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.
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.
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, 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.
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?
For 18 years, I considered myself a Christian. My family raised me in the Disciples of Christ denomination, generally known as a progressive and inclusive branch of Christianity. Love, service, and respect for others were baked into the framework of my parents’ religious philosophy. So too were dysfunctional aspects of Christianity, such as taboos around sex, drugs, other religious frameworks, et cetera. For sixteen years I lived relatively peacefully under such a framework and the moderately strict rules it imposed.
That would all change shortly after my sixteenth birthday. For some reason, I felt the urge to dive deeper into the tenets of my faith. Enter the Internet, which, as of 2009, was a long way from the juggernaut it is today. Feeling as though my parents’ and grandparents’ explanations of biblical concepts were lacking, I turned to Internet websites and forums, as well as a teen study bible my grandparents had found on their doorstep one day and given to me as a gift.
That would turn out to be one of the most painful and consequential mistakes I would ever make. After reading through the study bible and its perverted explanations of biblical phenomena and excuses for genocide and murder committed in God’s name — which I didn’t notice at the time but can see oh, so clearly, now — I went down rabbit holes on the Internet, looking up the answers to important questions such as, “Is it a sin to listen to secular music?” among others.
My readings left me isolated from my family, feeling as though I had discovered the truth and could not admit it to them. This caused a great deal of tension in my relationship with them, as I began to believe that if I wanted to be a true Christian, I should cut myself off from my family and their liberal interpretation of the Bible and seek the companionship of others who believed as I did.
However, my beliefs did not usually translate to actions. There was a powerful dissonance between the person I was up until I stumbled upon all of this poisonous fundamentalist posturing and the person I was afterward. I did not think to question my beliefs, thinking that doing so would be a blasphemy towards God. Instead, I lingered in them and the conflict between my two selves — one a burgeoning fundamentalist and one a rational secularist — came to a head. It was truly as if the devil and god were raging inside me, and their warfare tore me apart.
I can vividly remember the crushing pressure in my chest from those early battles, a pain so fierce and unrelenting that I would fall asleep in the middle of class as my body started shutting down to escape it. I was stuck in a limbo, but I could feel the flames of hell eating away at my soul. I vividly believed that if I did not give up everything I once loved, the secular pursuits that did not glorify God, I was hell-bound.
My rational side fought like hell to keep my rising fundamentalist zeal at bay. For the most part, I excelled in school, bringing home As and Bs with every report card. Yet I felt isolated from my peers. I attempted to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but I am so grateful to say that they did not manage to get their claws into me and I bowed out after several meetings.
I cannot pinpoint when exactly my mood started to shift, but after several long and arduous months, I began to feel good again. I started to put myself out there and make friends. By doing my best to intentionally avoid the bible and all forms of fundamentalist rhetoric, I began to feel somewhat normal and happy. However, maladaptations would present themselves. I would become obsessed with certain girls as a coping mechanism, a way to cling onto the unstable safety of my current state. The flames of hell were further below, but I could still feel their heat. Magma still churned in my chest.
I had to cling to something for dear life, and as a male adolescent with a decent sex drive, I chose women. Now mind you, I was 270 pounds at the time, so I didn’t have a good shot at all at getting most of them. My social skills were also substandard. I was definitely what you would call a nerd, maybe a geek, and it showed. Still, for a few months, I felt good enough to resume a normal pattern of activity and engage in the secular pursuits I once felt so guilty about.
In the same vein, I cannot pinpoint exactly what pulled me down again. While this depressive episode was shorter and somewhat milder than the last, I desperately wanted to escape. That escape would come in the form of a forum one of my classmates showed me in the library one day where an “alien” delivered sacred knowledge to the world. After reading this, my mind latched onto it and used it as a weapon to beat back the flames that were once again searing my soul.
This time the depression may have been milder, but the high was even higher. I excelled in my last semester of high school. I visited seven colleges and got accepted to the college I wanted the most. I got all 5s on the three AP exams I took that year. My mind was as sharp as a tack, as clear as a bell. Everything clicked. Things just came to me. I was at my peak level of performance. It was an absolutely thrilling time to be alive and active in the world. I was filled with a spirit of hope and love. I graduated ready to take the world by storm, even if I had no clue exactly what it was I was going to do with my life.
Sadly, this wouldn’t last either. One Bible verse about not cursing later (I don’t remember which one it was and I don’t care to relive that again), I crashed hard. Instead of entering college feeling healthy and alive, I entered college a husk of the self I was just a few short months before, drained and lifeless and struggling to keep up with the myriad tasks and activities that come with the first few weeks of freshman year. I felt so alone and isolated, though I did try to reach out.
Several times, I was awfully close to embracing fundamentalism again, as the college I went to was in a fairly religious city in the southern United States and it was easy to find people who believed passionately in Christianity and to talk with them. I felt I would need to make a decision about what I was going to do soon, and I was leaning heavily towards embracing fundamentalism.
My lowest point in college came when I dropped a class without notifying my professor I was going to do so. I almost lost both my scholarships and had to pay back some $350 dollars to one of them. Thankfully, I was able to keep both of my scholarships all the way through college from that point on.
The end to all of this madness would come swiftly and miraculously. One day, after a three-hour class in which we had been watching a documentary, I decided to browse online to see what other documentaries were out there. That decision would change the course of the rest of my life. I was out of the house. I had my own laptop. I didn’t have parental figures hovering over my shoulder. I was angry as hell about being so depressed again, and felt I had nothing to lose. So I decided to watch the Youtube docuseries by a man named Evid3nc3, Why I became an Atheist.
Approximately three hours later, my mind was shattered. Everything I had ever known was wrong. There were good, rational, justified reasons for not believing in God. There were good, kind people who did not believe. Hell, there were thousands of preachers who no longer believed! With this knowledge in mind, the knowledge that I did not need a god to be good or to live a good life, I gave Christianity and the toxicity of fundamentalism and evangelicalism the boot and I have never had good cause to look back since.
I am done with religion, even though religion’s effect on my psyche will always remain to some extent. I am free of the chains of dogma and ideology. I am free of the flames of hellfire, the judgement of a wrathful god, and the intercession of His son, who suffered a needless and preventable death on the cross for something nobody asked him to die for in the first place. Good fucking riddance.
The next time I was home from college, I came out as an atheist to my parents and destroyed the study bible that had sent me down this road to madness. Nobody will ever be infected with its poisonous interpretations again.
But my story is not done. For you see, nearly a decade later I have a new chunk of knowledge, a new insight that has rocked my world just as much as when I found out Christianity was not true.
A few days ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This is a mental illness in which your mood swings between a manic state (a euphoric, happy, joyful, blissful time) and a depressed state. I believe that my bipolar disorder was the cause of so much dysfunction in my life during my late high school and early college years. Looking back, my mood swings make so much sense when viewed through that context as I altered between hypomania (milder than manic) and depression.
One facet of bipolar disorder is that those who have this mental illness often suffer from delusions, which can come in both manic and depressed states. While I have never suffered from delusions in my manic states, I have in my depressive states.
And that has led me to ask myself: would I have been able to catch this disease earlier if not for the Christian framework that I believed for those last couple years of high school? I firmly believed I was in danger of going to Hell. I felt it so vividly. There was no way you could convince me that that belief was not a delusion. It was supported by the Christian cultural framework my life was based around at the time.
Did my Christian worldview mask my delusional depressive symptoms? That is definitely a question that deserves a lot more thought. Who else with undiagnosed mental illness is laboring under a Christian framework that amplifies and exacerbates it? Is it the preacher at the pulpit? The choir director? The youth pastor? The worship leader?
How many religious folks are undiagnosed simply because their worldview masks and adapts to their symptoms, leading them to believe that they aren’t ill in the first place while still struggling mightily through life and sometimes hurting those closest to them with their often inexplicable and unjustifiable actions? What if the true burden of mental illness is not fully known because of how well religion can adapt to it? These are all questions I hope to answer one day, or at least make progress towards answering.
Life after Christianity has not been easy. I’ve been to the psych ward, twice. I missed my college graduation after a major depressive episode that led to multiple suicide attempts before my roommate finally called the police and EMTs. I had a second stay in the ward this past September, due to another suicide attempt. No, life is not a cakewalk.
But that doesn’t mean I need to lean on God or religion to help me cope. I have friends. I have family. I have my own kind of faith in the world. I have myself and all the beauty and confidence I possess. And now I have closure about why I am the way I am and why I’ve gone through what I’ve gone through. I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t need fundamentalism, evangelicalism, or any of the baggage they bring, any less than I do now. All I need is to love — to love myself and to love others zealously. The rest will take care of itself.
If you think you may have a mental illness, I encourage you to seek out a mental health professional and discuss your symptoms as soon as you possibly can. Living with mental illness, especially one as severe as bipolar disorder, is no joke and we must take the needs of those suffering from any mental health condition seriously. For so long, I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and now I do. You don’t have to suffer in silence. It may be a long road to finally get the treatment you need to live a relatively normal life again, but there is hope. And my hope for you is that you keep fighting and realize that you only have one life, one you and you alone can choose how to live.
It‘s been several years since I wrote my original Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) series. I had wanted to finish out my experience memoirs, but the homeschooling portion of my ACE experience still hit a lot of nerves in my life. There were a lot of flux and upheaval going on throughout my homeschool years. Dad started believing in Calvinism (or Sovereign Grace), we changed churches, we were put out of a church, my parents split up for a while and other generally disrupting things happened in my life.
Some of these things are still raw, even 30 years later. I have thought about writing this off and on for a while, but could never do it. Then Bruce had a post where someone looked at, but didn’t read, my ACE experiences. (Please see Fundamentalist Man Strains at the Gnats and Swallows a Camel.) I re-read what I had written and decided I needed to finish the story.
As you read this, remember that it is my story and my experience. People may have had similar experiences, but no two people process things the same.
This is the last installment in my ACE schooling series. The first four installments were about being in actual schools that used ACE curriculum, the last two are about my homeschooling experiences along with the use of ACE.
In tenth grade, my parents decided to homeschool my brother and me. This was due to two issues: separation from the world (and worldliness of the churches we had attended) and my brother’s dyslexia. The one-on-one instruction helped my brother; the separation issue was another matter.
Eleventh grade started out more relaxed than tenth grade. Although we were being held to school standards, we didn’t have to wear ties or recite the pledges of allegiance to the USA and Christian flags and the Bible. Morning devotions went by the wayside, too. A lot of learning how to operate in a homeschool environment had been done, so things were just much more relaxed.
That year, we did have a major change in the school schedule. The church school we were affiliated with and my parents both decided to use a trimester school year. This consisted of the school year being in three major sections, rather than two; each trimester was 12 weeks long, with one week off in between. The pastor and my dad used the argument that long summers off were only needed for people working on farms, due to tending cattle, weeding, etc. All I knew is that this was just one more thing that made me and my brother “unique.” No TV, no Christmas, no movies, no secular music, being homeschooled, trimester school year, yep, we were unique. But we were told that we were a peculiar people, called to show God’s light. I just wanted to be normal.
Trying to explain all of these things to neighborhood kids was like trying to explain why you had 3 legs. They knew me when I went to the Christian school. That was no big deal, there were a lot of private schools in town. Homeschooling was weird for them, but they got used to us always being home. The trimester thing was almost too much for them, though. Our breaks didn’t coincide with their breaks, so I didn’t get out with them much.
Schooling, itself, was better. I had a better attitude, which meant that I wasn’t in as much trouble. Math was easier, since I was taking a business math course. Social Studies was still a chore, though. The rote memorization was horrible. Speeches, quotes from documents, dates, wars, peace treaties, it seemed that there was no end to what I had to memorize. I spent many hours learning these things, only to promptly forget them, once they were no longer needed.
English was something that I enjoyed. The literature portion used the books Adventures in Appreciation and Adventures in English literature. These books were a great relief for me. The stories weren’t all religion-based, and, because the books were ACE approved, I was able to read all of the stories in them, with no parental interference. I also became good at diagramming sentences and putting words together. Those skills have helped me greatly in my various jobs — report writing has been easy for me. I attribute this to all of the practice I had in chopping up sentences and then putting them back together.
It was during this school year that our family was put out of our church. My dad’s constant need for separation and closely following the scriptures were causing issues. That is a whole different story, but things finally came to a head that year. The fact of our being put out of the church was literally just ahead of my dad saying we were leaving. Kind of like the boss firing you before you could quit.
We finished the year out with no other great issues. Just a couple of kids on with a weird school year who suddenly weren’t going to church anymore. Yep, the neighbor kids noticed that, too.
Twelfth grade brought some big changes. I was no longer required to wear dress clothes to school and scripture memorization was a thing of the past. We went back to a semester school year, too. My step-mom got a job that year, so my brother and I were left to do schooling by ourselves. Now the conflicts came from me trying to make him do his work. I was responsible for making sure things got done, and I took it seriously. Probably a bit too seriously, but that is what older siblings are for.
During the school year, I started working for my grandparents after school, as well as working part-time at the construction/environmental company my dad worked at. I would rush to get my school work done and head off to work. Fortunately, my senior year was a pretty easy year. I was able to get things done quickly, usually before lunch. My poor brother would be stuck doing his stuff, though. He had a hard time that year. I helped when I could, but I was doing my own stuff.
In the middle of that year, my dad and step-mom split up. The weeks leading up to this caused a lot of friction at home. My brother and I stayed with Dad, while Mom moved out. It was about this time that Dad’s work started taking him out of town on a regular basis. So, my brother and I spent a lot of time staying with other people while Dad was out of town.
By the spring of my senior year, I was working every day, part-time. School in the morning, work in the afternoon. Brother left behind. Not good. Looking back, I am amazed at how well he did on his own. I’d come home from work and help him with whatever he needed. We got him through the year, but he did a lot of it himself.
On my final day of school, I took my last test, scored it, put it up for my dad to review, and headed out to work. I remember that I stopped by a hardware store on my way to work and bought a carbide scribe pen for a project I was doing. I’ve still got that scribe, and use it quite often. My graduation was just another day in my life.
A week later, some friends had us over for dinner and a graduation cake. The wife gave me a couple of pencils with my name on them and a scripture-based graduation card.
This finishes my personal experience with ACE, through regular and home school. I’ve tried to show the good, the bad, and the ugly. I learned a lot using ACE, but I also know that I missed out on so much. Literally 2 years ago, I was in a museum looking at Chinese exhibits. The dates given coincided with the time of the Exodus. It hit me, like a ton of bricks, that I had never given any thought to what else was happening in the world while reading my Bible stories. All I knew was what I had been taught by a narrow, prejudiced system.
Math and English were okay for me, but that system won’t work for everyone.
Spelling was easy for me.
Social Studies was a joke. I learned so many things that were either twisted to fit a narrative or outright lies. Very little that I learned has been applicable in any way. It was only after studying history for myself that I began to have an understanding of how and why things are the way they are.
Science made no sense because it didn’t have a grounding in real world application, for me, anyway. It wasn’t until I started working in a job that required using chemicals that I really began to understand those principles.
The scripture-based studies, Old and New Testament Survey, Life of Christ, etc., are pretty much useless in the real world unless you are going to have a job at a church or Bible college.
Those of you who have gone through ACE will be able to relate to my experiences. Those of you who haven’t will just shake your heads. Thank you for following along, though.