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Friday, February 17, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Ex-minister walks atheist path

A retiree encourages USF students to look inward, not to the heavens, for answers and says we should all be concerned about the religious right.

UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA AREA - His message is clear: Jesus is not coming. Not today. Not ever.

At 59, James Young has spent almost a decade sharing his atheist beliefs with the public, driving every Wednesday morning from his home in Lithia to set up a tent at the University of South Florida Bull Market.

Even on the coldest morning, Young is there, ready to share, and sometimes debate, his views with anyone who will listen that there is, in fact, no such being as God.

"There are a lot of religious groups that set up tents there," said Young, a retired controls analyst. "It's important for these young people to know there is an alternative point of view."

What may surprise some of these students is that in his early adulthood, Young was an evangelical minister, preaching in churches, and even on street corners, all over Tampa.

The transformation from devoting his life to Christ to becoming an atheist was a slow one, but for Young, completely logical.

He was raised a Southern Baptist and at age 16 was introduced to a church that he called "a little more charismatic." He found great comfort in the church, socially and spiritually, and eventually identified with the Pentecostal movement.

"I got on fire for God," he said.

With Bible in hand, Young would often sit with friends comparing approaches to Christianity, he said. It was the first time that he recognized there might be different ways to interpret God's word.

Yet at the same time he was being taught that those who did not follow the Pentecostal approach to Christianity were doomed, and that caused him great conflict.

"My church was teaching that other denominations were going to hell because they didn't practice and follow Jesus' teaching the correct way," he said. "Well, what is the "correct' way?"

Both realizations brought Young to the conclusion that the Bible was not perfect, and that these inconsistencies made it difficult to be a complete believer.

Slowly the fire and brimstone began to wear away, and Young began to form his own dogma.

"The ultimate result was that I decided none of it was believable," he said. "I saw the absurdity, the false promises. It was all baloney."

That was 1978.

Young moved to Plant City with his wife and never went to church again.

Several years passed, and Young quietly explored his newfound atheism. He joined a humanist group in Tampa and espoused their belief that all people must take responsibility for providing solutions to human problems in lieu of reliance on supernatural solutions.

Then, in the late '90s, more fire and brimstone.

"All of a sudden the fundamentalist right Christians were becoming very militant, as they are today," he said. "They're only content when they're forcing their religious beliefs on everyone in this country through legislation."

Now when Young preaches, it is not the words of Peter or James that he recounts but the damage he perceives is happening because of the religious right.

Referring to prayer in public schools or the teaching of intelligent design to explain evolution, Young is adamant about what he sees as the dangers.

"Public schools need to be secular because if they are used for religious brainwashing, we will never have a free society," he said. "If you look at any theocratic state throughout history, it was never a free and open society."

And with the recent Supreme Court nominations that have possibly tilted that judicial body to the right, Young said he is truly worried about what might come next. He predicts an end to abortion rights and the beginning of prayer in school.

In fact, from the executive branch all the way to local government, Young said, "we are becoming a theocratic fascist state - hate and bigotry in a society that is touted as being free and equal, when we are really not equal."

He cited recent decisions made by local officials, including the county's refusal to recognize any gay pride event and the School Board's reversal of its decision to take religious holidays off the school calendar.

"I don't know how long it will take for the pendulum to swing back again," he said, "but for now, I think it's a dark day ahead."

In his effort to make a difference, Young said, he will continue to spread the word of atheism and humanism, particularly at USF.

"I want these young people to know that there are a few of us out there who think that Jesus is not the answer, but that these kids are the answer."

For more information about the Atheists of Florida, call 813 835-1500.