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Retired Pastor? How Does THAT Happen?

bruce-gerencser-preacher-and-atheist
Pastor Bruce, Preachersville, Kentucky, late 1990s and Atheist Bruce, Defiance, Ohio, 2016

I saw my primary care doctor today for my two-month check-up. I have been seeing the same doctor for eighteen years. We’ve become friends, and my appointments are often just much catching up as they are treating me. My doctor is an Evangelical Christian. While I am sure he has noticed that I don’t talk about God/Jesus/Church any more, we have never had any sort of discussion about my current beliefs and way of life. I am sure he still thinks I am numbered among the elect — a follower of Jesus Christ.

Scripts written/called in, CT scan scheduled, blood tests ordered, bitching about how bad the Browns and Bengals were Sunday finished, time to go home. The nurse — also an Evangelical — came into the room with several reams of paper (or so it seems) detailing everything we talked about during my visit. My doctor said to his nurse, Bruce, is a retired pastor. Before I could say a word, the nurse said, Retired pastor? How does THAT happen? Again, before I could say anything, my doctor said, He’s a retired pastor.

I outwardly smiled and, like Trump changing the discussion from “pussy-grabbing” to Bill Clinton’s dalliances, I said, how many games do you think the Browns will win? My doctor shook his head and laughed, knowing that his Browns suck. Come my next visit in December, I suspect one or both of us will be football-depressed.

For whatever reason, when it comes to my medical treatment, I wall myself off from my atheist and humanist beliefs. I don’t disown them, I just don’t talk about it. I do, from time to time, act like a devout, proselytizing Jehovah’s Witness, leaving copies of the Freedom From Religion Foundation or Americans United For Separation of Church and State newsletters in the waiting room. Even with this low-key act of godlessness, I make sure my name and address is blacked out before placing the newsletters among waiting room reading materials.

What did the nurse mean when she said, Retired Pastor?, how does THAT happen? Evangelical thinking on this subject goes something like this:

  • God calls men to be pastors.
  • The work of the ministry is far above any other job. In fact, it is not a job, it’s a calling.
  • This calling is irrevocable. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. (Romans 11:29)
  • Pastors should die in the pulpit while preaching the gospel. Going to heaven with my boots on, old-time preachers used to say.

Thus, being a retired pastor does not compute .God saved, and called me, so I should still be preaching. But wait a minute. I am no longer a Christian. I don’t believe in the existence of the God I at one time worshiped and served. My salvation and calling were the result of social conditioning, the consequence of spending fifty years in the Evangelical church. At age five I told my mother that I wanted to be a preacher some day. At age fifteen, I put my faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Two weeks later, I went before the church and told them I believed God was calling me to be a preacher. The congregation praised God for his selection of the redheaded Gerencser boy, and a week later I preached my first sermon. Thirty-three years later I preached my last sermon.

Someday, my obituary will be published in the Bryan Times and Defiance Crescent-News. On that day, my doctor will know the “truth” about my life and loss of faith. Until then, I am content to talk about football, baseball, or family, leaving my godlessness for another day. While I don’t think the fact of my atheism would affect my medical care, I prefer not to complicate my professional relationship and friendship with my doctor. If I Iive longer than expected and my doctor retires before I die, perhaps then we will talk about my journey from Evangelicalism to atheism. (Please see From Evangelicalism to Atheism.) Or maybe he’ll stumble upon my blog or read one of the articles I have written for other blogs. I don’t fear him knowing. I just know there’s not enough time in a fifteen minute office visit for me to explain why I am no longer a Christian.

Do you have certain people you haven’t shared your deconversion with? Why do you keep this to yourself? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

19 Comments

  1. Avatar
    RJW

    I don’t tell too many people I’m no longer a Christian. My good Christian friend seems to think she can talk about Creationism etc and maybe, I’ll change my mind. I told another good friend that I wasn’t a Christian and she stopped seeing me.

    At least my husband and sons are perfectly okay with me no longer being Christian. Husband is all out atheist while one son leans towards pantheism. The older, Christian son is definitely a liberal Christian. So we’re all good! 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Brian

    The fact that I no longer do woo-woo is of little consequence most of the time. When somebody speaks for me without respect and includes me in their Christian speech, then I stop them and caution them to acknowledge that I am not the person about whom they speak…
    My older brother never accepts that and gaslights me to the moon and back: YOu and I both know, is one of his favorite prefaces… My sister just absents herself and does not address the elephant I bring into her comfort zone. The point of helping others in Christianity is to make them know they are worms and Jesus makes good people out of worms. Once you see the basic disrespect and shallowness of such an enterprise, all the rest is just theatre, repetative theatre. People used to burn others at the stake to do them a favor, torture them to death for being who they were.
    I put Jesus on the Cross and need to be hated or if possible saved. I did the whole thing and am not adding any coin to the offering plate each Sunday. Witholding the truth about one’s belief or lack of woo-woo is entirely appropriate. After all, Bruce does not even love God enough to believe in the healing God wants to bestow on him. He instead goes running to doctors. Faithless, he will not be properly healed but wander to and fro in unhappy complaint unlike the church congregation who are going way way up when the time comes….

  3. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I never told my parents. I think they figured it out, and it really upset my mother, a devout Catholic. But she talked around it. My dad was always a person who judged others by what they did, not what they said… and I don’t think he gave a rat’s ass about what I might profess to believe as long as I lived a moral life by his standards. And Dad and I happened to share a closely-aligned set of morals.

    Husband and I are both openly atheist to his family, who originally were Evangelical Christians. We’re not the only ones; two of my nephews are open atheists. Dad-in-law never talks about religion. Mom-in-law is troubled, but figures we’re all adults and she’s not in charge. I suspect there are a lot of prayers she says for our salvation. But M-in-L is a much more liberal Christian than she was a few decades ago.

    There is no one else I hide my atheism from, but I’m not an anti-theist, either; I have a somewhat live-and-let-live approach to religious beliefs that don’t result in serious harm for believers. Don’t preach at me and I won’t logic at you. It mostly works. The people who really care about me, still seem to care about me, even the really religious folks. That encourages me. I like to see empathy raised above dogma.

  4. Avatar
    Kingasaurus

    After painfully watching the Browns and Bengals in the recent past, why isn’t everyone in Ohio an atheist?

    Don’t those two teams make it obvious that there’s no God? Or maybe there is one and he hates you.

  5. Avatar
    Melody

    I haven’t told my parents. They know I’m much more of a skeptic now, but not about my deconversion. I sometimes wonder if they know, or suspect. Basically because of this: “While I am sure he has noticed that I don’t talk about God/Jesus/Church any more, we have never had any sort of discussion about my current beliefs and way of life.”

    I used to talk much more about my faith, about the Bible, about Jesus. I used to say Lord Jesus and now I just say Jesus when I mention him. I went from someone who was really devoted and somewhat vocal about it to someone who hardly talks about it and when I do with quite some caveats. But they don’t ask anything, and I don’t tell. I think they believe I’m more of a progressive now, but am not sure what they think. It’s a pretty touchy subject and even being too progressive would already be quite a problem.

  6. Avatar
    JR

    What a rude thing to say to a guy in the doctors. In that position even if I was a committed evangelical I think I would say ‘I’m old and I’ve earned a retirement so fuck off’.

  7. Avatar
    Ami

    I’m out to some people, but I think the majority of people I encounter just assume that everyone is a Christian. Since I don’t have horns or a forked tail, I don’t fry cats or hurt small children and I’m just a regular person they assume I am a Christian.

    Most of the people I encounter don’t talk about their religion…and I don’t talk about mine, either.

  8. Avatar
    Van

    Still not out to anyone anywhere. Except here on Bruce’s blog. Thank you Bruce.

    Then again, if the best explanation for the Cowboy’s resurrection this year is divine intervention, I may have to rethink everything.

  9. Pingback:Retired Pastor? How Does THAT Happen? – FairAndUNbalanced.com

  10. Avatar
    Lydia

    I’ve told everyone other than a few very conservative Christian relatives who would freak out. I don’t lie about my Atheism, I simply don’t bring it up with them.

    Although the liberal Christians on that side of the family know, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the topic comes up one day. If the conservative relatives ever ask, I will be honest with them.

    They haven’t done that yet, though. Who knows if they ever will. Part of me thinks that they’re avoiding the conversation on purpose. We’re not at all close, though, so maybe they’re honestly clueless.

    • Avatar
      Geoff

      It’s astonishing. I am only just beginning to understand the implications in many parts of the US to admitting you are an atheist.

      In the UK there’s still a lot of believers, but atheism, or at least ‘non religious’ is the norm. When the subject comes up, and other than in the confines of their religious groupings, it is the believers who become often a little defensive, as though ashamed of their beliefs. It’s very rarely spoken about for that reason.

      • Avatar
        JR

        Yes Geoff I feel the same. Reading Bruce’s articles and the comments from US folks makes me realise how different the culture is in the UK to parts or most of the US. Go to the most conservative village in the UK and you will find evangelicalism is rare/non existent. ‘Daily mail’ moralism is rife but you tell people you are athiest they won’t care a bit and instead will probably tell you they are too. Coming out as a evangelical christian raises far more eyebrows!

        • Avatar
          Lydia

          I’m completely fascinated by the differences between the UK and the US when it comes to this. What other differences between the two cultures have you both noticed?

          • Avatar
            Geoff

            One thing that is very significant is the UK’s obsession with faith schools, especially Catholic. Education in the UK is mainly state based, in that it is paid for by the taxpayer, and logically one would expect, given our lower propensity to religiosity, that it would discourage faith schools. Far from it and quite the reverse. Faith schools proliferate, and continue to open, mostly paid for by the state.

            The reasons for this vary. I think that the lack of religiosity helps prevent properly considered views on the issue to develop. As people are more ‘without religion’ than ‘anti religion’ there’s a feeling that letting children be educated based on a particular faith is harmless. There’s then the issue of perceived tolerance, in that if we allow this for one faith then all faiths should be allowed. Hence a proliferation of Muslim schools. There’s also a case that faith schools have a better record on both discipline and educational achievement, though there’s debate about the reasons for this. Essentially we have the situation that parents are sending their kids to Catholic schools regardless of their own beliefs, simply because they are often the best schools, perpetuating the perception that they are the best schools. I might also say that our conservative politicians, who form the present government, are more religiously inclined than those of other parties, for reasons of history and privilege.

            It’s the nearest I get to family squabbles over religion. My wife’s family is from Glasgow, a city heavily laden with sectarian history continuing to this day, and some of them are still staunchly Catholic. I have nieces and nephews who attend a local Catholic school and they are great kids, but I cringe at the religious backdrop that they have to endure. The parents know my views, though prefer to avoid discussion, and I’m left, out of politeness, having to limit myself only to occasional comments of disapproval.

            I don’t think there’s going to be any great changes in this area anytime soon, but secular organisations such as the British Humanists Association, are increasingly challenging the status quo.

  11. Avatar
    Troy

    I think the Nurse is right. You’re still a Pastor, well an anti-Pastor.
    It is important to selectively pick battles that are productive. Avoid attempting to teach pigs to whistle. For example your physician is a poor candidate. Such small talk banter is common with medical personnel. It makes the subject less nervous and creates a bit of a bond that will help foster communication. An admission of atheism would only muddy the waters and of course it would likely be a conversation drag. (Of course there is always the possibility one or both is secretly atheist, I doubt it.) You could have casually mentioned that you were a Pastor, but became disillusioned with it and now are an atheist blogger of some renown. Even that isn’t terse enough to achieve the goal of getting your butt out of there as soon as possible.

    As atheists the worst thing to do is attempt to convert people. The process can’t be just a couple of zingers. It is more like a very slow game of Jenga where the tower only comes down after many carefully plotted turns. It also requires a person to tap their seed of doubt with courage, curiosity, and a commitment to seeking the truth. Not everyone is a good candidate since it does require some cooperation on their part. If people ask sincere questions answer them sincerely. Try to avoid being smug or condescending. The time for laughing at religion is when everyone is laughing a the joke.

  12. Avatar
    Melody

    @Geoff

    The same is true for where I live. Taxes pay for religious schools, therefore, there is some inspection and the schools have to teach the subjects of the state exams, so also evolution. But as a faith school they can decide how, so will give the message that it’s just a theory and not to be believed. It is, however, taught, unlike say what happens with homeschooling.

    Jewish and Islamic schools exist as well and especially the latter will sometime worry people. However, because religion (or more specific Christianity) is generally seen as quite irrelevant and relatively harmless, it doesn’t make for a much discussed subject. Except that one party wants to close the schools, and keeps on bringing it up every few years or so. They also tried (not sure if they succeeded) to stop taxes paying for transport to the schools as they can be quite far apart.

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