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Category: Guest Posts

What They — And I — Remembered

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Last weekend, I travelled to a village about three hours from my New York City apartment. I have visited about two dozen countries and lived in one besides the United States. Yet I felt more like a stranger in that place, so close to my home yet a world apart.

New York is often cited, along with California and Massachusetts, as one of the “bluest” states in this country. While we elect Democrats by wide margins to national offices and the Governor’s Mansion, it’s mainly because the Empire State’s population is concentrated in New York City, Albany, and a few smaller urban areas. Beyond those metropoli are rural expanses like the Adirondacks and Rust Belt towns.

It is in the latter enclaves that one finds the detritus of a tide that receded after World War II. Someone once quipped that the Statue of Liberty was chosen as a state symbol because the splintered remains of a barn or the weathered bricks of an abandoned factory wouldn’t make for very good public relations.

But those barns and plants would be good stand-ins for not only what has left the state but what remains in much of it. As agriculture corporatized and moved south and west, manufacturing followed the same trajectory before leaving these shores altogether. The sorts of folks who vacationed in the Catskills and Adirondacks would follow suit once relatively affordable flights to more exotic locales became available; and the young decamped for Albany, New York, and other larger cities; the ones left behind felt like children whose parents broke promises to, and abandoned, them.

The promise, whether explicit or implicit, was that as long as they worked hard and did what they were told, they would have jobs that paid them well enough to support their families and, perhaps, spend a week or two in a cabin by a lake. And the fact that they were their families’ providers would give them a place at the head of their tables and the top of their food chains.

What I realized during my recent trip is that such people — nearly all of them white men, almost none of whom continued their education beyond high school, and many of whom “served their country” when they were sent to Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan — were just like the man who occasioned my trip.

He was my uncle — and godfather, which, if you grew up Catholic, is almost as important as your biological father. I was there to attend a memorial service for him. He’d passed a week and a half earlier, nominally from a heart attack but, I believe, also from health problems many years in the making. While growing up, I spent a lot of time with him, as we didn’t live very far from each other and, I believe, we had a great love for each other that survived the changes each of us experienced.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I am a transgender woman. My gender affirmation didn’t seem to change his affection for me. In retrospect, that seems particularly remarkable given a change he underwent: About twenty years ago, a near-fatal auto accident caused him to re-evaluate much in his life and “accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.” Until that time, his relationship to the Catholic faith in which he’d been raised wasn’t much different from mine after I’d drifted away, although I had yet to declare myself a full-blown atheist.

The pastors who presided over his memorial remarked on how avidly he read and studied the Bible and how important prayer had become in his life. In a few of our conversations, he said, “I’m not Catholic, I’m Christian.” My aunt echoed that declaration. At the memorial, other members of his church and Bible study groups echoed the pastors’ assessment of my uncle. With the exception of one man, who looked young enough to be one of the pastor’s grandsons, they seemed remarkably similar to my aunt and uncle: white people without much formal education who worked hard but, because of changes in the economy (and culture) could not reap what they believed to be the rightful fruits of their efforts. And they were marooned in a place that international economic neo-liberalism (in the classical definition of that term) had left behind.

In other words, the tide receded, and they were grasping at anything they could. They aren’t stupid but they don’t understand what left them where they are, any more than I — with a formal science education that ended before Reagan and Thatcher took their offices — can tell you what causes the waves to turn back toward the horizon. I hope I don’t seem condescending in saying that such people are easy prey for whomever and whatever would present themselves as saviors, or who or what would at least offer an easy explanation of why they are in their current plight. More important to those who feel helpless, those who preyed on them offered scapegoats, and the hope that everything will be better, if not tomorrow, then some day, some day.

While my uncle didn’t express the resentment toward non-white, non-Christian, non-cisgendered folks who “took” something by gaining the same rights other people enjoy — and, if this sounds self-interested, accepted me — he did grasp at a straw of hope offered to him when he was at his most vulnerable. At his memorial, I realized that vulnerability and the fear it engenders when one hasn’t learned how to deal with it, made him, and his fellow church and Bible study members easy “marks” — not only for the promise of an afterlife that resembled the one they’d lost or yearned for, but for someone who parlayed the silver spoon that was in his mouth when he was born into reality TV stardom and multiple bankruptcies. At least my uncle didn’t vote for him. But that’s not the only reason I miss him.

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 email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Dying for Your Beliefs

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A Guest Post by ObstacleChick

I have started and discarded this post several times as it’s painful to write. The world has changed dramatically in the past few years, with some of those changes being long overdue while others are incredibly backward and damaging.  It has been difficult for me to process and accept that things in our country were not as I had believed them to be. The ascension of the Trump administration and the covid-19 pandemic have exposed the ugliness that had previously been covered with a sheer veneer of respectability. It’s an exposure of my privilege that I have been blind to so much that is reprehensible in our country. I feel that the United States is like the Pharisees whom Jesus admonished, calling them “whited sepulchres”:  “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:27 KJV) The ascension of the Trump administration allowed the people who are racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, authoritarian, bigoted, and patriarchal, to openly emerge into the light of day, loudly proclaiming their putrid rhetoric. Dog whistles have been replaced by blaring trumpets.

Sometimes it feels like our country is falling apart. I used to take for granted that women had the right to our bodily autonomy – was that not hashed out by our Supreme Court in 1973? I took for granted that black people had equal rights – was that not codified by amendments to our Constitution, and further reinforced by the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s? I took for granted that finally LGBTQ people could marry whom they loved – was that not declared by our Supreme Court in the 2010s? I took for granted that we were a nation of people who work hard, who are for the most part educated, who are becoming increasingly diverse, and who are part of a world-leading nation.

But I have come to see something quite different. I see large swaths of people who embrace anti-intellectualism, who believe conspiracy theories, who think the QAnon conspiracy theories are real, and that a Satan-worshiping cabal of Democrats, Hollywood elites, and name-your-favorite Bogeyman are baby-killing, blood-drinking pedophiles who are trying to take over the U.S. Government, and our Great White Hope is . . . Donald J. Trump, a former reality-TV “star” who runs his businesses like a mafia boss, steamrolling over anyone who gets in the way of his profit. I see white supremacists coming out of the woodwork, fighting to keep their Confederate statues that were erected during an era in which white people were afraid that black people might be able to exercise freedoms. I see people protesting over wearing a mask in order to prevent the spread of a disease that is much more fatal than the common seasonal flu. I see that people are actively working against their own self-interest to promote their distorted version of freedom: a freedom that allows them to carry hand-held killing machines in public without much restriction, that allows them to force their religious symbols and statements onto others, that allows them to prevent people from having access to basic healthcare, housing, child care, and other needs. (If you have an opportunity to read Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan M. Metzl, I urge you to do so.) A political party has convinced nearly half of our country — many of whom profess to follow Jesus who urged that the greatest commandment is to love one’s neighbor as oneself — that leaving everyone to their own devices is the good and right thing to do.

How do we reach these people? I honestly do not know. They live in a different ecosystem from the one I do. They consume different sources of media from those I do. They wholeheartedly embrace untruths, believing them to be “true,” and they go around spreading their lies and their covid-19 infections to the innocent. The term “compassion fatigue” aptly describes how I feel right now. Part of me wants to leave them to their own devices — if they don’t want to protect themselves from covid-19, let them die. Yet, real people are being hurt.

One of the real people who was hurt was a colleague and friend of mine, a 38-year-old woman whose father is a retired police officer and an ardent Trump supporter. When the pandemic started, she was terrified that she would contract covid-19, and due to her chronic asthma and history of issues with bronchitis, pneumonia, and other pulmonary issues, she was very careful about where she went, wearing a mask, and washing her hands. Then things changed. Then Fox “News” and the Trump Administration promoted the notion that covid-19 wasn’t so bad and that people weren’t really dying from covid-19. Even after rolling out covid-19 vaccines through Operation Warp Speed, the Trump Administration foolishly did not capitalize on a marketing campaign that could have convinced thousands and thousands of their supporters to get vaccinated. Instead, they left it up to people to do whatever they felt like doing. And guess what? More lies abounded regarding the efficacy and safety of vaccines. 

My friend believed stories that people were dying from the vaccine, that it was more dangerous than covid-19. She started going out in public more often, leaving her mask at home. She bragged at work that she only wore her mask at work because we mandated it, but that everywhere else she would not wear it. She and her husband started going to restaurants and clubs and hanging out with friends, many of whom were also resistant to getting the vaccine. Then one day, she came into work saying that her husband was sick and was getting tested for covid-19 — just in case. That afternoon, he texted her that his test was positive. We sent her home immediately with instructions not to return until both she and her husband were in the clear. She got a rapid test that came back negative. Several of our employees who had already experienced covid previously encouraged her to get tested again as it may take a few days for the viral load to build up enough to test positive. Sure enough, she tested positive a couple of days later.

While her husband started recovering, my friend got sicker and sicker. She joined in a few work calls, and she was coughing so much that we suggested that she focus on resting. It wasn’t long before she let us know that she was hospitalized. Unbeknownst to her, when her husband checked her into the hospital, the staff told him that they waited too late and there was little they could do. We kept texting and calling her, and she kept telling us that she was getting treatment but that it would be a long road. The night before she died, I was texting with her, and she just kept saying that she still didn’t feel well, but she never let on how bad it was. She passed away the following day, with her husband and parents by her side. I will leave out the awful details that her husband and parents told us; let’s just say that dying of covid-19 is not a good way to go.

I want someone to blame: the GOP, Trump, the science-deniers, people’s stubbornness, Fox “News” and other far-right outlets, American individualism, my friend’s parents & friends, my friend herself . . . Does it matter? It matters to my friend’s family (most of whom apparently went out and got vaccinated after her death), to her friends, to our company (her department is understaffed by 25% with her passing), to all she touched in her 38 years. Actions have consequences, and unfortunately, I do not see any magic deities coming in to save the day. If your doctor says that you are eligible, PLEASE get vaccinated.

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 email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

How My Christian Belief Ended

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Guest post by Karuna Gal

I hung onto the Christian faith most of my life. Unlike me, my siblings lost their belief pretty early on, with no fuss or bother. They did baptise their children, and some of those kids made their First Communion and Confirmation. However, the kids are “Nones” – they don’t follow any religion.

So, why did I stay a Christian? I was very religious. I was thoroughly convinced that there was a God. Another reason was that I had no doubt that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. The first disciples were so sure about this that they died for their beliefs. Why would they lie about something that put them in such danger?

Although I explored other spiritual traditions, like Hinduism and Native American, I always kept the Christian faith as the touchstone of my religious belief. I had grown up as a Roman Catholic Christian and that conditioning was strong. It ran in my family. We had a priest and a Third Order Franciscan (a lay order) on my mom’s side.

When I was in college I finally rejected Catholicism because of its history and attitude toward women. Thus began a long process of looking for a church that would help me in my spiritual evolution. I wanted to work on my shortcomings and fears and become a better person. Oddly enough, though, the different churches I attended were hardly into this at all. Even the Quaker church I tried for a while was more evangelical than interested in “the still, small voice.”

Churches I attended had a lot of activities and events. There were prayer teams, Christmas pageants, and food pantries for the poor. They held potlucks and silent auctions. But when it came to the challenge of working on really improving yourself — well, forget it. I think someone has called churches social clubs with a religious veneer, and I have to agree with that statement. A lot of times I felt that I was a freak, wanting to deepen my spiritual life and improve myself, and no one around me, including the clergy, seemed to understand or care about this sort of thing at all. I didn’t see quite yet that Christianity was unable to give me what I wanted. So, I kept plugging away, keeping active in the church. I hoped and believed that if I continued to do my service to the church, Christ would grant me the grace of becoming a better person.

Things came to a head in my early fifties. I was a member of an Episcopal church for about ten years by then and was very involved in it. But I was slowly getting soured on it. I started to be bored by the bad sermons on Sunday mornings. Even if I felt a little inspiration after Sunday services it quickly dissipated by Sunday evening. The work I did for the church seemed to be good for the church (especially all that fundraising) but I didn’t see any improvement in myself. I was still the fearful, depressed, and flawed person I ever was.

Then something occurred that took my questioning to another level. A friend who was running a successful Sunday School program was treated most shamefully by clergy and some “pious” church members. I was an eyewitness to their uncharitable and hypocritical behavior towards her. My disgust and surprise over this were heightened because I was going through “The Change.” There was nothing like going through menopause to thoroughly test my assumptions and give me a much better bullshit meter.

And then, finally, came the total destruction of my belief in God and in Jesus’ resurrection. This happened because I read Reza Aslan’s book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus.” While it was interesting to get a Muslim’s perspective on Jesus, Azlan mentioned another book that dealt the final blow to my belief. It is called “When Prophecy Fails,” written back in 1956. This book shows how people, when their millenarian or messianic belief fails to deliver, double down on their belief in spite of that. Along with discussing historical examples of this behavior the authors describe the folly of a modern American group who were waiting for spaceships to come and take them to another, more congenial, planet. The “Higher Beings” never arrived in those spaceships when they were supposed to. The people waiting for their deliverance from above were disappointed, of course. The group broke up, but a surprising number of them continue to believe the spaceships are still coming. The folks on this earth just got the dates wrong. The spaceships are still going to arrive, absolutely!

Sound familiar?

So, the first disciples of Jesus were sincere, but they were sincerely deluded. They doubled down on their belief in the resurrection of Jesus because it never happened. There was to be a Second Coming, too, absolutely! They were so convinced that this was the truth that they were actually willing to die to prove it. They just couldn’t face the sad fact that their supposed Messiah was dead as a doornail and would never return.

It seems incredible that people would risk death over a delusion they hold, but then we are seeing anti-vaxxers saying from their deathbeds that the COVID they are dying from doesn’t exist. I even read that one man, whose wife died from COVID though he recovered from it, is out protesting against mask-wearing!

I once read a quote from a modern German poet, which I remember as “A dead Christ shouts from the rooftop of the world that there is no God.” And that was how I finally realised, after all my years in Christianity, that there is no God, no resurrection.

How did I reconcile myself to my new understanding of the world? It took a while, a couple of years, and it was a very painful process. I left my church. Surprisingly few people from church followed up with me to ask why I left, even after all the time I had spent there. I was full of despair, feeling that I could never find a way to spiritually improve myself.

Then I started to accompany a friend to a Buddhist temple, more for fun than anything else. The monk there — who is now my teacher —- talked about how life is suffering; that there is a way out of suffering. And that is by ethical behavior and practicing meditation. So it’s all on your shoulders – no God, no Jesus, no priest or intermediary. Just you and your efforts to become a better human being. Buddhism works for me, and I am very happy. I wish that my theism and my own delusions about Christianity hadn’t lasted so long and held me back from pursuing my spiritual evolution. But better late than never.

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 email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Engineering, Science, Depression, Deconversion

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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 email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

The Ministry I Didn’t Pursue

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A guest post by MJ Lisbeth

In my youth, I didn’t make many good decisions. Two of the good ones, though, came during my service as an Army Reservist.   

The first came after my first session on the shooting range. I managed, somehow, not to miss the target.  The instructor called me aside. I expected a reprimand, or worse.  

“Have you ever handled a weapon before?”

“No, sir!”

He said he was going to recommend me to someone whose name I didn’t catch. Turns out, he was involved with sniper training. Would I be interested?

In the Army, and in most of the world’s armed forces, snipers are given, if not privileges, then at least a wider berth than other soldiers. Seen, rightly, as eccentrics–most are more introverted,and many have more artistic impulses than others in uniform—snipers are treated with a combination of fear and awe.  

I declined, with a combination of my limited social skills and the little military etiquette I’d learned up to that point.  I feared that the man who made the offer and my unit commander could make me miserable, but I feared more the fate of too many snipers: they die at the hands of other snipers. Much to my relief, my refusal didn’t seem to have any effect on my experience in uniform.

The second good decision came regarding something not as potentially life-altering or -ending. When I mentioned that I was interested in returning to school, my commander said he could recommend me for the chaplaincy. Years later, I realized he was basing his offer on, ironically, the same qualities (aside from my ability to shoot) that might’ve made me a good sniper: my introversion and intuition, or at least the fact that I was (and am) quieter and less exuberant than the other young recruits.

Although the Army listed my religious preference as “Roman Catholic,” mainly because it usually classified its members according to the religion in which they were born or raised, I hadn’t attended mass in a long time. I had become an Evangelical Christian but the flame of my faith—and of any belief in a supreme being—was flickering by that time. For that reason, I passed on the suggestion that I become a military chaplain.

Turns out, although I ultimately made the right choice for me—in part because I had no plans to remain in the military any longer than I needed in order to attain my goals—I’d based my decision on a flawed perception of what chaplains (and, by extension, other clergy members) do, and what makes it effective to the extent that it is. 

What got me thinking about all of that was an interview NPR Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon conducted with David Sparks, who is retiring after more than 40 years of “comforting” service members at Dover Air Force Base as the flag-draped caskets of their loved ones arrive. Interestingly, this retirement will be his second: after retiring as a uniformed chaplain, he returned to that role as a civilian who is a Church of the Nazarene pastor.

He talked about what a “privilege” it was to try to “support” families on what is “ostensibly the worst day of their lives.” He got that last part right: what can be worse than losing a spouse, a parent, a sibling, or a friend in a random and possibly senseless incident? But men and women who’ve been in combat—and their loved ones—rarely use words like “privilege” to describe their experience. Some—officers, usually—might talk about “duty” or “honor.” One thing Hemingway, whatever else you might want to say about him, understood very well is that it’s all but impossible to convey the experience of battle to people who haven’t experienced it because when you describe it, you’re speaking an essentially different language from what most people are accustomed to hearing. I will be the first to admit that, as someone who never experienced battle, I will never fully understand someone who has, or who has borne the loss of someone who has.

Reverend Sparks, at least, seems honest enough to make such an admission. That is why, during his interview, he confessed, “there isn’t anything you can say” that “can be of much help.” Truth is, all he or any man or woman of the cloth can offer is to affirm whatever belief or hope the grieving family member may have. He told the story of a woman who wanted to know whether her husband was in heaven.  “What does your faith tell you?” he responded. “She answered her own question,” he recalled.

That story reminded me of why I chose not to become a chaplain: the job is premised on a notion that, I suspect, most people have when they join or are conscripted into the military: God is on our side. While I still had some semblance of belief in something like the God of the Abrahamic religions, I didn’t feel certain that God would always look with favor on everything we, as a fighting unit or nation, did, let alone that what we did would be moral or just. Much later, I would come to see that nations and empires, with few exceptions (most notably Communist countries like the Soviet Union and China, which officially espoused atheism) have always gone to war with the belief that “God (whatever they call him/her/it) is on our side.”  

Of course, today, as an atheist, I do not believe any such thing. It seems to me, though, that it’s all but impossible to send young people off to take the risk of getting maimed or killed—or to convince their parents that it’s a “good” and “honorable” thing to do, let alone a “privilege,” without a belief that they’re doing it for, if not a being, then at least a force or institution, greater than themselves or anything they have imagined—and, the more vague their conception of it, the better Or, at least, whatever they believe in will understand when they do the things they’ve been trained to do, or fall victim to someone who’s trained in the “arts of war.” 

(I am not a fan of Star Wars. I will concede, however, that its writers understand what I’ve described in my previous paragraph.)

One of John Milton’s purposes in writing Paradise Lost was to “justify the ways of God to Man.” William Blake and others said, in essence, that he failed, if spectacularly and beautifully, in that endeavor. What people—like the woman Reverend Sparks mentioned—want from pastors and chaplains is, I believe, the inverse: to justify the ways of people, and those who conscript them into such endeavors, to God or Yahweh or Allah or whatever they call whatever they believe in. How else can they convince themselves that their sacrifices, or those of their loved ones, had purpose and meaning?

What I found most interesting, though, about Scott Simon’s interview with Reverend Sparks is the latter’s tacit admission that what he accomplishes is not achieved through faith or his knowledge of his scripture or theology.  Rather, it is through some basic psychology. For example, he says that he got the woman in his story “to answer her own question.” And, he says, sometimes all he can do is let people tell their stories and those of the loved ones they’ve lost.  

It’s no wonder, then, that today, in all but the most extreme or fundamentalist churches, aspiring clergy members are encouraged to undergo training in psychology, social work, and related fields. Members of church hierarchies might believe that such training makes for a more effective ministry. They are right, if one defines an “effective ministry” as one that serves people in their time of need.  While I don’t know whether Reverend Sparks has an MSW or a degree in clinical psychology, his story illustrates that the techniques one learns from training in such areas—or from life experience—do more to meet the needs of someone who is grieving or otherwise in distress than knowledge of the Bible or theology. (Editor’s note: Chaplain David Sparks holds a Master of Divinity from Nazarene Theological Seminary.)

Oh, and that’s another reason why I didn’t become a chaplain: I realized, especially after volunteering on a suicide hotline, that if I really wanted to comfort or help someone, there could be absolutely no other agenda—especially a geopolitical or religious one—involved. You might say that an organization that trains people to kill helped me to make at least one good decision in my youth.

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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.

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Bruce Gerencser