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Questions: Bruce, As an Evangelical Pastor, Did You Ever Interact with an Atheist?


Every year or two, I ask readers to submit questions they want me to answer. That time has arrived once again. Any question. Any subject. Please leave your questions in the comment section or send them to me via email. I will try to answer them in the order received.

I look forward to reading and answering your questions.

Cubs Fan asked:

As an evangelical pastor did you ever engage an atheist?

This question will not take me long to answer. Outside of “meeting” a pair of atheists while knocking on doors in the 1970s as a student at Midwestern Baptist College, I never interacted with anyone who claimed to be an atheist.

In 2021, I wrote a post titled, Bruce, As an Evangelical, What Were You Taught About Atheism? Here’s what I had to say:

This could be the shortest post I have ever written. Not really. Remember, I was a preacher for twenty-five years. I always have something to say on a subject. That said, the short answer to this question is this: absolutely nothing. I have no recollection of my pastors or my professors at Midwestern Baptist College ever mentioning atheism or atheists. In the 1970s and 1980s, the enemies of Evangelicalism — particularly in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement — were: liberalism, the Southern Baptist Convention, modern Bible translations, situational ethics, and sexual immorality. The culture wars fueled by Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority were all the rage. I heard lots of sermons about abortion and prayer/Bible reading in schools, but not atheism proper. At times, atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s name would come up in sermons, but only in the context of the aforementioned culture war issues.

I pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years. I can’t recall preaching one sermon on atheism. I mentioned O’Hair on occasion, but not her atheism per se. In fact, I didn’t know any atheists. As far as I know, no atheist ever attended one of the churches I pastored. Were there atheists in the midst? Sure, just like there were LGBTQ people too. Such “abhorrent” beliefs and identities were, however, hidden — deeply buried in the proverbial Fundamentalist closet.

There is one atheist story I would like to share with readers, a humorous conclusion to this post. During my freshman year of college, a fellow dorm student and I were out knocking on doors one Saturday, hoping to find someone willing to let us share the gospel with them. Students were required to go soulwinning every week. Then we were required to report our evangelistic endeavors to the college. Many students, myself included, lied about how many doors they knocked on, how many people they led to the Lord. During the three years I attended Midwestern, I led a total of two people to Christ. I was, when it came to winning souls, a failure.

As my friend and I went from door to door in a Pontiac neighborhood, we had little to no success when it came to the “souls saved” department. What happened next, however, left an indelible impression on two virgin Baptist preachers-to-be. First, as we walked up the sidewalk to the next house, we noticed a number of squirrels in the yard. All of a sudden, one of the squirrels ran for my friend, jumped on his leg, and proceeded to scale his tall frame before jumping off his shoulder. Once we regained our composure, we walked up to the door and knocked. I should note before I tell the rest of this story, that locals were frequently harassed by Midwestern students. Imagine, being up late on Friday night, only to have a couple of Bible thumpers banging on your front door first thing in the morning. Many of us went soulwinning early on Saturdays so we could have the rest of the day to ourselves. It was the one day when I could spend significant time with my wife-to-be.

Then, as we knocked on the door, we heard people scuffling inside. Soon the door opened, and standing there stark naked were a man and a woman. My fellow dorm mate and I were speechless — I mean dumbstruck. Before either of us could start our soulwinning spiel, the man said, “we’re atheists, and we are not interested in what you have to say.” And with that and a laugh, the man shut the door.

This would be my first and last interaction with an atheist until I started reading books by atheist and agnostic authors in 2008. I still haven’t met many atheists in person. Most of my interaction with godless people has come through this blog and social media.

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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    My interaction experience came years ago when I was sitting on a park bench. Nearby was a young man bible bashing a much older woman. I kind of got the impression that, as an intelligent person, she’d thought about The Meaning Of Life,’ and was comfortable with her choice to be non-religious. She was very patient with him and I heard her say, ‘Yes, dear, just because it works for you, that doesn’t mean it works for everybody.’ Inside myself, I applauded her response. But I was also conflicted, as an ardent x-tian, was I guilty of not caring about her eternal destiny – hell – unless I told her about jesus? I should have been been ‘upholding the guy in prayer’ as he ‘witnessed’ to her. It was one of my earliest dissonances that I describe as being put in a box on a high shelf and it was decades before I took that box down and dared to confront them.

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    I still find the cultural environment you describe as really weird. I recall at school in the late 60s various classes and after school clubs where very occasionally religion would be mentioned, and almost all my contemporaries of the time were atheists. I was always a bit of a contrarian and so I argued for belief in god (I wavered until I was 18), having picked up on a single comment from our RI teacher. He was asked ‘where did god come from’, and he replied ‘he’s always been there’. I thought that was a cool answer until I heard others say that was just a get out of jail free card (nowadays called special pleading), and pretty well since then I’ve been hardcore atheist. I’ve always found it a much more conformist position (in the UK), though there are still plenty of believers around. I think what I am trying to say is that if the subject came up in conversation then being a believer (and certainly devout) is actually the less expected of the two positions.

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    I don’t recall meeting my first atheist, though I most likely encountered some working in a university biochemistry lab. At that time, I was still in evangelicalism and assumed that God existed and that everyone actually believed in God even if they didn’t follow him. But looking back, there are specific people that were most likely atheists, given where they grew up (China, Japan, USSR). My husband alternately referred to himself as Christian, atheist, and agnostic when we were dating. He really wasn’t religious and didn’t know much about religion. Eventually, he embraced atheism. The term “atheist” is a term so demonized that it’s no wonder we don’t always use it.

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