Last month — I am thirty days behind on answering my email — I received a thoughtful email from an atheist teenager who attends a Christian school. At the time he started attending this school, he was a believer. Eventually, he began to doubt, and now he is an atheist. The school used him as a shining advertisement for what a good Christian should be. This young man is having a hard time forgiving himself for being deceived by such a dangerous, harmful theology; for being anti-LGBTQ. He asked me if I had any advice for him that would help him forgive himself.
I have struggled with this question myself over the years. I was an Evangelical pastor for twenty-five years. I directly affected thousands of people with my teaching, preaching, and expectations. I taught people all sorts of harmful beliefs. Worse yet, I modeled behaviors and practices that negatively affected both church members and my family. I was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher for many years, especially during the early years of my marriage to Polly and the formative years of our six children.
Polly and I had a patriarchal, complementarian marriage. These beliefs materially harmed Polly, for which she carries psychological scars to this day. The same can be said for our children. Our beliefs about family and discipline harmed our children. I was the primary disciplinarian in our family, using the rod of correction to beat our three sons into submission. Fortunately, I came to see that such discipline was child abuse, so our youngest son and two daughters were spared the ass-whippings.
We, of course, modeled to church members what we believed and practiced in our home. It’s not that I was deliberately abusive as much as it was that I believed the Bible taught a certain way of family structure and discipline; the same structure and discipline that was modeled to me by my parents, pastors, and the churches I attended. Attending an IFB college only reinforced these beliefs, convincing me they were right. Until I became persuaded that I was wrong, I continued to practice the “Biblical” way of family life, marriage, and discipline. How could I have ever done otherwise? Everything around me screamed that I was right. My literalist interpretation of the Bible said I was right. It would take me thirty years to reach a place where I could admit that I was wrong.
This young man talks about forgiving himself. While I was a true-blue believer a lot longer than he was, I do understand the struggle over trying to figure out how I could ever have believed what I did. It seems clear to me now that I had bat-shit crazy beliefs; that those beliefs materially harmed not only myself but also other people. I was fifty years old before I walked away from Christianity. Why didn’t I come to the light sooner? Indoctrination and social conditioning play a big part in training generation after generation about the faith once delivered to the saints — the Evangelical, IFB version of it, anyway. How could I have believed otherwise? The church was my life. I was largely insulated from the world, outside of playing sports and my work for various secular companies and government entities. There was nothing in my world that said to me that I was wrong. In fact, every preacher I heard preach and every book I read reminded me that I was right; that my beliefs and practices were in line with the Bible.
The best advice I can give to the letter writer is this: carefully, honestly, and openly examine your life and the experiences that led to your decision to believe in Jesus Christ and attend a Christian school. Look at these things from a sociological perspective. Self-examination and self-reflection are essential in understanding your motivations and desires. Once you have done this, forgive yourself, and determine that you will think differently going forward; that your life will be governed by reason, skepticism, and common sense. As I look at my life as a Christian, I see that I was not skeptical; I valued faith over reason, and this led to me having irrational beliefs and practices.
I have found it to be much harder to forgive myself for what I did to my wife, children, and church members. My beliefs caused them harm, both psychologically and physically. With these people, restitution is required before forgiveness can be given. So, over the past fifteen years, I have tried to make things right with Polly and our grown children and people who once called me preacher. When given an opportunity, I have apologized for the harm I caused them. The good news is that to a person they have forgiven me. They have shown me grace and forgiveness, understanding that I was a product of my environment; that I ignorantly taught and modeled the beliefs that were taught and modeled to me.
The letter writer is in a somewhat different position from the one I was in. He is a minor and lives at home. I don’t know how religious his parents are, what sect they are a part of, and how open they will be if he honestly shares with them his feelings. This is why he must tread carefully, lest he finds himself in trouble with his parents, or worse yet, thrown out of the home. I have advised some atheist minors in similar circumstances, to fake it until they make it; wait to fully share their lack of belief until they are out of the house and on their own.
The goal for this young man should be making restitution to people he feels he has wronged with his past religious beliefs. However, even here he must be careful. What will the administration of his school say when they learn he is an atheist; that he is apologizing for his past beliefs? I’m inclined to think that this will not go over very well with them, and could lead to discipline or expulsion. Making things right may mean waiting until after graduation to do so.
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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It’s so sad that young people often have to hide who and what they are from their parents. But this young man sounds like a good person who wants to do better.
This is such a good blog post Bruce. I mean, it even helps me and I’m 66.
Bruce, this is a well-thought – through response. We cannot go back and change the things we thought or did, but we can move forward by apologizing to the people we have harmed and asking how we can make restitution. I listened to 2 excellent podcasts in which Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of “On Repentance and Repair” was a guest (Straight White American Jesus podcast and Exvangelical podcast). She writes about the Jewish interpretation of repentance and repair based on the philosophy of Maimonides and brought forward into the 21st century. The concept is much different from what we learned in evangelicalism, and much closer to what should happen when we have harmed another. We must take responsibility, do the work of examining ourselves and making change so we do not repeat the pattern of behavior, admit to the person we wronged that we recognize that what we did was wrong (without telling them the extenuating factors – just owning and admitting it), asking what can we do going forward, and doing that. There is no onus upon the person we have wronged to forgive us and welcome us back – they are in the right to tell us to get lost – as they have to work on repairing the harm that was done to them. Forgiveness is their choice to make, not an expectation as it is in evangelicalism. Restoration may never occur, but the perpetrator is expected to change their ways and not repeat the harm. I found a lot of value in what Rabbi Ruttenberg was saying. Too bad Christianity jettisoned the Jewish concept of reading and interpreting their religious writings in terms of growth instead of looking at them as unchanging and authoritative regardless of context. (And yes, I am still an atheist – but I can skeptically examine philosophies and find the good while rejecting the bad).
Good advice. A kid in an abusive and restrictive environment doesn’t have agency. To quote Don Diego de la Vega (“Zorro”): If you cannot clothe yourself in the skin of a lion, put on that of a fox!
Many of us have seen what our lives have been and face similar regrets. But we must remember that at the time we were still humans, with all the goodness of humanity, but were in circumstances that led to a life that was not as full as it could have been.
When I had received similar emails, it inspired me to write this: https://mindsetfree.blog/when-you-feel-like-a-loser/
I still on occasion struggle with my past views on lgbtqia issues. Unfortunately it did a big mind fuck on me as I was also gay. Your advice is sound and I really didn’t come out until I was on my own and my parents had no control over any of my finances. I also went to a public college which definitely gave me a much broader view of the world. This blog has also helped significantly as even though I have a much different life I can relate to several of the experiences or posts. For the young person who asked for the advice, fake it til you make it and then run for the hills. While I haven’t had to cut off family because of my atheism or sexuality, I can admit they can be a pretty toxic group and will on occasion poke the bear so to speak. As Bruce said get independent first but I would also add a group of supportive friends you vent to as well before telling your family and also consider what type of relationship you want to have with them, once the cat is out of the bag, it does not go back in.
I found myself re-reading this post for all sorts of reasons. One is simply the excellent advice Bruce gave: It will help me in coming to terms with some parts of my past and to advise or simply be present for someone else.
Another reason is one particular piece of advice Bruce gave at the end. It brought me back to the year I spent teaching in an Orthodox yeshiva. Boys “came out” or told me they were questioning their sexuality–or faith, or simply the lifestyle of their families and communities. I empathized with them but, like Trenton, told them to “fake it until you make it and then run for the hills.”
For the young man who wrote to Bruce, I would add this: The work of forgiving yourself and making amends to others is a learning process because way you think is changing.