June 4th, 2013
03:08 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
(CNN) – Who can people call when religious doubts arise, but they're afraid to talk to their faith leaders or families?
A group that helps people "recover" from religion says it's ready to pick up the phone.
Recovering from Religion, which has about 40 support groups in the U.S. and Britain, plans to launch a hotline that will offer doubters an anonymous place to ask difficult questions and find communities of like-minded nonbelievers.
The group plans to staff the help line 24 hours a day and is modeling it after services like suicide prevention hotlines.
Sarah Morehead, executive director of Recovering from Religion, told CNN that the mission is to help people, not convert them to atheism.
“A lot of the times they just need someone to talk to," Morehead said.
The 1-800 number has yet to be named. Recovering from Religion is trying to raise $30,000 by June 30 to fund "The Hotline Project" with up to 40 counselors.
Ideally, the help line would be live by the holiday season, said Morehead, which is often a difficult time for people struggling with religious doubts.
The idea for the hotline sprang up after calls came in to the Recovering from Religion phone line from people who were questioning their faith and needed to talk to someone. Morehead said she gets a few calls every day and hundreds of e-mails a month from people seeking counseling.
From there, she said, it seemed a hotline that provided a permanent, anonymous place to talk to someone was the best option.
"Coming out" as a nonbeliever – or even a doubter – can often be extremely difficult, Morehead and others say. In addition to the existential worries, budding nonbelievers run the risk of alienating family and friends.
The help line’s volunteer counselors will be trained to not engage in religious debate, Morehead said. Instead, they will try to give callers “practical, action-oriented solutions.”
When someone first calls the hotline, the counselor will start by simply asking the caller to talk about his or her personal story, said Morehead.
Later, the counselor and the caller might work on an action plan. The caller's goals may concern formally leaving religion altogether, but Morehead said that counselors will also offer advice on finding a new faith or connecting with a local community of nonbelievers.
Some blogs have questioned the hotline, however, calling it a ploy to increase the number of atheists in America.
Headlines like “New 1-800 Number Funded By Liberals To Convert Christians to Atheists,” for example, have cropped up at a number of conservative blogs.
Morehead said her critics fail to grasp the point of Recovering from Religion.
“Most of the people who contact us are working their way towards disbelief, so of course we are very equipped to handle that,” Morehead said. “That is not the goal, though, or the job of the facilitators.”
This hotline is not completely unique in the world of religious "nones" – people who either don’t believe in God or don’t affiliate with any religious beliefs. Atheists have long discussed disbelief in the comfort of online anonymity.
“We have seen how important the Internet is, especially young people questioning their faith, and this provides them with another resource with a different focus,” said Jesse Galef, communications director for the Secular Student Alliance. “For people who want more guidance, I think this resource will be very valuable.”
Services that help religious doubters have thrived recently.
The Clergy Project, an online community for preachers who no longer believe in God, has grown from 52 to nearly 500 people since its founding in 2011, said Teresa MacBain, the former executive director of the project.
MacBain, a former pastor who converted to atheism, called the help line "another way for people to contact someone anonymously and discuss the struggles they are having for their beliefs.”
“If this project had been around when I found the Clergy Project, I would have used it.”
MacBain said she plans to get training as one of the counselors and hopes to be answering calls when the service launches.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.