Nate Phelps used to be a member of his father's anti-LGBT God-fearing Westboro Baptist Church, and he recently answered questions from online readers to explain why he left the Church and what motivated him to become an atheist.
Nate Phelps was 18 when he made a daring escape from the Westboro Baptist Church, where he called home his entire life. He had enough of the physical and emotional abuse he faced at the hands of his father, Pastor Fred Phelps.
He's been ostracized by his family ever since, not a surprise to those who follow Westboro's hateful protests at military funerals, football games and even the Oscars. The 50-person Church membership believes in the extreme ideology that not only homosexuals are deviant sinners, but also musicians, athletes, soldiers and many more. Nate couldn't handle living under Pastor Phelps' beliefs, so he did what some teens want to do but rarely end up doing: he ran away from home. And never came back.
Recently Nate went online and he answered questions about his life in the Church and his recovery after.
Below are some of the most revealing Q&As posted on reddit, the online community where people can join the forum called IamA and answer any question published. More on Nate's escape from Westboro can be found here.
Q: What did you do after you escaped from your family?
Nate: The first three nights after I ran away, I slept in the bathroom of a gas station near the high school I attended (Topeka West). From there, my brother's (Mark) mother-in-law offered me a room at her home. Very little I miss. It was so destructive and took years to undo. I have talked about the sense of security and belonging I can recall feeling from time to time when we were having church services on Sunday evenings. Something about being tucked in that building that's half buried and feeling like we're the only one's that god loves...it's hard to articulate.
Q: Do you think your dad is a bad guy or just ill-informed?
Nate: I think my father is a hateful person first. The religious beliefs gave him a forum and permission to be cruel to the world.
Q: Are members submitted to any form of abuse as punishment for 'sinning'?
Nate: When I was growing up there it was a very violent environment. It wasn't constant, but it was often enough and unpredictable enough to be very destructive. It is my opinion that this is the primary reason my siblings stay there and parrot my old man's theology.
Q: What was the nature of the violence?
Nate: [My father] would grab us by the arms, lift us up and drive his knee into our stomach. He would beat us with his fists on our face and body. He would kick us. He would spit in our face. He would beat us from our lower back down to behind our knees with a mattock handle, often splitting the skin and causing bleeding.
Q: How do you feel about the rest of your family that obviously decided not to leave the church? Are you at all as resentful towards them as the rest of the general population?
Nate: I despise the harm they are doing. I get emails and messages constantly from young people who have read and seen their message. Many of them are terrified. On top of that this whole hate thing adds immensely to the social idea that gays are lesser citizens or humans. This idea is what some people use to do harm to these people. I hold my father and siblings responsible for this harm.
Q: What made you become an atheist exactly? Was it in the back of your head for some time?
Nate: spent years searching for god. I attended an Evangelical Free Church and Chuck Smith Jr's church out in southern California. I read and questioned top leaders in the church out there and was constantly frustrated with the lack of answers.
It was a long process but I think I could point to 9/11 and when I read Michael Shermer's "The Science of Good & Evil" as the key turning points for me.
Watching people respond to an act of blind faith that killed 3,000 humans by turning to their blind faith...it made no sense to me. I remember thinking at the time that the mechanism of faith could very well be one of the greatest risks to the survival of mankind. I'm sure that's gonna piss some people off.
Q: Do you ever regret leaving? You have a family now, do you feel like they're missing part of who you are by not knowing your parents?
Nate: I don't regret leaving... I never perceived an option. I honestly think I would have died there. My knee jerk reaction when my children get too close to that situation is to warn them away. It freaks me out to imagine them getting pulled in.