press, forced many congregants to leave the church, the pastor was asked to stay. Wright’s faith in the church at that point had been shaken and he found himself questioning the very core values of Christianity.

Many non-believers state that Christians are normally quick to point out the logical fallacies and doctrinal inconsistencies in other belief systems, yet are typically unable or unwilling to turn that scrutiny to the Bible. Wright, an engineer, and author of the bookThe Only Prayer I’ll Ever Pray: Let My People Go, explains how the Bible should not be touted as a timeless and perfect guide to life. He believes that we can grow as individuals and work towards breaking the mental hold that religious dogma has on especially Blacks. Wright believes that nontheists can still be moral, pursue spirituality, find purpose, and love but without the superstition and archaic texts to do so.

50BOLD: Did something happen in your life that made you become a nontheist?

Wright: If I include being born into a Christian family, I have over 50 years experience of being involved in church. My parents and sisters were active members so I followed in their footsteps.  I had been an active and devoted church member until September 2006.  My church activities included: Sunday school, choir, usher, youth groups, fundraising committees, and sharing co-leadership duties along with my wife involving the orientation of new members. I was also a deacon of the church.

In order to describe the catalyst for my journey to nontheism, I must provide some background information that represents my church/religious experiences. There is not a shortage of malfeasance among Black church pastors and leaders. Describe it as naïve, but I expected pastors, men called by God, to be of higher character and dedication to the instructions of the Bible. Not that they don’t exist, but I had not been a member of a church with a female pastor so pardon my gender reference. I assumed that the God-calling provided a spiritual strength, humility, and godly insight that was unavailable to normal everyday Christians. A pastor’s inappropriate behavior was very disturbing to me and it was amplified when he lacked a display of remorse.  To add to my discomfort, the majority of the members were too tolerable and ready to forgive.  I can’t count the number of times I heard the phrase, “the pastor is just a man” as a reason to not demand accountability. Most pastors are arrogant and demand a position of stature that requires hero worship and most Black church members provide that accommodation.

I was a member of this pre-dominantly Black megachurch in Houston for 19 years. It was the church where I was a deacon.  In 2003, the pastor’s involvement in a homosexual scandal was exposed.  It found its way into the local, then national media. The pastor was portraying a happy heterosexual marriage. The news was devastating to the church’s membership.  A special meeting was held to determine the pastor’s fate. The membership voted and by a small margin, the majority decided that he would remain as pastor on the condition that he’d agree to counsel.

Our family was not alone in leaving, as a substantial number of members immediately chose to find another church. The situation was very disturbing because within two years the church membership decreased to well over 50%. Homosexuality is a major theological challenge for most Christians and obviously, I did not accept it as a lifestyle choice for a church leader.

This incident was the catalyst.  Following the decision to find another church, I committed to becoming a greater student of the Bible and the religious practice of Christianity. I was no longer going to be dependent on the preachers and anointed Bible teachers for interpretation and instructions.  My next two years involved intense self-study in addition to enrollment at a local Bible college to obtain a Bible teaching certificate.  Some family members and friends suggested I was being called to the ministry.  The study required me to ask hard and challenging questions.  It required me to pursue the history and origin of the Bible.  It led me to observe clear contradictions in Bible. I also read the W.E.B. DuBois autobiography. Eventually, I would find my way to reading the Age of Reason by Thomas Paine and in September 2006 my religious journey terminated.  Self-study leads me away from religion and into a life-stance centered on humanism and atheism.  I am glad I finally decided to study the Bible in a scholarly fashion.

50BOLD: As you well know in our community, religion plays a crucial role, what kind of reaction do you receive when you reveal your non-believer conviction to another Black person?

Wright: It varies from shock to disappointment and most often their follow-up question is “what happened?” They are expecting me to respond with a kind of sharing of a very tragic event. During the early months of my transition, I remember a friend’s response, “I can understand not being religious but please don’t become an atheist!”

50BOLD: What’s your response when folks question your morals because you’re a nontheist?

Wright: My morals seldom get questioned. I do, however, consistently challenge those, who believe that a God and religion provides morality by soliciting the proof of such claim. It became clear that this position is a fallacy when I met someone who had never experienced a religious-guided life but who appeared to be a quality person. Our society is governed by laws but when it’s convenient, the religious people invoke morality or a lack of morals to explain pleasing or displeasing human activity. Having religion does not prevent humans from harming other humans. Thus my approach to morality is centered on being a quality person. A quality person assumes responsibility for their own welfare, honor their commitments, does not harm others, does not harm the environment, and when possible, assists others in their moments of need.

50BOLD: Do you believe there is life after death?

Wright: Not anymore. There is not enough scientific information or other facts that are convincing enough for me to consider another existence beyond this so-called human life.

50BOLD: What do you think happens after we cease to exist? 

Wright: Death is the complete shut-down of human life, of both the body’s physical and the mental activity. The body begins its decaying process immediately. The circle of the few people who really valued that life will then have a memory system that can be activated at any time.

50BOLD: Our folks, for the most part, have been extremely faithful and abiding servants of God which over time has somehow helped us to endure adversity as a people.  As a nontheist, what helps you get through challenging situations?

Wright: My engineering study and practicum has prepared me for this profession of a systematic approach to problem-solving. Believing that Christianity is the solution is useless. I approach challenges and problems by gathering all, or as many facts that are available and proceeding with steps towards a solution. Knowing the cause of a problem is very beneficial. I also value and seek assistance from other people often.

50BOLD: How does your family feel about this life choice, did you raise your children to be nontheist?

Wright: My wife and I have been married for 37 years and she remains a Christian and attends church regularly. Our only child, a daughter, was in college when I made the transition out of theism. She has comfortably made that transition also and I may have been a major contributor. There is enormous regret among the family, including siblings, in-laws, and cousins and most of them prefer not to have the discussion. We can have agreeable criticisms about religion and especially where preachers are concerned but don’t advance the conversation about religion being unnecessary and harmful. I appreciate that my wife assisted in editing my book which many of the family members still have not read. Family and even friends don’t want you to be too different. It presents a challenge to their identity.

50BOLD: How do you explain where we come from?

Wright: Other than providing my limited knowledge of human reproduction, it is beyond my need to attempt providing an explanation that could be construed as abstract. I certainly no longer consider the creation story of Adam & Eve in the Bible to be truth. The science of evolution is more acceptable although I have yet to attempt a thorough study of its presentation.

50BOLD: Many believers/Christians might pose the classic question…“You can’t see air, but you know it’s there, why can’t you feel that way about God?” 

Wright: We should constantly pursue answers to our questions, even the question of the existence of a God. However, attempting to explain something by using belief and faith leads to delusion. It is permissible to accept something you don’t know until you do know. Science, not religion, has taught us that air (oxygen) sustains human life because, without it, humans die which makes air real or proves its existence.  They can’t prove the existence of God.

50BOLD: Was there ever a time in your life when you had second thoughts about being a nontheist?

Wright: My greatest joy has been the discovery of an ability and desire to uncover the truth and to pursue it in all things. What I’ve uncovered regarding organized religion dispels any notion of a need for a dependency on other humans’ imagination for my existence. I have yet to experience a regret for becoming a nontheist. I have no need to believe in a God.



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