It’s been twelve years now since my wife and I walked out of the doors of the Ney United Methodist Church, never to return. From that day forward, we stopped calling ourselves Christians. We were uncertain as to exactly what we were becoming, but we knew for sure that we were no longer Christians.
In early 2009, I sent out a widely circulated letter titled Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners. This was my coming-out letter. A decade later, we have no Christian friends, save two. Our relationship with Polly’s Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) family is strained, and the men who were once close ministerial colleagues view me as either mentally ill, a servant of Satan, or both. From time to time, I will hear from former parishioners who are trying to figure out how it is possible that their preacher — the man who led them to Jesus, and taught them the unsearchable riches of Christ — is now an atheist, a false prophet, deceiver, tool of Satan. Please see Dear Wendy, Dear Greg, and Dear Family and Friends: Why I Can’t and Won’t Go to Church.)
I remain a conundrum for Evangelical Christians. Unable to wrap their minds around why someone might deconvert, they concoct all sorts of explanations for my loss of faith, including that I never had salvation to begin with. Instead of accepting my story at face value, Evangelicals have spent the past twelve years deconstructing my life, looking for that fatal flaw that gives them the liberty to say that I never was a Christian. I suspect that this sort of behavior will continue as long as I write for this blog.
After leaving Christianity, I wandered the Internet looking for atheist groups that would replace the communal aspects of Christianity; that would provide me opportunities to use my particular skill set — dare I say “gifts”? Unfortunately, I have found that atheism is lacking when it comes to social and communal connections. Over the years, I have tried to make meaningful connections with various organized atheist groups, but I have come away with a membership card, a magazine, annual dues bill, and little else. I even reached out to freethought groups in Toledo and Fort Wayne, but they showed no interest in me at all.
Atheists will argue amongst themselves over whether there is anything such as an “atheist community.” Sure, there are atheist, freethought, and humanist groups scattered here and there, but for the most part individual atheists are on their own. And here in rural America? Atheists are typically lone rangers. Is this how atheists want it to be?
Part of the problem is that American atheist groups are dominated by college educated white men. One of the things that irritated me during my Evangelical days was that the conferences I attended featured the same “stars” every time. These big-name preachers became the face of Evangelicalism. So it is with atheist groups. Year after year, the same people are featured at conferences. As a result, these people become the face of American atheism. While there has been an increase of non-white speakers in recent years, the fact remains white dudes rule the roost.
These conferences also tend to be prohibitively expensive for working-class people, and for those of us who live in the heartland, these conferences are often thousands of miles away. Thus, atheist conferences tend to attract the same people over and over and over again.
The future of any atheist group depends on attracting new members. If all godless outsiders see are the same people as the face of the various atheist groups, there’s not much incentive for them to want to join. On a previous iteration of this blog, I wrote about this issue, and boy oh boy, did I stir up a hornet’s nest. This was back in the day when Atheism+ was all the rage. An exclusionary group if there ever was one, Atheism+ caused untold harm to the atheist community. Instead of trying to unite atheists, Atheism+ demanded allegiance to a particular set of political beliefs. It didn’t help that several of the lead spokespeople for Atheism+ were arrogant, verbally abusive troglodytes whom I wouldn’t walk across the street to hear speak. And no, I won’t give you their names. I remember the last time I mentioned these people by name. OMG, they and their acolytes acted like the worst of IFB preachers. No thanks. And besides, you likely know who I am talking about.
Perhaps there will some day be what we call an “atheist community.” For now, I am content to live out my life in my little corner of the atheist wasteland. I am grateful for the friends and acquaintances I have made through this blog — that’s YOU, by the way. That said, I do yearn for a day when I am truly part of the atheist community.
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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