Jason, an Evangelical Christian, asked:
What would cause someone with your Biblical education and years of preaching the Word of God not just claiming to be a Christian but also living it one day decide to not believe and do a 180 and turn your back on it?
While I deal with this question at length in the From Evangelicalism to Atheism series, today I want to give a short, condensed answer to this question.
People like Jason are often perplexed by how it possible for someone with my background and training to one day walk away from the ministry and Christianity. Most of the clergy who deconvert do so at a much younger age, often in their 20s and 30s. In my case, I spent fifty years in the Christian church and I pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years before I deconverted. When I started going to counseling, my counselor told me that it was quite rare for someone my age and with my experience to walk away from a lifetime of belief and work. It happens, just not very often.
Jason is not alone. A number of my ex-friends, family members, and former parishioners can’t understand how it is possible that the man they called Preacher or Pastor is now an atheist. Often they can not or will not believe the reasons I give for my deconversion. Instead, they try to find some other reason to explain why Bruce Gerencser, the man of God, the pastor, the preacher, their fellow colleague in the ministry, is now an apostate, an enemy of God. Is there some secret past I am hiding, some secret sin? they ask themselves. They wonder if I have mental problems, or if I am unstable. They rack their brains trying to come up with a plausible explanation, anything but accepting the reasons I give for my deconversion.
Christian fundamentalism taught me to stand firm on my beliefs and convictions. When I was a pastor, people appreciated and applauded my willingness to resolutely defend my beliefs and convictions, But now that I do the same with atheism and liberal politics, they think there must be some other reason I drastically changed my mind and life. I am the same man, a man who thinks that beliefs matter.
My mother taught me, from my youth onward, that it was important to stand up for what I believe. Now, this does not mean that I am not now tolerant of the beliefs of others, because I am. As I get older, I realize that tolerance is an important virtue. Stepping outside of the box I spent most of my life in, I found a rich, diverse, and contradictory world that forced me to be more accepting and tolerant.
When I entered kindergarten I could already read. My mother taught me to read and she developed in me an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. This may seem counterintuitive at first, since I was raised in a fundamentalist environment that is not known for promoting a thirst for knowledge. But, by becoming a proficient and avid reader, I had at my disposal countless opportunities to expand my knowledge. Sadly, my quest for knowledge became quite stunted as a pastor because I rarely read books that would conflict with my Christian beliefs. However, when I began to have doubts about Christianity and its teachings, my thirst for knowledge kicked into high gear and I began reading books that I once would have considered heretical.
I never made a lot of money pastoring churches. I never had church-provided health insurance or a retirement plan. The only benefits I received were a check I got once a week IF the offerings were enough. Outside of the time I spent pastoring Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas, every other church I pastored paid a part-time or poverty-level wage for the full-time work I gave the church. I often worked outside of the church, as did Polly when I pastored Our Father’s House in West Unity, Ohio. I am not pointing a judgmental finger at the churches I pastored. Most of the churches were either small or in poverty-ridden areas. Over the years, I was privileged to pastor many gracious, giving poor people. They gave what they could.
About now you are thinking, what in the world are you talking about, Bruce? I thought this post was about WHY you stopped believing! It is, and what I have written above can be distilled down to these three important statements:
- I was taught to stand firm on my convictions and beliefs
- I was taught to read at an early age and I developed a thirst for knowledge
- I never made much money in the ministry
Since I never made much money in the ministry, there was no economic reason for me to stay in the ministry. I always made more money working outside of the church, so when I decided to leave the ministry, which I did five years before I deconverted, I suffered no economic consequences.
Freed from the ministry, my wife and I spent five years visiting more than a hundred Christian churches. We were desperately looking for a Christianity that mattered, a Christianity that took seriously the teachings of Jesus. During this five year period, I read countless books written by authors from a broad spectrum of Christendom. I read books by authors such as Thomas Merton, Robert Farrar Capon, Henri Nouwen, Wendell Berry, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, John Shelby Spong, Soren Kierkegaard, and NT Wright. These authors challenged my Evangelical understanding of Christianity and its teachings.
I decided I would go back to the Bible, study it again, and determine what it was I REALLY believed. During this time, I began reading books by authors such as Robert Wright, Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, These three authors, along with several others, attacked the foundation of my Evangelical belief in the inerrant, inspired word of God. Their assault on this foundation brought my Evangelical house tumbling down. I desperately tried to find some semblance of the Christianity I once believed, but I came to realize that my faith was gone.
I tried, for a time, to convince myself that I could find some sort of Christianity that would work for me. Polly and I visited numerous liberal or progressive Christian churches, but I found that these expressions of faith would not do for me. My faith was gone. Later, Polly would come to the same conclusion.
I turned to the internet to find help. I came upon sites like exchristian.net and Debunking Christianity. I found these sites to be quite helpful as I tried to make sense of what was going on in my life. I began reading the books of authors like John Loftus, Hector Avalos, Robert M. Price, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins.
The five books that made the biggest impression on me were:
- Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible by Bart Ehrman
- Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart Ehrman
- God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer by Bart Ehrman
- The Evolution of God by Robert Wright
- Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne
(I make a few shekels if you click on the above links and buy the books)
I read many authors and books besides the ones listed here. I say this to keep someone from saying, but you didn’t read so and so or you didn’t read _______, So, if I had to give one reason WHY I am no longer a Christian today it would be BOOKS. My thirst for knowledge – a thirst I still have today, – even though it is greatly hindered by chronic illness and pain – is what drove me to re-investigate the claims of Christianity and the teachings of the Bible. This investigation led me to conclude that the claims of Christianity and the teachings of the Bible could not rationally and intellectually be sustained. Try as I might to hang on to some sort of Christian faith, the slippery slope I found myself on would not let me stand still. Eventually, I found myself saying, I no longer believe in the Christian God. For a time I was an agnostic, but I got tired of explaining myself, so I took on the atheist moniker, and now no one misunderstands what I believe (see Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners and Dear Friend).
The hardest decision I ever made in my life was that day in late November of 2008 when I finally admitted to myself, I am no longer a Christian, I no longer believe in the Christian God, I no longer believe the Bible is the Word of God. At that moment, everything I had spent my life believing and doing was gone. In a sense, I had an atheist version of a born-again experience. For the past six years, I have continued to read, study, and write. I am still very much a work in progress. My understanding of religion and its cultural and sociological implications continues to grow. Now that I am unshackled from the constraints of religion, I am free to wander the path of life wherever it may lead. Now that I am free to read what I want, I have focused my attention on history and science. While I continue to read books that are of a religious or atheist nature, I spend less and less time reading these kind of books. I still read every new book Bart Ehrman publishes, along with various Christian/atheist/humanist blogs and publications, and this is enough to keep me up to date with American Christianity and American atheism/humanism.
I hope this post adequately answers the WHY I stopped believing question.
- This is a brief answer to the question WHY? I will fully develop this answer in the series From Evangelicalism to Atheism.
- I also spent some time investigating other religions and gods that humans have created (a study I still find quite fascinating).
- There is also a political aspect to my deconversion. I will talk about this in the aforementioned series.
- Jason asked if I believed in evolution. The answer is yes. I am no expert when it comes to science, but I have done enough reading to be comfortable with saying that I believe evolution/natural selection best explains the natural world.