Never say never, especially when it comes to religion.
That was a recurring theme of Bob Semes' message entitled "My Escape from Religion: From Episcopal Priest to Secular Humanist," which he presented Tuesday afternoon at a monthly Jefferson Center salon.
Semes, who is writing a book by the same title, founded the humanist center in 2004 shortly after his decision to renounce religion and his priesthood. After a lifetime immersed in Christianity, including growing up in a Presbyterian home, attending four years of seminary and serving as a priest for 25 years, he began reading radical philosophers he once considered heretics and thought he would never agree with.
"Most of my adult life has been spent following an illusion, and now I firmly believe I have managed to shake off most of those formative forces that have shaped so much of my life," he said. "I have come to slowly understand and to believe that the idea of the god of the Judeo-Christian tradition has been and is manufactured by human beings in their own image existing only to enable their daily life to be bearable."
Semes qualified his talk by saying many of his views are derived from personal experience and by definition different from others' religious experiences. The Jefferson Center now has about 100 paying members, many of whom are atheists, and others who attend liberal Christian churches, Semes said.
Semes' past "religious rut" was littered with what he viewed as hypocrisies in the church, even as he skipped from one denomination to another hoping each group would be different. He faced abusive clergy, a parishioner threatening to kill him after a counseling session, congregations who dismissed his homosexual lifestyle and what he called a general resistance to critical thinking. He struggled to identify exactly why he had felt "called" to the priesthood as a young man, wondering if he was simply more scared of being drafted in the Vietnam War.
"I failed to recognize that much of the grief I encountered in life came from religious institutions, and much of it through its parishioners and practitioners," he said. "Somehow I was not able to come to the realization that it was not necessarily the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians or the Catholics who were at fault. They were merely symptomatic of the larger problem as I saw it — the institution of religion itself and the grip it had on human beings."
Semes, who considers himself a humanist, or an atheist who loves and cares about people, said he is not trying to convert anyone to his views, but would like his book to reach those who are undecided on which side of the religious fence they fall. He emphasized critical thinking in his journey away from faith, and in addition to his book he hopes to publish by the end of this year, he plans to create a program to train teachers how to implement critical thinking skills in their classrooms.
Audience members debated with Semes after his presentation, from how thoroughly he examined the creeds of each religion before deciding he didn't believe them, to what he thinks could take the place of the close Christian community he enjoyed as a child.
"I'm not smart enough to argue with these guys," said one audience member who gave only his first name, Robert. He called the talk controversial because, "He's professing atheism after such a long time being involved in religion. Suddenly he's rejected all that — a whole lifetime of being steeped in religion."
Other audience members said they shared ideas similar to those of Semes.
"It just confirmed what I already knew about Bob's views," said Jennifer Caffrey, who has attended several Jefferson Center events. "The church isn't for everybody, and religion isn't the only way to view the world."
Semes will make the same presentation on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Jefferson Center's office in the Ashland Historic Armory.
Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227.