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Questions: Bruce, Why Did You Become an Atheist?

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I put out the call to readers, asking them for questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question, please leave it here or email me. All questions will be answered in the order in which they are received.

Chris asked:

I would like to know how you became an atheist after practicing Christian authoritarianism? What is it that makes people embrace systematic mythologies? Is it fear of death, a wish for immortality?

I have been asked many times by atheists and Christians alike why I became an atheist. Some questioners want to know more about the “how” of my deconversion. I usually point people to the WHY page. The posts of this page usually answer the “why” and “how” questions of my journey from Evangelical Christianity to atheism.

The WHY page includes:

My Baptist Salvation Experience

From Evangelicalism to Atheism Series

Why I Stopped Believing

Please Help Me Understand Why You Stopped Believing

16 Reasons I am Not a Christian

Why I Hate Jesus

The Danger of Being in a Box and Why It Makes Sense When you Are in It

What I Found When I Left the Box

The short answer to the question, Bruce, Why Did You Become an Atheist? is this: I thoroughly (and painfully) examined the central claims of Christianity and concluded they were not true. (Please see The Michael Mock Rule: It Just Doesn’t Make Sense) While my story is much more complicated than that, the bottom line is that I don’t believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God; and I don’t believe the claims made within its pages about God, Jesus, and the human condition are true. Once I realized that what I had believed for fifty years was false, I concluded I could no longer call myself a Christian. In November 2008, I walked out the doors of the church (Ney United Methodist Church) for the last time. In 2009, I wrote Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners and sent it to numerous friends, family members, ministerial colleagues, and former parishioners. From that point forward, I have proudly worn the atheist moniker.

Chris also asks, “What is it that makes people embrace systematic mythologies? Is it fear of death, a wish for immortality?” He asks if people embrace religions such as Christianity because they fear death or wish that there is life after death? The short answer is yes, but as with most questions concerning religion, the answers are far more complex.

Many atheists choose to call Christians stupid sheep who can’t think for themselves. If only Christians thought for themselves, why they would all be atheists! May I say, oh so kindly, that only stupid goats (atheists) think this way. Why people have religious beliefs is a complex issue; one rooted in biology, sociology, and geography, along with cultural, tribal, and familial beliefs and practices. Sure, people fear death and want to do go Heaven when they die. I am not too fond of the idea death myself, and life after death, at times, does appeal to me. The reasons, however, that lead to people to embrace religious beliefs are more varied and complex than just that they want to live forever.

Is it any surprise that I was a Christian? I was born to Christian parents, lived in a Christian nation, and was indoctrinated in Christian beliefs for the first fifty years of my life. There was no chance that I would “choose” any other religion but Evangelical Christianity. So it is for billions of people across the world — their beliefs are shaped by the beginnings of their lives. Once we understand how deeply immersed people are in religious faith, it should lead us to be more sympathetic to people who haven’t yet “seen the light.” Calling them stupid accomplishes nothing. The only way to reach Christians with the humanist gospel is to gently challenge their sincerely held beliefs; to cause them to question and doubt that which they hold dear. This is why I recommend the books of Dr. Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina:

The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

How Jesus Became God : the Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee

Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior

Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them)

Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer

Ehrman does a good job challenging the foundation of Evangelical Christianity — the Bible. Cause Evangelicals to doubt the authority and veracity of the Bible, and they are well on their way out the proverbial door. Now, that doesn’t mean they will all become atheists. They won’t. However, any move away from Fundamentalism is a good one. (Please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) Sure, I think atheism is the right response to the questions asked and answered by Dr. Ehrman. However, I also know that many people NEED the social connections faith communities offer. I have no desire to rob people of the things that help them get through this life, even if I think, in the end, we all end up in the same place — the grave.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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  1. Avatar

    I agree that religious belief does not, at the individual level, equate with intelligence or education; clearly there are many very well qualified religious believers. It is equally clear, however, that at a statistically meaningful level that there is a very clear link, to the detriment of belief, and especially at a fundamentalist level it is very apparent.

    Underlying the whole issue is as you, Bruce, discovered is that once you challenge your beliefs, really open your mind, then beliefs cannot stand reasonable scrutiny. Apologists will always steer clear of this underlying reason, and the best, such as William Lane Craig and Alvin Platinga, are very astute at this sleight of hand. Argue with an apologist and you very quickly get diverted to discussion of what a particular biblical text really meant, or how the fine tuning argument proves god, or why Bayesian modelling proves god (none come close, yet are the best attempts there can be). In short, one cannot reason to god.

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    I know a lot of highly intelligent people who believe in religion, and for every single one, it’s the religion they grew up believing. Most of the honest ones will admit that there are things within the religion that they don’t agree with, but they literally don’t question things like who wrote the religious texts that they follow, or even whether the miracle claims are true. It isn’t because they are unintelligent – I think it’s more that many of us don’t really question thoroughly what trusted adults taught us when we were children.

    Religion offers a,lot of things that are hard to give up – community, ritual, tradition, a promised safety net, etc. One of my highly intelligent friends says that he likes being part of a 2000 year old tradition even though he suspects that he probably should become an atheist.

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    “It isn’t because they are unintelligent – I think it’s more that many of us don’t really question thoroughly what trusted adults taught us when we were children.” That’s an example of Level 1 thinking proposed by Nat Eliason. “Each of us was born to level 1. Some move past it, many don’t. It’s characterized by the wholesale adoption of the beliefs, attitudes, and lifestyles that were thrust onto you by your upbringing and environment.”
    (Not to be confused with first level thinking in Bloom’s taxonomy, or first order thinking in business!)
    It sounds like one way that fundies can question their “matrix” is by reading the whole Bible critically.
    Level 2 thinking, in religion, might be atheism. I’m still working on level 1 and 2 thinking per Eliason.

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