February 10th, 2014
06:13 PM ET

Deaf pastor signs a mighty surprising message

Opinion by Justin Vollmar, special to CNN

(CNN) – When I was 18, I was drawn to a strict Christian sect known as Independent Fundamental Baptists. They convinced me that they were the only true church and I became a born-again, washed-in-blood Christian.

I left Gallaudet University, the nation’s premier school for deaf students, to enroll at Capital Baptist Deaf College, where I graduated with an unaccredited bachelor's degree in pastoral studies.

For the next seven years, I was a pastor in Silver Spring, Maryland, working 60 hours a week for little pay. My senior pastor was a harsh taskmaster, scolding me and always pushing me to work harder. Meanwhile, he earned $80,000 a year and played golf two times a week. I lived in poverty and did not see my children much. I got burned out.

I resigned my position and was shunned by the church. My faith in God was severely shaken. I started to have doubts about the Bible’s claims. I questioned whether God’s love, which is supposed to reside inside Christians, was real.

Still, I didn’t quit the church.

Rather, for two years I became a pastor at a church that is part of the Southern Baptist Convention. I called myself a “contemporary Baptist,” in the vein of megachurch pastor Rick Warren's “purpose-driven church.”

But that pit-of-the-stomach worry stayed, as I wondered whether I would leave the church and go through another shunning.

During that time, I established an online preaching ministry, Virtual Deaf Church, for deaf people like myself. I had a fairly sizable audience - averaging 3,000 viewers for each video or vlog - about the same as a good-sized flesh-and-blood congregation.

But I still had lots of spiritual questions and studied shelves of theological books in search of answers. I struggled with many more contradictions I continued to discover.

For example, how could dozens of Christian denominations fight and call each other false churches? Why are there thousands of conflicting interpretations among Christians? How could God be so loving when he will send millions to hell?

I moved toward ecumenism and tried to promote unity among churches. Nevertheless, my doubts still churned in my heart.

One day in 2011, while I was preaching at my former church in College Park, Maryland, I had a surreal moment and  doubts completely seized my heart. I decided I could no longer be a pastor.

I resigned from my church and moved away to another state, and I have been living a life of ex-preacher for the last two years.

But I still did the vlogs, still preaching, in a way, about the very religion I was starting to walk away from.

I enrolled into Liberty University’s seminary, aspiring to be a scholar and hoping to get a doctorate in church history. I graduated with a master’s of arts in theology in December.

But, to my complete shock, I found that my doubts led me into atheism. As part of my study at Liberty, I was exposed to many criticisms against belief in God. After studying theology and philosophy, I realized the Bible was not the word of God. Supernatural miracles did not happen. Jesus Christ was a mythical figure who did not rise from the dead.

My faith completely collapsed, but a clarification settled in my heart.

I understood that God is an ancient but powerful superstition. I signed up for Clergy Project, where I found fellow ministers who doubted the existence of God. They helped me deal with emotions I felt and helped me set new goals for my life.

After months in secrecy, I came out as an atheist last Friday because I want to give Christians a chance to break free from their traditions and superstitions.

The reaction so far has been explosive. Christians were devastated and skeptics were delighted.

I've received hundreds of negative comments and e-mails from Christians and hundreds of positive comments and e-mails from the skeptics.

For now, I will continue doing vlogs, only now from a skeptical viewpoint.

Justin Vollmar is the founder of Virtual Deaf Church. The views expressed in this column belong to Vollmar.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Baptist • Belief • Christianity • Journeys • Lost faith • Opinion

soundoff (574 Responses)
  1. colin31714

    Well done Justin and congratulations. The honest, courageous and clear thinking life of the skeptic is to be preferred to the sheltered, willfully ignorant and emotionally and intellectually cowardly life of the believer.

    February 10, 2014 at 9:22 pm |
    • believerfred

      Watch out we've got your number

      February 11, 2014 at 1:09 am |
      • doobzz

        Getting your white sheets ironed, are you?

        February 11, 2014 at 4:54 pm |
  2. klktrk

    The analyses and judgments Christians offer up for the reason people lose their faith are just as facile and reductive as non-believers' dissections of why people believe.

    Next time you want to offer up your opinion as to the "real reason" someone no longer believes or the "real reason" someone believes, just.... Don't.

    February 10, 2014 at 9:20 pm |
    • klktrk

      Basically, the two arguments come down to:

      Believers: You disbelieve because of pride and arrogance.

      Non-believers: You believe because you're too cowardly to see the facts.

      these perspectives are worn-out. Some of the greatest intellectuals and scientists in history have been believers, and some of the most intellectually humble and poor of spirit service oriented people in the world have been atheists. Get over your blinders. Our shared experience is richer and harder than either camp wants to admit.

      February 10, 2014 at 9:28 pm |
      • blessedarethecheesmakers

        Oh and you are above it all...how nice.

        I do agree that people tend to over simplify the opposition....but that is a part of being human. After all you just did the same thing.

        February 10, 2014 at 9:44 pm |
  3. colin31714

    It amazes me how anybody with an average or above average IQ can be a believer, once they look at the issue dispassionately. If you look at the whole Jesus story historically, it is obviously myth, if you look at it scientifically, it is obviously myth and if you look at it logically, it is obviously myth. Only if you subordinate your common sense to a deep, but childish desire or cowardly preparedness to accept nonsense, can you possibly believe the Christian religion. Thes ame is true of any other.

    February 10, 2014 at 9:16 pm |
    • bostontola

      I work with scores of scientists and engineers. Most are Christians. They are very smart and creative. Their beliefs are compartmentalized. I have had conversations with some of them, the belief is real. I believe it comes from ideas programmed in from parents, people who are implicitly trusted. I was the same, but somehow the spell was broken.

      February 10, 2014 at 9:23 pm |
      • colin31714

        It is compartmentalized, and that's what I don't quite get. In order to maintain the inner wall that separates religion from every other aspect of their lives (finances, relationships, politics etc.) in which they exercise objective judgment and reason, there seemingly has to be a motivation.

        February 10, 2014 at 9:27 pm |
        • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

          There are lots of reasons – social pressures, family, fitting in, self-ident.ity etc, but the big one is embracing the fact that we don't know why we are here and what happens when we die and ... it doesn't matter anyway.

          If we only go around once, why not make the most of it? Getting to the heart of that frightens people. So what if there isn't a God. What changes? Nothing of course. Faith is nice. It's a nice big soft fuzzy security blanket to hide in and keep scary reality away. It helps people and is great for that. But used to manipulate people it is something else entirely.

          February 10, 2014 at 9:33 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

        For many such people, the compartmentalization of belief requires cognitive dissonance.

        It requires courage to let go of the safety blanket and permit themselves to imagine and existence without God and it can be socially unacceptable with family, neighbors, locals etc to not continue to be one of the sheeple.

        February 10, 2014 at 9:28 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      cognitive dissonance.

      February 11, 2014 at 1:24 am |
  4. colin31714

    What's with this new World Press thing? I am no longer Colin, I am now colin31714. Pain in the butt.

    February 10, 2014 at 9:11 pm |
    • In Santa We Trust

      Play with your profile settings.

      February 10, 2014 at 9:12 pm |
      • colin31714

        Well, this is the first time I had to join worldpress, and my usual moniker "Colin" no longer works.

        February 10, 2014 at 9:17 pm |
        • In Santa We Trust

          New this afternoon. There should be a "Display name" setting.

          February 10, 2014 at 9:20 pm |
        • rougegeologist

          Hey, I'm accidently cosmetics instead of mischevious. Let's try to keep things I'm perspective.

          February 10, 2014 at 9:22 pm |
        • In Santa We Trust

          Nothing to do with Palin's "Going rouge"?

          February 10, 2014 at 9:23 pm |
        • rougegeologist

          @In Santa We Trust. Nothing even that clever. Just setting up wordpress after a half bottle of champagne and 3 beers.

          February 10, 2014 at 9:36 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      I couldn't find the setting at first, but this advice from Vic worked for me:

      You can change your handle if you go to Settings, Public Profile, and then change your Public Display Name.

      February 10, 2014 at 9:23 pm |
      • colin31714

        thanks guys, I'll try it.

        February 10, 2014 at 9:32 pm |
    • Vic

      You can change your handle by going to Settings, Public Profile, and then change your Public Display Name.

      February 10, 2014 at 9:26 pm |
      • Vic


        February 10, 2014 at 9:28 pm |
      • colin31714

        Thanks Vic, I'm Not a GOP etc." I'll give it a try.

        February 10, 2014 at 9:31 pm |
  5. rougegeologist

    So I just realized that I accidentily made my name rouge instead of rogue. I do like red, but not Canadian football. Not sure if I should change it now.

    February 10, 2014 at 8:59 pm |
    • krussell25

      Leave it.
      It has more style this way.

      February 10, 2014 at 10:30 pm |
  6. 1madefromdirt

    Justin, thank you for your story. You have provided a beautiful road map of the perils that are found down the path of false doctrine, and how education, participation and even leadership in an organized church are no signs of salvation. It's a great lesson for all to see.
    First, your "conversion" was merely an emotional reaction, not a change of your self-centered heart, as evidenced by your view of your early studies being a burden. And you mistakenly believed God would lift you out of earthly poverty, and you were envious of your instructor.
    Next, joining a Warren-like contemporary movement continued your emphasis on man-centered goals instead of the saving work of Christ and the Holiness of God, which left you feeling empty.
    Then instead of searching Scripture for God's one truth, you relied on "shelves of theological books." Because those books departed from God's one Gospel, yet falsely claimed to be truth, you grew more confused by the differences, instead of realizing that false doctrine is Satan's favorite tool. So you questioned God, like Adam and Eve did in Eden. You failed to realize that God is Holy and Righteous, He must punish sin as He promised, and without hell He could not exercise His justice, His grace, His mercy, or His love. But you felt you knew better than God.
    Your self-pride downspiraled to more errors and confusion and darkness. Instead of seeking truth, you looked for reinforcement of your desire to escape God's authority. Now you deny your Creator altogether.

    Justin, you are like the seed that sprouted among thorns. Your immersion in study was motivated by desires of self, not out of gratetude and submission to God. Yet because of your studies, God will hold you even more responsible than others for your rejection of Him. You are in danger of reaching a point of no return, where God will permanently harden your heart against Him, as a precursor of His final judgment against you.

    February 10, 2014 at 8:55 pm |
    • notagoper

      Wow, I'm (almost) speechless.

      I guess you were at the back of the line when your God was handing out empathy.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:59 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      "God will permanently harden your heart against Him, as a precursor of His final judgment against you." You really don't have to believe this stuff – worship this sort of God. The people who imagined it up were of a particularly mean sort.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:59 pm |
    • Dylan

      The only place you put your trust in, is God . Relying on men, books, churches for your salvation is futile .

      February 10, 2014 at 9:09 pm |
      • Dylan

        Edit:The only place you can put your trust in, is God and His word, the Bible.

        February 10, 2014 at 9:12 pm |
        • In Santa We Trust

          As the author said "... how could dozens of Christian denominations fight and call each other false churches? Why are there thousands of conflicting interpretations among Christians? ..."

          Clearly the bible can be interpreted in many ways, which if it were the word of a god why would it be so vague?

          February 10, 2014 at 9:18 pm |
        • dandintac

          DON'T TRUST MEN!!

          Oh, except the ones who wrote the Bible and the ones who tell you it's all true.

          DON'T TRUST BOOKS!!

          Oh, except this ancient anthology of books, whose authors are unknown or uncertain, that makes extraordinary claims but does not provide any evidence–that one you can trust!

          And whatever you do, DON'T TRUST YOUR CRITICAL FACULTIES OR EVIDENCE! Just have faith!!

          February 11, 2014 at 1:24 am |
        • igaftr

          You trust a god to "save" you from the threat he created in the first place.

          Do you also trust a schoolyard bully won't make you punch yourself in the face as long as you give him your lunch money?

          February 11, 2014 at 10:15 am |
        • sam stone

          the Word Of God (TM) written, translated and edited by man

          February 12, 2014 at 8:11 pm |
      • rougegeologist

        How do you know the Bible is divinely inspired outside of a falible human writing that it is.

        February 10, 2014 at 9:33 pm |
    • In Santa We Trust

      Something that theists never seem to grasp – the way you view other religions and beliefs is not dissimilar to the way atheists (and those other theists) view yours. So it's not a big leap to conclude that they are all man-made.

      February 10, 2014 at 9:12 pm |
    • krussell25

      English translation:
      It was a mistake to think so much. Next time, just go for the 'feel good' parts of the book and leave it at that – or he'll burn you in hell forever because he loves you and wants to be fair and just.

      February 10, 2014 at 10:34 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      You think you were made from dirt? I am here to tell you that after those comments you are still dirt.

      February 11, 2014 at 1:22 am |
  7. bostontola

    I was never a man of the cloth, but Mr. Vollmar's path is similar to mine. I was brought up in a religious family, God was central. The various different beliefs of my friends got me wondering. In college I was exposed to many more opinions. Then I had a Comparative Religions course and some History courses. I concluded it is all mythology. Science filled the void. I have been much more comfortable ever since.

    February 10, 2014 at 8:53 pm |
  8. rougegeologist

    For me, leaving Christianity was a snowball effect. My first debris of doubt that eventually became an avalanche of non-belief was the fact that whale's have leg bones.

    February 10, 2014 at 8:52 pm |
    • notagoper

      I'd say that could well be a theme here.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:56 pm |
  9. believerfred

    We typically find what we are looking for in this short life. I have reviewed the typical college classes that include; philosophy, biology and comparative religion. Comparative religion pounds into your head and shows how all religions are common (even though they are not) leaving the student with the emotional impression that their faith is like the others once thought to be myth or from some other peoples. Philosophy then teaches you to think like the Greeks and leans towards godlessness or an epicurean outlook. Then the capstone of biology where science is twisted to show we are all simply evolved organic matter reacting to chemical stimuli.
    End result is if you were seeking godlessness you will find it. If you are a strong believer aware of the outside motive of liberal university material and the media push towards relativism you will seek God and your faith will remain strong.

    February 10, 2014 at 8:40 pm |
    • Dylan

      It's important to note that Christianity is not about religion, it is about a personal relationship with God. A person does not become a Christian because of their family or their years in a seminary. They become a Christian purely based on that relationship by the grace of God.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:45 pm |
      • dandintac


        "Personal Relationship." This appears to be the biggest buzzword in Christian apologetics these days. I think it's intended as a warm fuzzy aimed at people who are vulnerable due to having experienced loneliness at some point in their lives, which is practically everyone. But it is not an appeal to evidence or reason. It is fundamentally, an emotional attack.

        Let me use an analogy from Carl Sagan to try to show you how silly "personal relationship" sounds to us in the context of a mythical being.

        I have an invisible dragon in my garage. Let's test that, you say. We'll spray some paint on him, or sprinkle flour on the floor to catch his footprints. I say–you can't he's incorporeal. Then you say, let's hear him, and record the noises he makes. I say he's absolutely silent. And so on. Sagan asks (to paraphrase)–"what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, silent, undetectable dragon, and no dragon at all?

        Now, let's take it further. While you reasonably tell me you do not believe there is any dragon in my garage, I tell you:

        You may laugh now.

        So before you try to add the further claim that this invisible, incorporeal, apparently non-existent being "wants to have a personal relationship with us," first demonstrate he exists in the first place. Otherwise understand that you spout this in vain, and we are just laughing.

        February 11, 2014 at 10:38 am |
      • sam stone

        Dylan: You have a personal relationship with god? What does he look like? What music does he like? Is he a Mary Ann or Ginger type guy?

        February 12, 2014 at 8:18 pm |
    • tttoo

      fred, that's a bit strange. It sounds like you went to university, were asked to think in ways you weren't used to, and were a little bit frightened by it all. You're not expected to come away as another sort of dogmatic than you were when you went in. You're expected to be able to think things through. Have and defend your own ideas.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:47 pm |
    • notagoper


      no one goes to the Liberty Seminary School to become an atheist. Really.

      February 10, 2014 at 9:01 pm |
  10. Dylan

    I can see why someone can slip out of faith in God. It's easy to trust in God when things go according to your plan, it's easy to fall out of faith , when things don't work exactly as you wish it would.

    For a Christian it's important that you learn to trust in God in both good times and not so good times.

    February 10, 2014 at 8:16 pm |
    • notagoper

      I don't see this as being about "bad times". They may have been there, but this is about a crisis in faith that led to disbelief, not a sense of abandonment by God because 'stuff' happens.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:25 pm |
      • Dylan

        Christianity is about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, it is not finding a church or doctrine or dogma.

        February 10, 2014 at 8:48 pm |
      • notagoper

        And if you no longer believe that Jesus is the resurrected God, then what?

        February 10, 2014 at 8:50 pm |
    • saggyroy

      Atheists don't "lose" their faith, we discard on purpose as so much rubbish.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:29 pm |
      • notagoper

        Nonsense. You dismiss how important faith can be to people.

        Having the courage to leave the security blanket behind is a big deal for a lot of people. It holds many back. Others are willing to say, "I simply no longer believe".

        February 10, 2014 at 8:48 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      What of a Christian who finds doubt and loses faith when times are good?

      Faith isn't about good time and bad times. It's about what you believe.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:37 pm |
  11. Dyslexic doG

    "Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived."
    - Isaac Asimov

    February 10, 2014 at 8:13 pm |
  12. Dyslexic doG

    Justin Vollmar you are my HERO!

    February 10, 2014 at 8:12 pm |
    • justindvollmar

      Thanks 🙂

      February 11, 2014 at 9:25 am |
      • Dyslexic doG

        very welcome!

        in 100 years when the world looks at the christian god and jesus the same way as we look at thor and odin today, your name will be spoken as one of the people who began to turn the tide. I wish you well.

        February 11, 2014 at 10:04 am |
  13. Vic

    I can understand something like that driving someone to abandon his/her church or denomination; however, I don't quite understand the quantum leap to 'God does not exist!' Subscribing to a certain faith or not and the "Existence of God" are two separate things.

    February 10, 2014 at 8:07 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      Then you really didn't read what he wrote.

      He didn't say that being treated that way was the sole cause of his change of heart. It contributed to it, yes, but there is much more involved in that transition than just being disappointed in the people around you.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:16 pm |
      • Vic

        I did read what he said, and I understand your point. What drove him out of belief were his doubts.

        "But, to my complete shock, I found that my doubts led me into atheism. "

        That's what I don't understand. He was doing seminary and aspiring for a PhD after finishing his masters two months ago, yet, all of a sudden, his doubts led him to Atheism.

        February 10, 2014 at 8:27 pm |
        • saggyroy

          I think he was being sincere, and really working at it, but did not dismiss the hard questions with the old "well you just need faith" or "God has a plan".

          February 10, 2014 at 8:32 pm |
        • myweightinwords

          It wasn't all of a sudden, I guarantee that.

          The general pattern is doubt, study, deeper doubts, more study, prayer and meditation, more study, a period of hiding doubts behind a fairly public religiousity while continuing the pray and study and slowly coming to realize that you no longer believe.

          It isn't like you just wake up one morning and decided to stop believing.

          February 10, 2014 at 8:35 pm |
    • Dylan

      It could be an unanswered prayer that leads a person to walk away, which is sad in the grand scheme of things.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:19 pm |
      • tallulah131

        Perhaps for some this is the cause. But every atheist I know (and even I am surprised at how many that is) stopped believing in god because there is no evidence that any gods exist.

        February 11, 2014 at 11:04 am |
      • sam stone

        how do you tell the difference between an unanswered prayer because the object of prayer chooses not to respond and an unanswered prayer because the object of the prayer doesn't exist?

        February 12, 2014 at 8:33 pm |
    • notagoper


      I disagree. My own experience is that faith is a house of cards. Any card can fall and take the whole lot with it.

      Mr Vollmer speaks of questioning "how could dozens of Christian denominations fight and call each other false churches? Why are there thousands of conflicting interpretations among Christians? How could God be so loving when he will send millions to hell?" He appears to have found these doubts reinforced when they were confronted academically.

      There can be no monopoly of truth if everyone claims their truth is the universal truth.

      Who can judge this objectively? The truth is, nobody. That's the part where it all falls down. Disbelief becomes the sensible alternative to the search for "truth" – no one is right and the search for "truth" continues, in the philosopy department.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:21 pm |
      • Vic

        Perfectly fine. We all have questions like that; however, that does not lead me to doubt the "Existence of God," that's a completely different level.

        BTW, I saw your comment earlier. You can change your handle if you go to Settings, Public Profile, and then change your Public Display Name.

        February 10, 2014 at 8:37 pm |
      • notagoper

        Thanks Vic – I'll try the settings again.

        Once you stop believing in the miraculous dogmatic stuff one by one, it's a pretty short distance (for former Christians) to not believing in the resurrection. Once that is off the table "God", folds pretty quickly in the "whose God" question.

        Disbelief really can start with the thin edge of the wedge.

        February 10, 2014 at 8:55 pm |
    • dandintac

      Why is it so hard to imagine how people could abandon beliefs that make extraordinary claims but have no evidence?

      I'm convinced there are a great many atheists in the closet. My brother-in-law, one of my sisters, are two examples who keep their atheism to themselves. They go along to get along with theistic spouses and mother, and coworkers and so on.

      February 11, 2014 at 1:34 am |
    • sam stone

      i don't understand how someone can make the logical leap from a creator to a God

      February 12, 2014 at 8:26 pm |
  14. notagoper


    my best wishes for your journey.

    I'm sorry to hear that you were diverted from your path to attend Gallaudet University. Perhaps there remains an opportunity for you there some day?

    I found it interesting (and more than a little ironic) that it was the Liberty University seminary schoot that ultimately led you to disbelief. That makes sense to me.

    I'll take clarity over cognitive dissonance any day.

    Good luck with your future endeavors.

    February 10, 2014 at 7:49 pm |
  15. Lucifer's Evil Twin

    Welcome to reality Justin... doesn't it feel liberating to be free of superstition?

    February 10, 2014 at 7:48 pm |
  16. kyzaadrao

    So after not fitting in everywhere, you left and decided to give a go at finding acceptance with atheists. You're the second ex-pastor CNN has done an article on here in the "belief blog".

    In any other area of life we'd call this inconsistent and lacking in commitment.

    Recommend a secular job and time to find out exactly what it is you do believe.

    February 10, 2014 at 7:33 pm |
    • The Running Twit

      There was a third one in 2011 or 2012 in Louisiana, if I remember well, that dropped religion for atheism. He was ostracized by everyone in his community, and had to relocate. Sad. They even called him to insult him! Go figure.

      People feel threatened even more so when it is the pastor who announces his atheism.

      February 10, 2014 at 7:58 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      Is that what you take away from his story That he "didn't fit in anywhere"?

      February 10, 2014 at 8:20 pm |
  17. Allen

    I see most of your journey through the pastorate was in fairly conservative denominations. I think your new direction is a wonderful thing; but I'd also suggest that you remain open to checking out some of the more progressive churches, such as the UCC or UUA, where skepticism and doubt are seen as valuable tools in one's faith walk.

    February 10, 2014 at 7:31 pm |
  18. tttoo

    Welcome to the world, my friend. You'll never know it as it truly is, but certitude was always for believers.

    February 10, 2014 at 7:29 pm |
  19. The Running Twit

    What studies were you in at Gallaudet?

    February 10, 2014 at 6:35 pm |
    • justindvollmar

      I did not have a chance to declare my major but I planned to become a lawyer.

      February 11, 2014 at 9:26 am |
  20. realityyyyyyy

    From the ex-pastor:

    "I understood that God is an ancient but powerful superst-ition."

    Amen to that.

    February 10, 2014 at 6:34 pm |
    • TruthPrevails1

      The Clergy Project is a good representation of many other 'preachers' like this man. I'm guessing there are more out there who would lay too much on the line if they admitted to no longer believing.

      February 10, 2014 at 7:06 pm |
      • test


        February 11, 2014 at 12:23 pm |
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