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For current and former religious professionals without supernatural beliefs.
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    • The Clergy Project
    • The Clergy Project

    Brandon Winningham

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    brandon

    My name is Brandon and I am an atheist. I am also a writer by hobby and love studying and reading Classical literature, English literature, and published a work of historical fiction in 2007 entitled “Catiline” based on the title characters uprising in republican Rome in 62 B.C.E.

    I’m 34 and married to a beautiful wife with two great kids, a boy and girl. I was raised in Michigan in a church affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church from the age of three when my mom started going again. She got out when her parents did when she was fifteen and at the age of thirty and after just losing her mom she decided to start again. My families holiness Pentecostal roots go back into the 1930’s on her side though my dad’s side is all Baptist.

    As I grew up I naturally got more involved in the church and on 22 April 1989 I “received” the baptism of the holy ghost with evidence of speaking in tongues. I always found it funny that I really couldn’t remember much about the experience other than the people crowded around me and holding my arms up when I was getting tired and urging me to tell Jesus how much I loved him and how sorry I was etc. That was the only time I ever spoke in tongues and something that I always beat myself up over… if I was such a good Christian then why didn’t I pray in tongues more since that was a sign of god’s indwelling. I instantly began to settle into positions and even as a teen found that I had a natural talent for leadership and soon was the youngest member of the usher staff. Before long I was trusted with a key to the church and begging mom to hurry so that I could be the first one there so that I could make sure the lights were on, temperature set, and doors unlocked… a habit that stuck with me all the way to 2009.

    In 1991 my pastor and several others got offended at something and in a Michigan District meeting of the UPCI they all as a group got up and walked out. The pastor got a TV in his home, his wife and daughter started cutting their hair, and they started wearing pants and make-up and the congregation started doing the same. Several of the older families left and pretty much shunned everyone there, and through all of this my doubt increased more. If this doctrine that he had preached since the mid-1950’s was so right then why all of a sudden was he and everyone else turning their back on it? Why were Sunday School teachers, musicians, singers, and various other leaders finding it so easy to turn their back on what was supposedly such a powerful and anointed truth? At the age of seventeen it hit me… it was because it wasn’t as powerful as I had been taught, they left it because it wasn’t real, and I couldn’t remember details because it was emotional hype I experienced in April of 1989. However, I still lived and home and though I argued I still had to go because mom said so even when dad would take my side and say I could stay home if I wanted.

    Things continued down the same path for the church I grew up in. We had people we barely knew come to preach finding out later that they were trinity preachers and not oneness as we were taught, some believed in tongues and some didn’t, and two women in particular were imho just plain wacky and encouraged people just to start randomly speaking in tongues. My mom didn’t totally agree but didn’t feel lead to leave and knew that my brother and I were close to the pastor and didn’t know how we would take it. It was at this point that my dad was accepted to the Saturn plant in Tennessee and he moved while I finished my last year of high school. 

    Our house sold in early 1996 but my brother was in the middle of his freshman year in high school, so since we were so close to the pastor, he and his wife opened the opportunity for us to stay in the evangelist quarters for a couple months while mom and dad got settled in Tennessee. That is when I saw the real interesting stuff that really added to my doubt. We were naturally invited on a daily basis to come to the pastors house for dinner and spend time with him and his wife and *gasp* watch TV while she cleaned up etc. One particular night a missionary was visiting and he, the pastor, and my brother and I were watching TV downstairs. As my pastor flipped through the channels he came across a show on TBS called “Silk Stalkings” and the missionary stopped him asking if he had seen it and raved about how good it was. I knew what it was and, for those of you who don’t, it was a police show mainly centered around investigating sex crimes that included anything from a stripper being killed to an orgy/swingers ring. My brother and I (ages 18 and 16) sat there while these two preachers watched a show with very graphic depictions of sex crimes. Talk about adding insult to injury and further pushing me away and creating more doubt.

    In June of 1996 we all finally got back together as a family in our new home in Tennessee only to find that mom and dad had found a little church of about 120 that was just like the one I grew up at in Michigan. It was oneness and holiness but very relaxed and down to earth though still the strict UPC doctrine. I began to wonder about my doubts and, like a good Christian, thought perhaps this was god calling me back. A difficult move, a difficult time in the church I grew up in, and a mind full of doubts… it couldn’t all be coincidence so I accepted it as the hand of god and jumped in with both feet. I signed the membership and committed to the UPC teachings and strict holiness lifestyle of men with short hair, pants only no shorts, no going to movies, and preferably no TV. Before long I was involved as an usher and working my way up through the church ladder of leadership as once more I was recognized as having a natural talent.

    I acknowledged a call to ministry and preached my first mini sermon under my pastors’ direction and, starting in 1997, continued studying and preaching both in my home church and outside of it. I did this all the way until 2009/2010 when I preached for my last time, resigned all of my positions and just left church altogether. At that time I was not only preaching on a regular basis but also I had taught Sunday School, served as Head Usher over a crew of seven men and three ladies as greeters, ran the cd/tape dept with my wife, and was head of the media dept and dealt with tech issues and computer projection for all of the services. Needless to say I was pretty busy and all of this lead everyone to say that I was just overwhelmed and that’s why I left, I was mad because I was being over worked, or I was mad at god. Funny how it ALWAYS comes back to there being something wrong with you.

    I never told anyone about my feelings and doubts which I’ve had ever since I “received” the baptism of the holy ghost with tongues in 1989 I just resigned everything and left quietly. When I finally did tell my wife, after going through one of the worst times in my life, I told her that I had too many doubts and questions and was taking an agnostic stance which, at the time, I was. Her response was that she was trying to understand and would give me time but was just glad that I didn’t say I was atheist because she didn’t think she could live with me if I was. My heart sank. I love my wife dearly and if there ever was a person who genuinely asks and lives a good, humble, and loving Christian life it is her, but to have that door of communication slammed not only shocked but hurt.

    With that I continued to study and read different ideas on religion, agnostics, and *gasp* atheism. After almost a year of this and lots of thought I resigned myself to attending one last service and the following Wednesday, after thirty-two years in church, I pulled out my baptismal certificate and burned it saying my final goodbyes and closing a major chapter in my life. I discovered one other atheist in my town with whom I can talk and he has introduced me to several others via Facebook not to mention my getting connected to Jerry DeWitt after reading the USA Today article on him and he suggesting this place of healing to me.

    In short I know that I am among friends where I can be me, come out of my hiding place in the closet, and open up knowing that I truly am not alone. Many Clergy Project stories have brought me to tears at what they have gone through and I look forward to sharing more, knowing that together we can heal and find strength.