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From Evangelicalism to Atheism: Twelve Years Later — Part Five

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Creamery Road, Zanesville, Ohio

I am often asked questions about my life post-Jesus: questions about children, marriage, and the effect of my unbelief on my relationships with family and friends. I am also questioned about my worldview, morality, and politics, along with my view of religion and Evangelicalism. Simply put, people want to know: how different is my life today from the way it was twelve years ago when I admitted to myself and the world that I was no longer a Christian?

I can safely say that leaving the ministry and leaving Christianity has affected every aspect of my life. How could it have been otherwise? I was in the Christian church for fifty years, and for twenty-five of those years, I pastored Evangelical churches. I married Polly in July 1978. We planned to graduate college, go to a community and start a church, live in a white two-story farmhouse with a white picket fence, have two children — a boy named Jason and a girl named Bethany, and live happily ever after. Boy, was that a fantasy.

I pastored seven churches in three states. We lived in Pontiac, Bryan (twice), Montpelier, Newark (twice), New Lexington (twice), Glenford (twice), Frazeysburg, Fayette (twice), Clare, Stryker, Yuma, and Ney. All told, we lived in more than 20 houses. Two children became six, and now we have thirteen grandchildren.

I left the ministry in 2005, and in November 2008, Polly and I joined hands together as we walked away from Christianity, never to return. At that moment, we burned our lives to the ground and began rebuilding them again. This process continues to this day.

While I am comfortable with the atheist moniker, Polly self-describes as an agnostic, even though her life is every bit as godless as mine. Our children have their own stories to tell, and I will leave it to them to share their journeys. None of them is an Evangelical. One son, however, seems to be moving towards Evangelicalism, having embraced Trumpism, white supremacy, and is a gun-toting militia member. The rest of my children are politically liberal/progressive, so I am sure they disagree with their father on many of the finer points of political discourse. My children, much like their father, remain an ongoing renovation project.

All of my Christian friends and colleagues in the ministry have cut ties with me, save two people. I literally lost hundreds of friends, ministerial colleagues, and acquaintances over the past twelve years. Some quietly slipped away, while others took flamethrowers to my life as they walked out the door. Awful, ugly, nasty things have been said about me by those I once considered dear friends.

Walking away entails walking towards something else. I treaded water for a time, trying to figure out exactly what life post-Jesus might look like. Today, I am comfortable in my atheist skin, proud to be numbered among the godless heathen of this world. My worldview and morality continue to evolve. When asked what I “believe,” I reply, I am a (secular) humanist. It is the humanist ideal that gives me a moral and ethical foundation for my life. After fifty years of having the Bible as my guide, it has been a challenge to rebuild the foundation of my life. At first, it seemed impossible to do, but with time, and lots of reading and thinking, I now see the scaffolding of life rising up, providing the structure by which I can live my day-to-day life.

Polly and I recently celebrated forty-two years of marriage. That young Baptist preacher and his bride are long gone, and in their place has grown a relationship that rests on love and mutual respect. While we continue to deal with patriarchal hangovers — I want to be the boss and Polly is all too happy to let me — I can say that our marriage is rock solid. Not perfect, and we still have occasional (about nothing) fights, but we don’t, to quote the Bible, let the sun go down on our wrath. We are in no way an example of a model marriage. We are just two people who happen to love each other, and really, really, really like each other too (and anyone who has been married a long time knows how important “like” is).

And that is the rest of my (our) story, for now. Each day, Loki-willing, provides us new opportunities to grow and mature; to be better people than we were the day before.  And that’s our goal.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.

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  1. Avatar

    Bruce, have any of the people you used to preach to, who are now also non believers, said your preaching hurt them in someway? Or have you felt the need to make amends with anyone now you realise how much damage your old beliefs could cause someone?

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    I like Sam’s question. I’m interested to hear if you’ve had any communication with people you’ve been responsible for as a Pastor but who also no longer believe.

    I do have a question of my own though, have you noticed any ways in which your outlook or personality has changed as a result of leaving the faith and if so, what would you say is the most significant change?

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    After you publicly announced your atheism how many other pastors have confided to you that they also no longer believe in Christianity but continue in the pulpit? Do you think a significant percentage of preachers do not believe what they teach? Do you think a significant percentage of church attendees secretly do not believe in the validity of Christianity?

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    What parallels do you see in what you do with this blog and your former role as pastor in the churches you led? I am often struck by the level of tending to people’s needs that is to be found here; both from you and those who post here, either in guest posts or in the comments. Coming from a Quaker background, I strongly related to the concept that all were called to “minister to the least of the these”, to take care of the needs of those around us when we could. Do you still see yourself as a sort minister (minister meaning one who tends to people’s needs, not in a religious/sectarian sense)?

    And thank you for challenging my beliefs, forcing me to clarify my understanding of what exactly I do believe, and helping me see how the fundamentalist beliefs I was exposed to as I hit puberty caused deep and lasting damage I still struggle with 4 decades later. It has been healing.

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    Hey Bruce,

    I wonder how you decide on morals/ethics? Do you adhere to any principles or philosophies? Like humanism, absurdism or something like that? Or the golden rule? Or do you take each decision individually?

    I find this a hard question myself. On the one hand I would like to have a sort of guiding principle/system/rules or what not: something already in place yet on the other hand I also like the freedom to think for myself and decide each case separately. The latter does have the drawback of not having a sort of foundation to base your arguments on, it could be more haphazard/cherry picking.

    This has been and is a difficult one for me and I wonder how you solved that puzzle or if you have solved it?

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    How did you balance out your beliefs and lifestyle regarding what is right and wrong? Things that were forbidden simply because of scripture now have no authority.

    And how did you recover from the loss of belief in being loved by your creator, making you valued just for being you? Purposes of life, meaning you’re here and all that.

    How did you stay healthy socially when leaving your church behind? Did you stay isolated or find a new social circle?

    How did you make peace with all those years your focus and motivation came from false beliefs?

    I am dealing with all this right now. Sorry for so many questions.

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    It is one thing, one clear and focussed act, to leave belief behind by walking out the Baptist door and making a public statement but the style of leaving often reflects the style of belief being left behind. Fundamentalist evangelical bullies are shockingly unaware of the harm they vigorously do to innocence, to open hearts, to people who might be hurting from normal human experience. As an extremist preacher, you took to the streets to share (inflict) your message on strangers. Your interpretation of ‘go out and preach the gospel’ was that of a psychological thug beating the shit out of Americans on the corner sidewalk and from your pulpit. Nowadays, as an agnostic/atheist for the most part, you impress me as a more gentle man, somebody who has seen much and considered it all quite seriously and over a good deal of time. My question is, How do you explain the love you are able to share now, the ability to share your heart and listen to others without condemnation and eternal damnations? Do you draw your strength from the freedom from belief, belief-relief, or? And what do you do to deal with nonbelievers who are such ugly human beings, the horrible atheist men who emphatically reject any social conscience and say that atheism has nothing to do with social action for good in the world, those who clearly demean women, for instance and need to dominate others? Christians find these reptiles and use them as examples to ‘prove’ that atheism is poison in much the same way atheists use a sick biped who claims to be a true Christian, (i.e. Steven Anderson ) to show the bankruptcy of Christianity. How do you navigate these extremes?

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      Great questions Brian. I was thinking along the same lines, but your detailed questions are much better than my very broad one. I hope Bruce’s chooses to address at least some of them, though he could likely make a whole post on each one that I would eagerly read. I look at Bruce and I look at Anderson. I see Jesus in Bruce and see hate in Anderson. It is confounding to me, as someone who still believes in the Indefinable Something.

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    “An ongoing renovation project” – that’s how I feel about myself too.

    Thank you for sharing your story. It must have been really difficult to lose your friends when you changed – I suppose that’s inevitable in some cases, particularly in evangelicalism where there are defined rules for beliefs and behaviors with strict admonitions not to associate with those who differ. Traveling that road with your life partner helped I am sure.

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    “None of them is an Evangelical. One son, however, seems to be moving towards Evangelicalism, having embraced Trumpism, white supremacy, and is a gun-toting militia member. ”

    damn, what a shame to have a family member decide to be a nazi. My empathy to you.

  10. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    I second that emotion. All the more, given what’s going on in the country– just heard on the radio that Trump leaves the hospital tomorrow. Who really has COVID and gets discharged from the hospital that early ??

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    <My comment is too long. I’m having to break it into two parts>

    One of the problems I find regarding discussions about leaving the faith is that there isn’t one simple “reason” and more importantly, not one single moment where someone stops believing. I mean sometimes I hear stories of quick decoversions, usually by people who got saved in their mid teen years being invited to some exciting event by a peer but quickly abandoning it the first few months in college. They take a single class or meet a few non-believers and they are out almost immediately. But to parody the line of Evengelicals who believe anyone who left the faith was never a REAL Christian, I tend to not give those stories much thought because I don’t consider them “REAL” Ex-Christians either. Of course I no longer believe there is such a thing but I am much more interested in stories like yours of people who were in the faith for a long part of their adult life.

    Evengelicals will often emphasize the born-again moment, as a singular time when you first believed or accepted and as a supernatural moment when God gives you the Holy Spirit. I think this is why they often then expect something parallel to why you DON’T believe or accept, a moment or thing you learned that changed your mind. Like I said before they will claim you were never a Christian but they still expect there was a reason, like you wanted to drink, or have premarital sex, or some other “sin”, or were turned away by an ungodly belief like evolution or marxism or what not.

    I was a devout Christian until roughly my early-30s, but my decoversion was slow and often painful, and also not uniform in any manner. I had some doubts even as a teen, and different doubts while a devout college student at a Christian college, and then some different doubts as a young married twenty something that helped plant a church and taught Sunday School. I studied Biblical languages, studied the Bible, had a decent sized commentary collection, but was also reading science textbooks (though notably not biology for the longest time). Even as parts of my faith were being stripped away I still wanted to believe and tried to find new niches and forms of faith that would be compatible with what I also knew about the earth, history, science, etc.

    Your description of the faith of someone who grew up in the church was dead on. I made my first confession at something like 5 or 6 years old but then again as a young teen, not just because I hit puberty (though your description of that cycle was spot on!) but also because I was understanding it more and reading more of the Bible and embracing it more for myself. I might have asked as a believer at which of those two points, either 5 or 13 did I actually get “saved” and receive the Holy Spirit, and now I realize it was neither of those points because nothing supernatural happened. I was just a person who was growing and changing and learning and feeling. I would continue to change through high school and at my Evangelical Christian college. In my late 20s while leading a small group we had a minor argument amongst ourselves whether you should be able to remember the “moment” you first believed. Those who came to faith later all had vivid memories and stories and moments they said their life changed immediately after as they accepted Jesus. Those of us who grew up in the church and “heard” our first sermon as babies usually didn’t. Now I realize those teen and adult converts were also fooling themselves. They almost certainly also cycled between more devout and less devout times in their lives after that initial moment and the story that coalesces into their “testimony” was probably not actually as simple as they profess.

    I enjoyed your discussion of your journey from fundy dispensational pre-trib Arminian to Calvinist because I had a similar journey. My church growing up didn’t emphasize end times or systems so I wasn’t exactly IFB but I was basically a pre-trib arminian who sometimes wondered if “Reformed” people could actually be saved. By the time I left college four years later I was a rather convinced Reformed Baptist who like you idolized Charles Spurgeon. However I did go to a broad Evangelical College that sourced from nearly all traditions so I had friends who were tongue speaking Pentacostal, Presbyterian, Episocpal, semi-Luthern. I certainly believed being a Reformed Baptist was the closest to what the Bible taught but wasn’t super judgemental. In my early 20s my wife and I tried a few churches. We started in a Reformed Baptist one but since that’s such a small community we had to travel far and it strained our church relationships. Also it was still mostly my thing, not hers. We then ended up in a standard suburban non-denominal church and from there a church plant of the same. At that point those distinctives just weren’t as important, as I was mostly just trying to survive as a young parent. I was always still more baptist then calvinist anyway and was fine keeping my mouth shut among these large mostly armenian communities.

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    I’m not going to outline my entire decoversion as this isn’t my blog and I’m already pushing two pages. But I’ll summarize. There wasn’t a single moment, the journey started me on one side where I believed the Bible was God’s word and innerent (though was educated enough to understand imperfect textual criticism, translation, and at least for the NT was somewhat proficient in reading the Greek) and believing wholeheartedly in the distinctives that you outlined in post one about what makes an Evangelical;… to the other side where I thought the Bible was entirely (and somewhat obviously) just the product of human authors, most of the OT history never took place, most of tenants of Christianity aren’t real, and God likely doesn’t even exist (though I don’t really know in the same vein that you say you’re agnostic, but I find it really unlikely and effectively live as such). If I had to point to any major milestones in this journey, there were two. The first was finally studying real biology and becoming convinced evolution at least as far as common descent was absolutely confirmed via numerous lines of independent collaborating evidence. It is simple fact. Maybe God guided it. Maybe every step needs God’s help ala Michal Behe and Intelligent Design), but THAT common descent happened is plain as day. (Even Michael Behe accepts common descent is settled by the overwhelming evidence). This did not in any way make me leave the faith or even conservative evangelical faith. I became a theistic evolutionist and sought out the works of Francis Collins and similar authors/scientists who wrote defending evolution and Christianity as complimentary. But there is no doubt it was a major turning point and gave a strong engine to the journey. The second and actually much more prominent pillar was beginning to read about the history and composition of the Bible. The Documentary Hypothesis, and the multiple sources behind Samuel, etc. Even then I would remain a believer for several more years, but if this was a journey there was now a slope on it I would never recover from. From there I would eventually be reading the works of Erhman and Price, just as you did. Also Dawkins, Harris, Sagan, Hitchens. I also spend some time on and Debunking Christianity. It just occurred to me our decoversions were happening in somewhat the same calendar years so it’s even possible we crossed paths at some point on those sites. Though I have no memory of what usernames I was using and was mostly lurking.

    Even this isn’t the full story. There are other things, it all just starts to come together when you are seeing everything from a different angle. I lived next to a pair of gay neighbors. A lovely family in their late 50s, which my church would think would need to split up and would involve moving trucks as one of them left. There were also always lingering philosophical issues, like the problem of evil, which I had struggled with and dealt with my entire life with various christian “answers”. But once I wasn’t having to defend God anymore I could accept none of those answers were ever really satisfying and the real “answer” was much simpler.

    It’s been 15 some odd years. I still take an interest in Christianity at times (hence why I’m here), and read their forums, still study the Biblical languages at times, and still take an interest in their news (and especially scandals). But I can also go months where I hardly think about Christianity at all. Like you I long ago sold off my extensive commentary collection because it was worth quite a bit of money and even at one point didn’t actually own a Bible. I’m effectively an atheist but don’t use that label because for whatever reason, I tend to think of that label as applying to people in the community, who are active in forums, conventions, etc, where I’ve mostly just left it all behind entirely. Instead if asked I simply say I’m non-religious which I feel is the simplest and most accurate way to describe myself, and also doesn’t tend to produce any follow up questions. I won’t spend any time describing what my post Christian life has been like regarding myself and my family. Because it’s a full 15 years of four people and could fill volumes.

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