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How Do You Get the Elephant Out of the Room?

elephant in the room

Those of us who have Christian families often refer to our “unbelief” as the elephant in the room. My wife, Polly, and I last attended church in November 2008. For a time, Polly’s mom would ask Poll to attend church with her when they were here visiting, but after being rebuffed several times, she stopped asking. As long-time readers know, when I decided that I was no longer a Christian, I sent a letter to several hundred of my friends, family, and former parishioners. This letter caused quite a stir, resulting in a personal visit from a pastor friend and emails and letters from colleagues in the ministry and people who once called me pastor. Several churches held prayer meetings specifically to pray for me, hoping their concerted prayer would cause God to bring me back into the fold.  Several pastors took to the pulpit and preached sermons about Bruce Gerencser, the pastor turned atheist (sermon by Ralph Wingate Jr. and sermons by Jose Maldonado).  What’s interesting in all of this is that our family didn’t say a word to either Polly or me. One man, an IFB evangelist, did attempt to talk to me, but he was told to stop doing so by one of the older preachers in the family. While we’ve certainly heard gossip about this or that behind-the-back discussion about us, and we were told that the family patriarch planned to straighten me out, (please see (The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis) not one family member has sat down and had an honest and open discussion with either of us. Our deconversion and my outspokenness concerning Evangelicalism and atheism is a huge rainbow-colored elephant that everyone can see, but no one acknowledges. While I know that some family members regularly read this blog, no one has engaged in any sort of discussion with us about why we left the ministry, deconverted, and are now happy HBO-watching, wine-drinking unbelievers.

Some seasoned atheists recommend that the recently deconverted shine a bright light on the elephant and force people to see it. That’s what I did with my letter to family, friends, and former parishioners. While this approach worked for our friends and former parishioners, family just went over to the wall switch and turned off the light. To some degree, I understand their reaction. I was their preacher brother, uncle, son-in-law, and father for as long as they could remember. From 1972 to 2008, I was the family preacher, and when Polly and I married in 1978, I married into a family of pastors, missionaries, and evangelists.  Every aspect of our lives was dominated by Christianity, the Bible, and the work of the ministry. And then, BOOM, all that was gone, and Rev. Bruce Gerencser and his wife Polly are now numbered among the godless. I suspect that the cognitive dissonance this causes for some family members is too much for them to handle, so they pretend that there is no elephant in the room. This is why some family members still think we are saved. We are just backslidden, out of the will of God, and they are certain we will one day return to the faith.

Some atheists take a different approach when discussing their deconversion with family and friends. Several years ago, I watched  Chicago PD, a procedural program about an élite force of detectives in the Chicago police department. One of the detectives, Erin Lindsay, played by actress Sophia Bush, is struggling with family and addiction problems. She seeks out the help of a counselor named Dr. Charles, played by actor Oliver Platt.  Dr. Charles asks Detective Lindsay, how do you get the elephant out of the room? Lindsay had no answer to the question. Dr. Charles replied, one piece at a time.  Instead of taking the approach I detailed in the previous paragraph, some atheists take Dr. Charles’s advice and begin dismantling the elephant one piece at a time. While this approach certainly results in less stress, it can take quite some time. Atheists have to be willing to leave some issues on the table to be discussed another day. Not everyone can do this, preferring to get every issue out in the open so it can be discussed. Once this is done, there’s no need for any further discussion.

I’ve had countless new atheists and agnostics write me about how best to handle their Christian spouses, children, parents, extended family, or friends. I never tell them that they should do this or that. Every person must carefully examine his or her life and the connections each has with others before deciding how to proceed. While every atheist certainly wants the elephant out of the room, there are different ways to accomplish it. I wrote about this in the post titled, Count the Cost Before You Say I am an Atheist. Acting rashly or in a fit of anger can have catastrophic consequences. Once a person decides to talk with Christian family and friends about their deconversion, there’s no going back. Once a person utters out loud, I am an atheist, what happens next is out of their control. I know of married people whose spouses divorced them over their deconversion. Some people have had their families excommunicate them, refusing to allow them in their homes until they come to their senses. Others receive emails, phone calls, and social media comments from family and friends about their deconversion. Often these statements are barbed with outrage, anger, and hurt. More than a few atheists have been forced to unfriend Christian family members and friends on Facebook. Sadly, more than a few times, something I’ve written has been posted to an atheist’s Facebook wall, and it has resulted in the newly minted atheist being attacked by offended Christians. 

I’d love to hear from readers about how they handled the elephant in the room. Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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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21 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I dealt with the problem by not dealing with it. My dad and I never discussed religion; he was always interested in more concrete things. My mother had a hard time accepting that I gave up on her Catholicism, and the few times we discussed her religious fears, I tried to point out that her theology set up her God as a loving God, and she shouldn’t worry so much. Never tell a chronic worrier not to worry; all I did was offend her.

    My in-laws have figured out that Husband and I don’t believe. That really offended Mom-in-law at one time, but she’s gotten to where she can deal with it; having a local nephew and niece who are unbelievers helps. too. If the kids and grandkids are going to hell in a handbasket, it isn’t obvious by how we behave or how our lives are going, so Mom-in-law has relaxed. Dad-in-law isn’t into talking about religion.

    I have no sibs, but Husband does, and they also won’t discuss the elephant in the room — but it probably isn’t high on their list of issues, either. Brother-in-law and his wife are believers, but not churchgoers. Sister-in-law and her husband converted to Mormonism, so they are family outliers anyhow; they don’t tell anyone else how to believe, and the rest of the family returns the favor.

    So the general attitude is, why fuss at people you love about religion when there’s Mom’s ribs and sis-in-law’s potato salad on the table, the 49ers are playing, and everyone feels entitled to an opinion about everyone else’s projects?

  2. Avatar
    Geoff

    I live in the UK.

    It’s difficult for me to understand this conversation. Here the Christian believer (of whom there are many, to be fair) tends to be the one on the defensive.

  3. Avatar
    Lydia

    I haven’t managed to have this conversation yet with my grandparents. They’re old, very religious, and very set in their ways. I don’t think they’d ever understand, so I’m trying to avoid that conversation with them. I don’t know if anyone else has told them yet, and it’s not something I want to poke at the moment.

    Everyone in the family under the age of 70, though, knows. Many are accepting. Some are in denial, and some others are still trying to re-convert me to Christianity.

    You’re right that this can be a mixed bag and a touchy subject, Bruce. I’d never insist that another Atheist tell their entire family about their (non)belief.

  4. Avatar
    joseph j rizzuti

    Hi Bruce , I left the IBF & BBF 20 years ago I was 20 when I got Born Again I was ordained at 23 but my experience with the BBF was not like yours you were never Born Again in the first place . I put my 5 children and 2 adopted children through Christian Academy and was the Chapel director as you know we start there in morning with prayer . You seem to have left one religion Baptist for the Atheist religion and are trying to get converts to follow Bruce ? I think you are in need of a REAL experience with the one with the nail prints ? Or as the Word says “the FOOL hath said in his heart there is no God ” I think it was great to leave the religion of Baptist but to say your now a non believer in the gospel of grace and God and seek converts to your new religion . Not good ….. Leave the church Ok but not God !

    • Avatar
      August Rode

      A couple of quick questions, Joseph… (1) In what sense is atheism a religion? (2) In what sense is Bruce “trying to get converts”? (3) How does one distinguish a “REAL” experience of Christ from a FALSE experience of Christ? Looking forward to your answers.

    • Avatar
      Brian

      Hey Joseph, You PUT your kids through bullshit Academy and you are proud of yourself? You come over to this place as a guest and you DEMAND JUDGEMENT on somebody by saying you are GOD and he was never saved, not really saved. I hope you are right because then the owner of this blog would be a complete jerk, like you. YOU are NOT SAVED, Joseph! You harmed your kids by sentencing them to Hell Academy. How much did you have to beat them to get them to obey or did you psychologically terrify them sufficiently that they never even talked back? What do you think of the saved Christian Michael Pearl, you judgmental asshole? The fool hath said with his heart that he knows who is in the club and who is outside. Joseph, please fuck off.
      love, a Baptist preacher’s son…

      • Avatar
        Brian

        Awww Cheeeese! He got me! I am sorry for responding to Joseph with the same heart he displays. I regret being fished in…. I should have been more polite and just said a gentle fuck off. Sorry.

        • Avatar
          Geoff

          Not at all, Brian, I think you got it just right.

          I hope his kids don’t go to communist school (Bob Jones University) because then they really will be beyond help.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      The Bible says a lot about pride and self-adulation too, Joseph, and you exhibit both in your comment.

      I may be a fool, but I have a lot of happy, kind, and loving fool friends. Life post-Jesus is better in every way. Why then, wouldn’t I want others to experience the freedom that comes from getting away from mind-numbing, judgmental, sexually repressive, anti-intellectual Evangelicalism? That said, I don’t try to convert anyone. All I am is one man with a story to tell.

  5. Avatar
    Ami

    Bruce, I converted to your atheism religion for the free toaster oven and twenty five dollars. What I want to know is, where are they?

    I keep checking my mailbox for them and I’m consistently disappointed.

    Dude, your Atheist Religion is letting me down.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Dear Ami,

      Due to the overwhelming response to our get out of Christianity offer, we are currently experiencing a backlog in gift fulfillment. Please be patient. Unlike Christianity, which forces a person to wait until a promised life after death to get the promised payoff, the First Church of Atheism, Bruce Almighty branch, promises to deliver your gifts in this life.

      You can expect your gifts to arrive by Christmas. Thank you for supporting the one true religion.

      To infinity and beyond,

      Bruce Almighty,

  6. Avatar
    Van

    Ah, but I am the only one who even knows there is an elephant. Still not out to anyone anywhere except here in the comments section of Bruce’s blog. For now it will stay that way for the sake of my wife and kids. If I came out publicly I think it would be more shameful to them than if I came out as an adulterer (which I am not). (By publicly I mean to our Southern Baptist church where we are active members). I know exactly the lady my wife would go to for consolation. This lady thinks I am the model father and husband, and that we are the model family. I do strive toward that and to some extent we are, except for the elephant that about three years ago I had the epiphany that there is insufficient evidence for me to continue to believe in a supernatural creator or the tenets of Christianity.

    I almost came out to my older brother this past summer. But I stopped short after saying my theology ‘had evolved alot’ over the last three years. He didn’t follow up, but I’m sure he has been in the same place for decades. I think our sister is there too. Our parents are both gone, and extended family are far enough away geographically that the facade is easy to maintain.

    • Avatar
      Tony

      We have very similar situations, although my wife and a few close friends (all still devout) are aware of my de-conversion. When my doubts began, I never had any intentions of letting my wife know because our entire lives were built on fundamentalist baptist beliefs, but one question/discussion at a time, the slippery slope became reality and over a period of months and years, she now knows how far gone I am. As for the rest of my deeply religious family, I have wrestled with this for more than three years now, and just cannot bring myself to justify the endless turmoil and fallout my coming out would cause. So I still plunk myself in the southern baptist church weekly and pay the bills for my children to attend christian school. It is a miserable existence and I feel trapped in every way. Other than that, things are just fantastic, lol.

  7. Avatar
    Brian

    One of the surest proofs to me that I was walking out of delusion was the simple joy of being able to be fully honest in the mirror first, and then again in the mirror and then slowly sharing out from my own reflection, saying I do not believe. Sounds so simple but Van points out how very complicated things are in Christian belief. There is a need and a push to keep up the lie, no matter how you actually feel inside. This was true for me through much of early life and of course later on too. What the true Christians like Joseph Rizzuti would insist is that I was never a Christian or I would not have had to live the lie, so to speak but Joseph denies his own lies, his judgement of others and his Jesus vision that tells him who is on the inside of the door and who is out. Even if he does sometimes admit wrong, he can just use his forgiveness get of jail free card and carry on PUTTING people though misery at Christian school and being ordained in it all.
    Van, I am very sorry you are having to face this but happy that you are feeling okay to share it here. It does me good to hear your truth.
    BTW, I think you are probably a pretty model dad and husband. At least you seem to be honest with yourself, a huge step anywhere near organized religion.

  8. Avatar
    Melody

    Like Van, I haven’t told anyone yet and am not sure if I will. I think it will really hurt my parents and I’m not inclined to do so. My brother became much more relaxed about his faith before I did and I do talk to him sometimes about inconsistancies in the Bible and such. He is pretty much a progressive now and has some doubts himself. So we can talk about that. A little while ago, he said that he simply preferred being made in the image of God to being descendant of some ape-like ancestor which spoke volumes to me. Over the years, he has had some friends who studied biology or something similar : Christians who believed in evolution. Some of them were ostracized by family or church members for precisely that and were told they weren’t real christians which really hurt them.

    I don’t know where he stands exactly, just like he probably doesn’t know where I stand exactly. This makes it a bit difficult sometimes. He switches somewhat between being more open and progressive, back to being a little more strict. So I guess we are relatively open about it but also beat around the bush sometimes: being rather (purposefully) vague in describing our own opinions. Most of our conversations about this subject is about our parents’ faith though, which was rather rigid and still is, although they are much easier to talk to now, than they were when we were children. Our father’s total disregard for any opinion but his own (when it comes to the Bible) and inability to see anything as methaphorical or accept an alternate explanation sort of gets to us both sometimes…

  9. Avatar
    Cob

    I’ve told a handful of my friends and family that I knew would not badger me too much, and they’ve been pretty accepting. I was fairly apologetic about it which really helped. Deconverting was a long process for me because I loved my church so much, It took me a couple years to admit to myself I didn’t believe, and a couple more before I left the church. I had intended to grow old with those people so it was hard.
    Lately I’ve been reflecting a lot on Christianity. With drumpf getting 81 percent of the white evangelical vote I’ve been disillusioned, disgusted, and ashamed by the group of people I came from. As I think about it, it makes so much sense that people who believe in hell, a place where one person will suffer more than every single human being in history combined, multiplied by every grain of sand, multiplied by every star in the universe, would vote like that. The lack of reflection required to call that “justice” makes voting for drumpf look like quantum physics by comparison.
    Anyhow, as I ponder on Christianity, I try to balance the sheer nastiness of it with the goodness I see in some Christians as a way of keeping perspective. I went back to church, it was nice to see my old friends and interesting listening to my pastor try to pound a square peg in a round hole for forty minutes. (Bless his heart)
    I really want to talk about the elephant in the room with them, I want so much for them to at least see how insane it all is, but it’s probably better to just let it slide. At least I’m comfortable enough in my atheism to tell people at church I don’t believe anymore.
    I am talking to my mom about it lately, which is hard for her, but I think she is thinking about it. Most of my relatives don’t know, I don’t want to loose their respect so why bother telling them.
    It’s nice to be able to process this here. Thank you so much, Bruce, for doing this blog. You help so many people

  10. Avatar
    BJW

    Actually, my family were lapsed Christians and did not attend church. My dad’s family was Church of Christ (non-instrumental) so he was quite familiar with narrow-minded, judgmental religionists. So they were RELIEVED when I left my church. (Admittedly, not an atheist although any religion I have is personal to me, and me alone.)

    I’m into live and let live, and it gets to me that so many of the people in rural Ohio are pretty narrow-minded. I do believe that if I went out and told my neighbors I wasn’t a church goer, some of them would start praying for me and try to get me to come to their church. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were ostracized, but then again, we don’t mingle with them so we wouldn’t know.

  11. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Since my becoming an atheist was a gradual process, I didn’t “come out” to many people. Most of the time, it simply wasn’t relevant, as most people I’ve known believe that religion, like politics, is one of those things you don’t discuss if you want to have a civil conversation. The people I told were immediate family—who, interestingly, seemed to expect it from me–and a few people who might invite me to some church or other religious function. And by the time I’d become an atheist, most of the hyper-religious–like the ones I knew during my days as an Evangelical Christian and in a Pentecostal church–were no longer in my life anyway. I guess I lucked out.

  12. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Well, I moved 1000 miles away from my evangelical family and could pretty well get away with doing whatever I want. I never told my late mom that we stopped going to church. She did bring up “getting saved” in an email a few months before she died, fishing about whether her grandkids were saved (no f-ing way – both are atheists and basically have a really negative view of fundamentalism). My brother became super fundy/charismatic after my mom died, and after some back and forth where I realized he is WAY over the edge, and he realized that I am an apostate (idk if he would characterize me as atheist) so we don’t address the topic on the grounds of maintaining a familial relationship.

    My aunt and uncle are liberal progressive Christians, very kind to us, and my kids are the only “grandkids” they will ever have. None of us are fundamentalist, we all hate fundamentalism, but I don’t have the heart to drop the atheist bomb. I don’t see the point in their case.

    My husband was raised nominally Catholic, meaning church on Christmas and Easter, weddings, funerals. But my husband is an atheist. His oldest brother got confirmed Catholic as an adult in order to marry his 1st wife in church. He is fairly devout now. His younger brother still believes somewhat and sometimes takes his kids to Catholic church to temper his ex-wife’s diving into taking the kids to synagogue and Hebrew school. Anyway, my husband told his parents he is atheist. His dad pretended not to know like he “forgot”, then he made nasty comments, and he tried to proselytize our young adult kids which, in their kindness to an old man, they just let him say his piece and moved on. He doesn’t realize that his adult grandchildren don’t think highly of his Trumpy politics, so they really aren’t going to listen to much he says. My mother-in-law started crying and freaking out, then she “forgot”, then told us not to talk about it (but we can’t say anything about her “God box” or prayers lol).

    I have told a couple of friends with mixed responses. Most get defensive as hell. Seriously, my atheism is a statement about me, not a statement about them.

    I understand the argument some make about embracing atheism in order to normalize it, but I don’t feel like being an ambassador of atheism at this moment in my life. Maybe one day.

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Bruce Gerencser