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Did My Journey Out of Christianity Begin with Evidence?

evidence

Sometimes, atheists and agnostics forget how they got to where they are today. We pride ourselves on being evidence-based skeptics, seekers of truth wherever it may be found. We are conversant in all things atheist. We have read numerous books, magazines, and blog posts. We have watched more YouTube videos than we care to admit.

We investigated the claims of the religion we once held dear. We re-studied and reinterpreted the Bible. We read Dr. Bart Ehrman, the 21st-century prophet to the godless. We now know how errant and man-made the Bible really is. We are (mostly) rational and logical, no longer in bondage to a mystical, mythical religion. We are free to be whomever and whatever we want to be.

But, here’s the problem: many atheists and agnostics forget that what they are now is not what they once were. They forget how their journey out of Christianity began. They forget how fearful they were when they first considered the God question. They forget the nights where sleep eluded them as they wrestled with sincerely held beliefs about God, salvation, Jesus, heaven, hell, and eternity. Have I really been living a lie all these years? we asked in the stillness of the night.

The journey out of Christianity rarely begins with evidence. Seldom does a person decide to leave Christianity on an evidentiary basis, especially those of us who were Christians for many years. While we NOW see clearly the falseness of Christianity, I doubt our vision was so clear when we first dared to consider the truthfulness of our beliefs.

Most often, the journey out of Christianity begins with our emotions. I am often accused of being angry and bitter, and, quite frankly, at some point along my journey out of Christianity, I am sure I was. How could it be otherwise?

Leaving Christianity is no small matter. Leaving the religion of your parents is not easy. Leaving the religion that gave you peace, comfort, hope, security, meaning, and purpose is a decision laden with emotional baggage. We must be willing to admit this lest we lose authenticity. We must account for everything that brought us to where we are now. To leave anything out paints an incomplete picture of our lives.

My journey out of Christianity likely began when I became a disaffected, disillusioned Christian and pastor. I was tired of the meaningless and passivity I saw everywhere I looked. Nothing mattered. In the rare occasions when I saw committed, serious Christianity, I also saw arrogance, hatred, and pride. I saw a divisive, sectarian spirit that bore no resemblance to the Jesus of the Bible. (I later learned from my studies that Jesus was far from perfect too.)

I was worn out from long hours pastoring churches that never paid well. I was tired of all the moving. The pettiness in every church I ever pastored sickened me. Struggles with church power brokers left me wounded. I was hurt by hateful and mean-spirited church leaders and fellow pastors.

When I stopped pastoring churches it was a relief. Sleeping in on Sunday morning — what a joy unspeakable and full of glory! The stress level in our home and marriage went down dramatically. What a difference godlessness made!

I realize I just gave my critics a boatload of ammunition to use against me. I will now be accused of leaving Christianity for emotional reasons. I was angry, bitter, and hurt. I was tired and worn out. I was poorly paid, in the ministry for the money. Here’s what my critics don’t understand: while these things played a part in the first step I took out of Christianity, they were not the last steps I took. What may have had an emotional beginning didn’t have an emotional ending.

As my emotions abated, the evidence took over. As I read and studied, I came to the conclusion that the central claims of Christianity were false. My studies led to me conclude that the Bible is not a divine book, that it is a fallible, man-made, errant text written by (mostly)unknown authors centuries ago. While it “may” offer some valuable insights, it should not be considered a divine road map for life, a blueprint for living. Many of its teachings are immoral. It is a book that’s been used to prop up violent governments, enslave people, and its pages are soaked in the blood of innocents. I view the Bible like a morsel of edible food in a garbage can filled with rotting offal. I am no longer willing to dig through the rotting garbage just to find a morsel to eat.

What took root in disaffection soon became a search for truth. This forced me to re-investigate everything I once believed was true. I had to reevaluate my moral and ethical beliefs. My entire worldview was being challenged. At times, I was fearful. What if I am wrong? What if God really exists? I wrestled with Pascal’s Wager long before I ever knew what it was.

I am sympathetic towards atheists and agnostics who hide the emotional aspect of their journey. They don’t want to have to deal with constant questions about motives. They acknowledge the emotional component of their journey, as I did, but emotions were not the primary or deciding factor. When every factor is considered, it was the evidence that led them from God to godlessness.

I think admitting that emotions played a vital part in our deconversion will be extremely helpful to people considering leaving Christianity. We need to think about those who come after us. They need to know it is normal to experience a broad range of emotions such as anger, fear, hatred, and bitterness as they consider whether to abandon Christianity. What we should not spend our time on is worrying about what closed-minded, meanspirited Evangelical zealots think.

Be careful, dear Christian, before charging me or other members of the godless fraternity with leaving Christianity for emotional reasons. That street runs both ways. Did you become a Christian solely for intellectual reasons? Was it the evidence alone that caused you to embrace Christianity? I already know the answer to these questions. Over the years, I have watched hundreds and hundreds — 600 in one church — of people profess faith in Jesus Christ. In every instance, emotions played a part in the conversion process. In fact, decisions to profess faith in Jesus Christ without emotion are considered suspect. Becoming a Christian is the single biggest decision a person will ever make in his or her life, just like the decision a Christian makes to deconvert. How can such a dramatic decision NOT elicit a deep emotional response from us?

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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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26 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Karen

    I was at least moderately depressed all my life, and finally getting treatment for that illness was my start on the road away from religion. The story: I was raised Catholic in the liberal West Coast church of the 1960s and 1970s. I attended Catholic schools through 12th grade, and was taught my religion by a bunch of wonderful nuns who were determined to raise up a student body of social justice warriors. They tended to slide over the parts of the theology that were disconcerting; the important things in life were to take joy in the gifts of God, be properly grateful for them, and put them to the uses he intended. In college I made friends with Evangelical Christians, and discovered there was a whole other Christian religion out there. They seemed to have a more evidence-based faith, one based on the bible and not the pronouncements of the church hierarchy. I explored that for a few years. Meanwhile I met and married a man who was raised in an Evangelical tradition but was not religious.

    I got into serious trouble with the Evangelical message. I couldn’t get my mind around the notion that one could take the entire bible literally. And the constant emphasis on sin, and my worthlessness, fed my depression fiercely. We were attending church regularly, but my husband finally insisted we quit, because the sermon would leave me in tears of despair; not even God could love someone as worthless as me. So I stopped going to church, but the damage was done, and it ate and ate at me for several years. Finally, in my mid-thirties, I reached a point of not being able to function beyond doing simple household tasks (I had been a very successful engineer). The doctor put me on Prozac. The effect was amazing. I discovered I was not worthless. I discovered that my every action was not somehow based in sin. I was thinking somewhat clearly about myself for the first time!

    The process of healing was very long, and to some extent continues to this day. But very early on, I started questioning everything I knew about what was really right and wrong, true and false, including religious beliefs. That led me on a long and winding path, but eventually I was able to chuck it all as lacking in evidence. And also, along the way, I had to re-learn that the purpose of life is to take joy in what I’m given, be grateful for it, and put it to good use in a way consistent with secular humanism and social justice.

    So while my life doesn’t involve any deities, in the end the nuns got the last word.

  2. Avatar
    Angiep

    “Leaving the religion that gave you peace, comfort, hope, security, meaning and purpose is a decision laden with emotional baggage.” Not to mention the social support from the church family – that was a big deal for me, especially as a young wife and mother. After I left the church, I realized my church family didn’t care enough to even contact me. Ultimately I came to understand that they were no different than non-christians…in ways both good and bad.

  3. Avatar
    Marlowe

    “When I stopped pastoring churches it was a relief. Sleeping in on Sunday morning, what a joy unspeakable and full of glory! The stress level in our home and marriage when down dramatically. What a difference godlessness made.”

    I had the same experience when I left being a pastor. I was so stressed dealing with power hungry petty people while trying to be perfect! Since it has ended, life is so much better.

    • Avatar
      Troy

      I find myself baffled by “Sunday Assembly”, basically it’s a religion-less church service for people who miss that kind of thing. Oh well to each their own.

        • Avatar
          Troy

          Maybe I didn’t present is correctly, I’m not sure if quasi-church would describe it. I haven’t personally been to an “assembly” either. They sing popular songs and socialize. If one pops up nearby I’ll probably check it out.

          • Avatar
            Bruce Gerencser

            I am probably jaded a bit. 50 years of going to church makes me leery of anything that remotely looks like a church service. I wish a Sunday Assembly was near here. Like you, I’d probably check it out.

  4. Avatar
    JR

    There is so much truth and wisdom in this post. No one is a purely logical and reasoned person. Our emotions are such important drivers. We often believe what we want to believe. And later we find evidence to support our view.

    And as you say your critics need to remember that most people who become christians do so due to emotional reasons: tragedy, illness, sense of guilt / failure, need for meaning.

  5. Avatar
    Chikirin

    For me leaving Christianity started as an emotional thing. I was made at God and not liking where I was in life despite being a Christian for so long, so I stopped reading the bible, going to church, and praying; but I still believed God existed, I just didn’t like him any more. The cessation of my Christian activities allowed me to think thoughts I hadn’t allowed myself to think up till then, at which point I began to doubt Christianity’s foundations.

  6. Avatar
    anotherami

    Sometime I fear we devalue emotion too much. While allowing emotion to rule over logic and reason certainly leads to chaos, ignoring emotion leads to legalism, which has its own faults. Taken to the extreme, it would leave us with a cold and sterile society without music, art, poetry or the simple acts of compassion we have all experienced at some time or another. And what of Love? It is the one thing all humans seem to crave, even to the point of giving up life sustaining necessities to gain it. Is there a parent here who wouldn’t trade their life for the life their child, without any hesitation? That is not rational, that is pure emotion, pure Love. Yet few of us would argue that doing so isn’t the right thing to do. And yes, faith is largely emotionally driven; I know and admit without apology that mine is, though I do my best to have rational and logical reasons for my beliefs as well. And it is probably the emotional component that causes the most distress in people leaving fundamentalism, so failing to address that part can lose the very people one is trying to reach. Human emotion is possibly the most powerful force we possess to motivate ourselves and each other. We devalue or ignore it at our peril.

  7. Avatar
    TLC

    Ah, yes. The fundagelical trick of telling you that your emotions can’t be trusted. That the only thing you can trust is the TRUTH of God’s Word. So even though your gut is telling you “This isn’t right” and your brain is telling you “Start researching this!!!!”, they still throw those Bible verses at you that guilt you into backing down. Fortunately, I and many others finalky started doing the research that revealed the crap they were teaching. So glad to be free of these people!

    • Avatar
      Brian

      A soft answer turneth away wrath, was a verse used extensively to crush human feelings in my experience of the Fellowship Baptist virus. It took me many years to embrace my feelings, my murderous rage inside, my deep sorrow. So many feelings were seen as the result of my ‘fallen’ nature. The best Baptists had an even tone and smiled alot while they preyed. Nowadays, I am very thankful to know my own feelings and to simply allow them. A murderous rage truly felt inside and expressed, passes and leaves me open and free. I have not commited a crime by feeling, only been human. The fundagelical tortures of the emotions are harmful to us and I maintain that they are meant to be harmful, that it is built-in to evangelical fundamental teachings.

      • Avatar
        Becky Wiren

        Brian, so true to be allowed to FEEL. I felt like I had to step away from my church to learn to feel and accept myself. Of course, by then I never really wanted to go back, so I didn’t. Good use of the word “preyed!”

  8. Avatar
    Monty

    I must have missed this the first time it was posted but all I can say is…WOW! This is written so well and exhibits exactly everything I felt when I walked away. As a matter of fact it moved me deeply just now as I read it, even now several years after I left the faith.

  9. Avatar
    dale m.

    This is exactly the course I followed out of religion. It was like trying to pull yourself out of a La Brea tarpit …. emotionally speaking. It was also the evidence, as a small child, on my grandparents farm, when I witnessed fish crawl out of water and become land animals (they were frogs). Over time, this creation based evidence helped me to endure the attacks of religion on the “world”. Emotionally and morally, I realized that religion was attacking the very fabric of creation itself. That’s what finally made me turn but, it was a painful journey without anyone to turn to.

    This is why I still retain my belief in a cosmic God, but the concept is very different (a Kardashev Type-4 entity). I am comfortable in the belief that there may not be one, yet. Perhaps for humanity in general, it will become a worthwhile goal. But now, it has to be evidence based. Emotions still rule. How could they not ?!? But this time, we are armored with science and technology.

  10. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Well said.

    I look back and see steps in my deconversion, ideas that shook me – each idea/concept that ran counter to evangelical teaching caused a tidal wave of emotions, most uncomfortable. First was when I was taught complementarianism I knew something was wrong – probably with me, but maybe with how God made me, because I didn’t fit the evangelical description of a woman. I knew I couldn’t follow complementarianism.
    Second was learning in a college religious studies course how the books of the Bible were canonized, and that we Protestants who were supposedly keepers of the inerrant infallible word of God had chucked away canonized scriptures by ditching the Apocrypha – that just seemed wrong to me.
    Those were just 2 examples of early events that caused me to question, examine, and move away from evangelicalism. Both were emotionally charged with an intellectual component – not unlike how we humans are a sometimes messy blend of emotion and intellect.

  11. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Ah, to be accused of being emotional in my decision-making = rejoicing in the confirmation from others that I am expressing emotions! Shame and blame Christianity hates human feelings and accuses us of stealing from God by paying attention to ourselves, our gut-feelings. It tells us we are sinners and need the magic nails of Christ’s cross to free us.
    Is there a tool more dangerous and harmful throughout history than the Bible and Koran? AK-47’s do not even come close… Talk about weapons of mass destruction!
    ‘Oh,’ but the Christian replies, ‘ we mean being overly emotional like Bruce Gerencser!’
    Right. Like any average Baptist hymn lacks excess emotion and is only sensibly logical! How many of us who were raised in the faith remember singing Amazing Grace with tears streaming down our faces! Fundamentalism is ALL about excess, including emotional manipulation you can go to school to learn…
    I believe my journey out of belief was very emotional. I was so tired and sick of much of religion. I wanted to heal.

  12. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Rereading this post, I’m reminded of how well-written it is, Bruce.

    We humans are emoting beings. Emotions are extremely useful things, and not only do we put down feeling them, but for some of us, some emotions are very hard to feel. We have so many scripts about how it isn’t right to feel anger, or fear, or other negative emotions, that we deny them to ourselves, and the Evangelical message is one (but certainly not the only one) that encourages us to put ourselves down for feeling these things.

    And yet, if we let ourselves feel, if we acknowledge those feelings to ourselves and take the time to think about them, they’re extremely helpful. Why am I angry in this situation? Why am I feeling afraid in that situation? What does this tell me about my life, my situation, how can I change things for the better?

    I suspect that many of us who deconverted were able to do so because we started relying on our feelings as starter guides for where to look for answers. Feelings starting us on the thinking path. The religious traditions we escaped from are generally very down on feeling unapproved feelings in the first place, and it might be because they can lead to serious doubts, which people can explore… Best to nip the escape process in the bud by prohibiting the feeling, before the person has time to do the thinking.

  13. Avatar
    missimontana

    Rage, bitterness, sorrow, confusion -yes, I’ve been through all that. Although I have always loved science, it took a severe mental breakdown and 2 suicide attempts to finally make me leave Christianity. And it’s not the Evangelicals that bugged me. It was the atheists who were never raised in a church saying ” How could anyone be so stupid to believe in that stuff?” They have no idea of the cost of leaving religion. My mom was terminally ill for years, and every time I was getting away from Christianity, she guilt tripped me into staying for her own reasons. It’s not just a simple matter of logic and evidence. It means leaving a culture, a coping mechanism, and all too often, family.

  14. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    I admit that my journey away from Christianity and religion in general began with some experiences I had–or, more precisely, the way those experiences affected me. In that sense, I suppose, I am not so different from Bruce or others who’ve left Christianity–or others who come to reject any other kind of received wisdom or a lifestyle approved by their communities. Then we read, or learn through other means, the intellectual arguments against whatever we’d previously believed, or the intellectual underpinnings of whatever we might embrace instead.

    Missimontana is right about another aspect of “deconversion,” or whatever you choose to call it. You need a way of leaving the culture and community surrounding your religious, or other, beliefs. That is why, for example, there are comparatively few atheists among racial or ethnic minorities, or others who have suffered from colonialism or other forms of bigotry and oppression: Their churches may be their communities and their ways of coping with the discrimination that often, ironically, a result of the very religion they cling to.

    • Avatar
      Kel

      “Their churches may be their communities and their ways of coping with the discrimination that often, ironically, a result of the very religion they cling to.”

      I could totally relate to this, MJ. You explained it so beautifully. For a lot of people, leaving their religious folds means a near total loss of social, emotional, and financial support.

      There was a time, when I was still in primary school, that I really wanted to convert my parents’ Moslem employees to Christianity. But it then slowly dawned on me, in the unlikely event that they decide to embrace Christianity, they would lose all the social support they had. And they were poor, they would have nobody to turn to. Definitely not my parents or my church either, since these employees came from a different racial and class background (Christians being racist and classist, how unthinkable).
      Too many Christians have this concept of “evangelise and go”, potentially leaving new converts to their own devices as long as the conversion quota is met.

  15. Avatar
    Kel

    I used to feel very guilty whenever I had strong repulsions and emotional reactions against certain Christian teachings and God’s supposed conduct in the Bible. I believed that I had a rebellious heart which needed to be tamed and brought under God’s control.

    But I began to realise that, for many Christians, emotions are also the starting point. Even though in this case, they equate strong emotional feelings with “faith”, “conversion experience”, and “convictions of the Holy Spirit”. A few people I knew warmed up to church teachings because they felt accepted in the church community I was part of.
    It was rarely, if ever, a rational decision. After all, very few believers around me ended up in Christianity having investigated the claims of other religions.

    Emotions did play a part in my questioning. However, I did hold on to certain teachings for the longest time to the detriment of my mental and emotional health. Because I wanted to please God. And yet it was always my fault for “feeling the wrong things”.
    I suspect that many ordinary Christians also rely on their emotions and stay in church largely for the social support. They just happen to be lucky since their emotions are allowed within the status quo and they never have to sacrifice too much for holding on to their beliefs.

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Bruce Gerencser