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Tag: Leaving Catholicism

Bruce, Will You Repent on Your Deathbed and Return to Jesus?

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Recently, a reader of this blog asked me to answer this question: Bruce, Will You Repent on Your Deathbed and Return to Jesus?

Good question.

I divorced Jesus in November 2008. Since then, I have proudly worn the atheist label. I am often asked WHY Jesus and I had a falling out and I ended our five-decade-long marriage. (Please see the WHY? page.) While the reasons are many, the primary reason I left Christianity is that its beliefs and practices no longer made sense to me. (Please see The Michael Mock Rule: It Just Doesn’t Make Sense.) I no longer believed the central claims of Christianity: the existence of the triune God, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, to name a few. I no longer believed in original sin or that humans were inherently broken and in need of saving. I no longer believed that the Bible was an inerrant, infallible text supernaturally written by God. I came to the conclusion that Jesus lived and died, end of story; that the miracles attributed to him were human fabrications. As you can see, I reject out of hand virtually everything Christians believe and hold dear. Thus, I am an atheist.

Heaven and Hell are religious constructs used by clerics to keep asses in the pews and money in the offering plates. Heaven is the proverbial carrot, and Hell is the stick. Since these places do not exist, I need not fear spending eternity in the Lake of Fire being tortured by God for my unbelief.

While I am confident that Christianity is untrue, I remain open to evidence that suggests otherwise. It’s doubtful that any such evidence is forthcoming. Christian theologians and apologists have been making the case for Christianity for 2,000 years. I suspect everything that can be said, has been said. Solomon was right when he said, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Countless Christian apologists have stopped by this site to ply their apologetical skills, hoping to reclaim Bruce, the atheist, for Jesus and perhaps save a few of his “followers.” Every one of them has left frustrated that their super-duper, clever, sophisticated arguments failed to win anyone to their cause. Why? Same shit, new day.

I am sixty-three years old. In poor health, struggling just to make it to the next day, I know that I shall die sooner, and not later. Maybe I will live twenty more years. I doubt it. Dealing with chronic illnesses and unrelenting pain wears me out. There could come a day when I have had enough and I put an end to my struggle. Or, I could have a stroke, heart attack, cancer, or die from a hematoma on my brain from being clocked with a Lodge cast iron skillet by my wife. Or I could trip over toys left on the floor by one of my grandchildren, breaking my neck. The death possibilities are endless. Cheerful thoughts, people, cheerful thoughts. 🙂

The question posed to me presupposes that I will have a terminal illness that makes me bedridden, affording me the opportunity to repent of my sins and ask Jesus to save me. On that day, will I have the courage of my convictions and remain true to atheism, or will I pray the sinner’s prayer just in case that Christianity is true?

The pattern of my life suggests that I will remain true to my convictions; that I will die, not with the name of Jesus on my lips, but that of my wife and family. I have no doubt that upon hearing of my soon demise, Evangelical evangelizers will seek me out, hoping to get one last word in for Jesus. Ceiling prayers will be uttered by Christians, pleading with God to save the vile, wretched, sinful atheist Bruce Gerencser. Will these efforts have their desired effect? I doubt it. The fact remains that I deconverted because Christianity no longer made any sense to me. I came to see that the central claims of Christianity were false. Intellectually, I simply don’t buy what Christians are selling. Since it is highly doubtful that any new evidence is forthcoming, I see no reason for me to change my mind on my deathbed.

Let me conclude this post with an excerpt from Lawrence Krauss’ New Yorker article titled, The Fantasy of the Deathbed Conversion:

Earlier this spring, a prominent evangelical Christian named Larry Taunton published a book alleging that Christopher Hitchens, an outspoken atheist, had been, during the last years of his life, “teetering on the edge of belief.” Taunton, who claims to have been one of Hitchens’s friends, cites as evidence two conversations he had with Hitchens during car trips on the way to debates about religion and atheism—debates, it must be said, that Hitchens was paid to attend.

Hitchens’s family and actual friends—people who didn’t pay to spend time with him—know that this claim is absurd. (I was honored to be one of Hitchens’s friends during the last five years of his life.) Hitchens saw Christianity as little more than a social virus with interesting literary overtones. That view never changed during his final year of life—a period during which Taunton didn’t even meet with him. Hitchens loved to engage in generous intellectual repartee, even with those with whom he unequivocally disagreed. His civility, it seems, has been misinterpreted.

This most recent claim, of course, is just the latest in a long line of similar claims about famous atheist conversions. It raises a worthwhile question: Why do evangelical Christians so often seek to claim converts among the dead?

In relatively recent history, the most well-known postmortem Christian evangelist is probably Elizabeth Cotton. In 1915, she declared that, thirty-three years earlier, Charles Darwin himself had revealed to her, on his deathbed, his wish to recant the doctrine of evolution in exchange for Christian salvation. This claim was shown to be false by none other than Darwin’s daughter, Henrietta Litchfield, who was with him at the end. She pointed out that Cotton—like Taunton, in Hitchens’s case—hadn’t actually visited him during his final days. And evangelical Protestants aren’t the only Christians addicted to the narrative of the deathbed conversion. Catholics have made claims about the “long conversion” of Oscar Wilde; the Mormon Church has gone so far as to baptize dead people who haven’t asked for it—pro-bono conversion, as it were.

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In a conversation we had a few years ago, Hugh Downs, the television anchor, suggested why this might be so. One of the reasons people go to church, he said, is intellectual validation. People attend church for spiritual and social reasons, of course: to pray and to see friends. But they also want to hear their religious convictions affirmed—convictions that, as the Dawkins survey suggests, may seem a little dubious during the rest of the week. Could it be that evangelicals seek to convert the famous dead because they’re insecure about their own beliefs? If they can claim that people they admire as intellects—Darwin, Wilde, Hitchens—ultimately agreed with them, it validates their own faith.

In the end, what evangelists don’t recognize is that atheism is not a belief system like Christianity, from which one might defect after hearing some arguments or having a few sombre conversations. It is, instead, simply a rational decision not to accept the existence of God without evidence. As wise thinkers, including Laplace, Hume, Sagan, and Hitchens, have often said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s hard to imagine a more extraordinary claim than that some hidden intelligence created a universe of more than a hundred billion galaxies, each containing more than a hundred billion stars, and then waited more than 13.7 billion years until a planet in a remote corner of a single galaxy evolved an atmosphere sufficiently oxygenated to support life, only to then reveal his existence to an assortment of violent tribal groups before disappearing again.

The idea of the deathbed conversion raises another question: even if an atheist were to accept a theistic worldview, why should he choose to adopt Christianity, rather than any of the world’s many other religions? Evangelical Christians assume, rather presumptuously, that the natural choice is Christianity. Hitchens was unlikely to share that view. As he emphasized in his own writing, no one talks about Hell in the New Testament more than Jesus; the New Testament, he wrote, is worse than the Old. Hitchens described the New Testament as envisioning a “Celestial Dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea.”

In this regard, the saddest thing about these imagined deathbed conversions is that, even if they were real, they could hardly be seen as victories for Christ. They are stories in which the final pain of a fatal disease, or the fear of imminent death and eternal punishment, is identified as the factor necessary for otherwise rational people to believe in the supernatural.

If mental torture is required to effect a conversion, what does that say about the reliability of the fundamental premises of Christianity to begin with? Evangelicals would be better advised to concentrate on converting the living. Converting the deceased suggests only that they can’t convince those who can argue back. They should let the dead rest in peace.

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.

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Bitcoin For The Church: The Young Won’t Be Fooled

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

According to Pew Research and other polls, the Catholic Church in the U.S. is losing six congregants for every person who joins. The Church is also hemorrhaging members in other countries, even in such former bastions of Catholicism as Ireland and Spain. Moreover, for every person who formally leaves the church, others simply drift away. While the Vatican doesn’t seem overly concerned, as membership has grown exponentially over recent decades in Sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions, Church leaders in the U.S. and Western Europe (which, a century ago, was home to two-thirds of the world’s Catholics) are deeply worried. Those leaders, clerical and lay alike, are trying all sorts of things to keep members, particularly the young, in the fold.

If generals are always fighting the last war, leaders of institutions are always trying to woo the young with equally outdated notions of what appeals to them. During my childhood and early adolescence, churches—including the one in which I was an altar boy—started to offer “folk masses.” They were, apparently, a piece of the Church’s attempt to “meet people where they are,” which included the shift from Latin to vernacular languages in the liturgy. I can’t help but wonder whether offering masses said in English that included songs by Peter Paul and Mary actually enticed any young people to stay in the flock, but I recall feeling condescended to with the choice of music. After all, most adults’ ideas about what kinds of music their kids like are off by at least five years, if not more. As an example, I think of the relative who gave me a Monkees album for my fourteenth birthday, in 1972. (OK, you can do the math. But I’m a lady and won’t tell you my age! 😉

At least that relative understood other, far more important, things about me. That is why, even after that misguided gift, I never felt patronized. That relative, in short, was sensitive and sensible.

The same cannot be said for a group of folks who are trying to bring the Catholic Church into the 21st Century. At least, that’s what they seem to think they are trying to do. Cathio consists of “a team of well-established experts and leaders with deep roots in the Catholic Church.” Founded last year, the “Catholic enterprise” has just launched a platform “designed to enable all sectors of the Catholic community to benefit from lower costs and transparent payments,” says Cathio CEO Matthew Marcolini. Cathio advisor Jim Nicholson, formerly an ambassador to the Holy See, explains that in addition to the benefits Marcolini mentions, the Cathio platform will also facilitate “the connectivity of people of good will with good works.”

In other words, this Cathio platform is a sort of Bitcoin for the Catholic Church, which supposedly will make it easier for people to give money and harder for the church to hide its financial dealings. Call me a cynic, but I have my doubts as to whether either of those goals will be accomplished. The Cathio platform will almost certainly make it easier to move large sums of money, but from whom and to whom?

At least Marcolini and Nicholson are, at worst, misinformed about the good intentions of the flock and its herders. Another Cathio board member, however, shows that he is, at best, delusional. Then again, he’s merely confirming some of us have known for a long time.

That Board member once ran for President of the United States and has served as a US Senator from a state in which all of its Roman Catholic dioceses are part of a class-action lawsuit from—who else?—priest sex-abuse survivors. Rick Santorum says that, in addition to making financial transactions more efficient, the Cathio platform also offers the Church the opportunity to better engage young people. “Millennials don’t carry cash, they date on apps and watch on-demand entertainment. We have to be there, we have to learn from successful tech companies, and we have to make it easier for younger generations to engage with the Church.”

Now, I don’t know he defines “young people” and “younger generations.” Does he think they are synonymous with “millennials, who are generally defined as those born between 1981 and 1999? Well, I admit, at my age, 38-year-olds seem young, but I still wouldn’t call them “young people” or part of “younger generations.” Also, while millennials might conduct their lives on their electronic devices, they are using them to do things people of their age have always done: date, make travel arrangements, buy concert tickets and the like. Technology doesn’t seem to bring them back to practices or institutions they might have left behind. And, if anything, the “younger generations”—at least those younger than the millennials—won’t be as enraptured by technologies as millennials because they will have grown up with them.

But where Santorum really misses the boat, so to speak, is in his perception of who isn’t going to church anymore and why. Perhaps earlier generations stopped attending masses or services because they’d rather sleep in or go mountain biking on Sunday morning, or simply because they found those masses or services boring or irrelevant. But today’s young, and even middle-aged and older people, are more likely to be fed up with the church. In part because so much information is available to them so readily on their devices, they are less likely to accept the authority of religious leaders or the validity (let alone inerrancy) of the Bible. Even more important, they are more likely to have friends, relatives or co-workers who are LGBTQ or of a different religion or cultural heritage from what they grew up with. And young men know women who are doing the same work as they are, and possibly doing it even better.

Oh, and they’ve heard all about the sex abuse scandals. Perhaps they were victims themselves and were fortunate enough to get help at a relatively young age and be spared a lifetime of shame, self-loathing, substance abuse and unfulfilled and unfulfilling relationships and jobs.

In brief, if the Church has any hope of re-engaging the “younger generations” Santorum and others want to woo, it has to get rid of the predatory priests and everyone who covered up for and enabled them, for starters. (Actually, it would help even more if those priests, deacons and others didn’t molest kids at all, but that might be asking for too much too soon.) Then, it has to finally start respecting women’s bodies and minds. That means, among other things, supporting birth control and contraception and not punishing women when they come forward as rape victims. Finally, for once and for all, it has to end any and all bigotry, whether against LGBTQ people or anyone else.

If the Church is willing and able to do those things, it just might stanch the outflow of young people. Best of all, for the Church, such actions don’t require technology and wouldn’t cost the church anything. But I don’t expect the church to adopt such ideas: Even if the American and European churches become relics like Stonehenge, the church still has the Global South—at least until its young get smartphones and make gay friends.

Bruce Gerencser