April 6, 2023
(ATLANTA) — With a wry sense of humor and a penchant for self-deprecation, Robbin Scott Okamoto, 53, who goes by Scott, disarms with frequent jokes at his own expense but only rarely indulges in ridiculing others. As an author, podcaster, and former English professor, Okamoto possesses expertise that he is too humble to acknowledge. Beneath what is a silly surface lies a serious side, one that is deeply concerned with issues of bigotry and the shortcomings of his former evangelical faith. Being a Japanese American who has navigated the complexities of identity and belonging, he is proudly an apostate.
Okamoto refers to his journey as a process of deconstructing his beliefs. Deconstruction is a literary term that includes exploring and exposing contradictory messaging in prose or poetry. In recent years, former evangelicals, like Okamoto, have been using the term to describe the process of analyzing, and often leaving their faith. But Okamoto’s deconstruction of his Christianity wasn’t primarily about theological fallacies; it was intrinsically intertwined with his Asian identity.
“Quitting anything is frowned upon when talking about the stereotypical model minority myth,” Okamoto said. “We’re seen as the committed hardworking types, and so the idea that you’re an apostate carries its own kind of taboo.” Okamoto confronts this myth in his book “Asian American Apostate: Losing Religion and Finding Myself at an Evangelical University,” which comes out this April.
According to his younger brother, Brian, Okamoto has always balanced whimsy with sensitivity. He told me his earliest memory of Okamoto was one where “he made me laugh so hard I threw up.” Brian said, “I’ll never forget him going from goofing off to looking shocked and concerned in an instant.”
That whiplash from mindless amusement to mindful listening is a fundamental feature of Okamoto’s personality. His modesty sometimes comes off as shy. But Okamato is never quiet about what he finds important, especially when it comes to his heritage.
Okamoto learned as a young adult that the Christian faith was a way for Japanese Americans to prove allegiance to America. For Okamoto, this explained why his parents fervently engage in their evangelical church. But his disavowal of Christianity is in contrast to his devout parents.
“It breaks their heart that my kids aren’t Christian,” Okamoto, father of 3, acknowledged. “And that my wife and I aren’t Christian, and that we don’t want to go to church with them. We don’t even go on Christmas anymore.”
But Okamoto doesn’t let that fray his love for family. One way he connects to his dad is through fishing. “My dad is kind of a Japanese American redneck,” he said, laughing. “He grew up hunting and fishing. I never took to hunting but I always liked fishing.” Okamoto finds a sense of tranquility outdoors. “It’s half about the scenery and the process and it’s partially just to clear the head,” he said.
Deconstruction was a far less peaceful endeavor. In college, Okamoto tried distancing his religious attitude from what he describes as “white supremacist entanglement.” His love for literature and history opened his eyes to the fact that there was fundamental misinformation about history, race, and political stances in the church of his youth.
As he got older, Okamoto pursued teaching and landed a job at a small community college before working for Azusa Pacific University (APU), a firmly conservative evangelical school. At both, he desired to inspire students. “I know this is freshman writing 101, and it’s boring as hell, but express yourself!” His face lit up as he recited his old canned speech. “Make it yours!”
I brought up that his words reminded me of Robin Williams’ speeches in “Dead Poets Society” and Okamoto laughed as he reached behind his computer on his desk.
“One of my students gave this to me,” he said, holding a small plaque with the engraving, “Captain” — what the students in the movie called their professor, Robin Williams’ character.
At APU, Robbin Okamoto was determined to use his love for diversity and creativity to implement a cultural change within evangelicalism. But it wasn’t long before evangelicals were conflating Republican affiliation with evangelical identity more obviously than Okamoto had ever perceived.
“Everything that they said was anti-science,” Okamoto said. “It was anti-history. It was anti-logic. It was hateful. It was divisive.” He tried going to a more progressive church, but ultimately it all felt pointless.
Okamoto decided he was no longer a Christian, though he wasn’t quite done with APU. But losing your faith while at an evangelical college is not easy to hide. “I got dinged for being the liberal who talked about race too much,” he said. Because of his outspoken support for LGBT students and non-conservative ideals, when he was called into the dean’s office, he knew he was about to be fired.
“But I’m better at arguing than he is, and I argued myself back into a job,” Okamoto remarked. “And then I came home and my wife was like, ‘Why would you ever want to go back there after everything they’ve done to you?’”
Okamoto’s wife, Geri, has a slightly different deconstruction story than her husband’s.
“I had to learn all the ‘Christian lingo’ and learn to present myself as a respectable Christian woman,” she said. “But, at the same time, I was constantly challenging what seemed to me to be outdated ideals.”
Geri had always had problems when Christians mistreated not only her husband but all minorities. The morning after he’d been summoned by the dean, Okamoto wrote an email to him saying, “Yeah… sorry, I quit.” APU did not respond for comment.
But Okamoto hasn’t left college culture altogether. His podcast, called “Chapel Probation,” started with him interviewing his former students about their traumatizing experiences at APU. Many were expelled for being queer or reprimanded for speaking against the administration.
Many students from other evangelical colleges began messaging Okamoto, describing similar experiences, such as Ashley Dunston, an author who attended Vanguard University when she was evangelical. She loves Okamoto’s style and structure.
“You can tell he’s a writer because he has beautiful prose and witty commentary,” she said. “And his episodes are like short stories of different characters that he knows and cares about.”
Using both waggery and critical thinking, Okamoto is eternally curious. For him, being an apostate isn’t merely loudly decrying a former belief, it’s about creativity and freedom of thought.
“I feel like I’m someone that people gravitate to, especially those who need a listening ear,” Okamoto reflected. “I’ve always been that ever since I was a kid. When I was a kid I thought I’m serving God by doing this, but really it’s just part of my nature to listen to people.”
Okamoto’s genuine interest in others is striking, as evidenced by his willingness to ask questions and praise others’ work during our interview. This quality is just one layer of Okamoto’s complex personality. He journeyed from Christian to atheist but his faith in the power of stories has remained. He carries a slight reluctance to be a public figure but a bold determination to use his voice to uplift the marginalized.
Okamoto is an apostate from a former faith, but his true calling has remained; storyteller.