Several years ago, Joel Yoon, the Covenant Theological Seminary-trained pastor of Gospel City Church in Seoul, South Korea, sent me a thoughtful email containing several questions. Since Joel was polite, I thought I would take a stab at his questions. Joel wrote:
I find your blog fascinating! I am a pastor and I stumbled across your website through a random google search. I would like to ask you a question and I believe it doesn’t fall in the category of any questions you wouldn’t want to discuss.
I read that your walk away from Evangelical Christianity was largely based on you understanding of Scripture. In addition, it seems that not only did your faith unravel due to your view of Scripture, but your blog also seems to reveal that you now have resentment towards Christianity. My question to you is twofold:
Are there parts of Evangelical Christianity that you still appreciate? If so, could you share why?
As an agnostic and practical atheist, is there any part of life that makes you question your views or at least makes you curious about a deity? If so, what would that be?
In order to better understand where I’m coming from, let me share why I ask this: Granted, my theological beliefs give me a bias, I’ve always found it hard to believe the world we have now was created simply by chance. I’m not even arguing against The Big Bang theory or evolution. I’ve just saying that in some sense, I’ve found it harder to be an atheist when I see and experience this world. For example, learning more about the complexities and the beauties of this world, or thinking about and experiencing love, or just even the whole idea of pregnancy, birth and life, these areas of life have made me feel like one needs more faith to not believe in God than to believe in him. So I was wondering, with your journey from being so deeply embedded in a Judeo-Christian worldview — and now a staunch agnostic/atheist — is there anything that makes you even a little bit curious?
My abandonment of Christianity primarily rests on my rejection of the Bible as an inspired, authoritative text. I think it is impossible to be a Christian and not, to some degree, believe the Bible is God’s Word. Since I came to understand that the Bible was an errant, fallible, contradictory text, there was no possible way I could continue to call myself a Christian. I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically reject all the beliefs that are the foundation of Christian orthodoxy. I realize that some people are able to reduce the Bible to God is love and Jesus love me too, but I was unable to do so. Christianity is a text-based religion. I can’t imagine a Christianity without some sort of fidelity to the written Biblical text.
That said, my deconversion certainly had an emotional component. This was not clear to me at first, but I now can see that my loss of faith started when I began looking for a Christianity that mattered. Over time, I became disaffected, realizing that regardless of what name might be over the door, churches are all pretty much the same — social clubs focused on meeting the needs of their members and improving club enrollment. Does this mean, as Joel suggests, that I have resentment towards Christianity? Not in the least.
Not all Christianities are created equal. I generally think that liberal and progressive Christianity is benign, doing little to no harm to others. While I have a different set of problems with liberal Christianity, I don’t think being part of such churches harms people. I cannot say the same for Evangelicalism. Evangelical Christianity is inherently Fundamentalist, and Fundamentalism is a cancer that must be excised wherever it is found. (Please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) I am well aware of the fact that Evangelicalism is a broad tent, but I am of the opinion that Evangelical belief and practice can and does cause psychological harm and results in intellectual stagnation. Does this mean I am resentful? I don’t think so. It does mean, however, that I do have strong opinions about Evangelicalism. When doubting Evangelicals ask for my advice I usually encourage them to seek kinder, gentler forms of faith. There are sects and churches that promote diversity and tolerance. These sects often encourage unencumbered intellectual inquiry. Evangelical churches cannot do so because they are bound by their interpretations of the Bible. Since I place great value on reason and intellectual pursuit, I could never in good conscience recommend people attend Evangelical churches. Both McDonald’s and the local gastropub serve hamburgers, but that’s where the similarity ends. I view Evangelicalism as McDonald’s. If you have never eaten any other hamburger but a Big Mac, you will never know how good the burgers are down at the gastropub. Once people eat a real hamburger, they will never want to eat a Big Mac again. So it is for Evangelicals. Until they venture outside of the safe confines of their little box, they have no idea about the wonders (and dangers) that await them. (Please see The Danger of Being in a Box and Why it Makes Sense When You are in it and What I Found When I Left the Box.) Once free of the constraints of their Bible box, people rarely return. They don’t necessarily become atheists, but they also don’t return, to use a bit of Biblical imagery, to Egypt — the land of onions and bondage. Once freed, Evangelicals realize that the potential paths to freedom, happiness, and fulfillment are many, so they rarely return to their former beliefs.
Joel asks “Are there parts of Evangelical Christianity that you still appreciate?” I think what he means to ask is, are there aspects of Christianity that I miss? Professionally, I miss preaching and teaching. Personally, I miss the communal aspects of being part of a church — things such as dinners, banquets, and social activities. As atheists, my wife and I are, at times, lonely. We are two pebbles in the Evangelical Sea. While my wife is quiet about her lack of faith, I am not. I regularly write letters to the editor of the local newspaper, challenging Evangelicals who write letters about evolution and creationism, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Christian nationalism, or whatever “sin” is stuck in their craw. I am a public figure who is widely known as THE atheist. Local Evangelical outrage over my letters has proved to be quite an eye-opener, a reminder of the fact that Christian food, fun, and fellowship are predicated on right beliefs. Because we are unwilling to bow to Jesus, my wife and I must live with the fact that we are not going to have very many local friends. We are, however, grateful for the countless people we have met and befriended through this blog and social media.
I will assume that Joel is using the word “God” to signify the Christian God or the Evangelical God. Do I have any doubts or questions about my rejection of THIS God? No, not in the least. I have weighed this God in the balances and found him/her/it wanting (Daniel 5:27). I have been an atheist for almost fourteen years. During this time, scores of Evangelicals have tried and failed to show me the error of my way. I think I can safely say that I have heard every Christian argument there is for the existence of God and the veracity of Christianity and its supposedly supernatural religious text. None of these arguments has proved to be compelling. I have concluded that the Christian God is a human fiction, brought to life centuries ago by men attempting to explain their understanding of the world. Science has reduced the Bible to a Cliff Notes-sized book of interesting ancient stories and spiritual sayings. It has very little to say regarding life in the twenty-first century. I certainly would not use the Bible as some sort of road map or blueprint. Does the Bible have value? Sure, but having spent most of my life reading and studying the Bible, I can’t imagine what more I could possibly glean from its pages. Unlike Evangelicals, I do not think the Bible is an inexhaustible well of wisdom and truth. Having read the Bible from cover to cover more times than I can count, I think I can safely move on to other books. Evangelical Rousas Rushdoony once said, most books aren’t worth reading once let alone twice. So it is with the Bible.
I have numerous acquaintances and friends who are liberal Christians, universalists, and deists. I readily admit that I think someone can look at the biological world and the wonders of the cosmos and conclude that some sort of deistic God set things into motion. However, I fail to see any possible way to get from there being A GOD to that deity being the God revealed in the Christian Bible. Any attempts made to bridge these two only raise more questions. Why the Christian God and not any of the other Gods humans worship? Perhaps some unknown God created everything. Maybe, just maybe, earth is some sort of lab experiment for an unknown advanced alien race. Why do Evangelicals so quickly shut off their minds to any possible explanations but the ones they hear Sunday after Sunday at their houses of worship? (Please see Why Most Americans are Christian.) As atheists such as myself point out, Evangelicals are every bit as godless as atheists when it comes to other religions. I will assume that Joel thinks certain religious beliefs are false — say Mormonism, Islam, or Buddhism. If so, doesn’t this mean that he is atheistic towards these no-God religions? The only difference between Joel and me is that I am atheistic towards one God more than he is.
Neither Christians nor atheists can give a satisfactory answer to the various questions that have plagued man from the first moment he looked skyward and pondered the question, where did THAT come from? Evangelicals believe that their God is the first cause of everything. They can provide no empirical data for this claim. Either you believe it or you don’t. Evangelicals, by faith (Hebrews 11), believe their God is everything. Atheists look to science to give them answers about the universe and human existence. As the Bill Nye and Ken Ham debate made clear, science is willing to say, we don’t know, but we keep looking for answers. Evangelicals, on the other hand, appeal to the Bible. God said _______________, end of discussion. Ham repeatedly appealed to the Bible, a book that he believes teaches the universe was created in six twenty-four-hour days, 6,024 years ago. Science says the universe is billions of years old and that it likely came into existence through what we call the Big Bang. This, of course, is not a definitive, final answer. That’s what is so great about science: questions continue to be asked and theories are constantly being rejected or modified as scientific knowledge grows. I know of no better way to understand our world. Saying, God says or the Bible says no longer works. We now know too much to return to the ignorance found within the pages of the Bible. That Evangelicals continue to reject what science tells us about our world is troublesome and a hindrance to human progress.
I have often wondered how differently things might have turned out for me had I been raised in another manner. Suppose I had been raised a Presbyterian and went to Harvard instead of an Evangelical Bible college? What if I had been taught to value the sciences and rigorous intellectual inquiry? Would I still have ended up where I am today? I don’t know. Alas, little is to be gained from pondering what might have been. I am where I am and I am comfortable with the path that has led me to this point in time. I have many fond memories from the fifty years I spent in the Christian church and the twenty-five years I spent pastoring Evangelical churches. I am grateful for the many opportunities I had to help other people. In many ways, I am still a pastor, doing what I can to help others. The difference, of course, is that there are no threats of Hell or promises of Heaven. The humanist ideal now motivates me to help all living things. No longer concerned with what lies beyond the grave, my focus is on helping fellow travelers make the best of this life. As a father of six children and grandfather to thirteen munchkins, I want to use the time I have left to make this world a better place in which to live. Things such as global warming, climate change, war, and Donald Trump threaten my progeny’s future. I owe it to them to do what I can to leave to them a better world, one not ravaged by religious ignorance, hubris, and greed. I also want to leave for them a testimony of sorts; of a man who lived a good life without God; a man who was loving, respectful, and kind. If I accomplish these things, it will be said of me, he did what he could.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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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“As an agnostic and practical atheist, is there any part of life that makes you question your views or at least makes you curious about a deity? If so, what would that be?
In order to better understand where I’m coming from, let me share why I ask this: Granted, my theological beliefs give me a bias, I’ve always found it hard to believe the world we have now was created simply by chance. I’m not even arguing against The Big Bang theory or evolution. I’ve just saying that in some sense, I’ve found it harder to be an atheist when I see and experience this world…”
I was never evangelical or fundamentalist, so if you don’t mind I’ll skip your first question. I was raised Christian, but an awful lot of things that I found admirable about those teachings are things that, frankly, the majority of Christians seem happy to ignore or reject — at least, here in the United States.
For your second question… I’m coming at this from almost exactly the opposite direction that you seem to be. I’ve found it much harder to accept a Christian view when I see and experience this world. There are worms that grow in people’s eyes. There are fish that live inside sea cucumbers. There is, you know, the germ theory of disease. None of that looks to me like any sort of intelligent design. It looks far, far more like the result of random/impersonal natural processes.
Very well stated , dear man… I must say that I am a survivor of Evangelical Christianity who is resentful. I resent the harm they did to me and I resent the harm they continue to do to children far and wide. I feel very strongly that my resentment is necessary and I feel just fine about it. I do not forgive evangelicals for the harm they continue to wreak on innocence. Fuck them forever and a day. (I feel some anger too along with the resentment;-)
Someday, sometime, if I ever see a reason to choose it, I will forgive specific people the harm they marked me with…. but maybe not and who knows.
Christianity is in the business of saying human feelings should be shunned or given over to God. This is just one wee part of how they demean humankind and reduce them to rotten goods who need Jesus. Sick stuff.
I found this to be exceptionally well done and very respectful
But, Bruce, if you’ll allow me the dalliance to nitpick (and you are free to reject this one small “criticism/critique”- in fact I almost expect you to 😛 ) … you made one statement that I have a bit of a personal “peeve” about. And it centers around your usage of the word “theory/theories”.
” … questions continue to be asked and theories are constantly being rejected or modified. ”
Now while the statement above is technically correct and does match to an available definition – I tend to think that using the “T” (theories) word in these contexts to be ambiguous. In the context of a religious discussion I find that using the “T” word gives cover to the religious apologist to “question” all scientific theories – which as we (you and I and many of your skeptic followers of this blog) all know a Scientific Theory is a rigorously tested and (provisionally – barring new evidence) proven fact. Perhaps that is precisely what you meant – but to me, an average, modestly educated blue collar sort – it reads more like a more accurate word to convey your point would be “hypotheses”.
I know you know the difference, and I know you know the point I’m trying to make … but like an itchy scab, I just HAD to scratch it … and no I feel MUCH better …. feel free to disregard this comment as necessary 😀
Again, great post – thorough and thoughtful writing – as usual 🙂
PS – I wrote a quick blog post – regarding a tangent bit of your content (not the nitpick) that can be found at: http://olddawgbob.blogspot.com/2016/05/gods-and-unicorns.html
Feel free to edit out the link address and accept my apology if they are not allowed – I generally don’t make a habit out of posting links
Many arguments in favor of Christianity are based upon logical fallacies, and one such is the fallacy of equivocation. For example, in science, the word “theory” refers to an explanation of the facts, which is well supported by empirical, verifiable evidence; while in common usage, “theory” is synonymous with a guess or conjecture. Christians seem to love to confuse the two usages of “theory” to undermine the value of science.
A scientific hypothesis is not equivalent to a guess or conjecture. A scientific hypothesis needs to be based upon some valid, verifiable evidence, as well. It is a statement based on reason that must:
a. be falsifiable (i.e., capable of being proven false) by experiment or observation (otherwise it is not scientific and there is no point in examining the evidence).
b. be testable (i.e., capable of being tested by experiment or observation), and
c. have predictive value (i.e., able to predict a correlation between multiple events, or observations) and be compatible with all the relevant data/observations.
You might liken a hypothesis to an apprenticeship, where the applicant appears to have the qualifications for the job, but it remains to be seen if he works out; you might liken a theory to a long term employee at a private sector job who could be fired at any point if he appears to be committing fraud; and you might liken a religious tenet to a full time member of a very strong union from which it is almost impossible to be fired, ever.
According to the scientific method, all theories, hypotheses, facts and laws must perpetually be open to refute and review, especially in light of new evidence. Bruce was quite correct to write that, “…theories are constantly being rejected or modified.” The more times a theory is tested, the more researchers who fail to refute a theory, the stronger it gets. After sufficient scrutiny, it is deemed to be conditionally true. A strong theory is one which has been well verified by numerous scientists, has stood the test of time, and has no viable competition (e.g., the theory of evolution).
In science, there is never anything more certain than a strong theory. Scientific theories are never cast in concrete because the verification process must continue forever, and declaring a theory “proven” might stymie further investigation. Conversely, when you commit to a “belief”, you stop questioning, you stop thinking, you stop being logical, you stop seeking alternatives, you stop re-evaluating your belief when new evidence comes along, and you base your opinion of other things on your belief. Belief is counterproductive to science, which must always remain open to review.
It seems to me that a pastor who reads this blog is either interested in (a) re-converting its author to Christianity, or (b) trying to learn how atheists & agnostics think so he can present his messages in such a way as to render them more or less bullet-proof. For myself, the argument, “I’ve found it harder to be an atheist when I see and experience this world. For example, learning more about the complexities and the beauties of this world, or thinking about and experiencing love, or just even the whole idea of pregnancy, birth and life, these areas of life have made me feel like one needs more faith to not believe in God than to believe in him,” is just vacuous. My wonder of the tiny life that is forming in my daughter-in-law’s body is in no way diminished because I don’t believe in God. Nor is my appreciation of a sunset or a starry night, or a Beethoven symphony, or…Just knock it off already. We don’t need a supernatural being to be a part of this universe, even if we don’t have all the answers. “One needs more faith to not believe in God than to believe in him…” That is just insulting.
——-“For myself, the argument, “I’ve found it harder to be an atheist when I see and experience this world. For example, learning more about the complexities and the beauties of this world, or thinking about and experiencing love, or just even the whole idea of pregnancy, birth and life, these areas of life have made me feel like one needs more faith to not believe in God than to believe in him,” is just vacuous.”—-
Whenever I hear this, I always think of corollary examples – for which such people have no answers at all:
You know that wasp that paralyzes a living caterpillar, then lays an egg on top of it and buries it in a hole? When the egg finally hatches the wasp larva eats the still-living paralyzed caterpillar from the inside out. Did “God” make that?
Apparently, this “God” also designed a gazelle so it can run really fast to escape, and he also designed a cheetah so it can run really fast to catch and eat gazelles. What is the point of that, exactly? Is it some sort of perverse game he’s playing?
Nonsense excuses about the “Fall” lamely fail to answer these examples adequately. We know there was predation and death on the Earth billions of years before humans ever showed up. Again – is God a prankster, or just sadistic in general?
I like that. Growing up in the Bible belt, I had a teacher who once said, “Nature is cruel.” I thought, what??!! It just seemed blasphemous. But obviously it made a huge impression on me. The unspoken lesson was, “Nature is indifferent; a supernatural god doesn’t oversee everything, and sometimes living things suffer because of it.” End of story. The Darwinian explanation gives me some measure of comfort, however.
It’s nice to go back and read things on your site that I’ve missed. I’m sure there is a lot.
You certainly did what you could, Bruce.
I hope the fellow who asked read your explanation.
Interestingly, I am seeing more and more people from my evangelical past cautiously questioning hardcore evangelicalism and right wing politics. Just as cautiously, I offer them a sounding board. They don’t know the extent of my “apostasy” as I keep it to “I am an exvangelical and I think questioning is important”. I don’t want to scare them with the A word because I want them to know that in questioning they are not alone.
It’s good when someone comes to you with a question and is willing to hear the answer.
I have never read a reasonable explanation of why a perfect, omnipotent spiritual being felt it necessary to create a physical universe including incredibly flawed human beings. A perfect being could not be lonely or have the need to create an imperfect physical reality. An omniscient creator would have identified the design flaws and either corrected these flaws or ditched the plan altogether. If there exists such a being then we exist only in it’s imagination much like the digital characters in a computer simulation.