1-800-DOUBTS: A new helpline for troubled atheists

Atheists gather in the Bible Belt
Atheists gather in the Bible Belt

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Story highlights

  • A new helpline is believed to be the first for people suffering from a loss of faith
  • Founded by the group Recovering From Religion, 1-84-I-DOUBT-IT launched on Friday.
Find out what it means to be an atheist -- and why you should care -- in a one-hour special airing March 24 at 9 p.m. ET on CNN.

(CNN)The man on the line sounds nervous.

He's been a Christian for 20 years but can't believe in the Bible anymore. He hasn't told his friends or family and still sits, uneasy, in church each Sunday.
"I feel like I'm lying," he tells the woman on the other end of the phone. "I'm pretending to be a person that I'm not.
"But what if I'm wrong?" he asks. "Will I go to hell?"
"Hmmm..." the woman says, after stumbling through an awkward answer. "I thought you weren't going to make this hard."
If this call had been real, the woman says, she would have dissuaded the man from falling for Pascal's Wager, the argument that it's better to believe in God because -- well, hell is an awfully hot place to spend eternity.
But the call wasn't real. The man and woman are volunteers training for 1-84-I-DOUBT-IT, believed to be the country's first helpline for people wrestling with religion, suffering from a loss of faith, or confused about why their son or wife seems to have suddenly embraced atheism.
Founded by the group Recovering From Religion and cobbled together with a small budget, the helpline launched on Friday. Nearly 100 volunteers are ready to field calls 24/7 on the weekends and from 6-12 Central Time on weeknights.
Calls will be kept confidential and the callers can remain anonymous, said Sarah Morehead, Recovering From Religion's executive director. There's no physical call center; instead volunteers and callers are connected through a virtual private network
The volunteer agents, who are not licensed counselors or therapists, will not steer callers toward atheism, Morehead said. Rather, they will offer a sympathetic ear and practical tips for finding secular or religious communities. One script they can use, for example, asks callers about their beliefs and matches them with local congregations. Other guidelines direct callers with serious problems to secular therapists or, if necessary, a suicide hotline.
Morehead said the helpline grew out of the hundreds of calls and emails Recovering From Religion receives from people troubled by deep questions about God, the afterlife and faith -- but who fear exposing their anxieties to friends, family members or ministers.
Without a lifeline or support network, many former religious believers sink into depression or suffer from other emotional issues, Morehead said.
"Many people feel isolated or rejected when they begin to ask questions," she said. "If churches suddenly started welcoming doubters to their potlucks, the hot line project wouldn't be necessary."
Steve Harrington, executive director of the International Association of Peer Specialists, said groups like Recovering from Religion are popping up around the country, largely because the health care system seems to focus more on treating symptoms than patients.
Peer-to-peer counseling, Harrington said, takes the opposite approach. "Peer supporters ask questions but don't provide answers. They help people find their own answers."
Peer counseling's greatest strength, experts say, is the sense of shared experience, the common characteristics between the person seeking help and the person offering it. "Who can more softly bind the wound of another as he who has felt the same wound himself?" Harrington said, quoting Thomas Jefferson.
Nearly 7.5 million Americans belong to one of the country's 500,000 self-help groups, according to one estimate, and there are niches for nearly every mental and physical ailment, from women who have trouble breastfeeding to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of them have hot lines, but Harrington said he couldn't recall any other helpline like Recovering From Religion's.
You could argue that religion is the original peer support network. Millennia before "self-help" was coined, Buddhist sanghas, Hindu ashrams and Jewish synagogues welcomed seekers of all stripes, providing pilgrims, outcasts and devotees with sacred spaces to share customs and communal validation.
But many Americans, particularly the young, have forsaken organized religion in recent years. According to one well-noted study, nearly a third of millennials are not affiliated with any faith, which potentially leaves a lot of people with a lot of questions.
In a training class on Wednesday night, volunteers for 1-84-I-DOUBT-IT practiced how to answer questions from the expected kind of calls: the doubting believer, the closeted atheist, the concerned family member.
They also learned how to field calls they won't necessarily welcome: the preacher who wants to debate religion or convert the agents, the silent caller who won't utter a word, the sexualized callers who -- well, you can probably guess.
"We want to end those calls very quickly," said Mark Tilbrook, who led the training session Wednesday night.
Tilbrook, who is from Manchester, England, played the nervous man with doubts who left the woman on the other end of the line stumbling for an answer. Parts of the story he told were true, he said. He was a Christian and continued to attend church even after he lost faith.
"When I left my own faith, I understood why a lot of people would feel quite abandoned, especially if all their friends and family are tied to the church. It can be quite a lonely time."
In addition to the social costs, many lifelong atheists -- and believers, too, for that matter -- underestimate the existential terror that often accompanies the first stages of atheism.
It's not like switching political parties or picking up a new ideology, Tilbrook said. When you lose faith, you also lose assurance of an afterlife -- the kind of realization that leads to lots sleepless nights.
After reading about Recovering From Religion's hotline plans on Reddit, Tilbrook said he thought his personal and professional background -- he is a helpline counselor in England -- could be useful. (He asked CNN not to name the help line because its counselors are anonymous.)
On Wednesday night, he led four volunteers through 1-84-I-DOUBT-IT's rules and policies, which include these 10 "non-commandments" for counseling callers:
  1. Don't argue or debate
  2. Don't command or persuade
  3. Don't criticize or preach
  4. Don't threaten, blame or criticize
  5. Don't display negative emotions
  6. Don't make assumptions about callers
  7. Don't interrupt
  8. Don't make any promises
  9. Don't multitask
  10. Don't assert your own worldviews, beliefs or stories into the caller's situation
As they practiced mock calls, the volunteers -- who were from Seattle, Maryland and Montana -- seemed to find some of the rules easier to follow than others. One volunteer caught herself offering advice to a woman who wanted to have a secular wedding against her mother's wishes.
"You're trying to fix this problem for them," Tilbrook gently admonished the volunteer agent after the mock call ended. "You have to let them fix it themselves."
Tilbrook encouraged the volunteers to write the caller's name on a sheet of paper and draw a circle around it, a reminder that the conversation should center on the person, not the problem.
Earlier, he had taught the volunteers how to ask questions without seeming like an interrogator, wrap up rambling diatribes without speaking harshly, and sound sympathetic without stooping to condescension.
In an interview the next day, however, Tilbrook admitted that he hadn't mentioned one of the hardest aspects of helpline work:
A volunteer may have an intense conversation with a caller, walking with him through stressful situations and growing emotionally invested in the outcome. And then, after the conversation ends, the two will likely never speak again, with the volunteer left to wonder how the caller's ordeal ended.
It's like watching a movie, Tilbrook said, and stopping it midway.