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Five leaders who have lost, well, their faith

By Pieta Woolley

It’s not unusual for a faith leader to lose his or her religion. In this month’s Observer, Mike Milne explores the quagmire that can come when those leaders dither on their way out the door. Many of the faithful — leaders or lay people — don’t take this approach, preferring instead to explode out of their institutions with a ruckus. Here are five of them:

1. Nate Phelps

Former life: Preachers kid to the infamous Westboro Baptist Church Pastor Fred Phelps

Currently: Lives in Calgary, where he serves as the executive director of the secular, rationalist Centre for Inquiry Calgary and sits on the board of directors for Recovering From Religion.  

His escape: In a car on his 18th birthday, quitting his childhood home and his involvement with Westboro in a single midnight escape.

2. Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Former life: Traditionally raised Muslim girl from Somalia, who endured genital mutilation. She was swayed into orthodox practice in her teens, choosing to wear the hijab.

Currently: Founder of the AHA Foundation for ex-Muslim women and a fellow at the Kennedy Government School at Harvard

Her escape: While living in Netherlands, she re-read the Qu’ran after the Sept. 11 attacks and then read Herman Philipse’s Athiest Manifesto. In 2002, the same year she became atheist, she wrote the book The Son Factory. That's when the death threats started.

3. Charles Bradley Templeton

Former life: Globe and Mail sports cartoonist who founded Toronto’s Church of the Nazarene. Between 1936 and 1957, he was a leading figure in Canadian evangelism.

The late Templeton’s latest: Editor of Maclean’s Magazine, newscaster for CTV.

His escape: After years hosting the faith TV show Look Up and Live on CBS, he “converted” to agnosticism and returned to Canada. His fan base was not amused.

4. Joseph Stalin


Former life: Humble origins, smallpox and an alcoholic father helped lead him into a seminary, where he was to become a priest in the Greek Orthodox church.

The late Stalin’s latest: USSR leader from the 1920s to 1953, whose time in power was marked with war, the development of a nuclear weapons program, widespread famines and political massacres.

His escape: Missed his final seminary exams and couldn’t pay his tuition, read some Lenin, and joined the Bolsheviks. The rest is history.  

5. Mark Zuckerberg

Former life: Jewish son of a dentist and psychiatrist, he Bar Mitzvahed at 13.

Currently: World’s youngest billionaire, thanks to Facebook.

His escape: He declared his atheism to his 32 million Facebook followers.



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