Humanism

Questions: Bruce, As an Evangelical, How Did You Handle the Differences Between the OT and NT God?

questions

I recently asked readers to submit questions to me they would like me to answer. If you would like to submit a question, please follow the instructions listed here.

Dave asked, As an Evangelical, How Did You Handle the Differences Between the OT and NT God?

The short answer is, I didn’t. As an Evangelical, I viewed God as this monotheistic whole; that the Old Testament characterization of God was one side of his nature, and the New Testament portrayal the other side of his nature. God, unlike humans, was able to love and hate at the same time. He could be the carrot or the stick. God was this perfect balance of emotions, never wrong, always acting according to his purpose, will, and plan. In those moments where I had a hard time reconciling the God of the OT and the God of the NT, I reminded myself that God’s thoughts are not my thoughts and God’s way are not my ways. Who was I to object to anything that God did?

Believing the Bible was an inspired, inerrant, infallible text, of course, boxed me in as to what I could or couldn’t believe. I believed the words of the Bible were straight from the mouth of God. Thus, when God commanded cruel, violent, or genocidal behavior, I had to say, God had his reasons. We have to trust God, believing that he knows what he is doing.

One of reasons I left Christianity is because I could reconcile the OT and NT God. Either they were two different deities, or the Christian God was a loving, kind madman. I knew that Christians deny the former, so I concluded that the God of the Bible was not a divine being I wanted to worship. Over the years, I have dealt with liberal Christians who only see God as a God of love, mercy, and kindness. They love the NT God, but even here is God really all that loving and kind?  I concluded that he is not.

In the NT, we have the violent death of Jesus on the cross. According to Evangelicals, God, the Father poured out his wrath on Jesus, his Son, to satisfy a longstanding debt: human sin. Everything that happened to Jesus came from his Father’s hand. What kind of father treats his son this way? What kind of father punishes his son for what someone else did? God, the Father, then, comes off looking like a serial killer who loves to inflict pain and suffering on his victims before he kills them.

We also have the book of Revelation. Evangelicals believe Revelation is a record of past history and future events. Someday soon, Evangelicals say, Jesus and his Father are going to unleash a house of horrors upon the Earth such as never has been seen. The earth will be destroyed and billions of people will die, including little children, unborn fetuses, and the developmentally disabled. The bloodshed, according to the Bible, will be so great that blood will flow through the streets the height of a horse’s bridle.

Once God is finished with the earth and its inhabitants, he will resurrect everyone who ever lived on our planet and divide them into two groups: saved and lost. The saved will live forever in God’s kingdom on a new earth. The lost will be fitted with bodies capable of enduring endless suffering and pain, and then cast into the Lake of Fire. Most of the people in the Lake of Fire will be there because of geography — living in places where people worshiped the wrong deity.

It seems to me, then, that the Christian God has always being capricious and violent; that he has always resorted to bloodshed to prove a point or get his way; that the OT and NT Gods are really one being with a split-personality disorder. What the Christian God needs is psychiatric help.

What Christians need to do is write a new Bible, excising the genocidal God from the story. Evangelicals, of course, would never approve of a rewrite. They need the violent God to justify the culture war and their belief that that they are the gleam in their Father’s eye. Imagine all the smug, self-righteous Evangelicals on Judgment Day. They want God to make non-Evangelicals pay for their unbelief. Open a can of whoop ass, Lord, and give it these filthy, reprobate sinners. They deserve an eternity of pain and suffering for not believing in the right God and not living by book, chapter, and verse. Pour it on, Lord. You are worthy!

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Questions: Bruce, What Are Your Views on Objective Morality?

questions

I recently asked readers to submit questions to me they would like me to answer. If you would like to submit a question, please follow the instructions listed here.

Geoff asked, What are your views on objective morality?

The question asked by Geoff is complex and filled with nuance. Anytime I have addressed morality in the past, my writing has elicited all sorts of comments from atheists and Fundamentalists alike. It seems few people like or appreciate my worldview and my understanding of morality. As a Christian, I believed that the issue of morality was settled for me: God hath spoken. Shut the hell up and do what he commands! As a dutiful follower of Jesus, I attempted to follow not only the teachings of the Bible, but the direction of Holy Spirit who lived inside of me (or so I thought at the time).  Once I deconverted, I had to rethink my worldview. What was it I believed about morality in general? What was I it I believed about specific moral statements and standards? My understanding of morality has evolved over the past decade. I am, in no way, a finished product. I still have many questions about morality, and it is impossible to fully answer them in a blog post.

I readily admit that Christianity has deeply affected my understanding of morality. I was in the Christian church for fifty years. I spent twenty-five of those years pastoring Evangelical churches. As a result, Evangelical morality has seeped deeply into the dark recesses of my mind. While I try to distance myself from my past, its effects linger. Thus, there are times my moral views line up with those of Christians. This doesn’t mean, then, that I am a Christian. My views also, on occasion, line up with Buddhism and other religions. All this tells me is that religions have, in the past, played a big part in the evolution of human morality.

When someone asks me whether I believe in objective morality, what I hear them asking is whether I believe there are moral standards or moral absolutes. In the strictest sense, my answer is no. Morality is always subjective. Now that doesn’t mean countries, states, and tribes can’t have absolute moral standards. They can and do. All I ask is that believers in objective morality admit that their absolutes have changed over time, and that, in fact, the changing nature of their absolutes suggests that their morality is actually subjective. For example, there is a push in the United States to make eighteen the minimum age for marriage. This law, if passed, would be considered an objective moral standard. However, in the past, people were permitted to marry as young as age thirteen, and in some countries, children are betrothed to one another when they are still primary school age. If there’s such a thing as objective morality, then shouldn’t the age for marriage have been fixed from day one? That it hasn’t been shows the subjectivity of moral beliefs.

Morality is affected by tribal, cultural, and sociological influences. This means that all morality changes with time, including absolute, never-changing, God-said-it, it’s-in-the-Bible Evangelical morality. Evangelicals now do things that were considered sins — violations of objective morality — fifty years ago. Even Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) morality continues to change and evolve. Only those who are deliberately blind, people with fingers in their ears who say, nah, nah, nah, I can’t HEAR you, fail to see that morality is inherently subjective.

All of us belong to certain countries and tribes. As a U.S. citizen, I live in a country that supposedly values the rule of law. I say supposedly because Donald Trump’s abhorrent behavior and his penchant for ignoring the rule of law makes me question whether we indeed are still such people. Fascism is on the rise, and when it comes in full force it brings law by force, instead of WE THE PEOPLE deciding the laws that will govern us. For now, we are still a nation governed by laws shaped and enacted by legislators elected by voting Americans. These laws establish what we as a people believe is moral. These laws, over time, change. For example, at one time it was illegal to have an abortion; then in 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court legalized most abortions. Today, with the prospect of a right-wing Catholic being added to the Supreme Court, it is possible that laws regulating abortion will change, and women will be forced to revert to the days of coat-hanger, back alley abortions. The same can be said for much of the progress made on social and church/state issues over the past six decades. This ebb and flow shows that morality is subjective.

Theocrats, of course, despise the give and take of the legal process in democratic countries. They want a dictatorship, with the Christian (or Muslim) Holy book as the objective standard for morality. Theocrats demand that laws reflect their Fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible (or Koran). In their minds, their interpretations are one and the same with God’s will and commands. But, even for theocrats, their interpretations change over time, thus proving, once again, that morality is subjective.

Not only do governments establish moral norms, so do the tribes to which each of us belong. Whether at the group or family level, certain moral standards govern behavior. Now, keep in mind I am using the word moral in as broad of a way as possible. Divorce your mind from the religious constructs you have been taught, and see morality as the rules/laws/precepts by which we govern behavior. I suspect your family has certain moral standards, and those standards may or may not be different from mine. For example, I have lost readers over my refusal to stop using curse words in my writing. In their tribes, cursing is verboten or is considered in poor taste. In my tribe, it is okay to curse, except when young children are present or Polly’s IFB parents are visiting (though there have been times when a few damns, shits, and assholes have slipped out). When it is only adults in the room? Cursing is permitted, and be prepared to be schooled in sexual innuendo. Were the readers who demanded that I sanitize my writing “wrong”? Who determines what words are appropriate and what words are not? It should be clear to everyone that the words writers choose to use are subjective. Each tribe to its own.

My children are known for having what is called the Gerencser work ethic. This ethic was taught to them by their parents. Work hard. Eight hours pay for eight hours work. Do your best. Do it right the first time. Never accept good enough as a standard for acceptance. The reasons for these maxims are many, but regardless of how they came to be, they are deeply ingrained into the psyche of my adult children. My oldest son has taken one personal day at work in twenty years. His mom has taken zero. My younger children are not as zealous as their older siblings, but they still are known for being no-nonsense hard workers. This tribal ethos often brings them into conflict with other employees who have different work standards. For example, one son works in a department where the majority of the workers have already used half or more of their personal days. My wife supervises people who are already out of personal days with six months to go before they accrue new days. Years ago, my two oldest sons were asked by their fellow employees to slow down. Why? They were making less industrious employees look bad. My sons ignored their critics, choosing instead to follow the Gerencser work ethic (an ethic that can be found in many families, by the way). Both now hold management positions with their respective employers, as do their younger brother and mother. Does this make the Gerencsers better than other people? Depends on how “better” is defined, I suppose. All I know is that this very subjective work ethic is deeply embedded in my tribe. We behave this way because that what we have been taught to do.

Each of us also has personal moral standards; certain things we will and won’t do. I don’t expect other people to live by my moral standards. These rules of behavior — ever-changing — help me navigate the road of life. As a humanist, I look to the humanist ideal to provide moral guidance. This ideal, crafted by men and women, is inherently subjective, but it does address and support my worldview. I have no problem with Evangelicals wanting to live by their personal interpretations of the Bible. Go with God, I say. It is when Evangelicals demand that others live by their interpretations I have a problem.

As a post-Evangelical, I have been forced to reexamine my morality and worldview. For example, I am a pacifist. More specifically, I am proponent of non-violent resistance. Sounds like a moral absolute, right? I would like it to be, but the world is too messy for it be so; too gray, too challenging for me to say that I am, without reservation, a pacifist. Generally, I oppose violence, yet I love and support American football — organized violence. I wouldn’t take up arms to defend the United States, but I would defend my family against attack and harm. I face this same struggle with most moral issues. It’s too easy to write Ten Commandments and say obey. I choose, instead, to think about each issue, and then come to a reasoned conclusion.

Most people agree that we should avoid harming others. I think that’s a good place to start. But, even here, it is impossible to ever live a life that does not, at some point, harm others. Take vegans. They don’t eat meat for moral reasons. They don’t want to cause animals pain and suffering. Yet, providing vegans a non-animal diet still causes pain, suffering, and death. Earthworms, insects, and other animals die so farmers can provided vegans with yummy (I am being sarcastic here) soybeans. The goal, then, should be to promote the greatest good while at the same time causing the least harm.  We can then build on this foundation, asking “what is the best way for humans to govern themselves and live lives of love, peace, and harmony — pass me a joint, bro.”

Human morality is inherently subjective; a work in progress; a work that will never be completed; a work that will hopefully lead to a kinder, gentler tomorrow; a work that places great value on justice and kindness. Nirvana, it will never be, but we can have a better tomorrow if we want it badly enough. Unfortunately, internecine warfare between countries and tribes leaves me wondering if human progress is but an illusion, a pipe dream. Perhaps it is, but I see no other option than to work towards a better future for my progeny. This work requires of us hard discussions and debates about morality. Holy books or trade paperbacks are not the answer. We the people remain the captains of our ships, the masters of our destinies. God’s not coming to save us.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Your Questions, Please

i have a question

Greetings, Earthlings.

It’s been three or so years since I asked readers to submit questions for me to answer, so I thought I would open the call lines and ask you to submit your questions, along with $100 donations to help me reach Evangelicals throughout the world. Reason — praise be to Reason — has called me to evangelize Evangelicals, and your donations will help me take the gospel of critical thinking to the ends of the earth. Just kidding. While donations are always appreciated, what I really want is questions; your pithy, erudite questions.

If you have a question you would like me to answer, please ask it in the comment section. I will answer questions in the order they are received. You can also email your questions to me via the contact form.

This post will remain pinned to the top of the front page until July 15th, after which time it will disappear into the bowels of this blog never to be seen again

Let the games begin.

Bruce

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

The Lies Evangelicals Tell About Being Former Atheists or Evangelizing the Godless

calvin hobbes atheist

It seems these days that every Evangelical preacher, evangelist, and apologist has a story about an atheist who saw the truth of Fundamentalist Christianity and got saved. Some of these zealots have personal testimonies of their own atheism before they became Christians. After listening to or reading dozens of such stories, I have concluded that many of these storytellers are liars for Jesus; that careful examination of their stories reveal ignorance of what atheism is and isn’t.

Many Evangelicals believe that all non-believers are atheists. Of course, when I argue that all babies are born into this world atheists, Evangelicals object, saying that all humans are born with a God-given conscience. So which is it? Non-believers are atheists or non-believers have a God-given conscience? Are humans naturally blank slates upon which tribal religion must be written or are they born with God-shaped holes in their hearts? If no one is born Christian, then what is the nature of a newborn baby?

Atheism is not the human default. Atheism requires an act of volition. An atheist, then, lacks belief in the existence of Gods. Claiming the atheism moniker requires a person to actually think about the existence of God(s). Sadly, far too many people use the atheist label to cover up intellectual laziness or indifference towards religion. I prefer such people use the NONE label. Atheists, on the other hand, have weighed religion in the balance and found it wanting. Many atheists are actually quite conversant on matters of religion, having spent some or much of their lives believing in God. It should come as no surprise that many atheists know the Bible better than practicing Christians. It was the Bible that ultimately led them into unbelief and atheism.

So when I hear Evangelical talking heads speak about being atheists before they became Christians, I want them to explain how they are using the word “atheist.” More often than not, they are using the word incorrectly. The word “atheist” is not a placeholder for unbelief. When an Evangelical tells me he was an atheist before becoming a Christian, I want to know exactly how he became an atheist. If he says, oh, I always was an atheist, I then know that he was a NONE and not an atheist. The same goes for people who say they were Evangelicals, became atheists, and then later returned to Evangelicalism. While it is certainly within the realm of possibility for someone to follow such a path, I have a hard time believing someone who says he was a studied atheist, realized the error of his way, and became an Evangelical. Knowing first-hand what goes into someone leaving Evangelicalism and embracing atheism, I can’t imagine someone rejecting all he knows to be true for a belief system that he has already deemed incoherent and false. It leaves me wondering, what is the real reason for returning to the Evangelical cult

Evangelicals-turned-atheists go through great intellectual and psychological struggles before divorcing themselves from Jesus. Rarely do such people have an atheist version of the Evangelical born-again experience; where a person instantaneously goes from unbeliever to believer. Most atheists I know spent months and years deciding whether Christianity was true. And even then, they often didn’t embrace atheism right away. Desperately wanting to hang onto some version of God and life after death, many atheists dabble with liberal/progressive Christianity, Unitarian-Universalism, or other religions before concluding that all extant deities are false gods. In my own personal experience, I stopped numerous times along the slippery slope towards unbelief, hoping that I could find a religion and a God I could live with. Ultimately, I hit bottom, realizing all the deities in the extant panoply of Gods are powerless mythical beings.

The next time a Christians tells you that he was an atheist before Jesus gloriously saved him from his sins, ask him to explain the word atheist to you. Ask him, how and why did you become an atheist? If he can’t give a clear-cut testimony of how he came to a lack of belief in the existence of Gods, then it is likely that he was never an atheist or he was, at best, a cultural atheist (as is the case in some European countries where most people are born into atheist homes or who have never had any form of religious experience).

Some atheists want the attach certain philosophical, political, or social beliefs to the word atheist. I see this happening with social justice issues. Godless social justice warriors demand atheists embrace their causes if they plan on claiming the atheist label. While I agree with them on the issues, I refuse to make adherence to certain political or social issues a litmus test for being a True Atheist®.

I see atheism as a big tent. Yes, most atheists I know are politically liberal/progressive. But I do know a few atheists who are libertarians, and I even know — I shudder to think how it is possible — several atheists who voted for Donald Trump. I must live with the fact that some of my fellow atheists have different political beliefs from mine. We agree when it comes to religion, holy books, and gods, but when it comes to economics, abortion, and the designated hitter rule, our beliefs diverge.

Christians rightly object when ill-informed atheists define Christianity/Evangelicalism differently from the way that the cult members do. The followers of Jesus have every right to define what it means to be a Christian; they have every right to define what their beliefs are. The same respect should be granted atheists. It irritates the Heaven out me when a Christian zealot refuses to allow me to define who and what I am. Among atheists, there’s a common definition of atheism: the lack of belief in the existence of Gods. Any beliefs beyond that do not require atheism. For example, I am a humanist. While many (most?) atheists are humanists, humanism does not require a lack of belief in the existence of Gods. More than a few believers consider themselves Christian humanists or religious humanists. Atheism, then, is simply my belief about the existence of gods. Humanism is the moral and ethical framework by which I govern my life. It is, in effect, my Ten Commandments, my law of God.

I wish Evangelical pastors would invite atheists to their churches to educate congregants about atheism. Far too many Christians are ill-informed about atheism, having only heard what their preachers say on the matter or read what Dr. Rev. Blow Hard says in his polemical rant against atheists (and the same could be said about atheists who are ignorant of Christian doctrine and practice). Atheists, contrary to what Evangelicals have been told, don’t worship Satan, nor do they deny God’s existence just so they can behave immorally. Atheists are not evil God haters who want to imprison Christians and burn down house of worship. The caricature most Evangelicals have of atheists is every bit as mythical as their God.

Have you met Christians who claim they were atheists before getting saved, or who once were Christians but who deconverted and later returned to the faith?  If you are an Evangelical-turned-atheist, how did your pastor define atheism? If you are currently a Christian, how does what you hear from the pulpit about atheists/atheism compare with what I have written here?  Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

How My Political and Social Beliefs Evolved Over the Years

john birch society

A recent letter writer asked:

Were you always socially liberal and progressive “on the inside” or did that develop after deconverting? For example, were you always pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, and pro-transgender, and every time you read a bible verse got triggered, or did your social and political beliefs genuinely differ between being a Christian and being an atheist?

These are great questions. I believe the letter writer is asking if I always had liberal/progressive political and social beliefs or did these beliefs develop over time? I believe he is also asking if my political and social beliefs were different as a Christian from the beliefs I now have as an atheist? The best way to answer these questions is to share a condensed version of my life story.

In the early 1960s, my Dad packed up his family and moved from Bryan, Ohio to San Diego, California in search of riches and prosperity. While in California, my parents were saved at Scott Memorial Baptist Church, a Fundamentalist Baptist congregation pastored by Tim LaHaye. As members of Scott Memorial, Mom and Dad joined the right-wing, uber-nationalist John Birch Society. Mom, in particular, immersed herself in right-wing political ideology. She campaigned for Barry Goldwater, and would later actively support the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon and George Wallace.

As was common for people of their generation, my parents were racists. They believed Martin Luther King, Jr. was a despicable man, a Communist. Mom was an avid writer of letters to the editors of the newspapers wherever we happened to be living at the time. She considered Lieutenant William Calley — the man responsible for the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War — to be a war hero. She also thought that the unarmed Kent State students gunned down by Ohio National Guard soldiers got exactly what they deserved.

It should come as no surprise then, that their oldest son — yours truly — embraced their religious and political views. From the time I was in kindergarten until I entered college at age twenty-one, I lived in a right-wing, Fundamentalist monoculture. The churches I attended growing up only reinforced the political and social beliefs taught to me by my parents.

In the fall of 1976, I enrolled for classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution founded in the 1950s by Tom Malone. While I don’t remember any “political” preaching, Biblical moral beliefs were frequently mentioned in classes and during chapel. I heard nothing that would challenge the political and social beliefs taught to me by my parents and pastors. While at Midwestern, I met a beautiful dark-haired woman who would later become my wife. She had similar political and social beliefs, so from that perspective we were a perfect match.

All told, I spent twenty-five years pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. For many of these years, I was a flag-waving, homophobic, theocratic pro-lifer who believed Democrats, liberals, progressives, Catholics, mainline Christians, and a cast of thousands were tools used by Satan to attack and destroy Christian America. Over time, I theologically moved away from the IFB church movement and embraced Fundamentalist Calvinism. While my theology was evolving, my political and social beliefs remained the same — that is, until 1990.

In late 1990, American tanks, aircraft, and soldiers invaded Iraq, causing tens of thousands of civilian deaths. I was appalled by the universal support Evangelicals gave to the Gulf War. I remember asking congregants if it bothered them that thousands of men, women, and children were slaughtered in their name. Not one of my colleagues in the ministry opposed the Gulf War. None of them seemed troubled by the bloodshed and carnage. Try as I might to see the Gulf War through the eyes of the Just War Theory, I couldn’t do so. It was at this point in life that I became a pacifist. I didn’t preach pacifism from the pulpit, but I did challenge church members to think “Biblically” about war and violence — “Biblically” meaning viewing the Gulf War and other wars through the eyes of Jesus and his teachings.

From this point forward, my political beliefs began to evolve. By the time of the Y2K scare, I had distanced myself from groups such as Focus on the Family, the Moral Majority, and the American Family Association. I thought, at the time, that these groups had become political hacks, shills for the Republican Party. In 2000, I voted for George W. Bush. He would be the last Republican I voted for. In 2004, I vote for John Kerry; 2008 and 2012 I voted for Barack Obama; 2016 I voted for Hillary Clinton, though I was a big Bernie Sanders supporter.

In 2005, I left the ministry, and in 2008 I left Christianity. At that time, my political and social beliefs were far removed from when I entered the ministry decades before. I began as a right-wing Republican and I left the ministry as a progressive. Embracing atheism, humanism, rationalism, and science has allowed me to challenge and rethink my beliefs about homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, same-sex-marriage, LGBTQ people, sex, marriage, birth control, capital punishment, labor unions, environmentalism, and a host of other hot-button issues. As long as I was in the Evangelical bubble, these things remained unchallenged. Once the Bible lost its authority and control over me, I was then free to change my beliefs.

The Bruce Gerencser of 1983 would not recognize the Bruce Gerencser of today. A man who was a member of one of the churches I pastored in the 1980s and remained a friend of mine until 2009, told me that I had changed teams. And he’s right. My change of beliefs has been so radical that this man told me he could no longer be friends with me. Why? He found my atheism and political beliefs to be too unsettling.

I understand how the trajectory of my life, with its changing religious, political, and social beliefs, troubles people. I try to put myself in their shoes as they attempt to reconcile the Pastor Bruce they once knew with the atheist blogger I am today. How can these things be? former congregants, friends, and colleagues in the ministry want to know. How is it possible that Bruce Gerencser, one of the truest Christians they ever knew, is now an atheist? Some people think there’s some secret I am sitting on, some untold reason for my deconversion. No matter how much time I invest in explaining myself, many people still can’t wrap their minds around my current godlessness and liberal political beliefs. I’ve concluded that there is nothing I can do for them as long as they remain firmly ensconced in the Evangelical bubble.

My political and social beliefs are driven by the humanist ideal; that we humans should work together for the common good; that every person deserves peace, health, happiness, and economic security. I support political and social beliefs that promote these things and oppose those that don’t. I certainly haven’t arrived. My beliefs continue to evolve.

For readers not familiar with humanism, let me conclude this post with the Humanist Manifesto. Atheism doesn’t provide for me a moral foundation. Atheism is simply the absence of belief in gods. It is humanism that provides me the foundation upon which to build my life:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

I KNOW What Jesus has Done for Me

struggling with faith

Cartoon by David Hayward

Subjectivity:The quality of being based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions. An explanation for that which influences, informs, and biases people’s judgments about truth or reality; it is the collection of the perceptions, experiences, expectations, personal or cultural understanding, and beliefs specific to a person.

Objectivity:The state or quality of being true even outside a subject’s individual biases, interpretations, feelings, and imaginings. A proposition is generally considered objectively true (to have objective truth) when its truth conditions are met without biases caused by feelings, ideas, opinions, etc., of a sentient subject. A second, broader meaning of the term refers to the ability in any context to judge fairly, without partiality or external influence.

Faith, by design, is inherently subjective. Even the writer of the book of Hebrews understood this, as evidenced by the words found in chapter eleven and verses one and three:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

Hebrew 11 details the faith of Biblical luminaries such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sara, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, David, the prophets, and even the wandering children of Israel. Believing these people had great faith requires even more faith because none of them exist outside of the pages of Christian Bible. Hebrews 11 goes on to detail what these people of faith supposedly faced as earthly voices of the one true God:

Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions.  Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

I say supposedly, because there’s no evidence outside of the Bible for these things actually happening. Believing them to be true requires faith. And that’s the essence of faith: believing without evidence. Now intellectuals among the faithful love to argue that their faith is reasonable, but I find their arguments unpersuasive. Is it reasonable to believe a man who was cruelly executed on a Roman cross resurrected himself from the dead three days later? Is it reasonable to believe that this same man was born of a virgin, turned water into wine, walked on water, walked through walls, teleported out of the midst of a crowd, healed blindness with spit and dirt, and fed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and even fewer fish? Of course not. Believing these things to be true requires faith, a faith that rejects what we know objectively to be true. We know that virgins don’t have babies, water can’t be turned into wine (though my wife wishes this were true), people can’t walk on water or walk through walls, blindness can’t be healed through spit and dirt, and it’s impossible to feed five thousand men, and an unspecified number of women and children with five loaves of Wonder Bread and two perch filet. (Now, Jesus teleporting out of a crowd without being seen; that’s possible. SYFY channel, people. It’s all real.)

Imagine me telling you that over a twenty- or so year period I was beaten almost to death five times by Buddhists, beaten with wood rods by jihadists, stoned by ISIS, and spent thirty-six hours treading water in the Pacific. Not only that, the Chinese attempted to arrest me in Hong Kong, but I escaped by climbing over a wall. Would you believe my story? Of course not. A reasonable person would ask for some sort of corroborating evidence. Live long enough and you learn that when a story sound too good/bad to be true, it is likely a lie.

Yet, when a similar tale is told by the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 11, countless Christians believe it to be true:

Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. … In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me: And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands.

The Apostle Paul knew that readers would doubt his story, so he offered up proof for its truthfulness. Are you ready for some mind-blowing truth? Here it is: The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not.

God knows I am not lying.  Paul’s Sunday night testimony is absurd, and most reasonable people would reject it as the rantings of a man who has spent too much time in the third heaven. You know you are in trouble when you have to call a mythical God as your witness. Yet, is this not what countless Evangelicals do when they argue that they know God/Jesus/Christianity is true because of what they have experienced in their lives? God did it, they say. Just ask him! Pray tell, how is this any different from Elwood P. Dowd’s six-foot three-and-half-inch tall pooka friend, Harvey the rabbit?

Dowd believed Harvey was real, taking him to the bar for drinks and even introducing him to his friends. Dowd even believed that Harvey had the power to stop time:

Did I tell you he could stop clocks? Well, you’ve heard the expression ‘His face would stop a clock’? Well, Harvey can look at your clock and stop it. And you can go anywhere you like, with anyone you like, and stay as long as you like. And when you get back, not one minute will have ticked by. You see, science has overcome time and space. Well, Harvey has overcome not only time and space, but any objections.

What an awesome, science/reason defying rabbit, right? Maybe we should start a religion.

Harvey existed only in Dowd’s mind. He believed Harvey was real, so that means Harvey existed — even though no one actually saw him. Dowd rightly ended up in an insane asylum, yet when Evangelicals make similar claims about their God and religion, they are considered fine, upstanding citizens, every bit as rational as hardcore skeptics and rationalists.

The world has a collective cognitive dissonance when it comes to deities and religion. Instead of objectively examining and testing religious claims, billions of people accept them at face value. By faith, they just believe these things to be true. The United States is one of the most religious country on Earth. While the U.S. is religiously diverse, Christianity is the primary belief system of most Americans. Approximately one out of four Americans claim he or she is Evangelical. Ponder that for a moment — one out of four. In some places, such as where I live in rural Northwest Ohio, the percentage of Evangelicals is even higher yet. This is why a century of scientific knowledge has done little to change the minds of Americans about evolution. Three-fourths of Americans either believe God created the universe pretty much as it is described in Genesis 1-3 (creationism), or God used evolution to bring our biological world to life (theistic evolution). For hundreds of millions of Americans, when it comes to understanding the world they live in, they are content to say, God did it!

I recently had a brief discussion with an Evangelical man who wanted to know how and why I no longer believe in God. This man wanted me to know that his relationship and experiences with the Jesus were real. Here’s some of what he wrote:

I am not being critical. I am talking from a heart of simple faith in my life. I became a Christian in 1979 as a young boy running away from home. I had never been to church, my parents had never been to church. I sat in class during a bible lesson and had the most incredible encounter, which at that stage I had no clue what it was. Today, I know it had to have been the Holy Spirit. I went home that day, sat on my bed, Gave my life to Christ and have never looked back.

Since then I have had the most incredible experience of Christ’s love, forgiveness, prophecies and jobs through prophecy and leading in Christ. I have seen live [sic] transformed in him.

I am now 55, serving in a Christian school and seeing lives touched. Kids from broken homes, destitute families, youngster in very difficult situations being healed. This is not a hyped experience. Our school has seen raped young girls have coming to incredible healing under Christ, girls wanting to abort their babies, deciding not to and producing awesome children and loving them, boys abused and abusers who have turned their lives around because of the love they have found in Christ and testimonies of students from our school who are making a difference in their work place because of their faith. We do not have extensive bible programs, bible lessons, etc…but simple faith in Christ.

….

For whatever has happened in your life, I know what I have received in Christ. Maybe for me it has to do with the fact that I truly met Christ, not in a Church, that I have a personal experience of His touch.

I politely responded to the man, and a short time later he sent me this:

Thanks for the honest reply. I have read some of the articles already [I sent him links to several posts, along with a link to the WHY page] . Every single article I have already read still does not disprove or prove the existence of God to me. The only proof of God to me is what I have experienced in Him.

The bible of course makes no sense in many areas! That’s what makes it so tangible for me. Only an idiot would write such rubbish trying to lead someone to believe in him regarding faith, what’s in the bible, the “stories” etc…… , unless that idiot happened to be God who knows infinitely more than I could ever understand. I cannot presume to know God’s thoughts behind what was written in the sometimes seemingly ridiculous writing’s. That’s okay for me.

Once again all I can answer to is my own experience. I have experienced Him personally.

If I am wrong in my belief then I have lived an incredible life of serving others, in my opinion, to a better life where they can live in peace (referring back to the lives I have seen transform from despair to hope). If I am right in my belief in God’s word and plan then I spend eternity with him. What you call life “anecdotes” based on scientific principles I call awesome God events. It is a matter of choice. One of us is going to be wrong at the end of the day. I think I would rather be in my shoes. That however is a matter of personal opinion.

This Evangelical man knows that what he believes is true through emotional, subjective experiences. Essentially, he is saying, I know I am right because I know I am right, no proof needed. I assume he believes that there is only one true God — the Evangelical Christian God — and that all other Gods are false. But people of others faiths have similar experiences. Shouldn’t their beliefs be accepted at face value? If this man expects me to accept his claims without evidence, shouldn’t he do the same for people who worship Gods other than his?

I appreciate this man being honest about the Bible:

The bible of course makes no sense in many areas! That’s what makes it so tangible for me. Only an idiot would write such rubbish trying to lead someone to believe in him regarding faith, what’s in the bible, the “stories” etc…… , unless that idiot happened to be God who knows infinitely more than I could ever understand. I cannot presume to know God’s thoughts behind what was written in the sometimes seemingly ridiculous writing’s.

you might be wrong

Only an idiot would write such rubbish, he said. Now, that’s an objective statement if there ever was one. Believing the fantastical claims in the Bible requires the suspension of rationality and critical thinking skills. The only way to believe the Bible is true is to faith-it. Remember what I said earlier? That when a story sounds too good/bad to be true, it is likely a lie. The Bible, from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 is the greatest lie ever told. At best, it is a historical novel; a work of fiction interspersed with enough historical facts to give it a sense of believability. Until Evangelicals understand this, there is little that can be done to reach them. No matter what I told the aforementioned man, he was going to continue to believe; he’s going to continue to believe that he has had and continues to have a supernatural encounter with a supernatural God (much like being probed by aliens while you sleep); he’s going to continue to believe that God speaks to him; he’s going to continue to believe that his life’s story was written by God from time immemorial; he’s going to continue to believe that the Bible is a supernatural inerrant text written by a supernatural God, and given to fallible humans so they can know how to live their lives (without any updates or corrections for two thousand years).

But, Bruce, you were once an Evangelical. My God, man, you were even a pastor for twenty-five years! You changed your mind and now you are an atheist. See, people can and do change! Sure, I changed my beliefs concerning God, Jesus, Christianity, and religion in general. Many of the thousands of people who read this blog have done the same. But, change is hard, and the first step towards change is admitting that you possibly could be wrong. It wasn’t until I considered that maybe, just maybe Rev. Bruce Gerencser was wrong, that my mind was ready to know the truth (not in an absolute sense, but the truth about Christianity in particular). Once my mind was open to the possibility of errancy, both on God’s part and mine, I was then able to begin the journey I am still on to this day.

For a time, faith kept me from openly and honestly considering my fallibility. What if you are wrong? my inner Bruce said. Most ex-believers went through times when their lives were like a game of Pong. Conditioned by church/pastor-induced fear, it’s hard for Evangelicals to even ponder not being who and what they are. After all, thoughts of eternal torture in a pit of brimstone and fire will do that to you. I frequently receive emails from people who recently deconverted, yet are having what I call a God hangover. They objectively know that they are right about God and Christianity, but a lifetime of religious conditioning causes them to fear. This fear is palatable, and can cause great emotional unrest. Evangelicals, of course, say that such feelings are God trying to woo us back to himself. The Holy Spirit is saying, don’t doubt. I am real. God is real. Jesus is real. Everything the Bible says is true! Of course, these thoughts and feelings are not God at all. They are vestiges of a former life, and over time they will go away, never to be remembered again. Once our minds are open to objective rational thought, there is no going back. The proverbial horse has left the barn, never to return.

Let’s go trail riding.

Why Evangelical Christianity has the Power to Harm and Destroy

how beliefs affect us

It concerns me that more than a few atheists dismiss religious beliefs as quaint, silly relics that pose no threat or concern to them. Unfortunately, ignorance and indifference about religious beliefs can and does have catastrophic consequences. One need only to look to the election of Donald Trump to see what happens when religious beliefs are ignored. More than eighty percent of voting white Evangelicals voted for our pussy-grabber-in-chief. Trump, ever the con-man, used Evangelical beliefs about social hot-button issues to his advantage. Trump is no more a Christian than I am, yet he and his handlers knew that exploiting Evangelicals religious beliefs would help them gain the White House. While some Evangelical voters have buyers regret, many of them continue to support Trump, regardless of how many prostitutes and porn stars come out of his closet. All that matters to them is that Trump supports their values and ideals. You see, beliefs matter.

As an atheist, I believe that Evangelical Christianity is built upon numerous lies; namely that the Christian God exists, Jesus is God, Jesus was resurrected from the dead, and that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. These four lies in particular fundamentally and ruinously affect the lives of those who believe them, especially those who spend decades as Evangelical believers. These lies affect how Evangelicals think about the world and their place in it. These lies affect how Evangelicals view others, especially those who don’t believe as they do. And most importantly, these lies affect how Evangelicals vote and engage the political process.

I am well aware that Evangelicals are somewhat diverse in belief and practice. I also realize that a smattering of Evangelicals hold progressive/liberal values. However, in the main, Evangelicals are united when it comes to the four lies mentioned above. These lies, along with others, are what make them Evangelical. If a person professes to be an Evangelical, yet rejects one or more of the aforementioned lies, then it is fair to say that he or she is Evangelical in name only.

Of these four lies, two of them have the potential to cause the greatest harm. I want to conclude this post by briefly examining these two lies.

First, the lie that Jesus resurrected from the dead fundamentally affects how Evangelicals view life and death. Why aren’t most Evangelicals concerned with global climate change? Why do they show little interest in ending war, famine, and violence? In the resurrection of Jesus, Evangelicals see the power of the Almighty on display. Their God has power over life and death. Their God controls everything, and if Jesus is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, and he holds the world in the palm of his hand, why worry about the future? In their minds, God has an unalterable, unassailable plan for everyone. We live and die when God says we do. What happens between life and death is up to God. When you believe your God can do anything, well, anything and everything is possible. No need to worry, the one true God is always on the job.

Jesus, of course, did not rise from the dead. Jesus was human, just like the rest of us. When he died on a Roman cross, he stayed dead, never to rise again. Understanding this fact causes people to behave differently. If Jesus was a mere mortal who lived and died, then there is no hell to shun and heaven to gain. All we have is the here and now. What matters, then, is how we live in the present, knowing that what we do affects future generations, for good or ill. There’s no God coming to our rescue. There’s no God who is going to make our lives brand new. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how different the thinking is between someone who believes the resurrection lie and someone who doesn’t.

Second, the lie that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God materially affects how Evangelicals live their day-to-day lives. People’s beliefs that the Bible is some sort of divine roadmap or blueprint for life affects the choices and decisions they make. The Sounds of Fundamentalism and Christians Say the Darnedest Things series aptly reflect what happens when people really, really, really believe that the Bible is a direct message to them from God. Why are Evangelicals endlessly up-in-arms over hot-button social issues? The Bible. Why do Evangelicals believe that the United States is a Christian nation and that the separation of church and state is harmful to their faith? The Bible. Why are Evangelicals anti-woman, anti-abortion, anti-birth control, anti-LGBT, anti-gun control, anti-same-sex marriage, and anti, anti, anti? The Bible. From invectives against how women dress to calls for Muslims/illegal immigrants to be sent back where they came from, the justification for such violence against people is found in the Bible.

If we want a better tomorrow, secularists and progressive people of faith must attack and destroy the lie that the Bible is in any way some sort of supernatural message sent to humans by a supernatural God. While the Bible certainly has teachings that have cultural and social value, in the main the Bible remains a Bronze Age religious text that has little relevance for today. In fact, the Bible is one of the most dangerous books ever written. When literally believed, it becomes a weapon with the power to kill and destroy. Religious Fundamentalism (and Evangelicalism is inherently Fundamentalist) harms everything it touches. We must not allow the lie about the nature of the Bible to go unchallenged. Ignoring the power the Bible holds over Evangelicals will only further our democracy’s demise. When people who believe the Bible is divine gain the power of the state, we shouldn’t be surprised when the United States becomes a theocracy. If we don’t want the Christian flag flying over the White House, we must muster every available tool in the secularist, rationalist toolbox to expose the lie that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God.

I realize my words might seem harsh to some of my Evangelical readers. But, recent battles over gun control, abortion, LGBT rights, same-sex marriage, and immigration have taught me that this is not the time to live and let live. If truth is to prevail, then lies must be exposed. If truth really matters to Americans, then exposing Evangelical Christianity for what it is — a religious political party — is essential. All one needs to do is look at the Ohio legislature, Congress, and the Trump presidency to see what believing lies can do. Sitting idly on the sidelines watching Bart Ehrman debates on YouTube or reading the latest, greatest book on atheism is not the answer. Like it or not, non-Evangelicals must educate themselves about Evangelical beliefs and practices. In doing so, we are better equipped to wage war against the cultural genocide being waged in the name of God. One of the reasons I continue to slog through Evangelical blogs, websites, and social media is because I know it is important to do so; not so much for myself, but for my children and grandchildren. By exposing what it is Evangelicals say and do, I shine a light on their absurdities and lies. Just remember, Evangelicals really do believe the words they write and speak. That alone should scare all of us into action.

Remember, beliefs matter.

Note

Takeshi Kovacs is a character in books written by Richard K/ Morgan — Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, and Woken Furies. Altered Carbon was recently turned into a Netflix series starring Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs. I watched the first season of Altered Carbon and found it to a delightful, yet complex futuristic drama. I heartily recommend it for your viewing.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Evangelical Ignorance: “I Don’t Need to Read Any Books, I Have the Bible”

want truth read bible-001

Evangelicals love to talk about the Bible. They call themselves people of the Book. Yet, despite all their Bible-loving talk, most Evangelicals are quite ignorant about what the Bible actually says. Why is biblical ignorance so widespread within Evangelical Christianity? Evangelicals think that by reading the Bible devotionally they are learning exactly what the biblical text says and means. Rarely do Evangelicals read books dealing with textual and historical criticism. If Evangelicals read books besides the Bible, they turn to books that are approved by their denomination, pastor, or church; or they read books that reinforce their beliefs. Evangelicals are far more likely to read Christian self-help books, Christian romance novels, Christian biographies, or superficial “look what God did for me, he’ll do it for you too” books than they are books that deal with doctrine, church history, or textual criticism. I think I can safely say that most Evangelicals have never read a book written by Bart Ehrman. If pastors and churches sincerely wanted congregants to understand the Bible, you would think that they would encourage them to read the books of the man who has done more than anyone to make the biblical text and early church history accessible to people in the pew. Instead, Evangelicals are often warned to not read Ehrman’s books lest in doing so they have doubts about their faith. What pastors are afraid of is that the people in the pew will learn that what they have been telling them from the pulpit about the Bible is not true. Just stick to reading apologetical books written by Evangelical men of God, pastors say. These authors will never lead you astray. Bart Ehrman is an agnostic, he can’t be trusted to tell the truth. In taking this approach, pastors teach congregants that if you don’t agree with or like the messenger you can safely ignore his or her message.

I was considered by my ministerial colleagues to be well read, especially once I moved away from the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Month by month, my library continued to grow. On more than one occasion, church members came into my office and asked me, have you really read all these books? I would chuckle a bit and say, yes, I have actually read all of them. While most of the books in my library reinforced my beliefs, as I got older I began to read authors that were considered heterodox or liberal. Several of my former pastor friends and congregants have said to me that my voracious reading habit was the reason for my loss of faith. One woman told me that what I needed to do is get rid of all my books and just read the Bible. She thought, I’m sure, that the words of the Bible, once read, would have some sort of magical effect on me. Evidently, knowledge was my problem, and if I would just return to the ignorance of faith, all would be well.

Over the years, I met pastors who prided themselves in being men of one book. One man, a Church of the Nazarene pastor, was proud of the fact that his entire library fit on two four-foot shelves. His library consisted of a Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, several books of illustrations, and a smattering of easy-to-read, pabulum-level books. These kinds of pastors believe that they can just read the Bible and understand exactly what the text says and means. After all, the Holy Spirit lives inside of them. He is their teacher and guide. When they stand in front of their congregations to preach the Word of God, they believe they are doing so as a spirit-filled man of God. Some of the most atrocious sermons I’ve ever heard were preached by men who thought this way.

From 1997-2002, I pastored Our Father’s House in West Unity Ohio. One Sunday evening, three families who knew each other decided to visit our church. After the service, one of the visitors asked me about some of the things I said in my sermon. I told him that I would be glad to loan him several books that I thought would be helpful in answering his questions. He replied, I don’t need to read any books, I have the Bible. In his mind, all he needed to understand the text of the Bible was the Bible itself. I wish I could say that his astounding ignorance was rare, but over the years I met countless sincere Christians who had no interest in reading religious books. Some of them rarely read the Bible, let alone anything else. The fact that daily devotional books such as Our Daily Bread are used by churches to encourage congregants to read the Bible speaks volumes. For readers who are not familiar with such materials, let me explain what they are. Our Daily Bread, for example, has a devotional reading for each day of the year. The reading usually contains several Bible verses and an inspirational sermonette, all fitting on a small page. They are like SparkNotes for the Bible. For many Christians, this is the only Bible they will read on any given day.

I have known more than a few Evangelicals who, once they have used their Bible during Sunday services, store it under the front seat of their car, in the back window, or in the trunk. This way, they will know exactly where their Bible is come next Sunday. One of the reasons pastors repeatedly preach and teach the same basic sermons — four thousand titles for two sermons — is that Bible literacy is quite low among church members. I spent my entire twenty-five years in the ministry trying to get congregants to take Bible reading and study seriously. I can say with great confidence that I failed miserably. This does not mean that these people weren’t good Christians or that they weren’t serious about their faith. Often, thanks to long hours at work or domestic responsibilities, church members had very little time to devote to studying the unsearchable riches of Christ. I, on the other hand, was paid to read and study the Bible. I had hours every day that I could spend pouring over the biblical text and reading dense theological tomes. I used to nag church members about their lack of consistent Bible reading (and praying), but I quit doing so after I realized that the problem was a matter of time, not desire or faith.

Some pastors think that they are so full of the Holy Ghost that they don’t need to study for their sermons. Evangelist Dennis Corle told me that my time could be better spent soulwinning than studying for my sermons. He believed, as many preachers do, that spending time studying was a waste. There are souls to save, these preachers think. I’m just going to trust God, through the Holy Spirit, to tell me what to say. Such preachers reveal for all to see that the Holy Spirit is illiterate. Unlike many of my colleagues, I chose to devote significant time to preparing my sermons. It was not uncommon for me to spend twenty hours a week reading and studying for the sermons I would preach on Sunday. I like to think that my preparation showed in my sermon delivery and knowledge of the biblical text.

As you can see, theological and biblical ignorance are widespread within the Evangelical community. Researchers George Gallup and Jim Castelli pull no punches when they say: “Americans revere the Bible — but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.” Many Christians can’t name the four Gospels or more than two or three of the disciples. The same can be said for the Ten Commandments. Some of the ignorance can be attributed to the fact that many Evangelical pastors preach what is commonly called “felt needs” sermons; that people who gather on Sunday to worship God want to hear uplifting sermons that inspire them to live for Jesus. These overworked, stressed out children of God want to be told that their lives matter and that God has a purpose and plan for them. They want to hear sermons based on the Bible stories of men and women who were greatly used by God or who wrought great victories in his name. Theological sermons are often met with restlessness and yawns. What congregants want is a Jesus fix, not a seminary lecture.

Many atheists actually know more about the Bible than the people who say they believe that the Good Book is the inspired, inerrant, infallible words of God. One of the reasons that these atheists left Christianity was that they actually decided to find out exactly what the Bible said. And once they did, they were appalled by what they found. As long as widespread biblical ignorance continues to infect Christianity, pastors have no need to worry about congregants finding out the truth; the truth being, that what pastors say about the Bible is not true; that the Bible is not in any way a supernatural text; that the Bible is not inerrant, but instead is littered with hundreds of contradictions and errors. Once Evangelicals realize that they have been duped, they often leave their churches. Many of them remain people of faith, but they no longer trust religious institutions. I have met many disaffected Evangelicals over the past decade. I’ve noticed, given enough time, that they often slowly move towards indifference, agnosticism, atheism, or some sort of generic spirituality. Evangelical leaders are alarmed by the number of Millennials and Generation Z young people who no longer check the “Christian” box on religious surveys. Much has been made about the rise of the Nones. More than a few atheists have wrongly interpreted this rise to mean that some sort of atheist revival is going on. While it is certainly true that atheism in America has grown dramatically over the past twenty-five years, that doesn’t mean that all of the Nones are atheists. Most Nones, in fact, are indifferent towards religion, and if atheists want to win them over to their side, then they are going to have to preach the humanistic gospel. Disaffected young adults are looking for an ethical and moral framework that best represents their beliefs and understandings of the world. Humanism can and does provide such a framework.

I’m optimistic that better days lie ahead for atheism and humanism — that is, if Donald Trump doesn’t get us into a nuclear war first. Those of us who are humanists need to make case that humanism provides a rich and full way to live one’s life. We know that the Bible has little to offer our modern society, but with the abandoning of the Bible comes a moral and ethical vacuüm. It’s our duty (and privilege) to present humanism as the way forward, not only the United States, but the people of the world.

For those who may not know about what I call the humanistic ideal, let me conclude this post with the Humanist Manifesto:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.

Books by Bart Ehrman

The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World

 Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

How Jesus Became God : the Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee

Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior

Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them)

 Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Quote of the Day: A Strange God by Mark Twain

mark twain

Strange…a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; mouths Golden Rules and forgiveness multiplied seventy times seven and invented Hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him!

— Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger

What Possible Motive Would I Have For Falsely Claiming to be an Atheist?

easy believismOn occasion, an Evangelical commenter will suggest that deep down in my heart of hearts I KNOW that I am still a Christian; that my claiming to be an agnostic/atheist is a ruse or some sort of misdirection meant to lead people away from finding out the truth about what and who I really am. Such a conclusion is derived from reading my writing through blood-of-Jesus-colored glasses, seeing faith where there is none. Several years ago, one commenter even went so far as to suggest that my capitalization of words such as Bible, Heaven, and Hell was proof that I am, despite my protestations, still a Christian. Taking this approach, of course, allows once-saved-always-saved Baptists to square my past with the present. Once saved by the miracle-working power of Jesus, no matter what I say or do, I cannot be separated from the love of God. No matter how hard I try to divorce myself from God or run from his presence, I remain eternally married to Jesus. Jesus is the epitome of the abusive husband in a no-divorce state. The only way to be free of Jesus is to kill him. I wonder…is it possible to kill Jesus twice?

Most thinking people will recognize that the aforementioned argument is absurd and makes a mockery of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Salvation is reduced to intellectual assent, to a set of propositional facts about the nature of God, the human condition, the need of redemption, the threat of judgment, and the promise of eternal life. If someone, as I did when a fifteen-year-old boy, sincerely believes these facts, then he or she is instantly and eternally saved. After being instantaneously saved, it matters not how the saved sinners live. They SHOULD desire to live right. Indwelt by the Holy Spirit, those born from above SHOULD desire to attend church, pray, read the Bible, and follow the commands and precepts of God. But if they don’t, they are still saved, no matter what! In other words, a Christian could renounce Jesus, reject the teachings of the Bible, embrace atheism, and live a life of debauchery; it matters not, he is still saved. Supposedly, such a life would bring God’s judgment and chastisement, but if it doesn’t, the Christian is still saved. Several Christians have suggested my health problems are God’s chastisement of me for my rebellion against him. The problem with this line of argumentation is that my health problems started years and decades before I divorced myself my Jesus. What was God up to then?

If I am still, way down in depths of my imaginary soul, a Christian, why would I claim to be an agnostic/atheist? Point to one good thing that comes from me professing to be an atheist. I live in rural Northwest Ohio. The Evangelical Jesus is on public display everywhere I look. In the Williams/Defiance/Fulton/Henry county area, three hundred churches dot the landscape. Almost all of them skew to the right theologically and politically. I am not only an atheist, I am also a pacifist and a Democratic Socialist. I am everything most people in the quad-county area are not. Being an outspoken atheist has resulted in social ostracization. While I have in recent years tried to pick my battles more carefully, I am still labeled by Christian zealots an immoral tool of Satan. I continue to despise the preferential treatment given to Christianity and I deplore attempts to promote theocratic thinking and scientific ignorance. However, I am trying to get a business up and running, so I am not as vocal as once was. I have concluded that locals can live with my godlessness as long as I don’t shove it in their face. Of course, there is this little problem called my blog. Anyone who bothers to do a search on my name — I am the only Bruce Gerencser in the world — will quickly find out my views about God, Christianity, the Bible, Evangelicalism and right-wing politics. I am not hiding my lack of belief as much as I am being more careful in choosing when, where, and how I want to take a stand against God and his anointed ones. That said, I am sure some locals would never hire me to do photography work for them, even if I was an Ansel Adams who charged Walmart photo studio prices. This is the price I pay for being who I am.

eternal securityIt seems to me that it would an easier path for me if I said I was a Christian and lived as most local Christians do — as practical atheists, espousing a cultural Christianity that is trotted out for holidays, weddings, funerals, and periodic outbursts of self-righteousness over perceived secular attacks on the baby Jesus. I would, in effect, live as if God doesn’t exist. Such living is hypocrisy at its best — saying one is a Christian, yet living as if God is a myth. Surely, if people say they are Christians, shouldn’t they make a good faith effort to live according to teachings of the Bible? Shouldn’t their lives reflect their beliefs?

I can’t think of one rational reason for me to still be a Christian, yet claim to be an atheist. Being a Christian, even in name only, is a path of ease, one that requires nothing from me. Atheism, on the other hand, brings social and cultural criticism and attack. I do my best to be an example of a good atheist, someone who lives according to the humanistic ideal. I try to let my good works show the kind of person I am. I want local Christians to know that people can be unbelievers and still live moral and ethical lives. Most of all, I want my life to be glaring contradiction, when how I live is compared to presuppositions about atheists. A Christianity worth having is evidenced not by beliefs, but by how a Christian lives. So it is with atheists. How we live our day-to-day lives is vitally important. People are watching us, trying to figure out what kind of people we really are. I want to be the best atheist in town, one who loves his fellow man and, when needed, lends his care and support to those in need. Surely, atheist and Christian alike should desire what is best not only for his progeny, but also his friends and neighbors.

If you can come up with a reason for someone to still be a Christian, yet claim to be an atheist, please share it in the comment section below.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Religious Naturalism by Robert Tucker

Sermon delivered by Robert Tucker at First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Houston on August 13, 2017

Bob is a regular reader of The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser. I found his sermon to be quite insightful, so I asked him if I could post it here. Bob graciously said, yes.

INTRODUCTION

Today I will be speaking about a form of theology called Religious Naturalism. Naturalism is understood very expansively—all our perceptions, language, and values, along with all inventions and mental constructions, plus human relationships. That is, naturalism is not only a tree, but also the poet and her poem about a tree, and the desk made from the tree, the quantum theoretical understandings of the subatomic particles of the tree, and the decay, disease and death of the tree. Religion is understood as a magnificent human invention within nature, embracing all our experiences of wonder and miracle, gratitude and compassion, joy and forgiveness, and the human ability to corrupt, pervert and destroy even human’s finest accomplishments. Naturalism believes there are no substantiated reasons to view as real anything independent of the natural order, including deities. However, naturalism understands religion to be a humanly-created mental and physical part of existence that, clustered along with language and music, make up the lavish outpouring of human creativity.

For our reading today, I am using selections from Albert Einstein. Einstein had much to say about religion both in strongly denying he was a believer and also in strongly opposing the dogmatism of the non-believer:

… I am, of course, and have always been an atheist. … It is always misleading to use anthropomorphic concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere—childish analogies. We have to admire in humility the beautiful harmony of the structure of this world—as far as we can grasp it, and that is all.

I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.

What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos.

Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is the same as that of the religious fanatics, and it springs from the same source . . . They are creatures who can’t hear the music of the spheres.

To a friend who asked if the rumor were true that Einstein had converted, Einstein wrote:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

Next is a quote that I will repeat at the end of this sermon since it seems to incorporate the underlying dimension of Religious Naturalism.

The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.

It’s been a long time since I was an active, full-time, settled minister in a church, and I have lost touch with the individual stories of those who join liberal churches these days. Of course, there never was a cookie-cutter experience for all. Still, back when I was so involved, I found three types of experiences dominant:

  • First, there were those who found religion (usually Christianity, since Christianity is the main religion of culture in these parts) ineffective in helping in a time of extremity; for example, no promised easing of unceasing pain through prayer or Bible reading.
  • Another group came out of churches where there had been some financial or sexual misdeeds by a leader in the church. Disgust sent them looking.
  • But, by far, the largest group of new members came from individuals who just found their religious beliefs crashing when they bumped up against rational and scientific understandings of the world.

What is rational about a virgin conceiving by a divine spirit, about a dead person returning to life and, then, rising to heaven? And where is heaven anyway, when, in looking up, one can only see sky—sky almost back to the Big Bang, according to the Ultra Deep Field probing of the Hubble telescope? And if God is in heaven (as Jesus states in the Lord’s Prayer) and there is no heaven, only sky, then it is reasonable to assume that there is no God that can call heaven home. When confronted with the edifice of science and reason, many religious beliefs simply crack, crumble, and come tumbling down.

One thing I did notice though, was that, from whatever unwanted baggage people escaped, they were either uninterested in or unable to assemble a new belief system. They lived with denial, often tinged with regret, disgust or anger. For those who were, or are currently, in that situation, Religious Naturalism has the ability to delightfully bind two aspects of life—science and religion—that often get separated.

You have no doubt heard the comment made by last century’s humorist and actor Robert Benchley: “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who divide everybody into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.” Religious Naturalism is a ‘non-divider.’ It favors connections among people and ideas, both/ands rather than either/ors. In other words, Religious Naturalism has a very high tolerance for ambiguity.

One sharp religious divide is found in those who believe in God and those who do not believe in God—theists and atheists to use official theological terms. Being a non-divider myself, I have never found the argument between God-believers and God-deniers enticing enough to spend time on the debate. As a consequence, I gladly moved into a theology where my atheism and my theism cohabit, although, to be perfectly honest, when I state my position to both well-dug-in theists and atheists, raised eyebrows along with looks of disapproval-to-incomprehension are the return I get. In fact, I hesitate to use the words theist and atheist because the words immediately classify, catalog and pigeon-hole.

One cannot live in this society and not be aware of the dogmatism inherent in the ‘Jesus is the only way’ crowd. It fills churches, publications and the airways. What is less obvious, but just as real, is the dogmatism in atheists, a reality to which Einstein, more than once, points. Dogmatism is dogmatism, under whatever label, and dogmatism is persona non grata in Religious Naturalism. Religious Naturalism acts as a prophylactic against the dogmatisms of doubt as well as the dogmatisms of credulity.

Now, people can be dogmatic if they want to be, that is their choice. However, it is when they clothe their certainties, either in the piety of belief or in the reductive certainty of science, that I find myself ready to move on. So, Religious Naturalism is welcome space to avoid the dogmatisms.

When I mention this aspect of my Religious Naturalism, my credibility with scientific atheists plummets, and theists, although at first pleased, are appalled when I explain myself. Still I persist.

I find another drawback in both believers and unbelievers’ positions in the way they flatten life. They suck out the wonder in the rich tapestry of beauty, love and delight, often reducing truth to that which is dogmatically correct or scientifically verifiable. They can’t, as Einstein put it, “hear the music of the spheres.” Again, Religious Naturalism allows one’s senses, mind and imagination to be immersed in delight.

Let me now piece together Religious Naturalism, a religion containing both no God and God. I will briefly develop this thought in two areas.

  • First, in our natural world, our observation of the wonders/miracles all around encourages us to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
  • Second, coming to terms with the religious language we humans inherited, and now so-easily reject, can offer new ways of understanding and talking about our world.

PART ONE: Our Awesome Natural World

Religious Naturalism, viewing total reality in the natural world of which we are a part, encourages a particular way of looking at the world—finding the wonder and the miracles all around. In other words, if what we have is only this world, let’s delightfully make the most of it.

  • Today when you get into your car to return home, you will turn the key in the ignition and 180 horses will leap up ready to carry you swiftly, safely and comfortably to your destination, and the tires are so good you will not be carrying a tire repair kit, as we all once did. Wondrous!
  • Or, when home, you will turn on the light-switch and marvelous technology will wire you all the way back to extraction from the earth of coal and gas. Awesome!
  • Or, you will look up in the sky at sunset and find yourself transported by the beauty of the sun’s rays reflected on the clouds. Stunning!
  • Or, on reflection, you may find astonishment by the realization that family and friends put up with you and love you year after year, even at times when you know you were not all that lovable. Incredible!
  • Or, you may go to the symphony this afternoon and be stunned by the miraculous array of sixty professional musicians, each of whom is highly trained and each of whom has a different conviction about how the music of a particular piece ought to be played. Yet, each submits her-or-himself to the directions of a conductor—and you hear beautiful music rather than cacophony. Magnificent!

Religious Naturalism is religious in that, in one’s experiences, all the feelings associated with religion are generated this world—wonder and miracle, gratitude and compassion, joy and forgiveness. A way of labeling this is to use the humanly-created word ‘God,’ or better, C∞D. No person has written more pointedly of this aspect of Religious Naturalism than the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her poem Aurora Leigh:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries

Now, attentiveness can be found in each one of the world’s religions. In the Buddhist tradition, as you may know, it is called mindfulness—although I am reluctant to simply borrow that word from that tradition, knowing that mindfulness is differently understood from the way we use it in our culture. Still, being attentive to the world around and within is a key to living rather than a kind of sleepwalking through what is mistakenly perceived as ordinary days.

There is the story of a strung-out mid-careerist who futilely tried all the advertised offerings available for healing and decides as a final effort to visit the fabled guru in the mountains. After an arduous week-long journey the supplicant arrives, sits before the guru, and locks in eye-to-eye silence, for an irritatingly long time before the guru says, “Attention.” Again there is total silence. In that silence, increasing irritation scurries around the supplicant’s mind. About to give up and leave, the guru then says: “Attention, Attention,” and again goes silent. Now anger bubbles up that the person has been played for such a fool, and the suppliant rises to leave, but the raised hand of the guru stops him: “Attention. Attention. Attention.” The man stops in his rising, pauses, slowly sits, and in silence begins his return to the humanity he had lost.

Religious Naturalism does offer us a way to be aware of, as the writer D.H. Lawrence put it, ‘the wonder that bubbles into our souls,’ or, as Einstein stated, it allows us to listen to “the music of the spheres.” Religious Naturalism pushes us to see the wonder, the miraculous, the extraordinary in the ordinary world of our living.

PART TWO: Inherited Religious Language—Virgin Birth

A second area in which Religious Naturalism brings a gift is our ability to join scientific understandings and religious convictions by shedding our dismissive response to the twisted language we have from the past, anchoring some in teeth-clenching disgust.

Now, we have all learned that a lot of bad health habits and anti-social behavior stem from past childhood trauma — verbal, emotional, sexual, physical or a combination of these. Paralleling those is the vinegary religion many learned in their childhood churches. Dealing with the religious language that rolls around in our minds is important for our current religious health, and Religious Naturalism can provide help. Two such expressions that hang around in minds and in our society and continue to cause problems are ‘Virgin Birth’ and ‘Resurrection.’

With no supernatural, only the natural, we realize that all religious language, like virgin birth or resurrection, did not drop out of the sky. They, like all words, were created by humans, and are attached to human, non-supernatural experiences. And, they are words that were already in use in the culture prior to Jesus’ life, prior to the rise of Christianity. That does not mean the words are unimportant—after all, they contain human wisdom refined over the centuries, and they continue to provide inspiration and motivation for hundreds of millions. However, the literature shows that the ancients did not have the problem with virgin birth and resurrection that we seem to have, and it is not because they were more prone to superstition than we are today.

Of course, people in ancient days knew how babies came about, but still virgin birth posed no problem—because, in ancient days, virgin birth, primarily, was related to genius, not to conception.

In the ancient world there were two other very prominent humans who were held to be miraculously born besides Jesus: Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. What do those three humans—Alexander, Caesar and Jesus—have in common? They were individuals of such inner strength and outer power that people could not come up with a human explanation for such greatness. (We seem to have the same problem of explanation today; we don’t know how to explain the origin of genius.) The Virgin Birth of Jesus was a way of talking about the baffling, the perplexing, the mystifying, the unexplainable, the inexplicable genius of a rare individual, Jesus of Nazareth—a peasant from the backwaters of the Roman Empire who, unlike Alexander or Caesar, never led an army or ruled an empire, but who roamed the countryside for one-to-three years and was brutally killed as a criminal. Yet, he was a person whose after-death presence in people’s minds and lives continued to motivate people to reach out in compassion to the stranger and even to one’s enemy. The power of Empire could not shake off the growing influence of this individual.

If the words ‘Virgin Birth’ were used today, in the same way as they were in ancient days, we could say that Mozart was virgin born (what was the source of that incredible musical talent?), Einstein was virgin born (how could his mind roam over the entire universe in such counter-intuitive ways), and Martin Luther King, Jr., was virgin born (how could a young, newly-minted preacher in, of all places, Montgomery, Alabama, shift the focus of a whole nation?). Now, we don’t say virgin birth about these individuals, because that is not the way we use that metaphor today; however, like the ancients, we continue to stand in awe and incomprehension of the source of genius—but lack a descriptive word.

If today I said that I know a very important person who has an ego as big as an elephant, everyone would know of whom I am speaking; however, no one here would rise and run over to the nearby zoo to measure the size of an elephant. In the first century world, virgin birth was used the same way as the use of the image of an elephant. ‘Virgin Birth’ is a metaphor that was rooted in divinity because the reference to divinity was the only way to explain human genius.

Personally, I do not verbally use ‘Virgin Birth,’ but I sometimes keep the concept behind the words in mind, to remind myself of the unique and miraculous quality of each human life.

PART TWO: Inherited Religious Language—Resurrection

A second problematic religious expression is the word ‘resurrection,’ pointing to the physical coming to life of Jesus’ dead body. Once again, humans created this word; it did not drop out of the sky, and, it referred to a this-worldly human experience. Once again, it was in use in the ancient world before Christians came along.

 Justin Martyr, c. 100-165, a Christian theologian who lived a hundred years after Jesus and Paul, argued: “when we say … Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propose nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you consider sons of Zeus.” (1 Apology. 21)

My understanding of resurrection has been greatly influenced by the German New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann, 1884-1976. He placed the resurrection in a context of a ‘natural’ non-supernatural understanding. Jesus lived, Jesus died, and Jesus rose again in the hearts and minds of his followers.

This insight leads me down two paths of understanding. First, there is the frequency of resurrections in our corporate life.

Today and the rest of this week, just down the road from Houston, in Memphis, Tennessee, there is a resurrection celebration taking place. It is called ‘Elvis Week’ at Graceland. Annually, some 40,000 people from all over the world drop in for a remembrance on the death of Elvis Presley. This week an additional 20,000 or so are expected because this year is the 40th anniversary of Elvis’ death. The planned activities are reminiscent of an Easter celebration in a Christian church:

  • Lots and lots of Elvis’ music will be played and performed (as is the music of J.S. Bach in churches).
  • Stories of Elvis will be told and retold, most of which have been told repeatedly before (akin to the retelling of scripture).
  • On Tuesday night, a Candlelight Vigil will take place at the front gate of Graceland. With candles lit, the gates will open and the faithful will walk the path to Elvis’ burial site for veneration and then walk out (he lives).

Since the word ‘resurrection’ was formulated and used within our natural world, the word can also be used for a number of events of significant remembrance: our national holidays remembering those who died in this country’s wars, and the extraordinary life and too early death of Martin Luther King, Jr., remembered in February, being just two.

There is a second path to which Bultmann’s understanding of resurrection leads me. It becomes a way of talking about renewed human life—the lives that we lead following one or more of the multiple deaths we experience in this world. Let me note some of them:

  • individuals who have been physically and sexually abused—in childhood or as adults—men as well as women
  • those to whom the word cancer has been spoken
  • the reality for one whose child has died
  • the end of a marriage, the termination of a job, or the end of a dream
  • when self­-loathing follows our disloyalty to a friend
  • the times we betray our own values, shortcut our own ethics or cut corners with our own consciences

I truly believe that each of us, deep down, is wounded by other people, by organizations, or by ourselves, and, I believe, we carry with us those wounds and the subsequent deaths we endure throughout our lives. The truth of this is in how quickly we can be ‘rubber­-banded’ back into the emotions of earlier experiences when those remembered moments wash over us.

Yet, here we are today. We have risen from bed and placed one foot in front of the other in an affirmation of life. We are resurrected people. Resurrection is not about dead bodies coming to life or a future hope. ‘Resurrection’ is the word the ancients gave to life-affirmation in the face of our multiple deaths. Following such deaths, we move on and become centers of energy for the human future. How do we talk about such affirmation of life in the midst of death? We have the word ‘resurrection.’

As a minister I am the repository of people’s stories—stories of joy, but also stories of pain and grief, hurt and betrayal, dashed dreams and violated ideals. These stories leave me, at times, with great anger over the hurt done to people. Yet, that has never led me to become despondent or cynical. In asking why, I think it is because I stand in awe, in absolute amazement, at the way people pick up the pieces of their lives and move on, at the way they rebuild their shattered selves and, more often than I would believe possible, at the way they then reach out and become healers of others who have similar suffering. How can I feel depressed when I experience the amazing tenacity of the human spirit to embrace pain and death and to affirm life?

PART THREE: Unexplained, Non-rational and Exotic Experiences

A third area in which Religious Naturalism brings a gift is our ability to encompass the many things that happen in our world that defy easy explanation or any explanation at all. Experiences that are not common for everyone, or are differently nuanced for different people can make normal scientific or rational understanding tenuous-to-impossible. Thus, it is easy to dismiss them.

On the other hand, for believers such events can be an automatic sign of divine action at work. Religious literature and private testimonials are replete with events attributed to God’s will.

For the Religious Naturalist neither interpretation is satisfactory. Attributing an event to the supernatural is untenable, leading to automatic dismissal by scientists and rationalists. Yet, for individuals so impacted, such experiences are objectively real and often life-changing. If Religious Naturalism accepts nature (as broadly described early in this sermon) as reality, then the unexplained, the non-rational, the exotic, and the ecstatic of experiences need to find a place. There are enough unusual experiences had by rational people that they need consideration. I now mention three examples.

The first experience I want to cite is the religious conversion story of  Louis Zamperini, found in both the book and the movie titled Unbroken and that of John Newton and William Wilberforce. Unbroken was one of the longest-running New York Times bestsellers of all time, spending more than four years on the Times list.

In boyhood, Louis Zamperini had been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that carried him to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In 1943, as a plane’s bombardier, he crashed in the Pacific Ocean and pulled himself aboard a lifeboat. Zamperini spent almost seven weeks (47 days) in 1943 adrift on a raft, a speck of suffering in the vast sun-drenched Pacific. He was finally captured by the Japanese and placed in a series of POW camps. There he was savagely tormented and beaten by one Japanese officer. He endured. After the war, he married and lived a dissolute life of alcoholism and adultery, using both to stave off nightmares and flashbacks. At the behest of his wife he went to a Billy Graham revival in Los Angeles. There he was converted, gave up the dissolute life and, then, incredibly, following the words of Jesus, he went to Japan to forgive the soldier(s) that had so tormented him.

It is an incredible story, although my preference would have been for his conversion not to have taken place at a Billy Graham revival. That revival, that conversion radically changed his life. I cannot simply explain away or dismiss his conversion though psychological analysis, as I would have at an earlier point in my life, nor can I attribute a divine action to his conversion, as I never would have at an earlier time of my life. I am faced with the question of how to incorporate his human experience into my Religious Naturalist theology, his real conversion and his desire to meet and forgive his captors. If one is a Religious Naturalist, then one has to take seriously human experience, even when it does not fit into the neat boxes of believability that our rational minds create for ourselves.

I again reach into history for the story of John Newton, the son of the captain of an English slave ship who followed his father into that occupation. By his own accounting, he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Africans on the passage to the Americas. However, in the middle of life, Newton experienced a religious conversion (and wrote the hymn, Amazing Grace). He devoted the balance of his life to the abolition movement. His life intersected with that of William Wilberforce, whom he, at several critical junctures, provided with the encouragement and inspiration to continue the fight for abolition in Parliament. Wilberforce, himself, experienced a religious conversion in his mid-20’s. During his nearly three decades in Parliament, he is best remembered as the person most responsible for the slave trade being outlawed in the British Empire in 1807 (which proved to be the beginning of the end for legalized slavery throughout the world).

I am not a believer in a supernatural power causing conversions. Yet, I marvel at the power of such conversions to shape individual lives and, then, at how some of those lives have a profound effect on society. And, I find the quick dismissals of the testimonies of those who have such experiences by the rationalists and scientists too dogmatic. There is a difference between one’s experience and one’s interpretation of the experience.

Let me raise one final human experience that tests both easy rational dismissal and easy supernatural explanation—Near Death Experiences (NDE). An early report of a NDE came from Plato, in the “Republic.” Plato recounts the story of Er, a soldier who awoke after being dead for 12 days, sharing his account of the journey to the afterlife. Based on a real event or not, today such experiences are the object of numerous studies, including The Immortality Project, a $5.1 million research project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. What follows is the report of a woman who had a NDE this summer.

I was asked, ‘Do you want to continue this life, or die?’ I thought, ‘What’s death?’ The Light began to show me. I knew without a doubt that death was not an ending, but a wonderful opening to my real life. I would be more knowledgeable and live in unconditional completeness and love. I remember feeling almost unworthy of such an indescribable, unconditional love. I was in awe of how much love was enveloping me.

Now, I don’t believe Near Death Experiences are proof of anything supernatural. I am an ‘atheist’ in accepting people’s divine explanations of their experiences, yet I cannot totally dismiss NDEs out of hand, since they are real experiences of real people, and a great number of people. If I had to guess, I would say the NDE’s are the product of evolution, being the way our bodies face extinction. Yet … and yet, over the years I have had conversations with too many intelligent and rational individuals who have spoken of Near Death Experiences, not kooks creating something out of whole cloth. Some have quite significantly changed their lives because of the experience. How can I not take that seriously, even if I don’t always take people’s interpretations literally?

I also refuse to do a slight of hand and sneak divinity in by making the world God (pantheism), or proposing that God is in everything (panentheism), or by stating a derivation that God is in each human being.

One scholar, sociologist Peter Burger, came up with the intriguing phrase “signals of transcendence.” He says there are human experiences that point to, but do not prove, a transcendent element in our universe. He writes about what he calls ‘signals of transcendence” in modern society – little flashes in our lives which seem to point to a transcendent reality but which does not assure one that such a reality exists.

He takes one such signal to be a mother’s love for her child, and the words ‘everything is alright’ – he thinks this is a signal to a cosmic order where everything really is alright. ‘The parental role is not based on a loving lie. On the contrary, it is a witness to the ultimate truth of man’s situation in reality. In that case, it is perfectly possible to analyze religion as a cosmic projection of the child’s experience of the protective order of parental love. What is projected is, however, itself a reflection, an imitation, of ultimate reality.’

Living in the in-between, both-and world of seeing wonder but not automatically attributing that wonder to the supernatural is a place for the Religious Naturalist.

Such experiences are not a proof of other-worldly claims, but they are a reminder that we live in a universe that is far more puzzling and unpredictable than our rational and scientific approach can comprehend. Such unpredictability can easily be found by standing on the shifting sands of reality while reading quantum physics.

As a Religious Naturalist, I take all human experience seriously, including the unexplained, the non-rational, and the exotic. Not everything, of course, but I listen carefully to the experiences that people relate and invest with conviction and transformation. Still, some line needs to be drawn between the bizarre, outlandish and wacky and the unusual—a line that defies definition. There is not time enough to list all the frauds surrounding us like a field of poison ivy.

Living in the world of the ordinary, we can find Miracles of the non-supernatural kind are all around us.

A FINAL WORD

Religious Naturalism combines naturalism—a worldview in which all our perceptions, language, and values are this-worldly, not other-worldly—and religion, our this-world experiences of wonder and miracle, gratitude and compassion, joy and, I would add, resurrection.

We have been oblivious to the freshness of each day, the wonder of everyday miracles, surprises in the wrappings of the ordinary. The conventional understanding of miracle is something that runs contrary to the rules of ordinary life. Religious Naturalism calls for a refocusing on the ordinary, day-to-day aspects and events of the world as the nurturance for life.

Virgin Birth and Resurrection are a part of our ordinary lives and are seen in the people who populate our lives. To to ordinary I would add the non-supernatural, but tantalizing, ‘Unexplained, Non-rational and Exotic Experiences’ that so many rational folk in this world claim to have.

I began with readings from Einstein. I do not know whether or not he would be comfortable with the field of Religious Naturalism. I do know that his words contain an embracing of both theism and atheism. Einstein in his words wraps science and religion together in the experience of wonder.

The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.