On February 12, 2012, a man calling himself Preacher started an anonymous blog, How to Fall Down, so he could methodically deconstruct my past and present life. I did a bit of digital snooping, hoping to find out who this Preacher guy was, and it took me all of a few days to discover that it was the one and the only Reverend Tony Breeden. Breeden used to comment on a previous iteration of this blog until I banned him. Breeden’s deconstruction of my life lasted all of one month and thirteen posts.
Four years later, unable to get visions of me naked out of his mind, Breeden has decided to continue his voyeuristic peeking into my closet. While I don’t like his doing so, I know, as a public figure, that I must endure such inquiries into my life, beliefs, and motives. The difference between four years ago and now is that I no longer feel the need to correct those who view my life as a pornographic centerfold while they play with their Bible tool. Readers who have followed along with me over the years know the kind of man I am, as does my friends and family. That’s all that matters.
You can check out Breeden’s latest post here. I hope you will read it.
Dear Christians: The Word “Atheist” is Not Shorthand for Your Lives Before Jesus
It is not uncommon to hear Evangelicals claim that they were atheists before they became Christians. Often, their goal is to connect with atheists, hoping to win them to Jesus Christ. These atheists-turned-Christians think if they show that they “understand” atheism, that atheists will more likely accept their evangelistic appeals. Over the years, countless Evangelicals have tried this approach with me: Bruce I understand! I was once an atheist just like you! And then one day I realized I was a sinner in need of salvation and Jesus saved me! See! We are just the same. No. Really we aren’t.
I was a Christian BEFORE I became an atheist. I spent 50 years in the Christian church. I was an Evangelical pastor for 25 years. I was raised, saved, baptized, and trained in the Evangelical church. I attended an Evangelical college. I pastored Evangelical churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. I, at one time, had a library that contained over 1,000 theology books, all of which I read and used in my sermon preparation. I also had Bible and language study programs on my computer. I spent most of my adult life thoroughly immersed in study of the Christian Bible and Christianity. When I deconverted, I did so because I intellectually concluded that the claims of Christianity were false. My unbelief was the result of my painstaking, agonizing deconstruction of Christianity.
Most Christians-turned-atheists, deconvert when they are younger. Rare is the person who is in his fifties before he decides to walk away from Christianity. That I was willing, regardless of the cost, to renounce all that I once believed, doesn’t mean that I am, in any way, unique. While many people embrace atheism in their 20s and 30s, I do know of people who were much older when they lost the ability to believe in the existence of gods. All that being older means is that I had a lot more to lose by publicly announcing my defection from Christianity. I had accumulated a lifetime of experiences and friendships, and losing these was painful. The moment I dropped Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners in the mail and posted it to my blog, I knew that my life, from that point forward, would never be the same.
While my wife came along with me as we walked out the doors of the church for the last time, It was not at all certain that Polly would come to the same conclusions I did. The same goes for my six adult children. I risked losing the love of my life and the six blessings we shared over the course of our marriage. While I can now say that things worked out better than I could ever have imagined, there were times when I wondered if I wasn’t an arsonist who torched his own house.
So, dear atheists-turned-Christians, in what way was your “godless” life like my current life as an atheist? Be honest. Isn’t saying you were an atheist BC (before Christ) really just a generic, meaningless shorthand for life before Jesus? Evangelicals love to claim that there really is no such thing as an atheist, yet, when it suits them they are willing to claim the atheist moniker. If, as Evangelicals claim, everyone knows there is a God and has his law written on their hearts (Romans 1,2), how then is it possible for Evangelicals to be atheists before they became Christians?
Very few people schooled in the nuances of atheism, agnosticism, and humanism ever embrace Evangelicalism. Some might embrace moderate or liberal forms of Christianity or some other religion, but atheism is a sure antidote for Christian Fundamentalism. When it comes to reaching knowledgeable atheists, Evangelicals are batting pretty close to zero.
Instead of saying they were atheists before Jesus, Evangelicals should say they were indifferent to religion. Virtually all religious belief is the result of where and when a person is born, and tribal, social, cultural, and environmental exposure. Very few Evangelicals are willing to investigate why they believe what they believe. Better to make up stories about being atheists before being supernaturally saved by Jesus, than to admit that the reasons for their beliefs are quite human and earthly. In working with people who are in the process of leaving Evangelicalism, I try to get them to look at their lives from a sociological and cultural perspective. Once they are able to see how they became a Christian, sans any claims of supernatural action by the triune God, they will then be able to examine the claims of Christianity without faith getting in the way. It is not enough for people to say, I BELIEVE! Such a faith claim lies beyond investigation. If Evangelicals want their religion to be taken seriously, then they must be willing to expose Christianity to intellectual examination. If they are unwilling to do so, then atheists are free to dismiss their claims out of hand.
If there is one thing Evangelicals love, it is a glorious salvation testimony. Year ago, a young adult Amish-Mennonite man confided in me that he was distressed over the fact that he was not a bad person like many people were before they were saved. This man grew up in the Amish-Mennonite church and never strayed far from its teachings. He told me that he couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t a Christian. There was almost a yearning in voice, a desire to live a little and experience the sins the world.
This young man, like many Evangelicals, likely heard countless testimonies from people who were (fill in the blank) before they became Christians. In the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church movement, larger-than-life testimonies of licentiousness and debauchery are quite common. I hate to reduce everything down to the penis size matters metaphor, but in the case of salvation testimonies, it often the case that Evangelicals want to “out–bad” other Evangelicals. If Bro. Joe was a drunk, then Bro. Hank was a bigger drunk and a drug addict too. If Sister Sally lost her virginity to the preacher’s son, Sister Julie lost her virginity to the deacon’s son and had sex with the preacher’s son too. And on and on the dick-waving goes. Result? Fantastical stories of lives before Jesus that are legendary, often admixtures of embellished truths and fantasies.
Having heard hundreds of salvation testimonies, I have concluded that most public declarations of life before Jesus are fabrications built around a kernel of truth. So, when Evangelicals say they were atheists before Jesus, I generally roll my eyes and silently say to myself, sure you were. Many Evangelicals sincerely believe their testimonies are true. They are unwilling or unable to see that their stories are the products of telling the same falsehoods over and over. It is easy for us to convince ourselves of things that have no basis in fact. Atheists are capable of self-deception too. When I read a story about an atheist who says he knew Christianity was false by the time he was five years old, I want to laugh. That five-year-olds can be indifferent to religion is certainly true. But understanding atheism, and intellectually weighing Christianity in the balance by age five? Not a chance.
It is common for atheists and Christians alike to take present experiences and beliefs and read them backwards into their lives. In doing this, the truth becomes stretched, often to such a degree that it distorts reality. When I first deconverted, I wanted people to know that I abandoned Evangelicalism solely for intellectual reasons. While certainly the reasons for my deconversion are intellectual in nature, I am now willing to admit that my loss of faith also has an emotional component. I couldn’t admit this for a long time because Evangelicals used it against me, suggesting that I was angry at God, bitter, jaded, and cynical, and these were the REAL reasons why I am no longer a Christian.
While emotions and bad experiences certainly played a part in my deconversion, the most important factor was that I no longer believed that the claims of Christianity were true. Can the atheists-turned-Christians say the same? As our math teachers used to say, please show me your work. Show us the path that led you to atheism before finding Jesus. Few Evangelicals can show their work. Saying they were atheists before Jesus gives their testimony instant credibility within their houses of worship. Oooh, Bro. Jeremiah was an atheist before he was saved! Instantly, the stereotype which countless Evangelicals have of atheists is applied to the Bro. Jeremiahs of the church. What is that stereotype? That atheists are evil, followers of Satan, immoral, and eat babies for lunch. Rarely do Evangelicals ever bother to investigate whether pre-Jesus claims of godlessness are true.
When Evangelicals tell me they were once atheists, I usually ignore them, realizing that they likely have little to no understanding of atheism. When Evangelicals continue to say that they were once members of the Church of Atheism, I then press them for proof of their claims. Point me to the atheist, secular, or humanist groups you were once a part of. Show me what atheist books you have read. Provide the articles, letters, and term papers you wrote in defense of atheism. Provide names of people who will attest to your claim of atheism. I have yet to have an atheist-turned-Christian provide such proof.
What is ironic is that Evangelicals demand these very things from Christians-turned-atheists. I have spent years proving that I was a bona fide Evangelical Christian and pastor. I have written thousands of words in defense of my testimony. My claims can easily be checked and verified. I have, in every way, proved that I once was a preacher of the Evangelical gospel, a devoted, die-hard follower of Jesus Christ. Surely, I should be able to expect atheists-turned-Christians to give similar proof for their claims. While I am quite willing to accept that there are a handful of people who were once atheists and are now Evangelicals, I am unwilling to accept at face value testimonies that cannot be verified, vetted, or proved. And until these atheists-turned-Christians prove their claims, I hope they will forgive me for not believing a word they say.
Wikipedia has a page dedicated to notable people who were once atheists and are now Christians. Most of the converts are now Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, or liberal Protestants. While I have no interest in going through the list name by name, I think it is safe to assume that there are very few Evangelicals on the list. The most notable Evangelicals are Lee Strobel, William Murray (son of Madalyn Murray O’Hair), Jeffrey Dahmer and Kirk Cameron. Boy, there’s a panoply of intellectual greatness. While there are others like Francis Collins, the renowned geneticist, who claim the Evangelical moniker, many Evangelicals doubt evolution-believing people such as Collins are true Christians. Perhaps it is time for Evangelicals to start a Wikipedia page listing the names of atheists who became Evangelical Christians. I hope that, in doing so, Evangelicals will provide verifiable proof for claims of once being atheists. If Evangelicals want people like me to believe they were once atheists, then they are going to have to prove it. Just saying it doesn’t make it so. Just because Pastor John down at First Baptist has a whopper of a before-Jesus testimony doesn’t mean it is true. Preachers know the value of great story, and what better story than that of an atheist who found God. Such claims can open doors to wider ministry opportunities and increased income.
The more bizarre and unbelievable the story, the more likely it is that Evangelicals will believe it. After all, the Evangelical God is a miracle-working deity. If he can raise the dead, heal the sick, walk on water, and turn water into wine, surely he can take a gun-toting, crack-smoking, whoremongering, thieving, hit man for the Mafia and turn him into a Bible-thumping, Jesus-praising, hallelujah-shouting Baptist preacher. With God, all things are possible, right?
I am not using the No True Scotsman argument. I allow for the fact that there are atheists who have become Evangelicals. All I am asking for verifiable proof of such claims.
The year was 2001. A traveling worship band took the stage and began singing to the Christians gathered in the large sanctuary of First Baptist Church in Nashville. I was there with my girlfriend, a country singer, and when the band’s song became familiar enough she raised her hands, closed her eyes, and started singing along. Everyone else did too, so there were nearly 1,000 hands raised, 500 voices singing, 1,000 eyes closed.
I used to admire this unselfconscious abandon in my Christian brothers and sisters. I even found it beautiful. I was accustomed to the subdued, scripted and ritualistic worship of the Catholic Church I was raised in, and this display of emotion and affection toward God didn’t come naturally to me (insofar as the things that we are taught to do when we are young seem “natural” to us when we’re older). And even though my first encounter with this type of worship — which sometimes escalated to jumping up and down, even crying — was through the window of a church, making me wonder what sort of cult was inside, eventually the approach felt fresh and freeing to me; like it was a much more appropriate way to worship the creator of everything. So I followed along as best I could, though I could never do it without feeling extremely self-conscious, or like I was doing it wrong.
It so happened that as I stood in First Baptist beside the country singer, I was severely depressed, and had been for years. Everything back then, in my very early 20s, was an exercise in tortured acting and painful perseverance. Going to church and singing the songs were no exception. But the voice of my guilty Catholic conscience — which I suspect was partly responsible for my depression in the first place — was louder than ever, and it urged me to keep going, to keep raising my hands and singing. It had convinced me long before I was conscious that there could be no other life but for God, and it seemed to say now that maybe, just maybe, if my soul were pure enough, if I closed my eyes hard enough, if I sang truly enough, maybe I might meet God and find some relief in Him from my sadness. So heavy as my heart and hands were that day, I raised them up to God and sang along with the crowd…
…A few songs into the service, the singer stopped and told the gathering that the band had written a new song out on the road. He said they felt the song was pretty special, anointed even (!) — which I thought was a pretty cocky thing to say, even if I did admire his confidence, even if I did think it was pretty cool that Jesus Himself had blessed the song. He said they’d like to play it for us, and he went into the chord progression.
It seemed like a typical worship song to me, and after multiple repetitions of the chorus, everyone was back to the routine of singing along with hands raised and eyes closed, as if they’d been taught the song at birth. For a chorus or two, so was I. I was hanging in there, trying to worship my Creator as best I could, sad creation as I was. (“But that isn’t the Creator’s fault!” said the Catholic voice. “If you’re unhappy you’re just not trying hard enough!”) I sang like I’d sung to Him hundreds of times before. I sang to get closer and I sang for some relief and I sang to praise.
But then I stopped. I had to stop. There was something about the lyric that bugged me. I opened my eyes.
Let our song be like sweet incense to your heart, Oh God
This seemed an awful lyric. And the songwriter that I am, I had to take it apart while everyone else kept singing:
Let our song,
…which is a sound,
be like sweet incense,
…which is a smell, or something that produces smell,
to your heart,
…which is an organ that can neither hear nor smell!!!!!
Good Lord, are you hearing this?
I knew I was being a bit harsh on the writer. But come on, it was garbage. It was throwaway stuff. I looked around to see if I could spot anyone else who might feel the same way. We were in the songwriting capital of the world, after all. Maybe I’d see someone with her mouth agape, or someone holding his ears and crying. But what I saw were hundreds of my peers with closed eyes and raised hands singing those absolutely nonsensical words.
It was then that I felt the opening of my first true and conscious schism with religion, and with my religious self. The sight scared me. “This is not good. This is dangerous. This is really weird. These people are singing words that literally make no sense; which would be fine if they were singing along to some dumb song on the radio, but they’re not just singing along to some dumb song on the radio, they’re offering this nonsense directly to God. Giving it as a gift! How can they do this? How could they not think before they sing? Doesn’t God deserve better? Something that makes logical sense at least? Sweet as the singers are, might God be holding His ears and weeping right now?”
When I got done looking at the crowd I thought of myself, and I saw myself as one of those people and it frightened me. I had sung a million songs like this without thinking. Maybe not as horrendously nonsensical as this one, but close enough. And if I had sung songs like this without thinking, what else had I done without thinking? What else had I been taught to do that I had never questioned? What did I believe, what had I professed, that I didn’t actually understand? How come I am singing nonsense with all these other people? Such profane questions got my good heart to racing, and for the first time in my life my Catholic voice had no good answers…
…The Catholic voice got me to go to church and sing a few more songs. But its power faded. The questions the horrible lyric provoked were seismic enough to shake my religion, and when those led to bigger and tougher questions, my religion crumbled. Within a year after hearing the song, I stopped singing worship songs, and I stopped calling myself a Christian altogether…
It was not that long ago that virtually every church in America sang hymns from a hymn book. Now, it is hard to find a church that does sing hymns. What happened? As I look back over the 50 years I spent in the Christian church, I can see a slow movement away from singing hymns. It started with what I call youth group/camp fire songs, songs like Do Lord and Give Me Joy in My Heart. I’m sure more than a few readers remember making new verses for Give Me Joy in My Heart, verses like:
Give me wax on my board, keep me surfing for the Lord, Give me wax on my board, I pray, Give me wax on my board, keep me surfing for the Lord, Keep me surfing ’till the break of day.
Sing hosanna, sing hosanna, Sing hosanna to the King of kings! Sing hosanna, sing hosanna, Sing hosanna to the King.
Give me soles on my shoes, help me witness to the Jews, Give me soles on my shoes, I pray, Give me soles on my shoes, help me witness to the Jews, Help me witness ’till the break of day.
Give me gas in my Ford, keep me driving for the Lord, Give me gas in my Ford, I pray, Give me gas in my Ford, keep me driving for the Lord, Keep me surfing ’till the break of day
Ah, such memories. These songs were meant to be fun and most of all they were meant to be sung. As a Baptist, singing was very much a part of the worship experience. I was taught to singing lustily and loudly unto to the Lord. Songs like Do Lord were easy to remember and quite singable, so it is no surprise they caught on with Evangelical church members. To this day, I have fond memories of the chorus singing time during Sunday night devotions at Midwestern Baptist College. My favorite song was a medley of songs called the Hash Chorus:
Isn’t He wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Isn’t Jesus my Lord wonderful. Eyes have seen ears have heard – it’s recorded in God’s Word Isn’t Jesus my Lord …
Wonderful, wonderful Jesus is to me, Counselor, Prince of Peace, Mighty God is He. Saving me, keeping me, from all sin and shame. Wonderful is my Redeemer praise His name.
Precious name, O how sweet! Hope of earth and joy of Heav’n; Precious name, O how sweet! Hope of earth and joy of . .. .
Heaven is a wonderful place Filled with Glory and Grace I want to see my Savior’s face Heaven is a wonderful place
But until then, my heart will go on singing, Until then, with joy I’ll carry on, Until the day, my eyes behold that city, Until the day God calls me home.
This world is not my home – I’m just a passin’ through My treasures are laid up – somewhere beyond the blue The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door And I can’t feel at home in this world any . . .
More, more about Jesus – more, more about Jesus More of His saving fullness see – More of His Love who died for me.
Out these singable ditties, came praise and worship music. The first time we sang a praise and worship song in a church I pastored was in the late 1980’s. While hymns still dominated the singing, bit by bit praise and worship songs became a more prominent part of Sunday worship. Sometimes, on Sunday evening we would just sing choruses and praise and worship songs. I remember there were preachers who opposed this practice. They believed that these songs were theologically shallow, rarely stopping to consider how shallow and often heretical the Stamps Baxter/Southern Gospel songs were that they sung at their church.
While there are a small number of churches that have refused to embrace praise and worship music, most churches have succumbed to the latest fad and have made praise and worship music central to their worship experience. Some churches use a blended worship approach, weaving hymns and praise and worship songs together, while others have packed up their hymn books, put up an overhead, recruited a band and worship leader, and have joined the praise and worship revolution.
Casey Black’s reaction to praise and worship music is quite understandable. I know Polly and I had a similar reaction when we began to seriously look at our faith. We loved singing praise and worship songs, owning dozen of praise and worship CD’s. Our three oldest children played in our church’s worship band and continued to play in another church’s band after I left the ministry. (They are quite proficient guitarists and I miss hearing them rock out for Jesus) But, as we started analyzing every aspect of our faith, there came a time where we focused on music, particularly praise and worship music.
While we found praise and worship music quite singable and emotionally stirring, unlike the Episcopal church we attended that used unsingable songs, we came to the conclusion that most praise and worship songs were little more than mood setters meant to stir the emotions. Evangelical baby boomers in particular, having grown up on classic rock and roll, love praise and worship music. Why? Having heard numerous sermons about the evils of secular music, especially rock and roll, praise and worship music allows baby boomers to sing Christian lyrics set to music with a rock and roll sound and not feel guilty for it. (For you who are my age and older. 50 years ago, did you ever think that some day the typical Evangelical church would have a band, complete with those straight out of Africa drums?) Some churches now put Christian lyrics to secular music, songs like Bridge over Troubled Water become Jesus is the Bridge over Troubled Water.
These days, many Evangelical churches focus on what is called ‘felt needs.’ While they sing songs that say it is All About You Jesus, the truth is it is all about the flet needs of the Christian; it’s all about me, Jesus. The focus is on feeling a connection to God and having the deep, longing desire (felt need) of your heart met. Add to this that many Evangelical pastors now preach relational sermons, messages meant to appeal to the emotional needs of parishioners, it’s no wonder that many Evangelical worship services are little more than a religious version of a Tony Robbins seminar.
Go to a nearby Evangelical megachurch and observe the worship service. Pay attention to the music, particularly the lyrics. Gone are the deep theological lyrics from yesteryear. In their place are lyrics that often can be described as boyfriend/girlfriend songs, songs that just as easily could be sung to a lover. Watch as parishioners close their eyes and emotionally embrace the moment. Some churches even dim the lights during this time, giving the service a more intimate feeling. To put this in secular terms, the music and the lighting is used to set the mood. Soon Jesus will be coming by to pick you up for a date. If you are lucky, you and Jesus will have a sweet, intimate experience, not unlike a sexual orgasm.
The typical praise and worship time at the corner Evangelical church is like what I call spiritual masturbation in a group setting. Eyes closed, everyone start pleasuring, praising Jesus. It’s feel good music that is meant to stir emotions and lead to a spiritual orgasm. Instead of the focus being of God, the focus is on the individual parishioner. It’s their needs that matter. Even the notion of a communal experience is gone. The focus has moved from corporate worship to individual worship.
On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with what I have described above. Anyone who has ever gone to a secular concert knows how emotionally stirring the music can be. Polly and I attended a Darius Rucker concert two years ago and halfway through the concert I leaned over to Polly and said, this is just like a church service. Everywhere I looked people were in the moment, singing along with Rucker. Some were standing, others were dancing, and a few of the Baptists in the crowd had their hands raised praising Jesus. There was an emotional electricity in the building, every bit as powerful as anything I ever felt in church.
Here’s the danger of praise and worship music. If it is was just about a group of people singing, enjoying the music, and then going home, that’d be fine, but in many Evangelical churches the music is used to set the mood and to put the parishioner in an emotionally vulnerable frame of mind. The music is just a pretext. The goal is drive home the pastor’s message. Many churches now use tightly scripted programs, with each part of the program meant to prepare parishioners for hearing the words of God from the man of God. The goal is always the sermon, with every sermon meant to elicit some sort of response from the parishioner. It is in this kind of setting that a person can be easily manipulated.
Casey Black had a ‘what is this shit I’m singing’ moment. I can relate to his experience because that is exactly how I felt not long before I deconverted. Both Polly and I grew tired of the shallowness, monotony, and repetition of praise and worship music. This is one of the reasons we attended the Episcopal church for a time. There, we found lofty, soaring hymns, so soaring that no one could sing them. While the deepness, richness, and the antiquity of the liturgy appealed to us, the music was downright awful, so much so that we stopped singing. We went from ‘what is this shit I’m singing’ to ‘who can sing this shit’.
I suspect Black was looking for substance. Most of the people I know who were once committed Christians tell of their desire to find substance. Yet, no matter where they looked, they found emptiness, and it is that emptiness that set in motion their deconversion. Polly and I spent several years trying to find a church that took seriously the teachings of Christ. In the end, what we found is that most churches are the same, different name, same lack of substance. It is this lack of substance that opened up our mind and gave us the freedom to reconsider the veracity of the claims of Christianity. (Please see But, Our Church is DIFFERENT!)
Black’s article elicited the usual response from Evangelicals:
It sounds like the enemy (satan) has won you over. There is spiritual warfare and a tug of war for our minds everyday. I personally have been where you are and researched every religion and worldview there is because of my shaken world. However, it wasn’t until I decided to find pure truth no matter what it was, even if I didn’t like it, that I came to my senses and came back to Jesus. You will come to yours I am sure, just don’t give up so easily. If you let other people, who are fallen, influence you that much then strengthen your mind. You don’t have to be so easily manipulated by the fallen condition of the world around you.
I wish for you this..BIG …understanding..it’s really..a large way..worship…Hope you soul is lifted with meaningful verses of old traditional hyms..the words!! And you know.. God lives our critical mind. He created it! It’s perfectly ok. To ask..question..doubt..Look at John Macarther..he tested Christianity as an atheist as did Cs Lewis!! Read these brilliant minds..who thought as you..Go Seek..Question..Ask God to reveal himself to Your Mind!!I know..I am a scientist
If you believe any part of your thrown away faith, I plead you to look at this. According to this verse you cannot end up in Heaven when you die because you have thrown Jesus to the side. You will sit in hell, eternal torment and think, I am here because of a song lyric…I pray that does not one day become reality for you.
I read your story, and what strikes me is that your story speaks loudly that you haven’t met the Person of Jesus… possibly seen Him from a distance, but certainly not connected with Him directly and relationally.
You’ve definitely got bigger problems than the lyrics of a worship song. Hope you find yourself before it’s too late! I’m disappointed that you would choose to publicize and ridicule the place of worship. FBC Nachville is a fine church and I question the entire article. Good luck, but I won’t be buying any of your work!
Wow…you are really messed up to “leave” Christianity over a song written by a mortal. Makes me wonder whether you were ever “there” (how can one leave a place he has never been?) And methinks you were never there…you don’t seem to know that God’s heart is not an organ. His heart is all-sensing. And as for a song being incense, read Revelation. The prayers of the saints (believers) are incense unto God. It’s stated over and over again. And the song was a prayer. If the writer liked it, let him like it. Why are you acting petty and competitive?
You can read more of the wonderful comments from Evangelicals here.
I plan to give a shout out to Casey Black. I am curious about where he is today and where his journey out of Christianity has taken him. While he is roundly criticized by Evangelicals, I appreciate his willingness to take a hard look at his faith. His journey out of Christianity may have begun with a song, but I suspect that there is much more to the Casey Black’s loss of faith than his reaction to a praise and worship song.
Several months back, I asked readers to submit questions they would like me to answer. If you would like to ask a question, please leave your question here.
I am currently married to a Southern Baptist woman who is likely never going to change her mind about her beliefs. I deconverted late last year and am now an atheist. I’m curious as to how your wife ended up an atheist seemingly around the same time as you? I guess deep down I want her to see my views as an atheist but if anyone knows how hard it is to talk to a Christian as an atheist, it is you. My question is, can you tell us more about how Polly came to the same conclusions as you during the time of your deconversion? Maybe she can give us some input too. In a lot of scenarios, one spouse is still stuck as a believer while both the atheist and theist struggle with now being in a “mixed” marriage — I’m in one of them now. Thanks!
I think the best way to answer this question is to explain what took place during the months before we stopped attending church. When we stopped attending the Ney United Methodist Church neither of us would have said, I am not a Christian. After we decided we no longer wanted to be Pastor and Mrs. Bruce Gerencser, we spent a few years trying to find a church that took seriously the teaching of Jesus. Not finding such a church frustrated us and led us to conclude that the Christianity of Jesus no longer existed and most churches were just different flavors of ice cream; same base ingredients with different added flavors. (Please see But Our Church is DIFFERENT!)
For most of 2008, I had been doing quite a bit of reading about the history of Christianity and the Bible. From Bart Ehrman to Robert M. Price to Elaine Pagels, I read dozens of books that challenged and attacked my Christian beliefs. Polly and I spent many a night discussing what I had read. I often reading large passages of this or that book to her and we would compare what we had been taught with what these books said. While Polly was never one to read nonfiction, she did read several of Bart Ehrman’s books. Over time, both of us came to the conclusion that what we had been taught wasn’t true. We also concluded that we were no longer, in any meaningful sense, a Christian. It was at this point I wrote the infamous Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners.
For a time, both of us were content calling ourselves an agnostic. I soon realized that the agnostic label required too much explanation so I embraced the atheist label. While Polly still will not say she is an atheist, her beliefs about God, Christianity, and the Bible are similar to mine. She’s not one to engage in discussion or debate, content to go about her godless life without having to define herself. I often wish I could be like her.
When left Christianity I feared that Polly’s deconversion was a coattail deconversion; that she was following after me just like she was taught to do in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church. Some of my critics, unwilling to give Polly credit for doing her own thinking and decision-making, have suggested that Polly was/is being led astray by me. Fundamentalist family members have voiced their concern over Polly being drawn into my godlessness, rarely giving her credit for being able to think and reason for herself. Their insinuations only reinforce her belief that she made the right decision when she deconverted. Polly graduated second in her class and is quite capable of thinking for herself. Granted, this ability was quashed for many years thanks to being taught that she should always defer to me as the head of the home. That I was also her pastor only made things worse.
Where our stories diverge a bit is the reasons why we deconverted. While both of us would say we had intellectual reasons for abandoning God and Christianity, Polly’s deconversion had a larger emotional component than mine did. We’ve spent uncounted hours talking about the past, this or that church, and the experiences each of us had. Polly spent most of her married life under the shadow of her preacher husband. Now free to speak freely, I’m amazed at how differently she views our past. While I was the center of attention, heaped with praise and love, she was in the shadows, the afterthought, the one who had to do all the jobs church members had no time for. It should come as no surprise that her view of the 25 years we spent in the ministry is much different from mine.
As I’m writing this post I am thinking to myself, Polly needs to be telling this story. I can’t tell her story. While I can give the gist of it, I think it is better is she tells her story, that is if she is willing to do. I do know that she has no desire to relive the “wonderful” ministry years. She’s quite content to be free of God, the church, and the Bible, free to be just be Polly. Not Polly, the pastor’s daughter, not Polly, the preacher’s wife, just Polly. And I can say the same for myself. While I am noted for being a preacher turned atheist, an outspoken critic of Evangelicalism, I am content just to be Bruce. Most of our life was swallowed up by the ministry, so we are quite glad to be free and we enjoy the opportunity to live our lives on our own terms.
In many ways, our story is not typical. I’ve received uncounted emails from people who deconverted and are now in a mixed marriage. Like Kenneth, they want to share their unbelief with their spouse, but are unable to do so because of their spouse’s belief or because they fear outing themselves will destroy their marriage. (please see Count the Cost Before You Say I Am an Atheist.) Polly and I fully realize that if one of us had remained a Christian it could have ended our marriage. We are grateful that we’ve been able to walk this path together hand in hand. The farther away we get from the years we spent in the ministry, the more we realize how good we have it. Our deconversion could have destroyed our marriage and alienated us from our children, but it didn’t. Instead, we’ve been given a new lease on life; the opportunity for each of us to seek our own path. We deeply love one another, have six wonderful children and ten grandkids, and are, in every way, blessed.
I will ask Polly to share her own thoughts about our deconversion process. No promises.
A few readers might remember that I started blogging in 2007 as a emergent church/progressive Christian. I wish some of those posts were still available because they would help trace that intellectual process that led to our deconversion.
Evangelical Christian apologist William Lane Craig writes, in response to a question about doubt (link no longer active);
…..Be on guard for Satan’s deceptions. Never lose sight of the fact that you are involved in a spiritual warfare and that there is an enemy of your soul who hates you intensely, whose goal is your destruction, and who will stop at nothing to destroy you. Which leads me to ask: why are you reading those infidel websites anyway, when you know how destructive they are to your faith? These sites are literally pornographic (evil writing) and so ought in general to be shunned. Sure, somebody has to read them and refute them; but why does it have to be you? Let somebody else, who can handle it, do it. Remember: Doubt is not just a matter of academic debate or disinterested intellectual discussion; it involves a battle for your very soul, and if Satan can use doubt to immobilize you or destroy you, then he will.
I firmly believe, and I think the Bizarro-testimonies of those who have lost their faith and apostatized bears out, that moral and spiritual lapses are the principal cause for failure to persevere rather than intellectual doubts. But intellectual doubts become a convenient and self-flattering excuse for spiritual failure because we thereby portray ourselves as such intelligent persons rather than as moral and spiritual failures. I think that the key to victorious Christian living is not to have all your questions answered — which is probably impossible in a finite lifetime — but to learn to live successfully with unanswered questions. The key is to prevent unanswered questions from becoming destructive doubts. I believe that can be done by keeping in mind the proper ground of our knowledge of Christianity’s truth and by cultivating the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives….
First, Craig describes infidel websites like mine as:
A tool of Satan used to destroy the souls of Christians
Pornographic (evil writing)
Something that, in general, should be shunned
Craig readily admits that websites like mine can cause a Christian to doubt their faith. While I have no interest in converting any Christian to atheism, I do think the tenets of Christianity and the teachings of the Bible should be carefully investigated. If my writing causes a Christian to question and have doubts…good!
If Christianity is worth believing it will withstand any questions or doubts a believer might have. If Christianity is what it claims to be, then websites like this one will do little to no harm. Of course, I am think that Christianity is NOT what it claims to be and that is one the reasons people are leaving the faith in droves.
Second, Craig attempts to dismiss people like me by calling our testimony of loss of faith a Bizarro-testimony. (not to be believed) Craig contends we lost our faith, not for intellectual reasons, but because of spiritual or moral failure. Craig believes former Christians use intellectual doubts as a cover for moral or spiritual failure. In doing this, Craig moves the focus from Christianity and the Bible to the individual. According to Craig, I am no longer a Christian because of some moral lapse or spiritual deficiency in my life.
I will leave it to Detectives for Jesus to ferret out my moral or spiritual failures. I doubt they will find much to hang me by, but I will readily admit that I, like every other Christian and pastor, had moral and spiritual failures. After all, since I STILL had a sin nature, moral and spiritual failure was sure to happen, right? That said, I have no affairs lurking in my closet, just in case someone thinks moral failure=screwing a church member.
Craig lives in a world of willing delusion. He refuses to accept the fact that many of us, especially those of us who were pastors, left the ministry and the Christian faith for intellectual reasons. I have written many times about this subject. The primary reason I left the Christianity was because I no longer believed the Bible was the Word of God. I no longer believed the Bible was “truth.” I no longer believed that the central character of the Bible, Jesus, was who the Bible says he was. (and I use the word “was” because I don’t believe Jesus “is”)
I didn’t have a moral or spiritual collapse that led to me leaving the Christianity. Instead, I decided to investigate again the claims of Christianity and its divine Holy Book. Conclusion? I weighed Christianity and the Bible in the balances and found it wanting. (Daniel 5:27)
At the end of the day, it really is all about the Bible.
What was the thing or moment where it all started to unravel horribly, the pulling the first thread away moment, when you said ‘screw all of this’ and walked away? Was it one thing or a gradual buildup of stuff?
This is a great question, one that is not easy to answer.
My story drives Evangelicals crazy, especially those who are hardcore, never change their beliefs, fundamentalists. What they see in my story is a lifetime of theological change, and this is a sure sign to them that I never had a surefooted theological foundation. After all, the Bible does say that the double minded man is unstable in all his ways. In their mind, it’s no wonder I deconverted. Look at my ever-evolving theology.
However, I view my change of beliefs in a different light. For those of us raised in the Evangelical church, we grew up with a borrowed theology. Our theology was that of our parents, pastor, and church. When I enrolled at Midwestern Baptist College, I had a borrowed theology and when I left three years later I still had a borrowed theology. I believed what I had been taught.
Over the course of 25 years in the ministry, I diligently studied the Bible. I read over a thousand theological books and prided myself in working hard to give parishioners with exactly what the Bible taught. Over time, I encountered teachings and beliefs that were new to me, and after thoroughly studying the matter my beliefs either stayed the same or changed. Over the years, my soteriology and eschatology changed, as did my view on inerrancy the law of God, faith vs works, and Bible translations. These new beliefs led to changes in practice. I like to think that my changing beliefs were simply an intellectual response to new information.
Over this same 25 year period my politics evolved and changed. I entered the ministry as a right-wing Republican culture warrior. I left the ministry as a progressive/liberal Democrat. It is likely that my changing political beliefs affected how I read and interpreted the Bible.
I left the ministry in 2005 and left Christianity in 2008. In the three years between these two events, I went back to the Bible and restudied what I believed about God, Jesus, creation, salvation, and the Bible. I read numerous books written by authors like Bart Ehrman, Robert Price, Robert Wright, Jerry Coyne, John Loftus, Rob Bell, Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, Brian McLaren, John Shelby Spong, Henri Nouwen, Marcus Borg, Elaine Pagels, Hector Avalos, Soren Kierkegaard, John Dominic Crossan, N.T. Wright, Paul Tillich, and a number of other authors. I was doing everything I could to hang on to some sort of faith.
I went through what I call the stages of deconversion: Evangelical Christianity to Liberal/Progressive Christianity to Universalism to Agnosticism to Atheism. This path was painful, arduous, contradictory, and tiring. I spent many a day and night not only reading and studying, but having long discussions with Polly about what I had read. In November of 2008, I concluded, based on my beliefs, that I could no longer honestly call myself a Christian. Since I no longer believed the Bible was an inspired, inerrant, infallible text, nor did I believe that Jesus was God, rose again from the dead or worked miracles, there was no possible way for me to remain a Christian. At that moment, I went from believer to unbeliever. I call this my born again atheist experience.
Evangelicals will read this post and point out what they see as a fatal flaw in my deconversion; I didn’t read any Evangelical theologians. I didn’t read any of the shallow apologetic works that are bandied about as surefire faith fixers. The reason I didn’t is because I had already read them. I can recite Christian theology, in all its forms, frontwards and backwards. Since there hasn’t been an original thought in Christianity since Moses got off the ark, I had no need of rereading Christian theological books. The few Christian authors I did read, were new authors that I hoped would tell me something I had not heard before. I read their books in hopes of getting a new perspective on Christianity, hoping that they would knot a rope and throw it to me so I could hang on. In the end, the rope had no knot, and down the slippery slope I slid until I hit bottom.
So, my deconversion took a long time, but there was also a moment in time when I went from believer to nonbeliever.
If I had to point to one thing that most affected my deconversion, it would be learning that the Bible was not an inspired, infallible, inerrant text. I suspect this is the case for many Evangelicals turned atheist. Bart Ehrman is a good example of this. The belief that the Bible was a perfect text written by God and absolute truth from the hand of God himself, was the foundation of my system of belief. Remove this foundation and the whole house comes tumbling down.
One unanswered question remains; if I had started out as a progressive/liberal Christian would I have still deconverted? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. Since I have a pastor’s heart and I love help people, I might have found a home in progressive/liberal Christianity. This is one of those would of/could of/should of questions. That’s not the path I took, so here I am. Unless a deity of some sort reveals itself to us, I remain a convinced atheist.
What follows is the letter I sent in April, 2009 to my family, friends and former parishioners. This letter came after Polly and I attended church on the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 2008. I am republishing it here so it is part of the historical narrative of my life. I know many of you have read this before but I hope you will read it again. As I reread this, I am reminded that what I wrote here is still, almost seven years later, the motivating factor of my life. The rough, sharp edges are gone, but I remain a man in love with his wife and family and a seeker of truth.
Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners,
I have come to a place in life where I can no longer put off writing this letter. I have dreaded this day because I know what is likely to follow after certain people receive it. I have decided I can’t control how others will react to this letter, so it is far more important to clear the air and make sure everyone knows the facts about Bruce Gerencser.
I won’t bore you with a long, drawn out history of my life. I am sure each of you has an opinion about how I have lived my life and the decisions I have made. I also have an opinion about how I have lived my life and decisions I made. I am my own worst critic.
Religion, in particular Baptist Evangelical and Fundamentalist religion, has been the essence of my life, from my youth up. My being is so intertwined with religion that the two are quite inseparable. My life has been shaped and molded by religion and religion touches virtually every fiber of my being.
I spent most of my adult life pastoring churches, preaching, and being involved in religious work to some degree or another. I pastored thousands of people over the years, preached thousands of sermons, and participated in, and led, thousands of worship services.
To say that the church was my life would be an understatement. As I have come to see, the Church was actually my mistress, and my adulterous affair with her was at the expense of my wife, children, and my own self-worth.
Today, I am publicly announcing that the affair is over. My wife and children have known this for a long time, but now everyone will know.
The church robbed me of so much of my life and I have no intention of allowing her to have one more moment of my time. Life is too short. I am dying. We all are. I don’t want to waste what is left of my life chasing after things I now see to be vain and empty.
I have always been known as a reader, a student of the Bible. I have read thousands of books in my lifetime and the knowledge gained from my reading and studies have led me to some conclusions about religion, particularly the Fundamentalist, Evangelical religion that played such a prominent part in my life.
I can no longer wholeheartedly embrace the doctrines of the Evangelical, Fundamentalist faith. Particularly, I do not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture nor do I accept as fact the common Evangelical belief of the inspiration of Scripture.
Coming to this conclusion has forced me to reevaluate many of the doctrines I have held as true over these many years. I have concluded that I have been misinformed, poorly taught, and sometimes lied to. I can no longer accept as true many of the doctrines I once believed.
I point the finger of blame at no one. I sincerely believed and taught the things that I did and many of the men who taught me were honorable teachers. I don’t blame those who have influenced me over the years, nor do I blame the authors of the many books I have read. Simply, it is what it is.
I have no time to invest in the blame game. I am where I am today for any number of reasons and I must embrace where I am and move forward.
In moving forward, I have stopped attending church. I have not attended a church service since November of 2008. I have no interest of desire in attending any church on a regular basis. This does not mean I will never attend a church service again, but it does mean, for NOW, I have no intention of attending church services.
I pastored for the last time in 2003. Almost six years have passed by. I have no intentions of ever pastoring again. When people ask me about this I tell them I am retired. With the health problems that I have it is quite easy to make an excuse for not pastoring, but the fact is I don’t want to pastor.
People continue to ask me “what do you believe?” Rather than inquiring about how my life is, the quality of that life, etc., they reduce my life to what I believe. Life becomes nothing more than a set of religious constructs. A good life becomes believing the right things.
I can tell you this…I believe God is…and that is the sum of my confession of faith.
A precursor to my religious views changing was a seismic shift in my political views. My political views were so entangled with Fundamentalist beliefs that when my political views began to shift, my Fundamentalist beliefs began to unravel.
I can better describe my political and social views than I can my religious ones. I am a committed progressive, liberal Democrat, with the emphasis being on the progressive and liberal. My evolving views on women, abortion, homosexuality, war, socialism, social justice, and the environment have led me to the progressive, liberal viewpoint.
I know some of you are sure to ask, what does your wife think of all of this? Quite surprisingly, she is in agreement with me on many of these things. Not all of them, but close enough that I can still see her standing here. Polly is no theologian, She is not trained in theology as I am. She loves to read fiction. I was able to get her to read Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus and she found the book to be quite an eye opener.
Polly is free to be whomever and whatever she wishes. If she wants to start attending the local Fundamentalist Baptist church she is free to do so, and even has my blessing. For now, she doesn’t. She may never believe as I believe, but in my new way of thinking that is OK. I really don’t care what others think. Are you happy? Are you at peace? Are you living a good, productive life? Do you enjoy life? Yes, to these questions is good enough for me.
I have six children, three of whom are out on their own. For many years I was the spiritual patriarch of the family. Everyone looked to me for the answers. I feel somewhat burdened over my children. I feel as if I have left them out on their own with no protection. But, I know they have good minds and can think and reason for themselves. Whatever they decide about God, religion, politics, or American League baseball is fine with me.
All I ask of my wife and children is that they allow me the freedom to be myself, that they allow me to journey on in peace and love. Of course, I still love a rousing discussion about religion, the Bible, politics, etc. I want my family to know that they can talk to me about these things, and anything else for that matter, any time they wish.
Opinions are welcome. Debate is good. All done? Let’s go to the tavern and have a round on me. Life is about the journey, and I want my wife and children to be a part of my journey and I want to be a part of theirs.
One of the reasons for writing this letter is to put an end to the rumors and gossip about me. Did you know Bruce is/or is not_____________? Did you know Bruce believes____________? Did you know Bruce is a universalist, agnostic, atheist, liberal ___________?
For you who have been friends or former parishioners I apologize to you if my change has unsettled you, or has caused you to question your own faith. That was never my intent.
The question is, what now?
Family and friends are not sure what to do with me.
I am still Bruce. I am still married. I am still your father, father in-law, grandfather, brother, uncle, nephew, cousin, and son-in-law. I would expect you to love me as I am and treat me with respect.
Here is what I don’t want from you:
Attempts to show me the error of my way. Fact is, I have studied the Bible and read far more books than many of you. What do you really think you are going to show me that will be so powerful and unknown that it will cause me to return to the religion and politics of my past?
Constant reminders that you are praying for me. Please don’t think of me as unkind, but I don’t care that you are praying for me. I find no comfort, solace or strength from your prayers. Be my friend if you can, pray if you must, but leave the prayers in the closet. As long as God gets your prayer message, that will be sufficient.
Please don’t send me books, tracts, or magazines. You are wasting your time and money.
Invitations to attend your Church. The answer is NO. Please don’t ask. I used to attend Church for the sake of family but no longer. It is hypocritical for me to perform a religious act of worship just for the sake of family. I know how to find a Church if I am so inclined, after all I have visited more than 125 churches since 2003.
Offers of a church to pastor. It is not the lack of a church to pastor that has led me to where I am. If I would lie about what I believe, I could be pastoring again in a matter of weeks. I am not interested in ever pastoring a church again.
Threats about judgment and hell. I don’t believe in either, so your threats have no impact on me .
Phone calls. If you are my friend you know I don’t like talking on the phone. I have no interest in having a phone discussion about my religious or political views.
Here is what I do want from you:
I want you to unconditionally love me where I am and how I am.
Now I realize some (many) of you won’t be able to do that. My friendship, my familial relationship with you is cemented with the glue of Evangelical orthodoxy. Remove the Bible, God, and fidelity to a certain set of beliefs and there is no basis for a continued relationship.
I understand that. I want you to know I have appreciated and enjoyed our friendship over the years. I understand that you can not be my friend any more. I even understand you may have to publicly denounce me and warn others to stay away from me for fear of me contaminating them with my heresy. Do what you must. We had some wonderful times together and I will always remember those good times.
You are free from me if that is your wish.
I shall continue to journey on. I can’t stop. I must not stop.