Menu Close

Tag: Guest Post

The Black Death of the Church

guest post

A guest post by MJ Lisbeth

It sickened and killed its first victims in China. Italy was the stage for its European arrival; from there, it spread to Spain, France, Germany, England, Scandinavia and the Balkans. Urban dwellers of means fled to their countryside manses. In the meantime, leaders insisted that things were normal, blamed their enemies and racial groups who were already experiencing suspicion and scorn, and, perhaps worst of all, recommended “treatments,” “cures” and other courses of action that, they claimed, had remedial powers but, in fact, had no empirical foundation.

So far, this sounds like an outline of the COVID-19 trajectory and the response to the pandemic, doesn’t it? Would that we were living in such interesting times, to paraphrase an ancient Chinese (!) curse. Instead, this recounting of a pandemic feels, if anything, more like the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The chronology I outlined in the first paragraph is, in fact, a rough sketch of the Black Death’s trajectory—with a slight variation. Nearly everyone who has studied the 14th Century spread of the plague agrees that it started, or at least was first noticed, in east-central Asia: somewhere in what is now Mongolia or, perhaps, westernmost China. Those same scholars say that it spread along the “Silk Road” and maritime trade routes while the current pandemic most likely spread in planes, trains, cars and buses.

What is all-too-depressingly-familiar, though, is the response of rulers—and said leaders’ relation to a “higher” authority. In late-medieval Europe, the church was all but inseparable from monarchies and the noble classes. Likewise, the heads of state in the United States, Russia, Brazil and other countries glean much of their support from vocal religious groups who, in many cases, deny the findings of scientists, ignore the recommendations of health care professionals and eschew intellectual inquiry. Thus are we advised that COVID-19 is “just a flu” that will “pass” with warm weather or the re-election of the leader making the claim. The US President bellows his prescription of injecting one’s self with cleaning products over the warnings of one of the world’s leading infectious disease experts, much as medieval authorities prescribed chopping up snakes and rubbing the pieces on one’s body (the snake, associated with Satan, was supposed to attract and draw away the “evil” of the disease) or drinking potions made from a unicorn’s horn. The President also insists that religious fundamentalists, vital to his re-election, can congregate, sing, dance, hug, kiss and share meals with hundreds of other fellow worshipers, just as the medieval Church continued to encourage mass gatherings, a source of its power.

That same symbiotic relationship between political and ecumenical authorities is a reason why the former can so easily blame people who are not part of the dominant culture or religion for the pestilence spreading across the land—or for any number of actual or imagined evils and tragedies. In a world where Jews were said to poison wells, kidnap and kill Christian children and perform all manner of evil rites, it wasn’t hard for the Church and Court to promulgate the belief that Jews caused the plague—and to justify murdering them. Likewise could, and did, the President marshal the xenophobic resentments of his supporters to call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Kung Flu,” just as leaders of other countries could, and did, blame the epidemic on religious and racial minorities or LGBTQ and other “deviant” people. The “Leader of the Free World” also fuels (or at least does nothing to tamp down) rumors that members of those same groups—or his political enemies—run pedophilia rings that—you guessed it—kidnap innocent white children and force them into unspeakable acts .

(In my admittedly-amateur reading of history, I’ve noticed this: When deranged minds and empty hearts fill clerical robes, gaudy uniforms or expensive suits, they use—or encourage others to use—the need to protect the supposed innocence of their children or purity of their women to rationalize all sorts of thuggery.)

If the parallels I’ve drawn, so far, are grim, I can offer a more hopeful comparison. While the Black Death brought the worst kinds of religious bigots out of the woodwork—as the COVID-19 pandemic is doing in the US—it also was, arguably, the first event to cause some people to question the authority of the church, and even the power of their god. It’s almost impossible for anyone in a secular Western country to imagine just how deeply monarchs and secular officials were in thrall to Church authority. (The closest analogues we have today are probably countries such as Saudi Arabia that are ruled by one interpretation or another of Sharia law.) While religious authorities held sway over secular ones at least until the Enlightenment, their influence lessened, however gradually, beginning with the Black Death.

One reason the church lost some of its authority was attrition: Priests and bishops were no more immune than illiterate field laborers to the ravages of the bubonic plague; soon, there weren’t enough prelates to conduct masses or other rites. Nearly all religious institutions act from a premise they dare not articulate: It’s harder to keep people in the fold when you can’t gather them. That, I believe, is why some religious groups, particularly Evangelical Christian and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish congregations, are pressuring or even defying local officials who have banned or restricted large gatherings.

Oh, and in some places, there weren’t enough attendees to keep churches open—even though the Catholic church, like most Christian churches today, doesn’t have a requirement equivalent to that of the minyan. And, even though the social pressure to attend mass was much greater than it is today (save in some conservative homogenous communities), some people stayed away. Although they knew nothing about how the plague was transmitted, much less of epidemiology in general, they noticed that, most often, people got sick when they gathered in large groups. (That, of course, is the reason why affluent urbanites fled to more pastoral settings.)

There is also evidence that some might have stayed away from church—or simply waned in their commitment to it—because they wondered, if only to themselves, about a God who visited such suffering on people who did nothing to deserve it:

For God is deaf and deigneth us not to hear That girls (children) for their guilts (sins) he forgrint (destroys) them all.

William Langland embedded those lines in Piers Plowman, his epic poem that is an allegory of the narrator’s quest for a “true” Christian life—or, if you like, a thinly-veiled critique of a medieval Catholic church that, too often, exploited the Black Death to stoke smoldering hatred of Jews, gypsies and other “infidels.”

Similar developments are unfolding today. While the most extreme congregations of Christianity and Judaism have shown that they are willing to disregard the health and safety of others in the name of “religious freedom,” the pandemic seems to be accelerating a trend, particularly among the young, away from organized worship and religious institutions. They don’t expect prayer or other rituals to protect them from COVID-19 any more than they believe that it’s “God’s will” for them or anyone else to suffer and die from it. If the churches and synagogues never open again, Gen X-ers and Millennials probably won’t miss them. They—and their more educated and rational elders—are leaning in so they can listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci or Deborah Birx over the bellowing of self-appointed (or selected-by-the-Electoral College) messiahs.

During the past few months, all sorts of parallels have been drawn between the 14th Century Black Death and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Some should serve as warnings, but others—such as the erosion of faith in religious institutions—might offer some hope for the future, as long as we allow ourselves to get there.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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.

Are you on Social Media?

Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

Closer to Home

guest post

Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

He made it—just barely—out of Sobibor. So, it was no surprise that any time a former Nazi was found, or a new revelation about the regime and the Holocaust emerged, he took notice.

Louis is gone now. Though I can’t imagine what he endured, in the camp or in his nightmares and flashbacks, I feel I’ve become like him, in a way. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, I can’t help but to notice when some clerical predator is exposed.

Or what he and his brethren left in their wake.

Since “coming out” about my abuse two years ago, I have met others who had to endure similar horrors, whether from priests, professors, professional colleagues, parents or others in positions of authority. I have also learned about lives, families, communities and institutions that were destroyed as a result.

Some of the institutions will be missed. Others, however, deserved, like Hitler’s regime and its agencies, to be swept into the dustbin of history.

Perhaps the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Rockville Centre and Camden won’t disappear any time soon. There can be little doubt, however, that they’ve lost their powers, including their abilities to harbor and enable priests who preyed on people’s trust.

Last week, within the space of a couple of days, they declared bankruptcy, citing the financial strain of lawsuits from sex-abuse litigation. They are, of course, not the first dioceses to take such action. But their going into receivership is significant because of their relative prominence. Camden, in New Jersey, is directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia which, in 2015, was tied with Chicago as the second-most Catholic city in the US. (Boston, New York and Pittsburgh were tied for first.) Rockville Centre, comprising the Long Island counties of Nassau and Suffolk, is one of the largest dioceses (by population) in the nation—and the largest, to date, to declare bankruptcy. It’s also directly east of the Diocese of Brooklyn, of which it was a part until 1957.

Camden’s and Rockville Centre’s proximity to two of the largest and most Catholic American cities is reason enough to take notice of them. Equally important, though, is another characteristic they share, and I know all too well.

The parish in which I, as an altar boy, was abused by a priest, is in the heart of the Diocese of Brooklyn. In other posts, I’ve talked about the church’s centrality in my old neighborhood: Nearly everyone attended it, and I, like many of my peers, were pupils in its school. Many kids were encouraged, or even forced, to become altar boys or participate in other church activities; I, and some other kids, volunteered for such things because our families or other people in our community didn’t have the time, or didn’t know how to give us the kinds of non-material support we needed. (For some kids, that support was material.) Our parents worked long and hard (our fathers at paid jobs, our mothers at uncompensated tasks) but, because they married and birthed us when they were very young (or for other reasons), didn’t know how to deal with anything besides fawning obedience. They did not know how to respond to the kinds of tiredness, sadness, or bewilderment children experience, sometimes because for no other reason than they don’t have the language or other means of expressing it.

What I didn’t know, of course, was that at the time I was growing up, we were part of a way of life that was dying: The cops, the firefighters, the factory workers were moving their families to Rockville Centre and other places on Long Island.

And to New Jersey, where I moved with my family when I was twelve. Our new church was part of the Diocese of Trenton, the northern neighbor of Camden diocese. The city of Camden, once home to RCA and Campbell’s soup, was in steep decline. But the surrounding communities in its diocese flourished as bedroom communities to Philadelphia, from which cops, firefighters and factory workers moved.

There, and in the Rockville Centre enclaves, their parents worked even harder to pay and keep up their houses and car payments. That meant kids were, perhaps, even more isolated and alienated than they would have been in South Philly or South Brooklyn — and, in those pre-Internet days, with fewer ways of reaching others who felt the way they did.

A lonely or alienated kid is to a sexual predator—whether a priest or some other authority figure — like tinder to a forest fire. So, if a kid feels isolated in an urban enclave, imagine what it must be like in a suburban town, with the family’s breadwinner(s) commuting for several hours a day in addition to the time he/she/they work.

Fortunately for me, I did not get involved with our new church, beyond attending mass, after my family moved to New Jersey: I become more involved with Scouting (which I joined before our move) and school-related activities. But other kids who weren’t drawn to such things (literary magazines, photography clubs, sports teams and the like) were probably even more stranded than their peers in the neighborhood my family left. So, some of them might have been even easier prey for predacious priests than I was.

Although I have never met them, I thought about those young people when I heard that the Dioceses of Camden and Rockville Centre declared bankruptcy — just as I imagine my late friend Louis thought about inmates at Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Auschwitz whenever a former Nazi was found in Cleveland or Argentina or some other place far from where they committed their horrible crimes.

In short, the bankruptcies of the Camden and Rockville Centre dioceses were personal for me — just as the capture of John Demjanjuk was for Louis, my late friend.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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.

Are you on Social Media?

Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

The Stench They Can’t Stanch In Cologne

guest post

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

According to a Gallup Poll, about 39 percent of Roman Catholics in the US attended church weekly in 2017. In 1955, that figure was 75 percent.

There is not, however, a corresponding drop in the church’s reported membership. One reason for that is Catholics are more likely to “lapse,” for decades, than to actually quit the church. Also, short of excommunication, the church almost never purges anyone from its rolls. But there are telltale signs of a thinning of the flock. One is the closure or merger of parish schools and, in some cases, the parishes themselves. Another, even more telling sign is the shortage of priests — which sometimes leads to closures.

Such a scenario seems to be playing out in the Cologne Archdiocese, Germany’s — and one of the world’s — richest. As in much of the Western world, Germany — and the Cologne archdiocese in particular — doesn’t have enough prelates. For decades, few young Teutonic men have heard the calling to the priesthood. Foreign-born priests filled some of the gap, at least for a time. But even with that influx from abroad — and declining attendance at mass — there aren’t enough priests to keep parishes open.

The Archdiocese has, therefore, announced plans to “restructure”: Church Latin for shrinking the number of parishes. How much? Under the plan, there would be 50 parishes in 2030. Today there are 500. In other words, 90 percent of the Cologne Archdiocese’s parishes would be gone a decade from now.

The Archdiocese would be divided into “communities” led by teams of priests and laypeople. In spite of declining church attendance, each of those communities would serve greater numbers of people over a wider area. That means people will have to travel greater distances to attend mass, or to partake of the programs and services the church offers. The greatest hardship would fall on senior citizens, children, and immigrants — who, perhaps ironically, are the people who are keeping parishes open, as the decline in church attendance is greatest among young adults.

Other German archdioceses have similar plans. The Vatican, not surprisingly, does not want them: It holds that a church can be led only by a priest, not by collaborations between prelates and laypeople. Some church officials believe that such arrangements will lead to greater power for laypeople — and a “back door,” if you will, for women to take more prominent roles and — egad! — priesthood.

German church officials call the Vatican’s rejection of their ideas “absurd,” “divorced from reality” and even “theologically deficient.” But their opposition comes not only from Rome, but from some of their fellow officials, German charitable organizations that have connections to the church — and schools.

Though Germany is nominally a secular country, in that it doesn’t have an official state religion, the Preamble to the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany begins thusly: “Aware of its responsibility before God and humankind…” So, perhaps, it’s not surprising that public officials’ oaths end with “So help me God!” — or that members of Catholic and Lutheran churches (the two largest denominations) have a “church tax” deducted from their paychecks. That levy, not surprisingly, is one of the reasons why Cologne and other German archdioceses are among the wealthiest in the world.

To be fair, I should point out that tax also helps to fund social services, such as immigrant resettlement, provided by church-affiliated charities. Those organizations thus have a legitimate — as far as it goes — argument against reorganization, which could hamper the ability of the newly-organized “communities” to deliver those services. It also helps to pay for the upkeep of churches, which include such tourist attractions as the Cologne cathedral.

Oh, and the tax funds the religious education German children, to this day, receive in their public schools. Their parents can opt them out of it, but the consequences can be harsh for both the kids and parents. While there have been calls to abolish this practice, and German Catholics themselves are divided about the tax, church officials say the instruction and tax are necessary to “ensure cohesion” — which I read as keeping tabs on how many members they can claim. I say “claim” because, if you are affiliated with either church, no matter how infrequently you attend, you pay the tax. (It’s all but impossible, short of excommunication, to have yourself dis-enrolled from the Catholic church once you’re baptized).

It will be interesting to see how officials rationalize the continuance of this practice as the number of parishes decreases, and more parents opt out of religious instruction — both of which are inevitable as the church becomes less and less available to the people. That shrinkage will be further accelerated by the church’s inability to recruit priests.

So why is it that young German men don’t want to don the cloth? Well, I’ll pose a question to those of you who are parents: Would you tell your 18-year-old son that he must be celibate for the rest of his life? You might have an easier time if you’re living in dire poverty and celibacy is a ticket to an education and a better life. But, I suspect, such is not the case for most native-born Germans — or residents of most Western democracies.

Even if you and your family were destitute, knowing what you know today, how would you feel about sending your kid off to seminary? Would you blame him for fighting you?

So, the real problem facing the Archdiocese of Cologne, and other church jurisdictions, is that they’re not dealing with reality. Church attendance is falling, and young people don’t want to become priests (or nuns), not because of “loosening morality” or the Internet. As in neighboring countries, the U.S., Australia, and other parts of the world, generations of sexual abuse have come to light in Germany. If the Church could keep it — and its history of collaboration with despots and slave-traders — under wraps for so long, what use do the young — or other people — have for it?

The “restructuring” of the Archdiocese of Cologne will lead to lower operating costs for the new “communities.” But I don’t think it will stanch the bleeding out of church attendance and membership. If anything can save the church (and, I admit, I’m not rooting for such a thing), it has to deal with the real reasons why young people don’t want to attend — let alone become priests or nuns — anymore.

RBG: Her Faith in Justice

ruth bader ginsberg

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s pioneering work will be long remembered. But the visual image of her that most of us have, and will retain, is of her diminutive frame draped in a robe d’avocat adorned with jabots chosen for agreements, dissents or other occasions of a jurist’s life.

Her sartorial choices, while distinctive, were also fitting (pardon the pun): They, like modern feminism, originated in France. So did the Enlightenment, which inspired notions of les droits l’homme et du citoyen—and, if indirectly, la laicite, the policy that, while not expressly prohibiting religious expression, has had the effect of eliminating public religious remarks by politicians and most other French public figures.

Justice Ginsburg never disavowed the Jewish faith in which she was raised. In fact, she sometimes cited Old Testament verses such as “Justice, justice shall you pursue” as guiding principles. She did not, however, try to shape the law or society in her, or anyone else’s, interpretation of a holy text. Rather, her faith seemed to be a fire within her that fueled her efforts at bringing about justice.

Another, perhaps more important, difference between the role religion plays in the words and actions of many American public figures and the role it played in Bader Ginsburg’s life is this: While public figures who are overtly Evangelical (and most other kinds of ) Christians are acting from privilege they don’t realize they have (in brief, entitlement), Ginsburg, as a daughter of people who fled pogroms only to face anti-Semitism in America, was acutely aware of her status as an underdog and outsider—yet did not share the “persecution complex” that afflicts too many who don’t realize their favored status.

Now I am going to share something I never would have understood had I not spent the first part of my life as male: It is too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that other people are being gifted with “special” privileges or treatment when they are simply getting the same rights everyone else has. I know I was guilty of it; perhaps I still am, sometimes. As a woman who attended an Ivy League school on full scholarship and graduated at the top of a law school in another Ivy League institution, Bader Ginsburg couldn’t help but to understand as much: Law firms wouldn’t hire her because she was a woman: A man “needed” the job more than she did.

One thing that makes Bader Ginsburg a hero is that she didn’t allow the intentional or unwitting sexists to destabilize her sense of herself. I have no doubt that any number of people tried to “gaslight” or sexually harass her. (About the latter, she mused, “What woman of my age hasn’t experienced it?”) I can’t get into her mind, but I don’t think I’m inaccurate in thinking that she understood that, ultimately, one cannot attain personhood, let alone equality, without a sense of one’s self, defined by one’s self and no one else.

That, as I understand it, is a core principle of the Enlightenment—and of the Founding Fathers of the United States, at least as they understood what it means to be a human being (i.e., white, male and a property owner). If you cannot define who you are, on your own terms, there is simply no way to have sovereignty over your mind or body. As someone who came to terms with childhood sexual abuse (by a priest) and sexual harassment and assault as an adult, at a late date in her life, this knowledge is now as vital to me as air, water and food.

In short, if you do not have the freedom to think and come to conclusions based on the evidence before you, and to say “No” when those rights are being denied to you, your mind and body are in someone else’s power. In other words, you are a slave. And when you are a slave, there is no justice.

So, whatever role her inherited faith played in her personal and professional life, her defense of rape victims, the right to an abortion and equal pay for equal work, and her fight against any and all forms of discrimination—and for the right to follow or reject her faith, or any other– are all part of a quest for justice. For that, I am grateful. And, I am sure, Theodore Herzl would approve just as much as Simone de Beauvoir or Voltaire would.

Unlike too many American legislators and public figures, she did not use her position to ram her religious beliefs down other people’s throats. Rather, her faith in the justice she pursued guided her work. For that, I am grateful.

Masked in the City’s Bible Belt

williamsburg bridge

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

I think I’m recovering pretty well from my bike accident. Heck, last Tuesday I even rode the 5 miles to my follow-up CAT scan. I hope it will confirm that I’m as well as I think I am!

The day after, I went for another, longer, bike ride. I needed it because, well, I’m a nearly-lifelong cyclist. Also, I wanted not to think about the CAT scan and to think about other things: It was a couple of days after the anniversary of my mother’s death.

Now I’m going to tell you something you may have figured if you’ve read my previous articles: I live, and grew up, in New York. Even though parts of the city, through gentrification and hyper-development, are becoming more homogenized, it is still a city of stark contrasts. It’s still possible, in some areas, to enter a completely different world simply by crossing a street.

This is especially true in Brooklyn, one of the city’s five boroughs. Today the name is practically a brand that, to much of the world, signifies hipness (if in an overly self-conscious way). If you spend any time in the waterfront neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, it’s easy to understand why: In cafes along Kent, Bedford and Driggs Avenues, where I rode, young men and women in tight jeans wash down their $15 slices of avocado toast (!) with $20 craft beers or cocktails.

These young people, nearly all of them childless, are hated or resented, or at least mocked, as “entitled millennials” because, for one thing, nearly all of them come from other parts of the United States and thus, in the eyes of some, can’t be “real New Yorkers.” (I would argue that is exactly what some don’t want to become. But that’s a subject for an entirely different article.) Also, many of them, even before the pandemic, didn’t seem to be doing any work to support themselves. The money for their avocado toast and drinks—and the condos in which many of them live—comes from elsewhere.

One thing I have to say for them, though: When they weren’t eating or drinking, nearly all of them were wearing masks. Of course, they weren’t covering their faces with those generic blue, white or yellow hospital masks: Some, I am sure, created their own face coverings, while others had them made by artisans or designers, whether in the neighborhood or elsewhere.

As I pedaled down Driggs, I rolled under the Williamsburg Bridge overpass as a train rumbled and clattered across. Many see the bridge as a sort of Mason-Dixon line, if you will, dividing North from South Williamsburg. One could also argue that Nostrand Avenue, where East Williamsburg begins, performs the same function. Like the line that separated the Union from the Confederacy, the areas north and west of the “lines” are richer, whiter and more educated (at least in a certain sense) than the areas on the other side.

My ride didn’t take me into East Williamsburg, though I ride into the area often. I will mention, however, that it is the last remnant of Williamsburg’s Puerto Rican community, which dominated the area for four decades or so after World War II. I did, however, spin my wheels south, into one of the two New York neighborhoods that most closely resemble a prewar shtetl.

I am talking about the part of Williamsburg below the eponymous bridge. The description in my previous paragraph is not an exaggeration: If you were to find yourself on the southern part of Driggs, or on Lee Avenue, late on a Friday or on Saturday, you’d have the place to yourself.

Since I was riding there on a Thursday afternoon, I wasn’t alone. The thing is, I was one of the few non-Hasidim in the area. Normally, I don’t mind that: At worst, I am ignored and can ride or go about whatever else I’m doing, undisturbed. On the other hand, the fact that I was cycling through the neighborhood on the day before shabat, I couldn’t help but to notice that I, and the other goyim in the area, were the only ones wearing masks. None of the Hasidic men and women covered their faces.

I noticed the same phenomenon as I pedaled further south, into Brooklyn’s other Hasidic enclave: Borough Park. There, I was even more isolated: I was, literally, the only goyim (all right, I’m an atheist; but in that community, any outsider is goy!) pedaling, walking or otherwise passing through the area. But that was not the only reason I felt as if I stuck out even more than I did in South Williamsburg: I grew up at the edge of Borough Park, where it borders Kensington. Half a century ago, when I was an altar boy (and manque transgender), the neighborhood was more or less evenly divided between Italian-, Irish- and Polish-Americans. Most of the men, including my father, were blue-collar workers who did as much overtime as they could so they could send me and my peers to the neighborhood’s Catholic school, which closed about 15 years ago. And we all went to the same church—which remains open mainly because of Hispanics who work in the neighborhood—on Sunday.

In my old neiIn my old neighborhood, none of the residents was wearing a mask. However, in a neighboring community, populated mainly by Bangladeshi Muslims, nearly everyone — male, female and otherwise — was.

I would like to think that the denizens of my old neighborhood would have covered their faces, if for no other reason than their reverence (really, a combination of fear and obsequiousness) for authority. The funny thing is that, for all of that they (and I, at the time—after all, I was an altar boy) unquestioningly obeyed our church and school, we knew enough to listen to secular authorities when they knew better. Unfortunately, my old neighborhood—along with South Williamsburg and a few neighborhoods dominated by Evangelical and Pentecostal churches—are this city’s “Bible Belt,” if you will. They believe that the power of their beliefs will protect them when the recommendations of Dr. Anthony Fauci won’t. And even if their fealty to the Word of their God doesn’t keep them from succumbing to COVID-19, they believe that God (or Yahweh) “wants” them “now.”

Some pundits have, accurately, observed, that in the US, the choice to wear a mask—or not—during the COVID-19 pandemic breaks along political lines. In my city, though, it has more to do with religious faith—which, ironically is the political “fault line” in the Big Apple. My ride showed me on which side of the line I live.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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.

Are you on Social Media?

Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

A Letter to My Friends: There is Peace Without Certainty

guest post

Guest post by Bill Mathis. Bill retired from careers in YMCA camps and foster care. He is the author of four novels with two more in progress. The following is a revised letter he once sent.

Dear Friends,

Some of you asked how—after years of being an evangelical Christian, after being raised in a fundamentalist/evangelical pastor’s home, after raising my own children in the faith—how can I now call myself a secular humanist? An atheist. What happened to me?

The answer is a long one. I am working on an essay that goes into more detail, but it is taking some time. So, let me first address the comments that some of you were praying for my repentance.

Listen. My siblings and I were bred, born, suckled, weaned, and raised on a diet of Biblical literalism. We had no choice. We were not the only ones raised this way and I do not hold it against my loving parents. However, critical thinking about the Bible was not a part of our upbringing. And sadly, it rarely is in fundy-evangelical homes.

I’m a slow learner. (Save your comments, please.) Now, at age 72, my past 10 years have been a journey of personal exploration. In the process of recognizing and accepting I am gay, I sincerely investigated the Bible. At first, about homosexuality. However, the more I investigated, the broader my search became. You may not know or remember that in high school and college I was a journalist. One of my degrees is an associate’s in journalism. In my explorations about the Bible, I tried to keep the five W’s and an H in mind: who, what, when, where, why and how.

The more I read and the wider I researched, the more I came to recognize the importance of the writer’s culture and the context from which they were writing. This became even more meaningful when I began writing novels. Authors and editors write and arrange things to fit their point of view or desired message. I am now persuaded that the mostly unknown Biblical writers were not writing for us today, two to three thousand years later. And that applies to way more than just about homosexuality.

Some of you have prayed for my repentance. I have repented, but differently than what you prayed for. I must be honest and blunt. I am not repenting for being gay or living with a man I love.

However, over time, I have repented for the years I worshipped the Bible—for not recognizing it was written by bronze and iron-age men trying to figure out life while they clung to their tribalism. By men who were trying to survive occupation, who often were trying to control others as they passed down myths and legends. Some stories were mythologies from other cultures and past centuries. Some were from word of mouth shaped to tell a story, prove a point, and were not based on the evidence, or the lack thereof. Naturally, their god had to be the greatest and the most miraculous.

I regret never questioning how those writers, and they alone, could define God. I didn’t ask myself why our religious beliefs are primarily dependent upon where we are born in the world. I never thought about why an all-powerful god didn’t reveal himself/herself to the entire world in a message each person could understand and then choose to accept or reject. I stuffed my concerns about the evidence of science proving the ignorance of the Bible’s authors. Ignorance not because of their stupidity, but because they didn’t have the information that has since accumulated. I never questioned that the New Testament writers may have had differing agendas, even what years their works were written or in what order chronologically. Why did I trust and consider the words of ancient writers over the proven results of science, medicine, archeology, anthropology, history, and all the other ‘ology’s that explain our solar system, our earth and our history?

More so, why did I assume the theologies and precepts of fundamentalism and evangelicalism were the only way to God?

Lastly, why was my sense of judgmental, evangelical superiority of knowing the only way to God so strong? For that I am truly sorry.

I came to realize that most of my beliefs were just that. My beliefs.

I no longer take the Bible literally. There’s too much evidence to take it literally. However, I do try to take some of it literately. Literately, it contains beautiful, inspiring collections of poetry, history, dreams, myths, truths and stories written by men based upon their lives and experiences at their time in history. The Bible is also filled with immorality, prejudice, genocide, and it supports slavery and theocracy—to name a few negatives. Those ideas, visions, superstitions and stories were eventually compiled through a political process to become a religion enforced by government and power.

Valerie Tarico, an author and blogger I highly recommend, writes that moving away from fundamentalism is like peeling an onion. And that’s what I’ve been doing. Slowly stepping away a layer at a time from idolizing something man made. Today, for me, we have too much information, knowledge, and facts to blindly cling to and insist on millennia old beliefs and fears.

So, again, that’s where I’m at. Even with my layers of fat and lack of former beliefs—with one foot on a banana peel and the other near the grave—I am at peace and content with my life. More so than ever. And I’m not done learning!

That’s why it is my desire for fundies and evangelicals to peel their fingers away from their eyes and step back – just a little– from the intensity and certainty of some of their beliefs.

There is peace without certainty.

Take care,

Love,

Bill

Are You Interested in Writing a Guest Post?

guest post

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 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.

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, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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.

Are you on Social Media?

Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

She Knew Me

guest post

Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

For the past month, I’ve been recovering from a bike crash.

After getting stitched up in a local hospital, I was transferred to a larger facility with a trauma unit. Just after I arrived, a doctor asked me a series of questions about my health: No, I’ve never smoked. Yes, I drink: one or two glasses of wine or beer with supper, and spirits on rare occasions. No serious or chronic illnesses. Two surgeries: the first, twenty-five years ago, for a deviated septum; the second, fifteen years later, to align my genitals with my gender identity.

Thankfully, no one raised an eyebrow over my last answer. I think he, and the nurses in the room, realized that I was speaking slowly because I was tired and in pain, but that I was coherent. Ironically, that may have been exactly what raised that doctor’s alarm when I unequivocally answered one of the mental-health questions: Yes, I have attempted suicide. But, I explained, not recently: I tried to kill and caused other kinds of harm to myself because of some experiences—including sexual abuse—in my childhood.

The doctor called in someone else —a psychiatrist, I believe. They asked, several times, whether my accident was not an accident. I insisted that my mishap was just that: an unfortunate circumstance. One of the nurses, a native of a Caribbean island, looked into my eyes. She interjected: “No, she wasn’t trying to kill herself. And she’s not going to try anything like that now.”

The other nurse in the room—also from the Caribbean—nodded. The doctor and psychiatrist stopped their conversation and note-taking. The psychiatrist glanced toward them, then at me. “I don’t think she needs to be under watch,” he declared. The doctor scribbled something, which I took as agreement.

Then he asked whether I wanted a chaplain. No, I’m not religious, I explained. I didn’t mention my atheism because I didn’t want to risk a debate for which, at that moment, I didn’t have the energy. I glanced back at the nurse who advocated for my sanity. She looked at me, knowingly.

Two days later, I went home. The nurse and I have stayed in touch. “It was a priest, wasn’t it?”

She didn’t have to pose it as a question. She knows; I think she knew it that night we met in the trauma center.

I’d like to know how she knew. Or do I already know?