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Why Am I Different From My College Classmates?

bruce gerencser 2002
Bruce Gerencser, 2002

During the 1970s, I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. It was there that I met my wife, Polly. Started in the 1950s by Dr. Tom Malone, Midwestern was a school known for turning out preachers. Most women attending Midwestern were there to snag themselves a man. My wife was no exception. She believed she was called to be a pastor’s wife. I was studying to be a pastor, so I suppose you could say our divine callings matched and our marriage was made in Heaven — or something like that, anyway. (We celebrated forty-four years of marriage last July.) All we knew for sure was that God called us to build churches and evangelize the lost. Everything we were taught at Midwestern had these two things as their goal. We left Midwestern in 1979 and embarked on a twenty-five-year journey that took us to churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Virtually everything we did was in fulfillment of God’s call upon our lives, yet, today, we are no longer Christians and it has been more than fourteen years since we darkened the doors of a church. What happened to us?

I cannot and will not speak for Polly, but I can say, for myself, that the Christian narrative no longer makes sense to me. I wrote about this in a post titled, The Michael Mock Rule: It Just Doesn’t Make Sense. Most readers know my story, so I won’t retell it here. New readers are encouraged to read the posts found on the WHY? page for more information about my life as a pastor and my subsequent deconversion. My story has been deconstructed by countless Evangelical zealots determined to invalidate my past. Try as they might, the fact remains that I once was a committed, devoted, sold-out follower of Jesus Christ; a man who hungered and thirsted after righteousness for his name’s sake; a man who believed every word of the Bible was true; a man who preached the Christian gospel to countless people. Them there are the facts, regardless of what apologists might say. I know what I know because I was there when it happened. Who better to know and tell my story than me? That said, I do ponder the question, Why am I Different From the My College Classmates? Some of them have moved beyond the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) training they received at Midwestern, yet they still believe. Sadly, for most of my college classmates, their beliefs have changed very little, if at all. Many of them still attend or pastor IFB churches. Oh, they might agree with me about the crazy rules at Midwestern, (please see Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six-Inch Rule) but their core theological beliefs are decidedly Fundamentalist. (Please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) Why do they still hang on to these beliefs and I don’t?

The easy answer would be to call all of them stupid hillbillies, but that would be a cop-out. Many of my former classmates have wonderful families and ministerial careers. According to the theological and social standards of IFB Christianity, they are, in every way, successful. I have no doubt that many or even most of them are true-blue believers, completely and totally committed to IFB doctrine, thinking, and way of life. Yes, some of them now consider themselves garden-variety Evangelicals, but most of my classmates still believe the fundamentals taught to them by their pastors and their professors at Midwestern.

If I had to pick one reason for why my former classmates still believe, it is because they were taught to never, ever doubt the Bible and its teachings. All of them believe in some form of Biblical inerrancy, so the foundation of their lives is THUS SAITH THE LORD. Insulated from contrary or challenging thoughts, they see no reason to question their beliefs. Souls are lost, Hell is hot, and Jesus is coming soon. They have no time for doubting or questioning their beliefs. When Jesus comes again, they want to be found faithfully serving him, not reading Bart Ehrman’s latest book. For me, however, I reached a place in the late 1980s where I seriously questioned the doctrines I had been taught at Midwestern. I ultimately abandoned them and embraced Evangelical Calvinism. Calvinism allowed me to study theology and read books outside of the IFB rut. While the Calvinists I associated with were still quite Fundamentalist theologically and socially, they valued education and intellectual pursuit. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), the more I studied and read, the more questions and doubts I had. This is why people who knew me well told me that BOOKS were my problem, and what I needed to do is stop reading books and only read the Bible. Of course, saying this to a book lover is akin to telling a cocaine addict to stop using drugs. I was addicted to intellectual pursuit, and I doggedly followed the path until it led me out of Evangelicalism, out of the Emergent church, out of progressive Christianity, and right on down the slippery slope to agnosticism/atheism and humanism. I ended up where I am today because I couldn’t stop my questions and doubts. I ended up where I am today because Christianity had no satisfactory answers for my questions. Oh, they had “answers” but I found them to be hollow, circular, and, at times, farcical; answers that might placate those within the Evangelical bubble, but unsatisfactory to anyone on the outside looking in.

There are days when I wish I could be like my former college classmates. I see much in their lives I admire. However, I am unwilling to forsake the meat and potatoes of intellectual and scientific inquiry for the pottage of Evangelical Christianity. I have read and studied too much to go back to the garlic and leeks of Egypt. I would rather be known as a Midwestern Baptist College-trained atheist than a coward who couldn’t face doubts and questions head-on. “One” may truly be the loneliest number, but I would rather stand alone for truth than embrace theological dogma. If Midwestern and Dr. Tom Malone taught me anything, it was the importance of standing for truth and principle and being willing to hold to your beliefs and convictions no matter what. So, in that regard, Midwestern played a crucial part in my deconversion from Christianity.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 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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  1. Avatar

    I have wondered why many of my former classmates at the fundamentalist Christian school I attended are still firmly rooted in fundamentalism- some sending their kids to the same kind of school we attended or homeschooling. I cringe when I see their social media posts after visiting the Ark Encounter, going on a “mission trip”, or just the everyday “trust in Jesus” memes. I wonder how we came to such different conclusions.

    Then I see posts from other former classmates who are leading “normal” lives outside the bubble. I wonder whether they still believe at all. (Answer: I only asked a couple who became progressive Christians).

    Exposure to outside ideas counter to fundamentalism but firmly rooted in evidence shook me as a young adult. I struggled with fear of Satan and hell with each new idea and evidence. I would have to literally make the decision to embrace facts over fear. It was a painful process. Moving far away from my family and thus being free to investigate on my own helped tremendously. I would have had a harder time under my family’s watchful eyes. My brother, for example, is firmly rooted and going deeper into fundamentalism.

    I love reading about those who were able to break free.

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    A person’s mind structure in the way it functions is obviously formed very early. Being from a non religious background, I was always free to pursue thoughts, questions in many areas. Because I have never really been around super religious people until more recently, I have never given it much thought. I’m around it more because of where I currently live…small town.

    But it seems if the young mind is strictly controlled and reinforced with beliefs from family members, that early structure is formed and set in stone, as it were. Whereas a normally raised child in which to question the wonders of nature and the value of critical thinking, the brain structure is fundamentally more open to learning and ideas.

    I believe neuroscientists can actually identify a difference in the structure. Not to say one can’t change, as you are proof, but most people take the path of least resistance.

    I know the majority don’t think like me but I think that is changing. My family and friends do and I see a lessening in strict religious dogma in the younger generation except in perhaps rural small town areas. Europe is not like us in this evangelical fundamentalist dogma and backwardness and people travel more today and see life outside the US.

    Progress and enlightened thought cannot be stopped although it can be set back and we are probably living in one of those times now.

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      ‘Europe is not like us in this evangelical fundamentalist dogma and backwardness and people travel more today and see life outside the US.’
      I get angry about the US couple who have been sent to a fundy UK church I know well. Their IFB sending church has given them this 2yr freebie to learn ‘how to evangelise a largely secular country.’ What a grift. A member here has given them a lovely house to rent at a reduced rate. They seem to have such a sense of entitlement, they call the owner to ask for the least little thing, like ‘we need a new tin opener/brush’ etc etc. When their US-ian supporters failed to send enough money to pay the rent a couple of times, the UK church stepped in cos, they said this couple ‘contribute so much.’ As far as I can see, they organise the coffee rota and the guy puts on cringy ‘skits’ that he’s got from a book of cringy so-called ‘evangelistic’ skits. What they do for jesus on a daily basis here, seems very little indeed. Oh, and god’s told them not to return home, but spend another 2 yrs evangelising Ireland. (Cos, like, Ireland’s got lots of x-tians, but not the right sort doctrinally!) Wish someone would pay me to go to a nice comfy job like that in an english-speaking country, I’d love to see more of the world and live in new places, experience different cultures….guess I’ll have to dream on, I’ve got some integrity about not living on handouts….whilst pretending I’m doing an amazing job for jesus!

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    Bruce, I love reading your explaining phrases & new words!
    “Insulated from contrary or challenging thought”,”farcical”,”placate”
    Maybe others are familiar with these but I love respectful explanations that don’t mock in a direct way. Thanks!

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    Besides Kent Hovind, I was wondering who else Midwestern Baptist has unleashed upon the world. The only one mentioned on Wikipedia page is Charles Obadiah “Chuck” Baldwin who ran in 2008 on the Constitution party (doesn’t he know the Constitution is godless and secular?) Only went 2 years though.

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      Bruce Gerencser

      Most Midwestern grads pastor smaller/medium size churches. The largest church pastored by a Midwestern grad in Ohio is probably First Baptist Church in Milford. It used to run in excess of 1,000, but I don’t know what attendance is today.

      The IFB movement is a shell of what it once was.

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    I ascribe to Dawkin’s assertions in the God Delusion that religion is best viewed through the intellectual lens as a viral entity. That the people caught in religious indoctrination as children are in fact traumatized into religious beliefs and that religious beliefs can be broken down into a set of viral memetic code that can be seen as shame-based tenants designed to create a kind of mental enclosure for its victims

    The power of these trauma responses is just now coming into focus as we are beginning to understand the role of Complex Trauma (also called C-PTSD), Narccistic Injury, and Narccistic Newtorks that are playing out (and dominating) in our society.

    This means that the journey to being “free” of god is not only an intellectual journey, but also as an emotional journey, escaping psychological trap, and healing a set of neurobiological trauma responses.

    Only this starts to explain the pernicious nature of religion in the human experience. The same kind of pernicious persistence we see from any other virus in our world.

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      Thank-you for this, Tom. Years ago I began reading Arthur Janov’s writings and he was a scout in these matters, acknowledging and using the reality of epigenetics in his clinic work. What is so encouraging is that physical damage done at cell level during early abuse, can be ‘repaired’ by traveling the feelings to the source. Janov’s primal centre has done this work for a long time and it focusses less on talk than on acknowledging, allowing the client’s feelings to have their way back to the beginnings of trauma. Done with the proper training, there are remarkable results. The body can release the trauma connection and ‘rewire’ the brain in a healthier fashion. We are still at the beginning of this exciting development but Janov lived long enough to see his work validated by epigenetics. I believe his wife keeps his blog going to this day.
      One day religion will be looked on with a quizzical, historical gaze….. O happy day!

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    Whilst having doubts about my 50yrs of fundyism, Your blog helped a lot, Bruce. Another lightbulb moment came when I read a comment on another atheist blog. A x-tian troll said he KNEW jesus is real from the bible and from personal experience, so the atheist had it all wrong to doubt god. The atheist’s simple response was the lightbulb moment. She wrote, ‘Just because I’ve had a different life experience from you, you can’t negate or dismiss mine as false or inferior to yours.’ This gave me confidence to explore and ratify my doubts. They weren’t satan tempting me, or me wanting to sin, or that I was blaming my ‘all-loving’ god for a serious illness when I should be praising him for his ‘mysterious ways.’….they were reasonable, rational, serious, academically sound enquiries into the inconsistencies I’d held within the bubble for so long….!

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      @Matilda One thing about the IFB bubble, the personal experience with Jesus is something that is being actively courted. If your radar is tuned to be looking for something in particular, everything is going to look like that, even when it’s not. In addition and in particular children are actively being coerced by parents. And of course “personal experience” is by definition subjective. Each unique incarnation of God is sovereign in each of the 3 lb. universes (individual brains) that it inhabits.

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    Merle Hertzler

    “‘One’ may truly be the loneliest number, but I would rather stand alone for truth than embrace theological dogma.”

    You are one–one of many.

    To the outsider the diehard faith of fundamentalists is hard to understand. But to those of us who have been there, we know what it is like. It is very hard to see outside when one is inside. In fact, closed-mindedness is considered a virtue in the IFB. It is just called by a different name, faith.

    When one believe that doubts are wrong, and unquestioning faith is a virtue, it is very hard to explore at all. But once exploration starts, there is no stopping the mind set free.

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    MJ LIsbeth

    “So, in that regard, Midwestern played a crucial part in my deconversion from Christianity.”

    Bruce, I had to grin when I read that. One thing I learned from teaching is that my students should leave my classes with tools to not only question their previously-held assumptions, but to interrogate at least some of the things I said or that I assigned them to read.

    In that sense, a fundamentalist education planting the seeds that grew into the tree of your intellectual inquiry–which, in turn, bore the fruit of your current un-belief–makes perfect sense.

    While some of my life experiences may have been a catalyst in deconstructing and abandoning the beliefs I once had, ultimately it was reading, re-reading and re-reading the Bible and reading theology that gave me the means to critically look at, not only Christianity, but deistic beliefs in general.

    There is another parallel in my own life: I am a 99 percent pacifist* in part because I was once an Army Reservist. I had a “light bulb” moment one day during a drill: I wondered what the money that was being spent to train me and others and our pay (which wasn’t much, but still…) could have done in a school, hospital or cultural institution.

    *–I am against war as a means of conquest and believe that people–especially those who could be sent to fight–should question their nation’s leader whenever he or she launches a war by whatever means. There are a few very rare instances, I think, when it’s necessary to go to war–say, to stop someone like Hitler. On the other hand, I think he could have been stopped by other means before Kristallnacht and his seizure of the Sudetenland and having to go to war was a failing, however necessary.

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    there’s an aphorism i have modified, which is appropriate: have a bible and don’t read it to be a good catholic; have a bible and let the preacher read (and interpret) it to be a good evangelical; have a bible and read it to be a good atheist… without fail.

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      Your aphorism isn’t far off from my experience. I probably read through the Bible-cover-to-cover once before the age of 40. Of course I’d read portions of it extensively and knew lots of the content from sermons (obviously the evangelical perspective), but I couldn’t call myself a student of the scriptures. Midlife hit, my mortality became reality, and I decided I needed to understand what I believed, not just accept the traditions I inherited from my parents and my church. That was when I started reading through Bible regularly (shooting for the once a year goal, exposing myself to multiple versions), reading the leading apologists, studying the details of theologies like Calvinism and Arminianism, opening my mind to biblical scholars outside the narrow realm of evangelicalism, and learning a bit more about ancient near east history than just the familiar sermon soundbites.

      This influx of Information widened doubts I already had until I couldn’t hand-wave them away any longer. The silence of God when I prayed and an honest analysis of the results of a lifetime of prayer were the final pieces that pushed me over the edge. I don’t think I can claim the label atheist, but I am forced to be an agnostic at this point.

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      MJ Lisbeth

      PRAQGL–That was my trajectory. Growing up Catholic, I never saw what’s between the covers of a Bible. I am embarrassed to admit that, as an Evangelical, I led a Bible study–without having read the entire Bible! So I was using what was the pastor spoon-fed us, and I now realize that most fellow group members knew whatever the pastor and I (or, perhaps, previous Bible study leaders before me) gave them.

      Later, I would read the rest of the Bible. My belief, it seemed, declined in direct proportion to how much of the Bible I’d read!

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    Nature-nurture influences can play a role. I do believe that some of our brains naturally skew toward skepticism, toward inquiry, toward curiosity. Fundamentalist religious nurturing seeks to quell those tendencies, or to force them into a specific direction to prevent people from leaving the fold. This can cause people to become frustrated, and often people will find a way to burst out of the box they’ve been forced into. Bruce, your break-out was to explore relentlessly, still within the bounds of Christianity until you felt trapped there, then later into the Secular arena. I physically moved 1,000 miles away in order to explore within liberal Christianity and in secular areas. We just couldn’t stay trapped in that box forever.

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    Karuna Gal

    I noticed that some people commenting here finally broke through their religious conditioning when they reached middle age. That includes me. Did we do that because we had enough life experience by then to be able to look critically and objectively at our religious beliefs? The now closer prospect of death? Becoming more educated about the history and content of the Bible, and Christian history? I didn’t leave because I was treated badly by fellow Christians, and was bitter, but because of intellectual inquiry and having lived into middle age. And reading the entire Bible was the beginning of that. The Old Testament God is a scary brute, and the one in the New is, too. (Look at Revelation!) Bruce, you kept educating yourself through the years and it made you broad-minded, in spite of yourself. And your life experience and honesty opened you up, too. A great thing, and inspiring to read about.

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