The son of Pastor Fred Phelps, the man who founded the adamantly homophobic Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas which claims that God hates the United States for supporting gay rights, has broken his silence and begun to publicly speak about his relationship with his estranged father.

Father of four and self-confessed atheist Nate Phelps, 51, lives in Calgary and is engaged to be married to his second wife. Speaking to Canadian Newspaper, Globe and Mail, he said, “I don’t accept the argument that growing up in a twisted environment is what led me to atheism . . . I accept the argument that growing up in a hyper-focus-on-God environment led me to search for answers. There’s no doubt about that. And I do accept that there’s damage there . . . I just don’t see any evidence for a God. But I see plenty of evidence for good and evil in humans.”

Mr Phelps acknowledged in the interview that he felt a need for atonement and to work out his feelings about his upbringing, which his plans to put into a book.

Lately, he has been speaking on the subject of his family and the religion he was raised with at both secularist and gay conventions. He spoke at the Toronto Centre for Inquiry, a non-profit organisation for the promotion of critical thinking, and a month ago, returned to Topeka to speak at a gay rally, a move that “put him at the centre of his father’s hate campaign”. Mr Phelps was well received at the rally but confessed he found the experience “terrifying”.

Mr Phelps said he no longer felt any love for his father, but was conflicted about his mother, who he saw as a “victim” like the other members of his family. Shirley Phelps-Roper, Mr Phelps’s sister, admits that their father beat them as children, but denies he ever physically attacked their mother.

On the subject of homosexuality, Mr Phelps said he understands that [gay people] don’t choose their sexuality, but the religious prejudice that his father “hard-wired” into his brain sometimes makes him doubt his thoughts. He conceded, however, that it wasn’t “an intellectual thing. It’s an emotional thing. It’s what was hard-wired into my brain. And it whispers, ‘What if I’m wrong?’”

Mr Phelps also said he stuggled with suicidal thoughts and depression, but lives in hope. He is one of 16 of Fred Phelps’s children, two of whom changed their names and turned their back on the family for good.