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California Beach Party Brings Together Ex-Believers


When people leave religion behind, they sometimes feel stranded. They can lose communities, friends, even family. Some ex-believers are coming together in Southern California looking for a new sense of belonging. From member station KCRW, Luke Vander Ploeg reports.

LUKE VANDER PLOEG, BYLINE: It's a windy Saturday at bowls the Bolsa Chica State Beach in Long Beach, Calif. The sun is out, the waves are lapping, the ribs are cooking. And if you listen hard, you might catch some light blasphemous humor. This is no ordinary beach party. It's the annual Southern California Interfaithless Summer Kickoff Beach Party. Since 2014, the ex-religious have been coming together to spend a day at the beach with other former believers. It started out as just a couple of ex-Mormons but now...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm an ex-Scientologist.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Evangelical.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm an ex-Jehovah's Witness.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Ultra-orthodox Judaism.

MAHA AHMED: I'm an ex-Muslim.

PLOEG: That last voice you heard belongs to Maha Ahmed. She left Islam about eight years ago, and it wasn't easy.

AHMED: I was looking for this thing called faith, and everyone around me seemed to have it. And I just couldn't feel fulfilled with religion. It took me a long time to realize that it was OK and I could just walk away.

PLOEG: Still, Ahmed wasn't quite able to walk away completely. It took her a long time before she told her siblings. And her parents?

AHMED: They don't know. I think it would change our relationship to something that might be irrepairable.

PLOEG: She discovered the beach party a few years after she left Islam and it was revelatory.

AHMED: I didn't realize I still carried kind of that burden, that I felt lonely about it. And it lightened the load on my heart a lot.

MORRIS BIRD: It's something that people can't get anywhere else.

PLOEG: Morris Bird is the founder of the Interfaithless Beach Party. It goes back to a group that he pulled together back in 2011, when he left Mormonism. He felt isolated, so he reached out online and invited some other ex-Mormons to a meet-up.

BIRD: At the end, they looked at me and said, you're in charge of the next one.

PLOEG: As the group continued to grow, Bird got to thinking.

BIRD: Mormons aren't so unique. There's a lot of other people from other backgrounds who have been through a lot of the same things, and I'd like to meet them.

PLOEG: So he took to the Internet once again, reaching out on Reddit and messaging boards for the ex-religious with great success. People of all different former faiths flocked to the beach, Morris says, for a chance at meeting others in the same boat.

BIRD: People come from Vegas or Bishop, Calif., or Camerino or Bakersfield because they know it's a place where they can have someone who understands them.

BART CAMPOLO: What Morris is doing is identifying the hunger.

PLOEG: That's Bart Campolo. He was at the beach party as well. I spoke with him a few days later. Bart, like his father Tony Campolo, was a pretty big evangelical leader for most of his life. He left Christianity in a very public way, and people immediately started to reach out to him.

CAMPOLO: I hear from lots of people who say, I don't believe in God anymore but I miss it.

PLOEG: They don't miss trying to make sense of horrible tragedies or parse through thorny theological problems.

CAMPOLO: What they miss is the music and sitting down to talk about how we can be better people and how we can make other people's lives better. They miss the community.

PLOEG: Campolo missed it too, and now he's trying to recreate it. He's the humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California. And although he doesn't think the secular world has quite figured out how to make this kind of community work, he has a lot of hope.

CAMPOLO: There are all these people. They need a party, but they don't know how to throw one.

PLOEG: For now, but fewer and fewer Americans identify with religious groups every year, and many still hunger for community. And as they continue to find each other, Campolo says, eventually they're going to figure out how to throw that party. For NPR News, I'm Luke Vander Ploeg in Long Beach, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRTY GOLD'S "QUIET LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Luke Vander Ploeg

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