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Once Mormon, now atheist, blogger taking religious tour

John Hummel commits to his curiosity.

Every Sunday morning he drives from his Gibsonton home to take a seat in the back of a different church in the Tampa Bay area. He takes notes. He updates on Twitter. He interviews the reverend, pastor, priest or whoever is running the show.

What do you believe?

What do you worship?

Is the nature of man good or evil?

Why?

His self-assigned year-long project is about halfway through. He's not shopping for a religion. He wants to know what other people believe and why — for himself and for the followers of his blog.

The bay area and its surrounding cities serve up new adventures for Hummel. Sikhs played drums and fed him vegetarian food in Thonotosassa. In Tampa, Tibetan Buddhists hugged him and he sat cross-legged on the carpeted floors of the Madinatul Ilm Islamic Center. Lutherans in Riverview talked to him about love. He interviewed Humanists in Lakeland and spoke with a member from the Church of Satan in Orlando.

Hummel calls it a hobby. His wife, Holli, insists the experiment could be a book.

"If not, at least I had my curiosity satisfied," Hummel said.

For 35 years, the 36-year-old spent every Sunday as a follower in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. High school mornings began at 5 a.m. for Bible study. Religion was life.

But a year ago, he said his church became too politically charged. He wasn't comfortable with putting religion into law the way his church pushed for its members to show support against gay marriage.

Last year he filed the paperwork — he's out. He calls himself an out-of-the-closet atheist.

"It's like a divorce," Hummel said. "I guess that's the best way to put it because this was my identity. I wasn't just John Hummel. I was John Hummel — Mormon."

Growing up Mormon, he frequently defended himself against a constant stream of misconceptions.

Did he believe in Jesus?

Why couldn't he drink coffee?

It annoyed and frustrated him. He figured every religion had its misunderstandings. He wanted to observe them firsthand and tell others to dismiss inaccurate assumptions.

And now he was free on Sunday mornings.

He has been welcomed so far at more than 20 services. He posts the interviews he conducts as podcasts on his blog.

At first, the Rev. Susan Detterman of St. Mark United Church of Christ hesitated at his offer. She wasn't sure Hummel would write a fair review of her church. After she listened to a few of his podcasts, she welcomed him. She'd liked his work, and she'd learned.

He visited the group of about 40 in Valrico.

"He explained to folks and they went, 'Oh, that's neat! That's cool!'" Detterman said.

While Hummel experiments, his wife and three children still attend his old church. Holli Hummel supports her husband's project.

"That's the way he is," she said. "He's always searching to understand. For me, it's not surprising."

On a recent Sunday, Hummel sits in the last row of the Boyette Springs Church of God in Riverview. His Bible rests on a crossed leg.

A man blows a horn and triggers a 10-minute musical opening. Women in skirts past their knees stand by girls in oversized hoop earrings. Men wear tucked-in polo shirts. One person shakes a tambourine during the Pentecostal service. Members shake Hummel's hand, bringing forth his boyish smile.

The Rev. Chris Armstrong introduces guest preacher Marvin Booth.

Booth yells and his face flushes while Hummel, who sits near the back of the church, takes notes on his phone. Hummel calls the sermon a "rapid fire."

Someone places a water bottle on the podium.

"Oh God!" Booth repeatedly shouts.

In the congregation, eyes close. Hands wave. Booth kicks into high gear.

He preaches as fast as an auctioneer. He tells followers to raise their holy hands. He sells faith.

Will Hummel buy it?

Not this Sunday.

But he hasn't ruled it out. One day a church could change his mind. There are some favorites in the bunch he's visited so far. The Humanist Association of West Central Florida because they reject supernatural beliefs. Tampa Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, for its service and environmentalism. Tampa Unity Church for its minister.

Churches that have left him unimpressed go unnamed because Hummel doesn't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

"I try not to ask questions I think are challenging," Hummel said. "I'm not going after this as a journalist trying to find truth and justice and the like."

If that hurts his credibility for his blog readers and 50 weekly podcast subscribers, he said it's fair criticism.

"I'm not trying to be wishy-washy," he said.

"I just don't think I have enough knowledge to say one way or another if something's good or bad."

Maybe if he had more time.

When the project is over, the security architect may use the same approach elsewhere.

"What does a water commissioner do?" Hummel asks. "What does a Florida state congressman do?"

His green eyes widen.

"I'm just curious."

Ileana Morales can be reached at imorales@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

Learn more

Follow John Hummel

on Twitter at twitter.com/johnhummel or twitter.com/blogthereligion.

Read his blog at www.blogthereligions.com.

Once Mormon, now atheist, blogger taking religious tour 08/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 6, 2009 5:30am]

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