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Category: Atheism

Questions: Bruce, If You Had It to Do All Over Again, Would You Still Write Your Infamous Letter?

questions

I put out the call to readers, asking them for questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question, please leave it here or email me. All questions will be answered in the order in which they are received.

Alisha asked:

I have read several times on your page about your writing a letter to friends and family after your deconversion. You chose to be very open with people about your change in belief. Your wife, you said, has chosen not to really talk much about her leaving Christianity. Now that several years have passed since you sent the letter, I wonder if you feel it was the correct thing to do or if you think taking your wife’s approach might have worked out better?

My wife and I left Christianity in 2008. In early 2009, I wrote a letter titled Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners detailing our loss of faith, and sent it to hundreds of family members, friends, colleagues in the ministry, and former church members. While Polly signed her name to the letter (and agreed with its content), it was generally perceived as coming from me. Others have always viewed Polly as not thinking for herself or under the spell of “Bruce.”

While there might have been a time forty years ago that was true, I can confidently say that Polly thinks for herself, makes her own decisions, and generally does what she wants. While our relationship is quite “traditional,” the patriarchal form of our marriage died an ignoble death decades ago. We now have an egalitarian approach to marriage. Does patriarchal thinking still show up in our relationship from time to time? Sure. Religious indoctrination will do that to you. Several years ago, I told my counselor that I wished Polly would be more assertive, make more decisions. He reminded me that she was free to NOT make decisions too; that maybe she liked me being the main decision-maker in our family; that I needed to accept her as she is. Doc, of course, was right. The difference now is that I no longer make unilateral decisions that affect both of us. Years ago, I would go to work with one car and come home with another. I would NEVER do such a thing today. We have learned to make decisions together.

The aforementioned letter was our coming-out party. While I continue to be outspoken about my unbelief, spending the past thirteen years sharing my story and trying to help those with questions and doubts about Christianity, Polly, on the other hand, quickly receded into the background, rarely talking about her loss of faith. Personality-wise, Polly is quiet and reserved. In high school and college, she was a wallflower. She went on one date before starting to date me. I was, in every way, her one and only. I’m a talkative, opinionated extrovert. Polly is not. I remember being frustrated with her when we were dating over how little she talked (much like her father). People, including myself, mistook her shyness for her not having an opinion. Trust me, Polly Shope Gerencser has lots of opinions. You just need to learn how to extract them from her as I have over forty-three years of marriage. Do I wish she was more vocal? Sure. But Polly is not me, and it’s unfair for me to expect her to be a quarter-fed talk-a-machine like I am. 🙂

I said all of this to make this point: our personalities largely determined our individual response to loss of faith. I charged Hell with an empty squirt gun, screaming FREEDOM!, and Polly stood on the sidelines, quietly smiling, never saying a word. We each responded the way we did because it was our nature to do so. That is still true today.

When we deconverted, I stood on a corner, street preacher-style, and told the world that I was no longer a Christian. Polly, on the other hand, stood in the crowd, quietly saying, AMEN! Alisha wants to know, with thirteen years of unbelieving life in the rearview mirror, would we do it all over again the same way? On the one hand, I could say, “we are who we are, personality-wise.” Can any of us act differently? (And no, I am NOT interested in discussing free will.) I do know, however, that my letter had real-world consequences. We lost all of our friends save two. And I mean ALL OF THEM! We lost friendships twenty and thirty years in the making. One letter, one honest reflection, and BOOM! — fractured friendships. Some of our friends turned on me, sending me hateful, judgmental emails. (Polly was spared any of this ugliness from our friends.) One of my closest friends savaged me in several emails, suggesting I was mentally ill. Another friend said I was possessed by Satan. And yet another dear friend who had known me for twenty-five years — the wife of an evangelist who had preached for me numerous times — told me that it was evident I was unsaved, that I was a deceiver, that the Devil was using me. (Our youngest daughter is named after her.)

My ministerial colleagues immediately broke fellowship with me. Not one colleague tried to “understand” my story. Not one emailed me and asked if we could talk, have lunch, or tried to interact with me. My letter was a declaration of war — a war that I am fighting to this day.

Imagine losing all of your friends and professional connections in a matter of months. Fifty years in the Christian church, twenty-five years in the ministry, countless relationships, all burned to the ground. To say this response was devasting to Polly and me would be a gross understatement.

Polly took a quiet, measured approach, choosing to NOT talk about her loss of faith. It’s only been in recent years that she has shared with her co-workers that she is not a believer. One of her employees is also an unbeliever, so Polly has been more open to her, but even today, she is hesitant to talk about this part of life with others. (Polly has agreed to share her story on my podcast channel when and if I ever get the *&%$#* thing off the ground.)

We have made a few friends over the years, mainly through this blog and social media. The couple who remained friends of ours when we deconverted are the only people we do things with. I have lunch from time to time with a United Church of Christ pastor and a former mainline Lutheran pastor. Outside of these friendships, neither of us has people in our lives we can call up and have in-person relationships with. Sure, we have six children and thirteen grandchildren, but we want and need non-family relationships as well.

As far as family relationships go, we are estranged from much of Polly’s Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) family. We maintain a decent relationship with her mother, but we have yet to have a meaningful discussion with Mom about why we are no longer Christians. Mom and Dad (now deceased) got the letter I sent in 2009, and that’s been the extent of any discussion about why we left the ministry and later left Christianity. I suspect Mom has read my blog now and again, as many of Polly’s IFB family have, but our losses of faith remain the proverbial rainbow-colored elephant in the room. I suspect Mom still thinks that I am the patriarch of our home; that the only reason Polly is an unbeliever is me; that when I die, she will come running back to Jesus and Evangelical Christianity.

I could go on and on about the price we have paid for leaving Christianity. Would our lives be better today if I had never sent my infamous letter to family, friends, and former parishioners? Would our lives be better if I had never started blogging, never written letters to local newspapers’ editors, never given interviews detailing my story? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. We are who we are. Could I have NOT written my letter? I have pondered that question more times than I dare admit. I suspect Alisha wants to know if it is better to gently remove the bandaid or just get it over with and rip it off. I can’t tell her what to do in her own life. Am I happy with how our life has turned out post-Jesus? Sure (in general). Is Polly happy? Sure (in general). Neither of us is a woulda-coulda-shoulda kind of person. We tend to be realists, pessimists, and pragmatists. Would our lives have been different if I had stayed quiet about our unbelief? Maybe.

Perhaps some of the readers of this blog will chime in about their approaches to declaring (or not) their unbelief. This truly is one of those questions where there is no right answer.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

The Four Marks of a False Convert According to Jordan Standridge

elmer gantry 1960
Elmer Gantry, played by Burt Lancaster (1960), preaching on the evils of evolution

I was a part of the Christian church for fifty years. I made a public profession of faith at age fifteen, attended an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) college in the 1970s, married a preacher’s daughter, and spent twenty-five years pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. In 2008 I left Christianity, declaring that I was no longer a believer. Since then, Evangelical family members, former congregants, ministerial colleagues, and countless Evangelical zealots have tried to square my story with their peculiar theologies. Some people think I was a true Christian, but fell from grace. Others think I am still a Christian — saved, but backslidden. And then there are those who think I was a false convert; that I never was a Christian; that I spent most of my life living a lie. What better way to dismiss my story out of hand than to say that I was a fake, a fraud, a deceiver.

Jordan Standridge, an Evangelical missionary in Italy, recently wrote an article detailing four characteristics of a “false convert.”

Writing for The Cripplegate website, Standridge stated:

Over the years I’ve seen that one of the most powerful moments in a new believer’s life is the realization that there is such a thing as a false convert. The sudden realization that salvation is not dependent on a prayer, a baptism or family history propels true believers to a whole other dimension in their walk with Christ. They begin to examine themselves properly (2 Cor 13:5), they become more evangelistic, they care more about theology and they appreciate being at church so much more. Understanding the fact that false converts are a reality is so important for those who call themselves Christians.

As we saw last week, there are few things more disappointing than when someone from our church walks away from the Lord. Especially when you’ve spent countless hours not only teaching and discipling that person, but you have shared a myriad of hours of ministry with him.

….

Of course, no amount of time spent discipling people is wasted time, but there is a sense in which we want to use our time wisely and be able to water where the grass is green, rather than spend our time watering dead grass. Is there a way to tell? Is there a way to be able to recognize the sheep from among the goats in this life? Well, Simon had four red flags that Luke points out in the short story of Acts 8:9-24 which we can apply to all false converts. These don’t encompass all the red flags, but they are a helpful start. So, here are four characteristics of a false convert.

They are man-centered

In other words, they like to be exalted by others. They are all about seeking attention and wanting to be noticed.

….

False converts don’t truly love God and don’t care if He ultimately receives the glory from their life; rather, they are simply after the cheap thrills of recognition and attention. A lack of love for God’s glory shows up in a lack of evangelism, and a lack of speaking about God at all. Those who are man-centered only care about how God can affect them and improve their life and aren’t interested in picking up a cross to follow Christ (Luke 9:23).

They are not devoted to Jesus 

Simon seemed to just go through the motions in Acts 8. As we’ve already seen, he was simply after holding on to his influence and adapting to what the culture around him wanted. Most people in his cult were giving their lives to Jesus, and so, in order to fit in, he also sought to accept Christ. He didn’t truly love Jesus, he simply wanted Jesus to give him what he ultimately sought– the desires of his carnal heart. He completely misunderstood salvation. I mean, he did it all:  he believed, was baptized, and followed Philip.

But, as we know, salvation is not actions, but rather, it is a heart change that God does to a person.  Ultimately it takes Peter one conversation to realize that this man hadn’t truly been saved. False converts completely misunderstand salvation and think that it is through their actions that they are saved. They might say that salvation is not through works with their lips, but their hearts declare something completely different. They don’t truly love Jesus in their hearts and are only after the benefits of what Jesus can bring to their life.

They have a selfish attitude

This is where Simon’s motives become clear. Acts 8:18-19 shows us Simon’s heart. He offered Peter and John money to be able to have the Holy Spirit and do the miracles that they were doing. Of course, this is silly to us and shows us a deep misunderstanding of how the Holy Spirit works. But, if we go beyond the surface, we will notice an even greater red flag.

Notice why he wanted the spiritual gifts. He wanted spiritual gifts so that he could be noticed and feel good about himself. He had completely selfish reasons for them. But, a simple reading of the New Testament will teach us that spiritual gifts are only given to us to be able to serve those around us. Their only goal is to serve the other members of the Church.

Today, so many churches promote certain spiritual gifts as more important than the others, and they also encourage those in their congregations to experiment with spiritual gifts that were not intended for them. Even if they do so unintentionally, they are setting up their congregations to see spiritual gifts as a way to promote themselves in front of the eyes of the church. This is a complete misunderstanding of spiritual gifts and it shows a love-of-self that is dangerous at best.

Christ, on the other hand, teaches his disciples that in order to be great one must be willing to serve. He then, through the Holy Spirit, gifted each member of the church with spiritual gifts intended to bless the whole body. The Christian life is a life of self-sacrifice, each Christian is called to put selfish desires to death and be willing to put the interest of others above their own (Gal 5:13).

They misunderstand repentance

Ultimately, Simon showed a lack of understanding of what repentance is. First of all, he got rebuked by Peter. Peter exposed his heart’s intentions and called him out on his sin. Simon’s response is telling. He cared about what Peter said, but not because he displeased his Savior, but because he was concerned about the consequences. He didn’t want what Peter said would happen to Him. This is worldly sorrow. Look at his response, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”

Not only was he more worried about his consequences, but he also misunderstood how repentance works. He asked them to pray for him. Repentance is a constant desire to be pure in front of God. Repentance doesn’t need others to intercede for them, but, instead, it is the act of a person who humbles himself before his Father and requests forgiveness and desires to change. And this doesn’t just happen at the moment of conversion. This is continual each and every day.

….

Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving slave (Matt 18:21-35) teaches a simple fact, and that is if you are unwilling to forgive, then you probably haven’t truly experienced grace. You could also say that someone who doesn’t repent of sin after he becomes a Christian probably isn’t a Christian. A Christian’s humility doesn’t go away at conversion, but rather continues on into his sanctification. As his love for Christ increases, his hatred for sin will increase as well, and it will show itself in a desire to admit sin and continue to repent daily.

On the other hand, false converts hate confrontation. They close up and defend themselves, or, better yet, attack back in order to keep the confronter at bay. They can’t possibly believe that they could have sinned in some way. False converts are prideful and don’t ever own up to sins that they have committed. In other words, they are blind to their sin.

Of course, this must have been eye opening to the early church. Most churches would be ecstatic to have a guy like Simon proclaim Christ and join the church, and maybe Philip was blinded by this as well. But, Simon had all the wrong motives in coming to Christ, and, even though it wasn’t evident at first, his true colors came out in time. Having someone walk away can be extremely painful, but each time it happens, we can be thankful that God has changed our hearts and given us new life. I think that when false-converts walk away, we are also more likely to value the seasoned saints in church around us who have been so faithful to follow Christ for so many years, and who have said, perhaps thousands of times, no to the world and yes to Christ.

Standridge believes True Christians® can ferret out false converts in their churches. False converts:

  • Are man-centered
  • Are not devoted to Jesus
  • Have selfish attitudes
  • Misunderstand repentance

I know scores of people who Standridge would label false converts. However, his four characteristics of a false convert don’t ring true. Standridge is looking for easy explanations to explain the mass exodus from Evangelical churches. Pastors, evangelists, missionaries, elders, deacons, youth directors, worship leaders, and other committed followers of Jesus are walking (or running) out the back doors of churches never to return. How does Standridge explain an increasing number of Evangelical clergy and church leaders who are embracing atheism, agnosticism, or non-Abrahamic religions? Are they all “false converts”?

Instead of addressing the stench arising from Evangelicalism’s corpse, Standridge uses worn out tropes to marginalize and dismiss people who once loved and served Jesus with all their heart, soul, and mind. I challenge Standridge to carefully read my story and see if he can find a whiff of his “four characteristics of a false convert.”

Stories such as mine and yours remain a conundrum for Evangelicals. Our testimonies suggest that we were once followers of Jesus, and now we are not. We once loved God and his church, and now we don’t. We once believed the Bible was the Word of God, and now we don’t. We were, in every way, true converts, and now we are not.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Engineering, Science, Depression, Deconversion

guest post

Guest by Karen the Rock Whisperer

This is a personal story.

At nearly 62 years old, I’m an agnostic atheist (and a secular humanist). I don’t actually know that there are no deities. However, I don’t know of any real evidence for a deity. I can’t believe in someone(s) who supposedly affects the workings of the real world, and yet leaves no trail of evidence that meets the scientific standard. God, by whatever name(s), is so important to most of the human occupants of our planet, that I can’t believe such evidence wouldn’t make it into a paper in a top-tier journal like Science or Nature. I have specific problems with the Christian understanding of God, but those only become relevant when real evidence of that deity, or any deity, is established. This hasn’t happened.

What I can believe in, because modern psychology documents it and I’ve personally experienced it, is the ability of the human mind to acquire and persist in all kinds of beliefs that have no external justification. I spent the first three decades of my life being absolutely convinced that I am worthless, completely lacking in value to anyone, and a total waste of resources. I maintained this belief in the face of K-12 and university grades that said I was a good to very good student, the love and affection of a man who would become my husband, a sterling work record with regular promotions, and other evidence to the contrary. In my early thirties, my mental health finally deteriorated to the point of near non-functionality, and I had to get help. A prescription for an antidepressant calmed the tsunami waves of hopelessness that washed over me. Therapy, off and on over the last three decades, has helped me learn techniques for redirecting my mind away from the rumination that brings on those waves. The depression dragon that lives in my mind, and whispers to me about what a disgusting waste of good oxygen I am, is still there. I’ve simply learned how to coax her into sleeping most of the time.

I grew up Roman Catholic, in a very conservative, authoritarian household, dogged by undiagnosed depression. I attended Catholic elementary and high schools run by an order of very liberal nuns. If my parents had learned about the feminist environment of my schools or the nearly humanist liberalism of my nuns, there would have been explosions of volcanic proportions, but I wasn’t telling. (Those nuns planted the seeds of my current secular humanism.) My doubts about the veracity of my church’s teachings began in high school. One issue was that, although I prayed often and intently, I never felt any connection to a god in my prayers. It really felt like I was talking to the ceiling. Another was that Catholic theology was starting to not make rational sense, and having things make sense was becoming more and more important to me.

I went off to college to study engineering, and then married a classmate who came from an Evangelical background. Together we attended an Evangelical church for a few years before abandoning churchgoing entirely. Overall, that church was a painful experience for me, because the Evangelical emphasis on the worthlessness of humans fed my depression. It also baffled me as I gradually realized that my fellow church members actually believed in Biblical inerrancy. I knew enough science to realize that it couldn’t possibly be so.

So, many experiences, many indicators that Christianity was a hodgepodge of questionable beliefs, and I was ready for deconversion, right? Well, no. Depression kept me tied to the theology of human worthlessness. Engineering did the same. The mindset of an engineer is that there is an established body of knowledge, well-codified, and the engineer must design a solution to a technical problem by drawing on that established knowledge. All problems have solutions, though it might take a great deal of creativity to develop some solutions. Engineers live in a world of facts and (hopefully) reasonable extrapolations from those facts. Christianity (like other religions) offers what it declares is an established body of knowledge about God, his relationship with humans, and his demands and expectations. I was having issues with that supposedly established body of knowledge, but for several years I approached the problem as an engineer: clearly, if I was confused, I simply didn’t understand the established body of knowledge well enough.

Then came the WOW experience of the first antidepressant, and the questioning. The dragon in my mind had been telling me all these lies about myself. What other lies were hiding up there? Were my doubts and questions about religion actually justified? I soldiered on, questioning many things I’d considered as intractably true as the laws of physics. It was hard work, I stalled out many times, and struggled to shake the depression and improve my opinion of myself.

Middle age came around. (We never had children.) I’d gotten into the habit of being laid off, because my engineering expertise was in a fiercely contracting subfield. I’d find what seemed like a promising company, to have it miss a market window or not qualify for the last infusion of venture capital, and go bankrupt. It got very tiresome after a while. Then my parents needed extended support, which took me out of the workforce for a few years. I needed to retrain, and my heart wasn’t in it. Meanwhile, a casual interest in geology was becoming an obsession. With support from my wonderful husband, instead of going back to engineering school, I entered a master’s program in geology at our local university.

My geology education was another WOW experience, an extended one, because I discovered the scientific outlook. All knowledge is provisional, and everything is questionable. Scientific theories are established by not only their ability to explain real-world phenomena, but their ability to predict future phenomena. I acquired the ability to question everything I thought I knew. I lost the engineering mindset of seeing life as full of problems to be solved using a body of codified knowledge. Instead, I embraced the scientific mindset of seeing life as an adventure of discovery, where I was required to keep challenging my own understanding.

I became disabled and have never been able to work as a geologist (long story, not germane here). But the gift of that scientific education is the ability to truly examine my beliefs, disconnect them from all the oppressive ‘shoulds’ of my upbringing and the depression dragon in the back of my mind, and decide on their validity based on what I know about reality. And so, today, I can stand up and call myself an agnostic atheist, free of residual fears and doubts, because I have a good (and improving!) toolkit for evaluating the stuff in my own mind. Not that I’ve reached some pinnacle of self-knowledge, or that the depression dragon doesn’t still have some good days. I’m a work in progress. But instead of a default mental state of struggling and stalling, my default state is now up and flying.

I have discovered true freedom.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Bruce, I Don’t Believe You Are an Atheist

there is no such thing as an atheist

Last night, I had the privilege of sharing why I am an atheist with a Mennonite discipleship class. In attendance were the pastor, an older church member, and a group of young men. I shared the primary reasons I left Christianity:

  • The Bible is not inerrant or infallible
  • The problem of suffering and evil
  • The hiddenness of God

I also shared some of my experiences with Evangelicals since my deconversion, especially through this blog.

I thoroughly enjoyed my interaction with this group. I appreciated the fact that the pastor wanted to expose this class to someone outside of their religion. What better way to find out what an atheist believes than ask him. Countless pastors have preached sermons, written blog posts, or produced YouTube videos about what it is that atheists believe. But, instead of letting atheists speak for themselves, these preachers, to put it bluntly, lie about why people are atheists.

At the end of my speech, I fielded a few questions — good questions, except one. The older man (about my age?) in the group said to me: I don’t believe you are an atheist. He recounted all the things I had done for Jesus as a Christian, concluding that it just wasn’t possible for me to be an atheist. Yet, I am. 🙂

I replied, “so, you are saying I am a liar.” Smack. 🙂 I went on to say I understood why he was confounded: he couldn’t square my story with his theology. I then said, “that’s not my problem.” And it’s not. All I know to do is to tell my story as openly and honestly as I can. Then, people are free to accept or reject my story.

I told the class that I accept what people say about themselves at face value. If a person says she is a Christian, I believe her (this is a general rule, not absolute). I turned what the man said to me around and asked how they would feel if they told someone they were a Christian and shared their conversion experience, and the person replied, “I don’t believe you are a Christian.” None of us likes having our stories dismissed out of hand. We will never understand each other if we don’t listen; if we don’t make a good faith effort to actually hear what others are saying.

The older gentleman tried to have “prayer” while I was still online. I appreciate the pastor cutting the feed before that could happen.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Bruce Gerencser