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What Shall We Say About Evangelicals-Turned-Atheists Who Return to Christianity?

i have a question

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.

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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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6 Comments

  1. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I just can’t wrap my head around going back to evangelicalism, or even back to liberal progressive Christianity, now that I have delved into studying the origins of Christianity and looking at the supernatural claims. It would be the same as if I went back to believing in Santa Claus (though most adults would be appalled if I went back to believing in Santa while many adults would rejoice if I went back to believing in Jesus).

  2. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    This post made me think of a comment by Giulia, the fiancée of Marcelo in “The Conformist:” “Ninety percent of the people who go to church today don’t believe. The priests don’t, either.”

    I think that for every Evangelical-turned atheist*-returned to being Evangelical because they miss the sense of community and certainly their churches and doctrines provide, there are many more who don’t believe, or whose beliefs are vague, yet remain in their churches because it’s the only certainty in their lives. I’d say my mother was one such person. Once, she was talking about the “nonsense” the priest spouted about homosexuality, if I recall correctly. when I exclaimed, “You believe even less than I do.” She laughed. “You’re probably right.’ Yet she attended Mass every week and on holy days, didn’t eat meat on Fridays or during Lent and got herself dabbed with ashes. She simply couldn’t imagine not doing those things.

    • Avatar
      Troy

      @MJ There is a human need for ritual and rites. I recall my high school graduation. I didn’t see much point in doing it. My friend (who had moved to a different school) also didn’t see much point in doing it. I did mine, my friend didn’t. After going through the rite or passage, I did feel something. It’s more than just “pomp and circumstance”. Did my friend miss out on something? I think he did, yet I can’t pinpoint exactly what.

  3. Avatar
    BJW

    Now see, I’m not an atheist. Although I have gone from “I know there is God” to “I hope there is a personal god, maybe but probably not.” Since I can’t prove a deity, I see no purpose in wishing others believe. But I still get some comfort from prayer. And that is really the only reason I still “believe”: it’s a comfort to me.

    Still, having a community of people to be with is also a comfort. And atheism, agnosticism, and no belief do not lead to real community. Maybe if there were a secular humanist church? But I figure it would be similar to UUs. And if I ever felt up to it, I’d consider going to one. But having to drive an hour early in the morning, with my health stuff means I may never know.

  4. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    It doesn’t seem to do any harm to return to Christianity, as long as it’s voluntary and not forced. Like Matt Dillahunty recently left the organization he headed. Like just a few days ago. It doesn’t say he ” re- converted.”. I wish that
    he would debate that doctor who claims Dillahunty refused to do that. Just get that one thing over with.

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Bruce Gerencser