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Tag: Clergy Project

Born-Again Atheist, No Turning Back!

born again atheist
Cartoon by Mark Lynch

Guest Post by Lon Ostrander

People often ask, how did you go from preacher to atheist. What happened? What caused you to change your mind? Many of us are familiar with the chorus: “I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, No turning back, No turning back.” The song seems to suggest that a U-turn was always a possibility that needed to be constantly and intentionally resisted. There are U-turns and then there are U-turns. For me, it wasn’t like an instant realization that I was heading in the wrong direction and executing a sudden handbrake turn in the middle of Main Street. No, it was more like a huge, gradual, barely discernible arc away from the straight gate and narrow way until I found myself traveling a sparsely trafficked wide road marked by rational thought and naturalistic explanations. Though I hardly noticed, the arc was complete, and six years after leaving the pulpit, I had only to execute an easy and liberating merge onto the Atheist Highway.

Decades earlier, my parents permitted our Pentecostal lady co-pastors to take eight-year-old me to a fire-and-brimstone tent meeting where the thundering music and screaming evangelist had me convinced that Jesus was returning that very night and that the end of my world was upon me. The possibility loomed that I would never get home alive and may never again see my parents and siblings. Well, Jesus didn’t return that night. The rapture did not happen, and I was not left behind. Much to my relief, I even survived long enough for the preacher ladies to get me back home with only minor psychological damage. Well, that’s just my opinion. The preacher ladies happily reported that I had decided to follow Jesus. Well, it was more terror than decision. The seed of doubt was planted that very night but would lie dormant for years.

Later in life came opportunities for repeated salvations, reaffirmations, and total immersions.

I had theological questions but more particularly, eschatological questions. Malevolent eschatology had gotten me into this mess, and I hoped that a better understanding of scriptures would eventually help me make sense of it all. When I began my ministerial studies at the age of forty-one, my concerns only increased. Especially concerning were the words attributed to Jesus as recorded in Matthew 16:28, “I assure you and most solemnly say to you, there are some of those standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” There are similar statements in the other gospels and it looked like Jesus lied, was mistaken, or couldn’t tell time. My quest for understanding eventually led me to discover the preterist movement which essentially teaches that every event associated with the end times, Jesus’ second coming, the tribulation, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, had already happened. Jesus’ return to earth was a “spiritual” return and the establishment of the Kingdom of God was likewise spiritual. I had only to check my spiritual rearview mirror to see it. Preterism was briefly satisfying, but as we all know, eschatology is a bitch, and then we die. Atheism ahead. Take the next exit.

In 2007 my secular work took me to Osaka, Japan. Six years before, I had given up the ministry, as ordination of a divorced and remarried matrilineal Jew was just not happening in the Central New York District of the Wesleyan Church. So, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I was never “caught in the pulpit” as a nonbeliever. My questions and doubts while pastoring were primarily theological and not really an obstacle.

In Japan, Christians are a small minority but while there I attended a local Christian church and found the Christians there to be just as petty and disagreeable as they were back home. The predominantly non-Christian Japanese people were, by contrast, always friendly, polite, and cordial. It was in Japan that I visited a local bookstore and picked up copies of Richard Dawkins’ “God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great.” My “spiritual” journey had already taken me to a place of practical deism with brief stops at preterism, liberalism, and universalism. I realized that what little was left of my faith was not only far less toxic, but also entirely without value. It is only a matter of practicality to discard worthless trash. From there merging onto the atheist highway was easy. I was no longer a believer. It was also during my assignment in Japan that my father died. I returned home for the funeral, no longer a believer. I attended my father’s funeral and burial as an atheist, with more anger than empathy for the Christian hopes and fantasies expressed at my father’s funeral service and burial.

Since embracing the atheist and existential nihilist labels, have I ever experienced any doubts? No, never a doubt in my mind. I cannot imagine any scenario that could possibly motivate me to turn back to religious woo of any description.

Do I have any regrets? To borrow a few lines from Ol’ Blue Eyes, “Regrets, I’ve had a few, But then again, too few to mention. I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption.” Certainly, I regret that I spent more than half of my life believing in a myth as though it were true. I regret the negative church experiences that my family had to endure as they were uprooted from home in New York to experience rather nasty church situations in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and then back home again. Finally, I regret the anguish they experienced coming to grips with the reality that preacher and believer dad was no longer either. Dad had changed his course. Husband had changed his mind.

On the other hand, I am encouraged that we’re seeing it through together. Susan and I just celebrated our forty-fifth anniversary on December ninth. Our sons and their families are very much a part of our lives. Our sons and their step sibs by a previous marriage are all friends. I have made the big U-turn. About religious faith, I have most certainly changed my mind, yet life is good, ever challenging, and much too short.

For five years now, I have had the unique privilege of serving as president of The Clergy Project, our online community of current and former religious professionals who have changed their minds. With the rarest of exceptions, that only prove the rule, we will not be turning back. We are not flip floppers. We are not wavering or vacillating. We have changed our minds, all 1,222 of us, and now we are seeing this thing through together, providing mutual support, community, and hope to each other. We hail from more than fifty countries and include former Christians of all stripes, Jews, Muslims, a Buddhist here and a Hindu there, a couple former Wiccans, a Raelian, a Moonie, and even a Zoroastrian. We dared to question. We dared to examine the evidence. We dared to face the truth, and sooner or later we dared to let others know we have changed our minds. For many of us, coming out as nonbelievers came at great cost, but as Winston Churchill quipped at the end of the movie, Darkest Hour, “Those who never change their minds never change anything.”

Well, that is my story. Twenty-one years after leaving the pulpit, and fifteen years after becoming a born-again atheist, I’m still easing on down that atheist highway. Turning back is not an option.  It’s not the “Highway to Hell” (AC/DC), but more like the “Road to Nowhere” (Talking Heads). It is the road travelled and the people we share it with that make it all worthwhile.

Leonard (Lon) Ostrander, born atheist on October 22, 1949, in Elmira, New York, former Wesleyan Pastor 1995-2001, quality assurance representative, current president of The Clergy Project

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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The Road to Atheism is Littered with Well-Read Bibles

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One of the charges Evangelical apologists love to level against atheists is that they don’t really know what the Bible says and teaches; that atheists are ignorant of that which they criticize. While it is certainly true that some atheists know very little about the Bible, the same can’t be said of ex-pastors such as myself, John LoftusDan BarkerDavid Madison, and the members of the Clergy Project. Nor can it be said of countless atheists who were formerly devoted followers of Jesus Christ; former Evangelicals who daily read and studied their Bibles and attended church every time the doors were open; former Evangelicals who devoured books on Christian theology and loved to talk about the teachings of the Bible. Such people know the Bible inside and out. Their paths from Evangelicalism to atheism are littered with well-worn, dog-eared Bibles. (Please see the From Evangelicalism to Atheism series.)

Many Evangelical apologists believe that only through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit can one truly understand the teachings of the Bible. Thus, a one-time Evangelical such as Dr. Bart Ehrman may have an academic understanding of the Bible, but he can’t really “know” the depths and intricacies of its teachings. This line of argument, of course, is an attempt to dismiss out of hand criticisms of the Bible by atheists and other non-Christians. Evidently, the moment I said I was no longer a Christian, everything I learned about the Bible during the fifty years I spent in the church and twenty-five years I spent in the ministry disappeared in some sort of supernatural Men in Black mind wipe. Thoughtful Evangelicals realize the absurdity of this argument and refrain from using it, but alas many Evangelical zealots aren’t “thoughtful.” In their minds, atheists are the enemies of God, reprobates, apostates, and haters of God, the Bible, and Christianity. No matter what we might have known in the past, now that we are followers of Satan, our minds and intellectual processes are ruined. No atheist can know as much about the Bible as a Spirit-filled Evangelical, or so they think anyway.

Does it really take the Holy Spirit to know and understand the teachings of the Bible? Of course not. And it is absurd to argue otherwise. The Bible is a book, no different from the QuranBook of Mormon, or Huckleberry Finn. Any claims made for its supernatural nature require faith, a faith that is unnecessary to have when it comes to understanding the Bible. If a person can read, is he or she not able to understand what the Bible says? Don’t Evangelicals themselves admit this fact when Gideons hand out Bibles and non-Christians are encouraged to read the gospels? If the teachings of the Bible cannot be naturally understood without some sort of Holy Ghost magic, why challenge unbelievers to read the wrongly-called Good Book?

I suspect the real issue is that when atheists read the Bible, they are free from the constraints of doctrinal statements, systematic theologies, and hermeneutics. One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard about reading the Bible came from Dr. Ehrman, who suggested reading each book of the Bible as a stand-alone text. Let the author speak for himself. Of course, such readings of the Bible destroy attempts by Evangelical apologists to harmonize the Bible — to make all the disparate, contradictory parts “fit.” Go back and read the first three chapters of the book of Genesis without appealing to parlor tricks used to make the text mesh with what Trinitarian Evangelicals believe about God and creation. A fair-minded reader might conclude that there are multiple gods. An excellent book on this subject is The Evolution of God by Robert Wright.

Over the course of the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry, I read the Bible from cover to cover numerous times. I spent thousands of hours reading and studying the Bible, and thousands of more hours reading theological tomes. Even today, a decade removed from the last time I darkened the doors of a Christian church, I still have a mind brimming with Bible verses and things I learned as an Evangelical pastor. One of the ironies of the health problems I have, with its attendant memory problems, is that I tend to have problems with short-term memory, not long-term. Thus, I can’t remember that recent Christopher Hitchens quote I read, but I can remember a quote by Charles Spurgeon or John MacArthur from decades ago. Believe me, there are days when I wish I could flush my mind of all the religious nonsense that clutters up its space. So much wasted mental real estate . . .

The reasons I divorced Jesus are many. I have spent countless hours writing about why I am no longer a Christian. That said, the primary reason I am an atheist today is the Bible. As I began to have questions and doubts about the central claims of Christianity, I decided to re-read and study the Bible, determining what it was I really believed. I found that many of my beliefs were false or grounded in narrowly defined theological frameworks that could not be sustained intellectually. Once I let the Bible speak for itself, my Evangelical house came tumbling to the ground. I tried, for a time, to find a resting spot that allowed me to hang on to some sort of Christian faith. Alas, I did not find these things satisfying intellectually. Eventually, my slide down the slippery slope landed me where I am today — a committed agnostic and atheist.

At the very least, Evangelical apologists should grudgingly admit that many Evangelicals-turned-atheists know the Bible as well they do. Now if we could get apologists to know and understand atheism/agnosticism/humanism as well as many ex-Evangelicals know the Bible, that would be great. People such as myself have a distinct advantage over many Evangelical apologists. We have lived on both sides of the street. We have read atheist authors and Christian ones. That’s why, when an Evangelical wants to argue with me about the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible, I ask them, have you read any of Bart Ehrman’s books? If they haven’t, I don’t waste my time with them. Their problem is one of ignorance, and until they are willing to do their homework, there’s really no hope for them.

I will forever, until dementia or death robs me of my mind, remain a student and reader of the Bible.  My reasons for doing so are different today from what they were when I was pastoring churches, but my goal remains the same: to help people see and understand the truth.

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, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 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.

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, Have You Heard of The Clergy Project?

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.

Konnie asked, “Bruce, have you heard of The Clergy Project?”

I am quite familiar with The Clergy Project. My writing is occasionally posted on Rational Doubt: With Voices From The Clergy Project. This blog is listed on the Resources page for The Project.  Established in 2011, The Clergy Project exists to provide help and support to men and women who are unbelieving clergy. Many of these clerics are still active pastoring congregations or involved in other church-related work. The Clergy Project provides a safe, secure place for unbelieving pastors to talk with fellow unbelieving clergy — both those who are still pastoring and those who have successfully exited the ministry.

I deconverted in 2008, and from the start was an out-of-the-closet ex-Evangelical-pastor-turned-atheist. When The Clergy Project was ramping up, I was asked to help with interviewing prospective members. I have also sent a number of unbelieving clergy to The Project. While I am still a member of the Project, due to time constraints, I am not involved in its day-to-day machinations. I fully support their work.

Konnie also asked, “Bruce do you listen to any atheist podcasts or read atheist blogs?”

I listen to very few podcasts. I simply do not have the time to do so. On occasion, I will listen to the Freethought Radio podcast. I do follow and read more than one hundred agnostic/atheist/humanist blogs. I also follow and read more than two hundred Christian/Evangelical blogs. Of course, I do not read every post on every site. I use an RSS reader to organize and read the blogs I follow. Several times a day, I scroll through the post titles and read those which sound interesting. This allows me to keep up with what is going on in both the atheist and Evangelical communities.

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.

Bruce Gerencser