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Engineering, Science, Depression, Deconversion

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Guest by Karen the Rock Whisperer

This is a personal story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have discovered true freedom.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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

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

The Ministry I Didn’t Pursue

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A guest post by MJ Lisbeth

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

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

“Have you ever handled a weapon before?”

“No, sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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

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

The Musings of an Agnostic

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A guest post by Ben Berwick. Ben lives and writes in Essex, England. You can read more of his writing at Meerkat Musings.

When Bruce Gerencser invited people to write a guest post for his blog, I thought to myself ‘let’s give it a shot’. Then I thought to myself ‘I actually need to think of something worthwhile to say’. Cue further introspective musings.

In the end, I wanted to speak of a journey – voyage – that I’ve been undergoing for, well, pretty much my entire life. It’s a trip towards… not atheism exactly, but certainly towards being agnostic, especially as I get older. It sounds daft for someone who is not yet forty to be considering mortality, yet my thoughts often drift in that direction. I’d love to believe I haven’t even quite completed half my lifespan, and therefore my anxious thoughts about death are ridiculous to have, but the thoughts persist, much like a bad penny.

I’m aware of the pull – one might say power – of religion. We look for meaning, peace and certainty throughout our lives. The absolute belief in an eternal afterlife where we can be with our loved ones and fulfil all our greatest desires is a powerful lure. Who doesn’t want an eternity of bliss? I don’t want oblivion, even though the scientific, logical part of my brain tells me there’s nothing beyond death’s veil. Yet I cannot bring myself to accept the positions of the religious, that we are told offer certainty of life everlasting.

The problem is not merely that I cannot reconcile the science/logic aspects of my thinking with supernatural notions. There’s more to it. As a kid, my teachers and preachers introduced a version of the Bible that was quite sanitised; as an adult, I found with great clarity that there are many horrendous acts within its pages, and many positions that I cannot abide by (such as the views on women and LGBT rights). Not every Christian takes these views to heart (the members of the Church where I got married are among the nicest, most welcoming people I’ve ever met), but many do, and I’ve had my share of heated arguments with them.

We’re told about forgiveness and love a lot by people who don’t want to practise these ideas. Is that in spite of or because of their religious upbringing? And I must include a caveat that there are many religious people who are good people, absorbing the best practices of their faith. As I said earlier, I’ve met some of them.

Unfortunately, the encounters with the evangelicals (and others) have left me wondering how organised religion creates tribalism and how it poisons people. The Word of God has been historically used to wage terrible wars (in some parts of the world it still is), and to justify all sorts of commands that to me, seem cruel and heartless. The stance of the religious right on abortion and life is hypocritical and it regards women as cattle. I’ve seen this attitude from both evangelicals and also a former Muslim sparring partner, and so it’s not strictly a Christian issue, but more a general religious one.

With that in mind, whatever my viewpoints on Christianity as a wide global, organised faith, I have more or less the same viewpoints on other religions. They claim to hold the high ground on morality, they claim to see life as precious, yet history is filled with conflicts between different religions and even within the same religion. There has been a lot of blood spilt and a lot of persecution because of religion.

It wouldn’t matter so much if religion were a personal thing. In the past, when I was at my most ‘religious’ (not that I can ever really say I’ve been pious), I saw it as a deeply personal, private thing. The trouble is, it’s rarely the personal, private relationship that it should be. My apathy for organised religion is in part formed by the idea that it can forced upon others, in various ways. The religious right believes nations should pass laws that endorse the views of the faithful, regardless of the impact of those laws on others.

If you’re not religious, you should not be bound by religious rules, yet to the fanatics everyone should be held to them. I can’t follow such beliefs.

The other side of my move towards being agnostic is based on science. There are facts about the age of the universe and the earth, there’s the state of the world we live in, there is tremendous suffering and pain, and then there is God, who is absent. We have a being described as omnipotent and omnipresent who could remake the world in an instant, if they are as powerful as their followers claim. Yet they do not intervene. We are told we are being tested, we are told God works in mysterious ways, we are told to attribute anything positive to God. We do not see any of God’s workings yet we are meant to devote ourselves to worshipping this being and the codes and rules of their holy texts (despite the numerous contradictions between them all), even though many of those rules are arbitrary and in many cases cruel.

I can’t reconcile these facts with faith. Yet I want to believe that there is something after death, because I want to be in my daughter’s life forever. I want that hope. I want to watch for eternity as humanity (hopefully) grows beyond what it is now. I want to watch us soar to the stars.

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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

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

Guests Posts: Stating the Obvious . . .

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Yesterday, I asked readers to contact me if they were interested in writing a guest post for this site. The first readers to contact me were two Evangelicals banned from commenting on this blog. So let me state the obvious: if you are banned from commenting on this site, you are not eligible to submit a guest post. Not-going-to-happen-ever.

End of discussion.

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bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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

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

Are You Interested in Writing a Guest Post?

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I am always interested in having people write guest posts for this site. If you are interested in writing a guest post, please use the contact form to email me. You can choose any subject. If you are a Christian, you can even write a post telling me how wrong I am about God, Christianity, and the Bible.

Have a story to tell about your life as a Christian and subsequent deconversion? Testimonies are always welcome. I have found that readers really appreciate and enjoy reading posts about the journey of others away from Evangelicalism. Perhaps you are someone who has left Evangelicalism, but still believes in the existence of a deity/energy/higher power. Your story is welcome too.

If you worried about grammar or spelling, don’t be. Carolyn, my ever-watchful editor, edits every guest post before it is published. If she can turn my writing into coherent prose, trust me, she can do the same for yours.

Anonymous posts are okay, as are articles previously posted elsewhere.

Several readers have emailed me in the past about writing guest posts. I am w-a-i-t-i-n-g. 🙂 Seriously, if you have something you would like to say, I am more than happy to post it here. The ball is in your court.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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

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

Bruce Gerencser