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Bruce, Why Did it Take You So Long to Leave Christianity?

bruce and polly gerencser 1978
Bruce and Polly Gerencser, May 1978

On occasion, I will have an atheist ask me why it took me so long to leave Christianity. Typically, such atheists are lifelong unbelievers, having little to no experience with organized religion. Others became atheists at a young age and have no lasting scars from their brief involvement with Christianity. What is left unsaid here is this: how stupid do you have to be to be a Christian for fifty years?

Last night, I listened to Matt Dillahunty’s podcast, The Hang Up. This week’s episode featured Dr. Darrel Ray of Recovering From Religion and the Secular Therapy Project — two awesome services I heartily endorse.

One of the commenters on the podcast stated:

When you left religion. When exactly was that Matt [Dillahunty]? You joined the military when you were 30 for 8 years? Joined Dell and studied the bible a couple of years after that? So you finally figured out you had been a gullible idiot at 40s.

In other words, how stupid did Matt have to be that it took him years to conclude that the Evangelical religion (Southern Baptist) he grew up in was false?

It’s always lifelong atheists who make such comments. They cannot wrap their minds around how it is that demonstrably intelligent people can stay tethered to Christianity for decades. This post will hopefully explain this issue to atheists.

Much like Matt, I was a wandering Baptist before I finally deconverted. I left the ministry in 2003. Two years later, in the spring of 2005, I briefly tried to reenter full-time ministry, but after candidating for Southern Baptist churches in Weston and Hedgesville, West Virginia, I told Polly that I was done; that I no longer wanted to pastor. At that point, I was still an Evangelical Christian, albeit with an increasingly liberal bent. (Please see It’s Been Fifteen Years Since I Preached My Last Sermon.)

From July 2002 to November 2008, my wife and I, along with our three younger children, wandered from church to church looking for a congregation that took seriously the teachings of Jesus. From Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox to Evangelical to mainline Protestant, we visited a broad spectrum of Christian churches. All told, we visited over 125 churches. Please read the post But Our Church is DIFFERENT! to see the list of churches we visited.

During this time span, we spent seven months living in Yuma, Arizona and moved to Stryker, Bryan, Alvordton, Newark, and Ney — all in Ohio. In April 2007, we purchased our home in Ney. We spent time visiting numerous local churches, but eventually decided to plop our weary asses in the pews of the Ney United Methodist Church. This would be the last church we would attend, walking out of the church’s doors for the final time on the last Sunday in November 2008.

During this six-year period, we became increasingly disenchanted with organized Christianity. While I was no longer a pastor, we sincerely wanted to find a church where we could use our talents for God’s glory. Atheism was never discussed. We quickly learned that more than a few pastors viewed us as a threat. All we wanted to do is serve Jesus, but the mere fact that we had spent 25 years in the ministry caused territorial preachers to feel threatened. One pastor told Polly that she could best help his church by working in the nursery. A mother of six who spent decades working in the nursery, I am surprised Polly didn’t gut this preacher on the spot. One Evangelical church about two miles from our home made it clear that we weren’t welcome at their church. We visited this congregation twice, and both times the pastor’s wife repeatedly glared at us. I suspect she viewed me as a threat to her husband’s ministry. Sure, I was a far better speaker than many of the pastors of the churches we visited (we heard some atrocious sermons during this time). That wasn’t my fault. All I wanted to do is use the gifts God gave me. I wasn’t there is take over the church, but I knew I could be a help if asked.

By the time we hit 2008, both Polly and I were worn out from all the bullshit, indifference, and petty territorialism we experienced at many of these churches. It was in this fertile soil that our doubts about Christianity began to grow. The previous year, I had started blogging. I connected with people who were emergent/emerging Christians — a postmodern liberal movement within Christianity. I met an ex-Charismatic preacher, Jim Schoch, during this time. We hit it off, spending countless hours talking about the ministry and churches in general. Well, that and eating chicken wings and drinking booze. We were what I called the rebel preachers; still believers — barely — but not church friendly. I will forever be grateful for the countless hours Jim spent with me shooting the breeze. Our discussions really helped clarify some of the problems I was having with Christianity.

You cannot understand my path to agnosticism and atheism without understanding this two-year period of my life — two years of questions and doubts that culminated with me concluding that I no longer believed in God; that the central claims of Christianity were not true.

Now that I have sketched for readers the path I was on before I deconverted, let me answer the question: why did it take you so long to leave Christianity?

In the early 1960s, my parents moved from Bryan, Ohio to San Diego, California. Dad was looking for the pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow. Unfortunately, California proved to be just as disappointing as Ohio for my parents. Dad ended up working sales jobs and driving truck, just as he did in Ohio. Mom’s mental health problems made their presence known, making our new life in California challenging, to say the least. Please see Barbara.)

Not long after arriving in San Diego, the Gerencser family visited Scott Memorial Baptist Church (now Shadow Mountain Community Church), then pastored by Bob Jones University graduate Tim LaHaye, of The Act of Marriage and Left Behind fame. Mom and Dad both made public professions of faith and were baptized, as was I at the age of five. From that moment forward, the Gerencsers were born-again Fundamentalist Christians.

I was seven when Mom and Dad packed up our belongings and we returned to Bryan, Ohio. By then, we were attend-church-every-time-the-doors-are-open Baptists. I attended church three times a week, along with revivals, conferences, and special meetings. Once I became a teenager, I started attending youth group and special events for the church’s teens. I was totally immersed in the life of the church. It was the hub around which everything turned. For atheists reading this post, think how deeply and thoroughly I was indoctrinated in Fundamentalist Baptist Christianity’s beliefs and practices.

At the age of fifteen, I made another public profession of faith at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio. This is not an uncommon experience for people who were “saved” at a young age. A week later, I stood before the church congregation and told them God was calling me to preach. Several weeks later, I preached my first sermon. Thirty-three years later, I would preach my last sermon. All told, I preached over 4,000 sermons.

At the age of 19, I left my mom’s home to move into the dorm at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution known for training preachers. While I was at Midwestern, I started dating an IFB preacher’s daughter, Polly Shope. We married the summer between our sophomore and junior years. Six weeks later, Polly became pregnant, and a few months later, I was laid off from my job. In the spring of 1979, we left Midwestern and moved to Bryan. A few weeks later, I was offered a position as the assistant pastor of Montpelier Baptist Church. Over the course of the next twenty-five years, I would pastor seven churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan.

I was a true-blue believer. I believed every word of the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. I believed that the doctrines taught to me by my pastors, youth directors, and professors were the “faith once delivered to the saints.” While I was a voracious reader, having a library of over 1,000 books at one time, every book I owned served to reinforce the idea that what I had been taught and what I was teaching others was true. It wasn’t until the six-year period mentioned above that I began to read authors that caused me to doubt my beliefs. Authors such as John Shelby Spong and Bart Ehrman forced me to question whether what I believed about the Bible and Christianity was true.

As a pastor, I lived in a bubble, as did the churches I pastored. This bubble protected me from the “world.” When you surround yourself with people who all think as you do, it is easy to think that you are right. Further, doubts and questions were discouraged, tools of Satan used to cast aspersions on God, Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity. While certain things in the Bible didn’t make sense to me, I believed God would reveal the truth of the matter in time or in Heaven. I had no reason to doubt the veracity of the Bible.

I lived this way well into my forties. Does this mean I was stupid for hanging on to my faith for so long? Of course not. Looking at the way I grew up, the college I attended, the woman I married, and the years I spent pastoring Evangelical churches, how could it have been different for me?

When lifelong atheists disparage me, I tend to tell them to fuck off. These pillars of truth seem clueless about how religious indoctrination affects every aspect of one’s life — especially the Fundamentalist brand of Christianity. (Please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) Instead of treating me as a dolt, how about giving me a little credit for breaking free from the chains of cultic Christianity? How about giving me credit for punching a hole in the bubble and escaping? How about acknowledging the work I now do to help people who have doubts about Christianity or have left Christianity? Or, you can fuck off. 🙂

Lifelong atheists are a small minority in America. Most Americans come from Christian families. Millions and millions of Americans religiously attend Evangelical churches, pray, read the Bible, and believe Christianity’s central claims are true. Before simplistically and ignorantly calling such people ignoramuses, I suggest that you walk in their shoes a bit instead of projecting your lives onto them.

I wish I had been raised in a home free of religion. I wish I had taken a different path in life — that is, if Polly still became my wife. I wish I had attended a secular college and had non-church employment. I wish, I wish, I wish . . . but wishing is for fools. Life is what it is, and all I know to do is embrace my past, live in the present, and do all I can to help people avoid Evangelical Christianity. For those who walked a similar path as I did, all I can do is listen and say to them, I understand.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

9 Comments

  1. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    My kids are raised without religion, and I am hoping that they can see that people who were raised in religion and who still believe aren’t unintelligent people. My daughter has been able to spend time with my aunt and uncle who are kind, caring, liberal, progressive folks who differ from my daughter only in belief in a deity. In fact, my daughter has stated that she can see some of the good in Christianity that isn’t married by ugly culture wars and Trumpism.

    There is a lot of good in religious cultures that has nothing to do with beliefs. A sense of community, belonging, comfort, rituals to mark important life events. These are all things important to humans.

    Sometimes I look back and think, how the hell could I have believed all that? But really, how the hell couldn’t I, having been indoctrinated as far back as I can remember? Leaving my community – my friends, family, the state of my birth – and moving 1000 miles away to a completely different culture was hard, but it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I was able to start a safe journey out.

    I don’t look down on people who are still in it. They’re in it for reasons beyond beliefs or rational thoughts, reasons that resonate more strongly than doctrines.

    It really doesn’t help the rest of us atheists when certain atheists act like pompous, uncompassionate know-it-alls.

  2. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    There are so many folks whose mental prowess lays me to waste, whose knowledge, memory and abilities in expression, simply silence me. I’m here reading this blog because it happens alot here. I’m smart enough to pull on two pairs of socks on a cold mountain morning here in B.C. and I am smart enough to shut-up when somebody brilliant decides to share their perspectives. Matters concerning belief may have little to do with basic intelligence and thorough study and though a particularly wide-ranging hunger for knowledge will very likely undo the binds of faith, it might not. It might not because faith is not first a matter of knowledge as such, memorizing, practicing chapter and verse but more fundamentally a matter of emotional well-being (or lack of it).
    Lifelong atheists may not be aware of the layers of indoctrination that are pervasive in the childhood lives of those born into fundamentalist evangelical belief systems. Depending on the query in my direction, I either spend a good deal of time trying to explain the peeling of the onion or, as Bruce succinctly shares, Fuck off! I have no interest in explaining anything to Trumpers, to bullies who impress me first as shallow, if not downright stupid. Of course, mental prowess is not confined to belief (or lack of it) and after all, what we all share is our human parts and not just the ones we dirty-minded types spend too much time on… I mean we share bodies, minds, hearts, something that is called emotions/ feelings/spirit. This is the human condition and churches have become the monetized big box parts store in our culture. Of course the human condition, you will note above, does not include the formal Woo of stained glass real estate. That is business, just the dollarization of feelings, the robes worn over all that we do not know, that we barely share a clue about…
    The question at hand is why it takes us so long to find the exit from the evangelical maze. The answer is not very onion. For me, it was simply that I was conflicted my whole life with the conundrum of mind-rape, hate dressed as love, ritualized, memorized and repeated on my knees. It took me so long to leave because I wanted to win and I was among like-minded, ‘safe’ people while the world belonged to loss, to endless evil, to the bad guys… Even as I entered adulthood and decided like Bruce and so many others of us not to endure the flavors of religion in a formal setting anymore, even then, still, I desperately wanted to acknowledge the perfect love of the Christ who died for us… So, I invented my own version, my own flavor of belief, a kind of onion flavored ice-cream cone faith that was peculiarly mine. It cherry-picked from all my experience. I was free to do this I thought and to believe as I pleased. It felt right. It felt right inside. It was, I see now, a replication of my upbringing, a symbolic departure that was no departure at all, a falling away that was standing up for !Jesus! as I saw it then. I used the tools of my own deception from the womb on… I used the cherry-picker of belief systems to fill my bowl in exactly the fashion my dad cherry-picked Bible stories to tell them from the pulpit. I continued to think as a Christian because I FELT like it in CAPS and it was me, the me I knew. And I ate my onion ice-cream and wept and got bored and wondered for a long time until there was a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how it came to dawn on me one day that I did not believe what I believed (oh ouch! oh glory!) and that I had been so expertly gang-raped that I grew to love the perps…. still do.
    Atheists, lifelong or not, who challenge the time it takes to recover are not in touch with their human feelings. They suppress them with intellectual masturbatory pride and ask, Why did it take you so long to see something so obvious?
    Because I was like you, friend, exactly like you.

  3. Avatar
    Dave

    In retrospect I ask myself what took me so long but then I remember my strict Christian upbringing and all of the indoctrination I experienced. My faith had built in protection from doubt which Bruce has discussed more than once. It isn’t easy to abandon a belief system that has been of supreme importance and has demanded your identity. Add the fear of hell and the possible loss of relationships and It is amazing that I was able to extricate myself. I am fortunate that I live in a blue state where my previous level of religiosity was the exception rather than the rule or I may never have broken the chains of the cult

  4. Avatar
    BJW

    I actually grew up in a home where we didn’t attend church. Both my parents had come out of more fundamentalist ideas and had no desire to participate. But they generally seemed to believe similar things. I ended up in church due to seeking belonging for myself. I think a lot of people feel lonely and after getting love-bombed by Christians, think they really are all decent, loving people.

    One thing to say to atheists who can’t understand how anyone, especially intelligent people, could believe in the Bible? It turns out that the more intelligent a person is, the better rationalizations for things become. There were many intelligent thinkers over the centuries who espoused Christianity, and even ideas more abhorrent. No one is immune to indoctrination or rationalization.

  5. Avatar
    Davie from Glasgow

    Bruce – while not exactly a life-long atheist (I was never anything more than a child of a Church of Scotland mother and an atheist father and I decided that I was an atheist in my late teens), I personally cannot give you ENOUGH credit. The fact that you had the courage to follow your intellect and the evidence makes you a very singular individual indeed. That’s the main reason I became so fascinated by this site. That and your excellent writing. For the journey you’ve taken you deserve nothing but credit

  6. Avatar
    Davie from Glasgow

    Plus there’s always that thing whereby when you hear quite a lot of conversion stories from people who say that they were drunks, down-&-outs, had lost their families, their jobs and all their money – but then Jesus saved them!! I always think I’d me more impressed by someone who had a loving family, a good job, a beautiful house and plenty of money – but then they gave all that up to follow Jesus. But then you don’t really hear that story. In the first version the convert wasn’t giving anything up. They didn’t have anything to lose. Bruce’s conversion on the other hand cost him and lost him a lot. How many of the rest of us would be brave enough to go through with that – to open our selves up to all that trouble an loss – for no other reason than because they believed it was the right thing to do? As I say – we are dealing with a pretty singular individual here!

  7. Avatar
    Troy

    I’m not sure the “Why are you so stupid” is necessarily implied. It could be inquiring minds might just want to know why it took as long as it did, in the same way someone might wonder why it took Odysseus 20 years to get back home to Ithaca.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Trust me when I say, I’ve been told by a few atheists that I was stupid. Hasn’t happened recently, but when I first shared my deconversion story, I was savaged by more than a few atheists. So much so that I withdrew from interacting with some atheist groups. I pointed out their behavior was every bit as Fundamentalist as that of my past. That didn’t go over well. 😂😂

  8. Avatar
    Chikirin

    I realized I was atheist when I was about 38 (am 48 now), why it took me so long to leave was because as long as there was a little bit of a thread connecting me to the religion, then that was enough; I waited until the very last thread was cut. Those threads being supernaturalish things I couldn’t account for, why is there something instead of nothing, man’s inhumanity to man as evidence of us being sinners, etc. I didn’t read any atheist materials until I was hanging on by a couple of threads and when i did it blew them away.

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Bruce Gerencser