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Questions: Bruce, If You Had It to Do All Over Again, Would You Still Write Your Infamous Letter?

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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.

Alisha asked:

I have read several times on your page about your writing a letter to friends and family after your deconversion. You chose to be very open with people about your change in belief. Your wife, you said, has chosen not to really talk much about her leaving Christianity. Now that several years have passed since you sent the letter, I wonder if you feel it was the correct thing to do or if you think taking your wife’s approach might have worked out better?

My wife and I left Christianity in 2008. In early 2009, I wrote a letter titled Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners detailing our loss of faith, and sent it to hundreds of family members, friends, colleagues in the ministry, and former church members. While Polly signed her name to the letter (and agreed with its content), it was generally perceived as coming from me. Others have always viewed Polly as not thinking for herself or under the spell of “Bruce.”

While there might have been a time forty years ago that was true, I can confidently say that Polly thinks for herself, makes her own decisions, and generally does what she wants. While our relationship is quite “traditional,” the patriarchal form of our marriage died an ignoble death decades ago. We now have an egalitarian approach to marriage. Does patriarchal thinking still show up in our relationship from time to time? Sure. Religious indoctrination will do that to you. Several years ago, I told my counselor that I wished Polly would be more assertive, make more decisions. He reminded me that she was free to NOT make decisions too; that maybe she liked me being the main decision-maker in our family; that I needed to accept her as she is. Doc, of course, was right. The difference now is that I no longer make unilateral decisions that affect both of us. Years ago, I would go to work with one car and come home with another. I would NEVER do such a thing today. We have learned to make decisions together.

The aforementioned letter was our coming-out party. While I continue to be outspoken about my unbelief, spending the past thirteen years sharing my story and trying to help those with questions and doubts about Christianity, Polly, on the other hand, quickly receded into the background, rarely talking about her loss of faith. Personality-wise, Polly is quiet and reserved. In high school and college, she was a wallflower. She went on one date before starting to date me. I was, in every way, her one and only. I’m a talkative, opinionated extrovert. Polly is not. I remember being frustrated with her when we were dating over how little she talked (much like her father). People, including myself, mistook her shyness for her not having an opinion. Trust me, Polly Shope Gerencser has lots of opinions. You just need to learn how to extract them from her as I have over forty-three years of marriage. Do I wish she was more vocal? Sure. But Polly is not me, and it’s unfair for me to expect her to be a quarter-fed talk-a-machine like I am. 🙂

I said all of this to make this point: our personalities largely determined our individual response to loss of faith. I charged Hell with an empty squirt gun, screaming FREEDOM!, and Polly stood on the sidelines, quietly smiling, never saying a word. We each responded the way we did because it was our nature to do so. That is still true today.

When we deconverted, I stood on a corner, street preacher-style, and told the world that I was no longer a Christian. Polly, on the other hand, stood in the crowd, quietly saying, AMEN! Alisha wants to know, with thirteen years of unbelieving life in the rearview mirror, would we do it all over again the same way? On the one hand, I could say, “we are who we are, personality-wise.” Can any of us act differently? (And no, I am NOT interested in discussing free will.) I do know, however, that my letter had real-world consequences. We lost all of our friends save two. And I mean ALL OF THEM! We lost friendships twenty and thirty years in the making. One letter, one honest reflection, and BOOM! — fractured friendships. Some of our friends turned on me, sending me hateful, judgmental emails. (Polly was spared any of this ugliness from our friends.) One of my closest friends savaged me in several emails, suggesting I was mentally ill. Another friend said I was possessed by Satan. And yet another dear friend who had known me for twenty-five years — the wife of an evangelist who had preached for me numerous times — told me that it was evident I was unsaved, that I was a deceiver, that the Devil was using me. (Our youngest daughter is named after her.)

My ministerial colleagues immediately broke fellowship with me. Not one colleague tried to “understand” my story. Not one emailed me and asked if we could talk, have lunch, or tried to interact with me. My letter was a declaration of war — a war that I am fighting to this day.

Imagine losing all of your friends and professional connections in a matter of months. Fifty years in the Christian church, twenty-five years in the ministry, countless relationships, all burned to the ground. To say this response was devasting to Polly and me would be a gross understatement.

Polly took a quiet, measured approach, choosing to NOT talk about her loss of faith. It’s only been in recent years that she has shared with her co-workers that she is not a believer. One of her employees is also an unbeliever, so Polly has been more open to her, but even today, she is hesitant to talk about this part of life with others. (Polly has agreed to share her story on my podcast channel when and if I ever get the *&%$#* thing off the ground.)

We have made a few friends over the years, mainly through this blog and social media. The couple who remained friends of ours when we deconverted are the only people we do things with. I have lunch from time to time with a United Church of Christ pastor and a former mainline Lutheran pastor. Outside of these friendships, neither of us has people in our lives we can call up and have in-person relationships with. Sure, we have six children and thirteen grandchildren, but we want and need non-family relationships as well.

As far as family relationships go, we are estranged from much of Polly’s Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) family. We maintain a decent relationship with her mother, but we have yet to have a meaningful discussion with Mom about why we are no longer Christians. Mom and Dad (now deceased) got the letter I sent in 2009, and that’s been the extent of any discussion about why we left the ministry and later left Christianity. I suspect Mom has read my blog now and again, as many of Polly’s IFB family have, but our losses of faith remain the proverbial rainbow-colored elephant in the room. I suspect Mom still thinks that I am the patriarch of our home; that the only reason Polly is an unbeliever is me; that when I die, she will come running back to Jesus and Evangelical Christianity.

I could go on and on about the price we have paid for leaving Christianity. Would our lives be better today if I had never sent my infamous letter to family, friends, and former parishioners? Would our lives be better if I had never started blogging, never written letters to local newspapers’ editors, never given interviews detailing my story? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. We are who we are. Could I have NOT written my letter? I have pondered that question more times than I dare admit. I suspect Alisha wants to know if it is better to gently remove the bandaid or just get it over with and rip it off. I can’t tell her what to do in her own life. Am I happy with how our life has turned out post-Jesus? Sure (in general). Is Polly happy? Sure (in general). Neither of us is a woulda-coulda-shoulda kind of person. We tend to be realists, pessimists, and pragmatists. Would our lives have been different if I had stayed quiet about our unbelief? Maybe.

Perhaps some of the readers of this blog will chime in about their approaches to declaring (or not) their unbelief. This truly is one of those questions where there is no right answer.

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.

5 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Matilda

    I’ve got a real dilemma about coming out as deconverted. I help manage a unique community craft shop/cafe and community hub in a rural part of the UK. The local tourism council gave us a grant to provide this facility. We’re all volunteers and had to agree to be totally inclusive and we have been for 10yrs. Unfortunately, it’s run mainly by x-tians. I used to be one of course and have never told anyone there that I’m not any more. This week, the owner of the premises we rent, asked if we’d consider re-introducing the cabinet she had outside when she ran her shop business there. It had a bible in it, and the page was turned daily, and, she claims, a verse from Psalms or similar really spoke to customers. Then, a pastor from far away happened to be on holiday here, came into the cafe and asked about the bible cabinet he recalled from years ago. He said he teaches carpentry and will make us another. My fellow trustees just know this is a sign from gawd to reinstate it. The one humanist trustee – who openly officiates at humanist weddings/naming ceremonies etc and I, are horrified. We don’t want customers coming through our lovely patio garden to our attractive shop front and seeing a cabinet which screams that the place is run by religious nutters. I’m wishing I’d told them 5yrs ago I’m ex-fundy. My opposition to this cabinet, not voiced yet, will seem like disloyalty to our wonderful 95yo landlady who lives next door…and my humanist friend feels the same. At least this incident has made me come out to a couple more friends/acquaintances that I was too afraid to tell, but not to the trustees of this project yet! The terms of the original grant said we must be inclusive for 5yrs…and we have been open for 10yrs…so guess the x-tian trustees will argue we can do our own thing now about religion on the premises. Sigh!

    • Avatar
      Troy

      Regarding the dilemma of the once a day Bible. I actually think that it is a cool idea, and actually isn’t all that preachy. I have two mutually exclusive suggestions. Keep the new Bible on your premises, but post a sign that strongly emphasizes that the Bible is only there because it was a tradition and be clear of the sponsorship: the materials were donated by the local religious community. Another idea is to suggest that the Bible would be better served if it was at the local church (especially if one is close by, and no doubt there is one if the community is that religious).

  2. Avatar
    Matilda

    Thanks. I have a touch of anarchy in my soul! If the bible cabinet happens, I’m the first person there, unlocking the premises some days. Quite fancy slipping in an atheist quote of the day or a verse from the koran (or even the kama sutra.) That would cause these deeply, deeply fundies to get their knickers in a twist all right!

  3. Avatar
    AHR

    Thank you for answering my question, Bruce. I appreciate your honesty about all of it. My husband tends to be very open about his deconversion. I have been more quiet about mine. I can’t control what people think of me, and I certainly can’t change anyone’s mind or make them understand my beliefs. Thanks again for taking time to answer.

  4. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I’ve been open about my deconversion except with our parents and my husband’s siblings and their families. Didn’t deny it, either, and gradually some of them figured it out. Husband did the same thing.

    I rarely had an opportunity to talk about religion when I was working or going to school, and since the pandemic happened I go for groceries and to the doctor, and don’t even see friends. The thing is, the world is full of fascinating things to talk about, and for people I would call friends, religion is simply not up there on the fascination scale. We tend to be science nerds or tech nerds. I’m having lunch tomorrow with a friend I’ve known since the mid-1980s, and I know I’ll get a pent-up explosion of all the cool science and tech things he’s learned since we last had lunch, and just has to share with me. (We’ll take sandwiches to the park and space ourselves out.) Why waste precious time on religion?

    I come here to be reminded that yes, it’s hard not to have that sense of religious community with family, but the same is true of others, and we’re still all in Lifeboat Earth together.

Want to Respond to Bruce? Fire Away!

Bruce Gerencser