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Polly and Bruce, Two Godless Peas in a Pod

bruce polly gerencser our fathers house west unity
Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio Circa 2000

Several years ago, Kenneth asked:

I am currently married to a Southern Baptist woman who is likely never going to change her mind about her beliefs. I deconverted late last year and am now an atheist. I’m curious as to how your wife ended up an atheist seemingly around the same time as you? I guess deep down I want her to see my views as an atheist but if anyone knows how hard it is to talk to a Christian as an atheist, it is you. My question is, can you tell us more about how Polly came to the same conclusions as you during the time of your deconversion? Maybe she can give us some input too. In a lot of scenarios, one spouse is still stuck as a believer while both the atheist and theist struggle with now being in a “mixed” marriage — I’m in one of them now. Thanks!

After we decided in 2005 we no longer wanted to be Pastor and Mrs. Bruce Gerencser, we spent a few years trying to find a church that took seriously the teaching of Jesus. Not finding such a church frustrated us and led us to conclude that the Christianity of Jesus no longer existed, and most churches were just different flavors of ice cream; same base ingredients with different added flavors. (Please see But Our Church is DIFFERENT!) The last church we attended was Ney United Methodist Church, four blocks from our home

For most of 2008, I had been doing quite a bit of reading about the history of Christianity and the Bible.  From Bart Ehrman to Robert M. Price to Elaine Pagels, I read dozens of books that challenged and attacked my Christian beliefs. Polly and I spent many a night discussing what I had read. I often read large passages of this or that book to her and we would compare what we had been taught with what these books said. While Polly was never one to read nonfiction, she did read several of Bart Ehrman’s books. Over time, both of us came to the conclusion that what we had been taught wasn’t true. We also concluded that we were no longer, in any meaningful sense, Christian. The last Sunday in November 2008, we walked out of Ney United Methodist, never to return. Several months later, I wrote the infamous Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners, which I sent to hundreds of Evangelical family members, friends, and former church members.

For a time, both of us were content calling ourselves agnostics. I soon realized that the agnostic label required too much explanation, so I embraced the atheist label. While Polly is hesitant to use the atheist moniker, her beliefs about God, Christianity, and the Bible are similar to mine. She’s not one to engage in discussion or debate, content to go about her godless life without having to define herself. I often wish I could be like her.

When we left Christianity, I feared that Polly’s deconversion was a coattail deconversion; that she was following after me just like she was taught to do in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church. Some of my critics, unwilling to give Polly credit for doing her own thinking and decision-making, have suggested that Polly was/is being led astray by me. Fundamentalist family members have voiced their concern over Polly being drawn into my godlessness, rarely giving her credit for being able to think and reason for herself. Their insinuations only reinforce her belief that she made the right decision when she deconverted. Polly graduated second in her high school class and has a college degree. She is quite capable of thinking for herself. Granted, this ability was quashed for many years thanks to being taught that she should always defer to me as the head of the home. That I was also her pastor only made things worse. I can confidently say that Polly is her own person, and her unbelief is her own.

Where our stories diverge a bit is the reasons why we deconverted. While both of us would say we had intellectual reasons for abandoning God and Christianity, Polly’s deconversion had a larger emotional component than mine did. We’ve spent countless hours talking about the past, this or that church, and the experiences each of us had. Polly spent most of her married life under the shadow of her preacher husband. I’m amazed at how differently she views our shared past, now free to speak openly. While I was the center of attention, heaped with praise and love, she was in the shadows, the afterthought, the one who had to do all the jobs church members had no time for. It should come as no surprise that her view of the 25 years we spent in the ministry is much different from mine.

As I’m writing this post I am thinking to myself, Polly needs to be telling this story. I can’t tell her story. While I can give the gist of it, I think it is better if she tells her story, that is if she is willing to do. I do know that she has no desire to relive the “wonderful” ministry years. She’s quite content to be free of God, the church, and the Bible, free to just be Polly. Not Polly, the pastor’s daughter, not Polly, the preacher’s wife, just Polly. And I can say the same for myself. While I am noted for being a preacher-turned-atheist, an outspoken critic of Evangelicalism, I am content just to be Bruce. Most of our life was swallowed up by the ministry, so we are quite glad to be free and we enjoy the opportunity to live our lives on our own terms.

In many ways, our story is not typical. I’ve received scores of emails from people who deconverted and are now in mixed marriages. Like Kenneth, they want to share their unbelief with their spouses, but are unable to do so because of their spouse’s Christian beliefs or because they fear outing themselves will destroy their marriages. (Please see Count the Cost Before You Say I Am an Atheist.) Polly and I fully realize that if one of us had remained a Christian it could (would?) have ended our marriage. We are grateful that we’ve been able to walk this path together hand in hand. The farther away we get from the years we spent in the ministry, the more we realize how good we have it. Our deconversion could have destroyed our marriage and alienated us from our children, but it didn’t. Instead, we’ve been given a new lease on life; the opportunity for each of us to seek our own path. We deeply love one another, have six wonderful children and thirteen grandkids, and are, in every way, b-l-e-s-s-e-d.

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
    Becky Wiren

    My husband and I are lucky we fell in the same direction after Christianity. He considers himself agnostic/atheist, while I consider myself non-Christian. There was some tension before I stopped believing in Christianity. Believing that religion is private and for helping an individual to cope makes a big difference, after all. We and our disabled sons respect each others’ beliefs and live generally in harmony. But we all are in a similar place politically so that helps.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      You raise an excellent point I did not address, politics. Long before we deconverted, our political beliefs began shifting to the left . By the time I pastored my last church, we were socially quite liberal. While we still pro-life and considered homosexuality a sin, we no longer demonized those who believed differently.

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    Thanks for replying to my question! It sounds like you two sort of remained on the same page when things came tumbling down, perhaps that was key to getting where you are now. Ironinically, I recall how difficult it was for us at one time to find a real church we could call home — it ended up being a Southern Baptist Church, which (coming from a more liberal church myself) actually made it easier for me to deconvert.

    She hasn’t really seen it my way unfortunately and I can say it has definitely put a strain on our marriage but still hope we can get through it all. I may try seeing if she is willing to read one of those books you mentioned, at least to possibly help her see things from a different perspective. Her “testimony” is really what holds her to it though. Thinking you feel the spirit of God in you when you get “saved” is kind of a brainwashing experience, perhaps similar to how thinking you met God during a NDE or being under the influence of LSD could do. Its amazing really how the church gets you when you are most vulnerable. I don’t necessarily regret ever being exposed to church (as you know, there are a lot of great people in church). However, it does sadden me what brings people together is a lie.

    So, I go with the flow right now and I guess we’ll see where it all goes. Best thing we can do is be an example for others, we don’t have to be Christian to be good people.

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      Bruce Gerencser

      We all want to believe that love can conquer anything, but when you are taught that love for God and Jesus is superior to mere human love, human love is often not enough. I’ve corresponded with a handful of people whose spouse made it clear that if they were forced to choose between Jesus or them they would choose Jesus. A frail, “sinful” spouse can’t compete with Jesus the perfect spouse and lover.

      I hope things turn out well for you. You do raise an important stumbling block, personal testimony. For someone like your wife to even consider deconverting she would have to consider that her conversion story might not be true. Some people cannot do this. Hopefully, she can be gently led away from the fundamentalist confines of the Southern Baptist Convention. Progressive, liberal Christianity or Universalism often allows a believing spouse to see their unbelieving spouse in a more favorable light.

      That said, holding on to Evangelical soteriology with its attendant categorization of everyone as saved or lost/headed for heaven or hell makes it hard for the believing spouse to see their husband or wife as an equal worthy of respect.

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    My wife is a nominal Bahai and was when I met her and tried so hard to bring her to a Christian perspective, I remember giving her some exegesis of Hebrews that I felt would clearly show her that she was on the wrong track and needed to come on over the Christian view. She never did and I fell away from the Baptist ice-cream and went into Anglican sundaes, she merely joined me as an all-embracing believer. Then I realized that I was at least agnostic…. she did not really budge. And then of course came atheism, to which she just kind of shakes her head. Somehow we manage as unequally yoked. We both feel the other is kind of crazy and it goes on like this after close to a quarter century. I find that being free of belief, I am not troubled with her moderate, rather invisible belief. She does some reading of Bahai scripture and occasionally goes off to a gathering, usually some dinner meeting around a holiday. To me, it is like she is oddly taken by synchronized swimming or something I find totally odd and she likes to watch it. What a weirdo she truly is, is all I can say, but I love her and that has not changed as I have become a heathen. Like Becky, my spouse and I do share some very important political perspective. We are child-advocates and both feel that children are the number one priority in life. I guess in a way I am suggesting that belief or unbelief is no longer the primary issue to me. Life is about relationship, about sharing and choosing to be with …Ours is now a mixed marriage and seems to work.

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    I also read Ehrman and Price, but my third author was Hitchens. Like you I was challenged in ways I never thought I could be. I assumed my positions were immoveable, but when I considered honestly what I was reading by these writers, I too had to admit that I had believed a load of crap for 50 years.

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    My story is similar to yours Bruce, in the sense that I went looking for true Biblical Christianity. All the christianities I met along the way were found wanting. My world started crushing down the day I decided to start listening to/reading people I did not fully agree with already. Then I started scrutinizing my own beliefs/convictions from their perpectives as I tried to understand their points of view.
    In the end, I came to the choking conclusion that christianity was 100% man made, no god needed.
    Unfortunately my wife went the exact opposite of my journey, from a lukewarm believer to the more extreme fundamentalist IFB cult. I myself led my family into it along my journey to find true Biblical christianity.
    Recently I told her I had hoped she will somehow rethink and reconsider her beliefs and maybe become a little more progressive, in the face of my unbelief, and she replied categorically that my deconversion has instead pushed her to radicalise even more.
    And then one day she told me had it not been her belief in this God (whom I now reject), she would have ended our relationship long ago. Upon hearing that, my heart sank, and I think I understood that the person in front of me is not the one I will spend the rest of my life with. I think I could say I am now hanging on just for the sake of our children, but I cannot tell for how long.
    I’ve told her the IFB she attends is the worst christian cult I’ve ever seen, and that any other christian denomination in town would have been bettter. Yet she won’t relent, and wants at all cost to bring our children along, to which I have given a firm NO. By the way, the leadership of that IFB church kicked me out while I was still a believer, because I was bringing up heretical views and questioning their doctrine.

    Jesus was right that he did not come to bring peace but a sword.

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      I’m sorry to hear what you are going through. I, too, am in a very similar situation. My wife has been Southern Baptist since she was a teenager (fundamental here in the Bible belt), I was “saved” at a more liberal non-demoninational church when I was a teenager. I deconverted about a year ago and when I finally told my wife I no longer believed, she thought it was all a lie (me even being a believer ever, as if I’d make it up!). We have two children and I was basically told she is only with me for them and God. It hurt a lot but from her I think a lot of it is out of frustration. God’s plan failed. Nonetheless, I’ve thought about going our separate ways, but then I worry about our two children and don’t want to hurt them. I wish she would deconvert too, but realize that likely will never happen. I hate how religion has to be a dividing factor for couples, yet understand why it is. It’s a good chance we won’t make it together for much longer, but perhaps when our children (they are 5 and 1 1\2 now) are older we may have to. At least then they may understand. Unfortunately, her political views are far right and extreme (most fundies are) which separate us even more. I used to be like her too, since to be a real Christian you have to be Republican and right-sided. Anyway, this keeps us even more separated. She also says crazy things believers say–like how Obama is a Muslim and how we may have concentration camps here in the US–you know, that fundy interpretation of the “end times” which is simply ridiculous?

      I’ve never been divorced and just worry about the kids but I can only play along with things at church for so long. I agreed to keep going to church but have to try hard from laughing at some of the things I hear in Sunday school or during preaching.

      I’m starting to think we won’t make it and her saying she is only with me out of “duty” doesn’t help. So I understand what you and many others in the same situation are going through. It sucks, but it is what it is.

      I just don’t know if I can pretend to buy this crap at church much longer….

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        In your case, your wife said she is only with you because of your kids and God. For me that makes a huge difference. I wish my wife had mentioned the kids also, but sadly she didn’t. I guess she spoke from the depth of her heart and revealed what’s inside. For me I think the fact that she mentioned the kids means she has some concern about them, and that she might think twice before “sacrificing” them for the sake of her god. What mine said suggest to me she loves her god far more than her children and won’t care much about them if she had to choose. The moment she said that, if we didn’t have kids, I think it probably would have ended that day.

        You also mentioned that you will suggest your wife reads one of the books Bruce mentioned. Mine on the contrary has instead threatened to burn my books (criticizing Christianity). Of course I didn’t take her threat seriously, but that is just to give you an idea about how she feels about those types of books: she thinks they are inspired by satan, and she won’t even go near them.

        I am at a point where I am asking myself: should I “postpone” my life and go on living in a very unhappy marriage and a very unfulfilling relationship for the sake of the kids (until they are grown up)? What example would I be offering them? Do I know the number of days I have left?
        That’s the kind of questioning going through my mind now.

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    CaringFreethinker: So sad that in this world with so much hurt and loneliness, the partner you have chosen has decided to push you away on the basis of her belief system, even though you care for her and want to stay together. There are so many land mines that can take down a relationship, even a good one…to throw it away for this reason just underscores the damaging nature of religion. Good for you for standing your ground for your kids. They should not be subjected to this screwed up system, especially while they are growing and developing.

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      I’ve been telling my wife that she couldn’t have landed in a worst place than the IFB cult. That was before I started reading Bruce’s blog, and his blog only confirms my empirical observation. Bruce’s assessment of the movement is spot on, and he is well placed to dissect the IFB movement, having been for a long time a pastor and leader in that movement. I only attended an IFB church from Jan 2012 until May 2013 when I got kicked out. Then I returned for a few months after my deconversion in Oct 2013, because at that time I allowed her to take our children with her, and I wanted to monitor what they were being indoctrinated into. It is very different when you view the cult from an unbelieving position. The hellfire threat, guilt, shame, sin nature, etc became just too much for me to let my children go on being mentally and psychologically abused by that. Then I told my wife that to tell a child that there is an invisible guy in the sky who will burn people forever because they do not do what he wants is child abuse, and therefore my children will not go there anymore.
      I told her as their mother, she has the right to preach and teach anything she wants, including the evil doctrine of eternal damnation, but she will have to do it at home.
      Many times afterwards she insisted and challenged me to bring them there by force, and to stop her relentlessness, I told her if she did that it would be the end of our relationship. The defiance ceased, but she hasn’t ceased asking me frequently to change my mind and let her bring them, telling me how she is suffering from not doing so, and how she thinks the kids are suffering.
      Because of her pleas, I offered her a huge compromise: I proposed we look togerther for a progressive/liberal church (that doesn’t preach the evil doctrine of eternal damnation) where I will allow her to bring our kids. She refused categorically: for her, it is the IFB cult or nothing. Very heartbreaking.
      Later she told me “You have take away from the children any basis of morality whatsoever”. Boy, that blow was hard to take, and I still haven’t recovered from it.

      • Avatar

        Morality is way more about common sense than the Bible, but I’m sure she doesn’t see it that way. You are rebelling against God, so she sees anything you do or say going against God and all morality. The truth is, the Golden Rule is all you need. Also, look at humanism–which is far more moral without requiring blinders because of religion. Problem is, you can’t really convince her otherwise. As long as she is “saved”, it will be nearly impossible for her to understand. For that, it makes people like us to struggle keeping our families together. The beauty of humanism: it can be changed and amended over time based on the direction of society; the Bible cannot stand for any exceptions.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce, there are two things I find particularly interesting and ironic:

    Your use of the term “mixed marriage.” In some ways, I suspect, a marriage in which one believes and the other doesn’t would be more difficult than one of people of different races, political views or even religions. (I say this as someone who was married to someone who grew up in a religion different from the Catholicism in which I was raised or the Evangelical church of which I later became a part, although by that time I had left both and had only a tenuous faith in any supreme being.)
    You and Polly have really lived the “better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us apart.” I wonder how many of your Midwestern classmates’, fellow preachers’ or former congregants’ (the ones who still believe) marriages are still intact.

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    My husband and I live pretty harmoniously without God being the center of our married lives. But yes, he’s an agnostic atheist while I’m a humanist universalist agnostic. Huh? I pray and “feel” the presence of God, but since I can’t prove God’s existence I’m not real exercised whether God exists or not. And I’m not even slightly interested in converting or being converted.

    So it’s lucky he and I ended up on a similar enough page with our beliefs. I do feel for people in marriages that have to conceal their loss of faith.

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    ” Instead, we’ve been given a new lease on life; the opportunity for each of us to seek our own path. We deeply love one another, have six wonderful children and thirteen grandkids, and are, in every way, b-l-e-s-s-e-d.”

    That’s good to know, Bruce, I’m happy for all of you.

  10. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    The peace that passeth understanding is in humanism! Pretty much everything worth holding to is based in our humanity and certainly not in our tendencies to go-cult. I am blessed to be more and more human as endlessly leave the cult of my childhood, the cult called evangelical Christianity, the cult of the born-bad, the blood cult. How wonderful to be aware of you and Polly, Bruce and to know that you inhabit your lives in human love, in the peace that passeth! Best wishes to to you and your whole family and many thanks for continuing to pick up your pencil and write!

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Bruce Gerencser