A reader named Martin read the post The Lies Evangelicals Tell About Being Former Atheists or Evangelizing the Godless and asked:
“I can’t imagine someone rejecting all he knows to be true for a belief system that he has already deemed incoherent, irrational, and false.”
Isn’t this just the atheist version of “once saved always saved”? Once an atheist, always an atheist. “You didn’t have true disbelief, you were merely a none!”
Here’s what I said in context:
So when I hear Evangelical talking heads speak of being atheists before they became Christians, I want them to explain how they are using the word “atheist.” More often than not, they are using the word incorrectly. The word “atheist” is not a placeholder for unbelief. When an Evangelical tells me he was an atheist before becoming a Christian, I want to know exactly how he became an atheist. If he says, oh, I always was an atheist, I then know that he was a NONE and not an atheist. The same goes for people who say they were Evangelicals, became atheists, and then later returned to Evangelicalism. While it is certainly within the realm of possibility for someone to follow such a path, I have a hard time believing someone who says he was a studious atheist, realized the error of his way, and became an Evangelical. Knowing first-hand what goes into someone leaving Evangelicalism and embracing atheism, I can’t imagine someone rejecting all he knows to be true for a belief system that he has already deemed incoherent, irrational, and false. It leaves me wondering, what is the real reason for returning to the Evangelical cult?
I never speak in absolute terms. I recognize when it comes to human beings, almost anything is possible. Thus, I would never say “once an atheist, always an atheist.” I would say, however, that when I hear that people who were Evangelical-turned-atheists returned to atheism, I question their motives for doing so. Why did they become atheists to start with? Why did they really embrace Evangelicalism again?
People who deconvert from Evangelicalism primarily do so for intellectual reasons. They reach a place where they conclude that the central claims of Christianity are not true. Certainly, psychological and emotional factors play a part, but most Evangelicals-turned-atheists I have talked to told me that the main reason they are no longer Christians is that they don’t believe the Bible and the teachings of the church are true. Thus, when people return to Christianity after claiming to be atheists, I have to wonder if they did the intellectual work required to become an atheist. It’s hard (not impossible) for me to imagine people knowing that Christianity is built on untruths and myths ever returning to the faith they left. Sure, it happens, but it is rare.
Why then do people return to the garlic and leeks of Egypt (Christianity) once they have found the Promised Land (atheism)? Over the past fifteen years I have been writing about Evangelical Christianity a handful of notable Evangelicals-turned-atheists have returned to Evangelicalism. A few of them embraced liberal forms of Christianity, sects where they could believe in evolution and universalism and still be considered Christians. Most of them returned to the faith because they missed the “church,” with its community and fellowship. We atheists don’t do fellowship and community very well. It can be lonely being a heathen in a local community of Christians. Some people can’t handle this loneliness (and this is not a criticism) so they return to that which was familiar and comfortable for them — the church. They find some way to be at peace with the cognitive dissonance they have, choosing personal peace and happiness over reason.
I don’t know of one committed Evangelical who deconverted for intellectual reasons and later returned to Christianity for intellectual reasons. I am sure they exist, I just don’t know of any. How can someone rationally conclude that the Bible is errant and fallible; that Jesus was not divine; that Jesus was not virgin born; that Jesus was not a miracle worker; that Jesus did not resurrect from the dead and then return to a sect who believes these things are true and requires you to believe them if you want to be a member of the church? That seems to be a bridge too far.
Sadly, Evangelical churches and preachers love to publicize and promote these reclaimed sheep. Imagine if I publicly announced that I was no longer an atheist; that I was returning to Christianity and the ministry. Why, I would be an overnight celebrity! I would quickly have scores of speaking gigs and a fat bank account balance. “Evangelical Preacher-Turned-Atheist Bruce Gerencser Returns to the Faith! Come Hear His Exciting Testimony of Deliverance from the Jaws of Satanic Atheism.” I am sure I would write a few books. Churches would have me come to teach people how to win atheists to Christ. No one would ever bother to ask me WHY? All they see is a reclaimed soul for Jesus. They aren’t interested in hearing the real reasons I returned to the fold.
I surmise many Evangelicals-turned-atheists expected more from atheism than it could provide (nor was ever meant to provide). A man and woman were married for twenty-five years. Over time, they grew distant from each other. Realizing they both had different needs and wants, the couple divorced and when their separate ways. One night the man called the woman to see how she was doing. He suggested they eat dinner together and catch up. One thing led to another, and the couple ended up in bed. Why? Familiarity. I suspect that is one of the primary reasons Evangelicals-turned-atheists return to Christianity. They want, need, and crave the familiarity they had with their “lover,” the church. I don’t fault them for doing so. Just don’t tell me they did so for intellectual reasons. Either Christianity is true or it’s not. If you through skeptical inquiry and careful, thorough study, conclude that the central claims of Christianity are false, what evidence could later convince you that you were wrong? I can’t think of any. Thus, if you return to the faith, you are likely doing so for reasons other than intellectual.
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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