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Bruce, I Was an Atheist Like You Before I Found Jesus

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Over the years, countless Evangelical Christians have told me, “Bruce, I was an atheist like you before I found Jesus.” Typically, my pithy answer is this: “No, you weren’t.”

Usually, this line is used by Evangelical apologists trying to get me to see that they “understand” where I am on the God issue. However, when pressed, they usually reveal that they were not as atheistic as they claimed to be, or they wrongly believed that not being a Christian means you are an atheist. Each of us was born into this world without any religious belief or moral framework. No one is born a Christian. This is the clear teaching of the Bible and every Christian denomination. To become a Christian, a person must commit to becoming a follower of Jesus Christ. One must embrace the Christian gospel and profess a desire to follow Jesus. This profession of faith is different from sect to sect. Some require a person to be baptized, while others require the person be confirmed or make a public profession of faith.

These rituals do not take place in a religious vacuüm. The United States is predominantly Christian, so it should come as no surprise that most Americans embrace the Christianity of their family and culture. Religion is inherently tribal, as can clearly be shown by looking at what the dominant religion is in a particular place. There are historical, geographical, and sociological reasons why, in a certain locale, most people are a certain flavor of Christianity (or a different religion altogether). For example, most Christians in the South are Evangelical and Baptist, while here in the North, Methodists and mainline sects have a greater foothold. Even at the local level, we see dominate sects, such as in nearby Archbold, Ohio where the Mennonite sect has numerous churches, or parts of rural northwest Ohio where Lutheran churches dominate the religious landscape.

The atheist-turned-Evangelical-Christian and I began life the same way, but our stories are very different from there. Like the Evangelical apologist, I too became a follower of Jesus Christ. For almost 50 years I was a devoted follower of the Lord, but at the age of 50, I left Christianity and embraced atheism and humanism. This was an open, honest, and sincere intellectual choice of mine, unlike many people who are Christians because they grew up in the Christian faith, and not because of any intellectual choice of theirs.

Most Evangelicals who say they once were atheists never made honest intellectual choices to become atheists. They were non-believers by default, and at some point in their lives, they decided to become followers of Jesus Christ, or their parents decided for them. They took off their non-believer clothing and put on the robes of Jesus Christ’s righteousness. One day they were unbelievers, and the next day they were Christians. This is not how the process worked for most of the atheists I know.

Many atheists were at one time, like me, devoted followers of Jesus. Our deconversions weren’t a matter of taking off the righteousness of Christ and putting on shirts with a scarlet A. Most of us spent months and years reading and studying before we concluded that the claims of Christianity are false and the Christian God is fiction. For some atheists, due to family and social pressures, they spent decades in the atheist closet, unwilling or unable to declare their godlessness.

While I can point to a definite place and time — on the last Sunday of November in 2008 — when I dared to say out loud I no longer believe, I spent years getting to that point. My journey took me from the strict Fundamentalism of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement through Calvinism and generic Evangelicalism to emergent Christianity and liberalism, and on to universalism, agnosticism, and atheism. Every step along this path was laden with emotional and mental anguish. The hardest decision I’ve ever made came at the moment when I was willing to say that I no longer believed. Making this decision meant I was saying that my previous life as a Christian was based on a lie.

So, I say this to Evangelicals who say they once were atheists: Yes, you may have been an unbeliever, but you were not an atheist like me. Until you can show me that you have done your homework, then I am going to assume that you were what I call a default atheist. If you are going to comment on my blog and claim you were an atheist before you became a Christian, then it is fair for me to ask you to demonstrate how and why you became an atheist. It is not enough for you to say that you didn’t believe in God and then you became a Christian. ALL of us didn’t believe in God at one time. That’s the normal human condition, according to the Bible.

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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    Lee Strobel is another, very well known, example of an apologist who claims once to have been an atheist.

    As in your post, I don’t believe him. At best, he may once simply have been ‘not a Christian’. As you say, it is a claim that gives an outward appearance of authority, that he is able to see both sides of the argument from personal experience. In reality I think it is nigh on impossible for a person to see the intellectual reality that there are no gods, in any shape or form, and then take the retrograde step of genuinely becoming a believer. Of course, many religious people will say the opposite, that it is they who see the light; but that is only possible because they have never truly understood the intellectual release that atheism offers.

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    Thank you for this. I am in the questioning stage now, and figuring out that pretty much everything I was taught in these fundagelical churches was a load of crap. It helps to know that the pain and confusion are a normal part of the process. I appreciate your openness and honesty.

    • Avatar
      Michael Mock

      Oh, HELL yes. The pain and confusion are normal. The cycle between “I’m supposed to believe this” and “I can’t believe this, it makes no sense” and “I wish I could still believe this” is normal. The weird feeling of half-floating, half-falling is normal. Hell, the anger at having go all the way back through your life and reassess everything, even the things you thought you understood about yourself (because you were living there, and really ought to have known!)… Yeah, that’s normal, too. Even a little bit of nostalgia for your former beliefs is normal.

      It eases off after a while, and you do find… I’m not sure it’s a more stable footing, exactly; maybe it’s just a better sense of balance. But it’s definitely a process, and it definitely takes time, and it will definitely jump up and whack you over the back of the head once or twice when you’re least expecting it.

      I promise you, you’re not crazy, and it isn’t just you.

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    I agree with you Geoff. I read Strobel’s book ‘The Case for Faith’ long ago, and I originally enjoyed the book because it helped to squelch the cognitive dissonance I was feeling for a little while longer. But under critical review, his book was weak and dishonest, in part because he painted himself as journalist with integrity who wanted to present both sides, but clearly, he didn’t. His book pandered to a Christian audience ($$$). And was he really an atheist before hand? I seriously doubt it.

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    Ah yes. I was like you. Now I have improved to a better place. Therefore my words should carry more weight. Works pretty well for those who are looking to salvage their faith – not so much for anyone critically seeking the truth of the matter.

    It is even true that we say much the same thing. I was a devout believer. Now, with greater understanding, I have left that behind. So wherein lies the difference?

    The difference is that becoming a believer was induced by the cultural prevalence of Christianity, peer pressure, childhood indoctrination (Jesus wants me for a sunbeam), and the heaven/hell emotional blackmail – (Just As I Am alter calls). Becoming AN INFORMED atheist was induced by an increasing awareness of difficulties, inconsistencies, and brutalities contained in the Bible and an investigation into whether it all makes sense and also the provenance of the faith. What emotion was involved in deconverting was a fear of doing so, while the emotion involved at the alter call was the fear of not obeying it. In both instances, emotions are on the side of belief: it is only logic and critical examination on the side of non belief.

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    The thing about becoming a Christian and later deconverting to atheism is you are now more certain of your unbelief than you were ever before. It’s like coming to a realization of who you really are as a person. At least, that is what it was like for me. I’m no longer susceptible to religious doctrine.

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    Kenneth, for me it was more a feeling of well-being, not an intellectual certainty but an openness to the whole world, saying okay, yes… Letting the delusion go gave me a sense of balance and the freedom to look out windows, any windows I chose. I am convinced in my unbelief but I do not insist on it for others. If a real God arrived on my farm and said, “Listen here, I don’t appreciate being denied!” I might say, “Okay, you prick, let’s have it out. My fucking sister was born in a toxic birth in the late 40’s. My mom was a Baptist preacher’s kid and she married a fucking Baptist preacher, you asshole. And you let this happen to their first child. Mom went into convulsions at home (toxemia) and when she got to the hospital they pumped her full of narcotics, causing severe brain damage to my sister. So Rosie lived her life in a crib, for about half a century before God allowed her to be lowered into a scalding bath by a professional caregiver, where she suffered severe burns that killed her after several days of agony. You fucking son of a bitch, God. You prick from Hell.”
    And after we finish that talk, then I have some other issues that need attention from the big FUCK.
    I listen to assholes like Susan-Anne and they could be family…. it is sad and disheartening sometimes. I have no desire for some eternal life. Just give me a day, one day at a time and I will make it poem or a shit-barrel of waste. It is my choice. You can only imagine there is no heaven if you have faced the hell of delusion and belief. Imagine a mother like Susan-Anne White or a dad like Michael Pearl. Thank-you Jesus.

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    I have stopped arguing with my parents (well, mostly Mom) about religion. But back in the day when I still did argue a bit, we talked about that. That we’re all atheists when we’re born. She disagreed, said that “god spoke to her” when she was a child and “you can’t argue with that”.

    Then I told her that the only reason she believed in the Christian god was that she was born here, where that is the prevailing belief system. And that if she’d been born in the Middle East, she’d be a Muslim.

    OH MY GOODNESS was she pissed!!
    I think that was about ten years ago.

    Guess what?
    She’s still pissed.

    I can tell you that my freedom from belief has been much more meaningful than my belief in some sort of god ever was.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    I just read about what happened to your poor sister Rosie and her ordeal with that incompetent caregiver who lowered her into scalding water. How terrible that is, to ever befall a person. I’m so sorry you had to deal with that and it’s traumatic memory. Most of these facilities have inhumane conditions, I know it’s partly because of low pay, and lax regulations. At least in the U.S. My condolences to you ! All I could think was ” yikes!” when reading your account. I hope you got justice in that tragic event.

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    Good morning, all.

    Like many other Christians-turned-atheists, I found it very hard work. I was raised in Christianity (Catholic), and as a part of that indoctrinated into all the usual fears and authoritarian rules. At first, that was fine, since I also suffered from depression from early childhood, and as a result was a very compliant, scolding-averse kid.

    But I also had this anti-authoritarian streak. When I was told X, I wanted to know why. Even the answer “Because God said so!” didn’t satisfy me. Oh, the adults around me thought it did, just like my mother telling me “Because I said so!” achieved compliance. What she never heard was me, under my breath, muttering, “I only have to put up with this for four more years.” Then three years, then two, then one…

    And so, the compliant, never-complaining, obviously GOOD daughter was sent off to college a couple hours’ drive away, where I studied very, very hard in a field that didn’t sing to me, engineering. Oh, it was interesting enough, and I did well enough at it, but my motivation was that I would never, ever, be required to live under the same roof with my mother again, or go to Confession, or need to have a priest negotiate with God for me. My parting bit of compliance was to have a Catholic wedding in the small church established to serve college students. My groom had just graduated with his engineering BS, and I had two more quarters to get mine. He relocated to Silicon Valley and we saw each other on weekends until I could graduate and move there as well.

    I prayed, I read my Bible, I attended a nondenominational Christian church for a couple of years along with my husband, and I got more and more depressed. I also did well as an engineer, getting more and more responsibility (and raises) at work. We finally quit attending church at my husband’s insistence, because my depression was so bad that the sermons had me sobbing afterward, struggling with the pain of my worthlessness. It might be the kindest thing he ever did for me.

    Without the pressure of church, I could let some of my religious struggle go. But I still believed in SOMETHING. I simply didn’t know how to characterize it. There had to be some sort of deity to help me, because I desperately needed help. I worked longer and longer hours, because when I was immersed in my work, I didn’t have the bandwidth to think about my worthlessness. I got a performance review once a year, invariably an excellent one, and a raise. Every year I marveled that I’d managed to fool them once again!

    I would wake in the night and be terrified of Hell.

    I missed having a church community, and for a few months attended services with a couple of different Unitarian-Universalist congregations. But I didn’t fit in. At that point I figured I’d never fit in.

    And on it went. It wasn’t until I was free of that first job (which was wonderful in many ways, and I was sad to be laid off because of company relocation) that more cracks began happening. I had time to think about God again, and that led to more and more despair. Ultimately, in my early thirties, I became nearly nonfunctional and had to seek mental health support. I found a psychiatrist and he put me on antidepressants and connected me with a talk therapist.

    Within a couple of weeks, the antidepressants kicked in, and the horrible pain of utter worthlessness, the waves of misery, were lifted. For the first time in my life, that I could remember, I wasn’t wearing the heavy, soaking wet, blanket of perpetual misery. And I realized I could think clearly about God.

    And God wasn’t real.

    The state I reached intellectually in that moment, took a long time to come to terms with emotionally. No God meant no Hell, but also no Heaven; when I died, that was it. It took me a couple of decades to really accept that. Then there were all the minefields associated with believing family. I became a master at redirecting conversations.

    So, to anyone who says yes, they were an atheist like me, but they’ve found Jesus(!), I’m sorry, I don’t believe you. If your version of Christianity works for you and doesn’t give you license to treat other people badly, great, I’m happy for you. But if you haven’t walked in my shoes, and you can’t demonstrate the existence of your deity–scientific, peer-reviewed, at least a second-tier journal–then we don’t have anything to talk about.

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    I actually am a rare one who was an atheist [have the poems and journal to prove it written in 1989] before the religionists got their claws on me.

    I had freethought, and intellectual freedom but now I think back, so wonder I gave in to the fundies with the constant onslaughts, full ostracization from the family, a fundamentalist religious area, told I was wicked by just about everyone and when I got sick and the bottom of life fell out and a secular! therapist even told me, “you need Jesus”, I relented and shut down the critical thinking and ended up on a 14 year journey to nowheresville and false promises.

    I do think it’s rare for someone to come out of the fog and willingly back in it, but trauma ran that show.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    I took some money to cover some counseling for the feelings that consumed me then. They enacted regulations (new protocols) in the province of Ontario, Canada, as a result of the inquest into Rose-Marie’s death and the person responsible left the profession. A sad time and a terrible blow to my mom.
    Thank-you, Yulya for your words.

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