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Tag: Religious Indoctrination

Questions: Bruce, Is the IFB Church Movement a Cult?

questions

I put out the call to readers, asking them for questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question, please leave it here or email me. All questions will be answered in the order in which they are received.

Anne asked:

Is the IFB considered to be a cult in America?

The Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement is a group of autonomous local churches that trace their lineage back to the liberal/modernist vs. Evangelical/Fundamentalist controversy in the 20th century. Thousands of churches left denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and American Baptist Convention, to name a few, and establish independent churches. Many of these churches “fellowshipped” (grouped) around IFB and other Fundamentalist colleges (Bob Jones University, Maranatha Baptist College, Midwestern Baptist College, Tennessee Temple, Pensacola Christian College, The Crown College, Hyles-Anderson College, Baptist Bible College, Massillon Baptist College, Trinity Baptist College, West Coast Baptist College, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, and others) IFB missions groups, pastor’s fellowships, and IFB fellowship groups such as the Sword of the Lord and the Southwide Baptist Fellowship. Some IFB churches were/are fiercely independent, choosing not to fellowship with anyone. (Please see Let’s Go Camping: Understanding Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Camps.)

In the 1960s-1980s, many of the largest churches in the United States were IFB congregations. Today, many of those churches and colleges are in numeric decline or have closed their doors. From 1976-1979, I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Established by Tom Malone, the pastor of a nearby IFB megachurch, Emmanuel Baptist Church, the college churned out scores of pastors, evangelists, missionaries, Christian school teachers, and pastor’s wives. Today, the church is dead, the college campus has been turned into efficiency apartments and a senior center, and the college continues to hold classes for a handful of students at Shalom Baptist Church in Orion, Michigan. Midwestern’s website hasn’t been updated in a year. I wouldn’t be surprised if the college closed its doors.

While at Midwestern, I married the daughter of Lee Shope, an IFB pastor and graduate of the college. After our marriage in 1978, Polly and I spent the twenty-five years pastoring IFB and other Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Both of us were raised in IFB homes and attended IFB churches. Our lives were deeply shaped (and marred) by the IFB church movement. Both of us are unbelievers today, but the IFB beliefs and practices still lurk deep within the recesses of our minds. That’s what religious indoctrination will do to you.

Anne asks if the IFB church movement is a cult. The short answer is yes. (Please see One Man’s Christianity is Another Man’s Cult and The IFB Blood Cult: I’m Not Brainwashed, I’m Bloodwashed.

In January 2021, Dr. Steven Hassan, a mental health professional and former member of the Unification Church, published a dissertation titled The BITE Model of Authoritarian Control: Undue Influence, Thought Reform, Brainwashing, Mind Control, Trafficking and the Law. Using Hassan’s BITE model, it is apparent that the IFB church movement is a cult, as are many other Evangelical sects and churches.

The following describes the specific methods that cults use to recruit and maintain control over people. Note that it is not necessary for a group to engage in all the behaviors mentioned below to be considered a cult:

Behavior Control

1. Regulate individual’s physical reality
2. Dictate where, how, and with whom the member
lives and associates or isolates
3. When, how and with whom the member has sex
4. Control types of clothing and hairstyles
5. Regulate diet – food and drink, hunger and/or fasting
6. Manipulation and deprivation of sleep
7. Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence
8. Restrict leisure, entertainment, vacation time
9. Major time spent with group indoctrination and
rituals and/or self indoctrination including the
Internet
10. Permission required for major decisions
11. Thoughts, feelings, and activities (of self and
others) reported to superiors
12. Rewards and punishments used to modify
behaviors, both positive and negative
13. Discourage individualism, encourage group-think
14. Impose rigid rules and regulations
15. Punish disobedience by beating, torture, burning,
cutting, rape, or tattooing/branding
16. Threaten harm to family and friends
17. Force individual to rape or be raped
18. Instill dependency and obedience
19. Encourage and engage in corporal punishment

II. Information Control

1. Deception:
a. Deliberately withhold information
b. Distort information to make it more acceptable
c. Systematically lie to the cult member
2. Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:
a. Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, other media
b. Critical information
c. Former members
d. Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
e. Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking
3. Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
a. Ensure that information is not freely accessible
b. Control information at different levels and missions within group
c. Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when
4. Encourage spying on other members
a. Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
b. Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
c. Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group
5. Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
a. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies
and other media
b. Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources
6. Unethical use of confession
a. Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
b. Withholding forgiveness or absolution
c. Manipulation of memory, possible false memories.

III. Thought Control

1. Require members to internalize the group’s
doctrine as truth
a. Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality’ as
reality
b. Instill black and white thinking
c. Decide between good vs. evil
d. Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs.
outsiders)
2. Change person’s name and identity
3. Use of loaded language and clichés which
constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and
reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words
4. Encourage only ‘good and proper’ thoughts
5. Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states,
undermine critical thinking and even to age regress
the member
6. Memories are manipulated and false memories are
created
7. Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut
down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts
and allowing only positive thoughts, including:
a. Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful
thinking
b. Chanting
c. Meditating
d. Praying
e. Speaking in tongues
f. Singing or humming
8. Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking,
constructive criticism
9. Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or
policy allowed
10. Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate,
evil, or not useful
11. Instill new “map of reality”

IV. Emotional Control

1. Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings – some emotions and/or needs are
deemed as evil, wrong or selfish
2. Teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of homesickness, anger,
doubt
3. Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s
or the group’s fault
4. Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as
a. Identity guilt
b. You are not living up to your potential
c. Your family is deficient
d. Your past is suspect
e. Your affiliations are unwise
f. Your thoughts, feelings, actions are irrelevant or selfish
g. Social guilt
h. Historical guilt
5. Instill fear, such as fear of:
a. Thinking independently
b. The outside world
c. Enemies
d. Losing one’s salvation
e. Leaving or being shunned by the group
f. Other’s disapproval
6. Extremes of emotional highs and lows – love bombing and praise one moment
and then declaring you are horrible sinner
7. Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins
8. Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or
questioning the leader’s authority
a. No happiness or fulfillment possible outside of the group
b. Terrible consequences if you leave: hell, demon possession, incurable
diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, 10,000 reincarnations, etc.
c. Shunning of those who leave; fear of being rejected by friends and family
d. Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak,
undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed by family or counselor, or
seduced by money, sex, or rock and roll
e. Threats of harm to ex-member and family

Freedom of Mind Resource Center

One of the difficult things I had to come to terms with is the fact that I was raised in a cult, and attended this cult’s churches and college. I would then marry a woman also raised in this cult, and we would spend most of our married life pastoring cultic churches. My life was dominated by cultic beliefs and practices until I was in my 40s. Simply put, I was a cult leader.

I am sure IFB pastors and church members who stumble upon this blog will object to being labeled a cult. The Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Moonies are cults, not us! We are “Biblical” Christians. We pastor New Testament Churches. We can trace our lineage all the way back to Jesus. And on and on it goes. However, using the BITE model, it is clear the IFB church movement is a cult; that its pastors are cult leaders; that its colleges continue to train the next generation of cult leaders.

If it walks, talks, and acts like a cult, it is a cult.

I have written 451 posts about the IFB church movement and its colleges and pastors. Here’s a selection from these posts:

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.

An Example of How I Indoctrinated Children as an IFB Pastor

bruce-gerencser-street-preaching-september-7-1990
Bruce Gerencser, preaching on a Zanesville, Ohio street corner, September 7, 1990. This photograph was on the front page of the Zanesville Times-Recorder.

I pastored the Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio for eleven years, from 1983-1994. I started the church in a storefront with 16 people. The church later grew to over 200 people. In 1989, after stopping our multi-county bus ministry due to costs, I started a tuition-free non-chartered Christian school for church children.

For five years, Polly and I, along with a handful of dedicated church members, got up early each morning and made our way to Somerset Baptist Academy (SBA) to teach our church’s children. Best described as a one-room schoolhouse, SBA had fifteen students. Most of the students were lacking academically, and though in retrospect some aspects of our school program were lacking, when it came to the basics, we excelled.

During this time, I was introduced to street preaching by Evangelist Don Hardman. Annually, Hardman would come to our church and hold a fifteen-day protracted meeting — the highlight of the church calendar year. Hardman and I later had a falling out due to my embrace of Calvinism. (Please see the series, My Life as a Street Preacher.)

Several times a week, I would take the church children with me to Newark and Zanesville where I preached and they handed out tracts and attempted to evangelize passersby. After a few years of doing this, I stopped due to increasing criticism from locals, suggesting that it was wrong (cultic) for me to use the children in this manner. While I wholeheartedly objected to their assertions — how was selling school raffle tickets any different? — I recognized that their continued participation was harming the church’s “testimony.”

What follows is a story written in 1990 by then Newark Advocate writer Kathy Wesley (behind paywall). The main character in the story is Shawn Nelson, a ninth-grade student at Somerset Baptist Academy.

You Never Realize How Wicked the World Is by Kathy Wesley, a features writer for The Advocate. Published September 16, 1990

NEWARK– The summer breeze is playing tricks with Shawn Nelson’s sandy hair, blowing it to and fro like wheat straw.

The sun is bright, the afternoon warm, the streets full of people. But Shawn sees darkness around the Courthouse Square.

“You never realize how wicked the world is until you get out there and see it,” the 14-year-old says, glancing around. “You see women in these short skirts, and men wearing no shirts at all, yelling and cussing at their kids.”

While many of his friends are back on the public school playground tossing footballs or dribbling basketballs, Shawn is toting his well-worn Bible in a race against evil on the Courthouse Square.

He spends three hours a week on the streets of Newark and Zanesville with 11 classmates from Somerset Baptist Academy, handing out tracts and opening their Bibles to anyone who will listen.

“It’s fun,” he says, shifting his Good Book from one hand to another and fingering his quarter-inch-thick packet of tracts. “You get to show people how to go to heaven.”

A well-dressed woman passes by, brusquely refusing Shawn’s tract, which asks on its front cover, “Where are you going to spend eternity?”

“It’s OK,” he says afterward. “You get used to it.”

Shawn’s been on the streets since May, when a traveling evangelist sold his pastor, the Rev. Bruce Gerenscer [sic], on street ministering. It felt strange at first to walk up to complete strangers and push Bible tracts into their hands, but Shawn is now a pro.

The latter-day apostle knows all the ropes: don’t give people a chance to say no, don’t step off the sidewalk. “As long as you’re on the sidewalk,” he explains, “you’re on public property and no one can arrest you.”

Like the other children, ranging in age from 9 to 16, Shawn has a Bible marked at the two verses they are to show to people who might stop to ask them for spiritual guidance: John 3:16 (” For God so loved the world … “) and Revelations [sic] 3:20.

In four months on the street, nobody’s asked Shawn to show them the way to salvation, but he’s ready. He’s in the midst of memorizing his Bible.

“I want to memorize the whole thing,” he says. “That way, when someone asks you a Bible question, you’ll immediately know the answer.”

There’s not a lot of Bible quizzes given on the streets of downtown Newark, but Shawn seems fairly confident already. His answers to questions of faith spill quickly from memory with childlike enthusiasm.

“In the old days religion was different,” he says. “Then men decided they wanted new religions, which had nothing to do with the Bible.”

“The Mormons and Presbyterians, among others, are in trouble with the Bible,” Shawn says. “They believe in a different way to go to heaven. Some say you have to work your way to heaven … but the Bible says the only way to heaven is through the Father.”

He’s not sure what it is to be a Christian, “except that you should obey the Bible and you shouldn’t sin.” But the details of those requirements seem to be a little hazy.

With the exception of his ambition to memorize the Bible, Shawn’s future is likewise fuzzy. He hasn’t thought about a career, although he acknowledges he has a fondness for automobiles and engines.

It’s fun for him to be on the street; he recalls with delight the lemonade a Zanesville street vendor gave him one day. But behind it all is his deadly serious mission.

Unlike his predecessor Paul, who spread the story of Jesus of Nazareth in the streets of downtown Ephesus in the First Century, Shawn doesn’t have to dodge spears and unfriendly government officials. He just has to put up with the rejection of people who walk a half block out of their way to go around him, and the taunts of children his own age who pass on bicycles.

“Sometimes they ride by and they mock us,” Shawn says, “and I don’t like it.”

But not, he says, because they hurt his feelings.

“I don’t like it,” he says quietly, with the firmness of childhood certainty, “because I know they’re going to die and go to hell.”

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 Danger of IFB Summer Youth Camps

youth camp

Many former Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church members can remember attending summer youth camps during their teenage years. (Please see Camp Chautauqua, Miamisburg, Ohio.) I attended camp every summer between my seventh and tenth grade school years. The summer after seventh grade, I attended an Ohio-based Bible church youth camp. The next year, I attended Camp Patmos — a General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) camp. The following two years, I attended Camp Chautauqua in Miamisburg, Ohio — a camp facility owned and operated by the Ohio Baptist Bible Fellowship.

I always looked forward to attending camp. It was one week out of the summer when I could get away from home and meet up with friends from other churches, meet new acquaintances and, most of all, fall in love. While there were plenty of girls to date at my home church, camp afforded me the opportunity to meet and pursue new loves. At the end of every camp, my new girlfriend and I traded addresses, promising to write one another. Surely, our “love” would survive until next year’s camp, right? Alas, such relationships died by the time the church bus turned out of the camp’s driveway headed for home. Forty-five years later, I am still waiting for that beautiful black-haired girl from Elyria to write me. Something tells me that she won’t be writing, and much like her redheaded flame, she found that absence does not make the heart grow fonder, and a nice-looking boy at church is a lot more appealing than the promise of letters to come.

In 2016, I wrote a post detailing my experiences at Camp Chautauqua:

I have many fond memories of the two summers I spent at Camp Chautauqua. The spiritual emphasis was intense and played an instrumental part in my call to the ministry. A number of the big-gun Baptist preachers preached at the evening chapel services. I can still remember Peter Ruckman’s sermons, complete with his famous chalk drawings. I also remember John Rawlings, then pastor of Landmark Baptist Temple (now Landmark Church) in Cincinnati, preaching one night, and during his sermon he told an illustration about cleaning shit out of the barn when he was young. He actually said the word SHIT!! Needless to say, I was stunned. Later in life, I learned that some Christians didn’t think shit was a curse word, especially when used to describe animal manure.

Camp brought upwards of a thousand youth together for one week. Camp Chautauqua had a lot of real estate for meandering teens to get lost in. Follow me for a moment…It’s the 70s. A thousand teenagers, ninth through twelfth grades. Lots of real estate in which hormone-raging teens could get lost. Well, use your imagination. The highlight of youth camp for me was the girls.

….

The first year I went to Camp Chautauqua, Gene Milioni, the pastor of Trinity Baptist, was our cabin counselor. He was pretty easy to outwit. The next year, the youth pastor, Bruce Turner, was the cabin counselor, (please see Dear Bruce Turner) and he proved to be every bit our match. He was not so far removed from his own youth that he had forgotten the dangers of putting a bunch of teenage boys and girls in proximity to one another.

Practical jokes were an everyday occurrence. The jokes were fun to pull on others, but payback could be brutal. From stolen bedding and purloined light bulbs to shaving cream in sleeping bags, practical jokes were a part of what made camp a great experience. And besides, I was a pretty good joke perpetrator.

The music was another highlight of camp. Most of the churches that brought their teens to camp were mid-size to large churches, so the music talent level was superb. Wonderful music. To this day, I think some of the best singing I have ever heard was at Camp Chautauqua.

If I had a negative experience at camp, I don’t remember it. Perhaps, this is the wistful remembering of an old man trying to recall what happened 45 years ago during the glory days of his youth. Perhaps my fond memories are a reflection of the fact that camp, for me and for many others, was a respite from our fundamentalist churches and family dysfunction. Camp was the one week out the year that I got to hang out with my friends and meet new people without having adults watching my every move.

This summer, thousands of IFB teenagers will go to camp. Some teens will attend camps at the facilities mentioned above. Others will attend camps such as the Bill Rice Ranch or The Wilds. My wife’s family is deeply ensconced in the IFB church movement. Many of her relatives send their teens to the Bill Rice Ranch — an uber-fundamentalist camping program. Some IFB churches, wanting to preserve their INDEPENDENT status, hold their own camps. I did this for several years in southeast Ohio. We would rent a camp for a week, and then invite like-minded churches to attend. The last camp I participated in featured a preacher from Fort Wayne who believed Christians could be demon-possessed. He spent the week excusing all sorts of bad behavior as demon possession. By the time the week was over, I wanted to strangle the man. Come the next Sunday, I made sure the teens and adults from my church who attended the camp knew that I totally disagreed with the notion of Christian demon possession.

Over the weekend, I pondered my experiences attending IFB youth camps, and whether my feel-good camp experiences covered up something insidious; that these camps, regardless of how much fun campers have, are tools used by IFB churches and pastors to indoctrinate children and teenagers. IFB church leaders know that they must draw in children and teens before they can be indoctrinated. Thus, camp advertising materials focus on all the fun campers will have, and not the fact that there will be hours-long Bible studies, devotionals, church services, and afterglows (highly emotional after-service campfires). High-powered IFB evangelists, youth pastors, and conference speakers are brought in to evangelize the lost and indoctrinate the saved. Most camp attendees will return to their home churches “on-fire” for God. Perhaps former IFB church members will remember the Sundays after camp when attendees were paraded in front of their churches and asked to give testimonies about what God had done for them over the past week. Passionate testimonies of conversion or getting right with God, complete with tears, are often heard. Adults shout “AMEN!”, praising God for the work he has done in the lives of church teenagers. Yet, in a matter of weeks or months, life for these “changed” teenagers returns to normal, just in time for the church’s annual youth revival or other event meant to stir religious passions.

Many IFB teenagers become immune to indoctrination, enjoying the fun and enduring the Jesus stuff. Others, such as myself, become caught up in a constant cycle of sinning and getting right with God; a continual striving for holiness and perfection. The ultimate goal of camps, youth revivals, youth rallies, and youth conferences is to thoroughly indoctrinate teenagers so they will actually “feel” God calling them to full-time service as pastors, evangelists, missionaries, and Christian school teachers. Those feeling “called” will be further indoctrinated, hopefully leading them to “feel” God calling them to attend an IFB college. (Many IFB preachers see teens called into the ministry as the highwater mark of their ministries, the passing on of the Fundamentalist Baptist torch.) Countless IFB preachers felt the “call” of God at youth camp. While I felt the “call” during a service preached by IFB evangelist Al Lacy, there’s no doubt summer youth camp played an instrumental part in my decisions to become a preacher, attend Midwestern Baptist College, and pastor Evangelical churches for twenty-five years.

How about you? Did you attend IFB summer youth camp? Please share your experiences in the comment section. Non-IFB church camp stories are welcome too!

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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.

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Bruce, If God Isn’t Real, Who is to Blame for Your Life as a Pastor?

never question god

My recent post titled Dear Jesus, I Want a Refund has really made a mark and is getting a lot of attention. As I pondered what I had written, I thought about what questions people might ask me. This post is an attempt to answer one of the questions that came to mind: Bruce, If God Isn’t Real, Who is to Blame for Your Life as a Pastor?

The Dear Jesus post is written from the perspective that Jesus is God, and that he is alive and well somewhere in the Christian God’s heaven. Now, I don’t believe that to be true, but I wrote the post from that perspective because it allowed me to share with readers the emotional struggles I have faced coming to terms with how I lived my life as a devout, committed pastor. Dear Jesus allows readers to see my struggles and perhaps, in doing so, it might help them to understand their own battles with the past.

Let me be clear, I am an atheist. Anyone suggesting otherwise has failed to understand my story. If you happen to be one such doubting Thomas, I would love to know what in my journey leads you to conclude that I am not what I claim to be. Over the years, countless Evangelicals have attempted to cast doubt, suggesting that I am still a Christian; that deep down in my heart of hearts I still believe; that my writing reveals that I still yearn for a relationship with Jesus. None of these things, of course, is true. Who knows me better than yours truly? So, when I say I am an atheist, I am telling the truth. There’s no ulterior motive here, neither is there a yearning for the good old days when me are J.C. were best buds. These days, the only bud I want grows on a leafy green plant.

Ultimately, I am to blame for the decisions I made during my years as a Christian and as an Evangelical pastor. All of us are responsible for the choices we make. The issue then, is what influenced my decision-making? Why did I make these decisions? God, of course, had nothing to do with it — he doesn’t exist. Yet, for fifty years I believed God was speaking to me, directing my life, and leading me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. If God wasn’t speaking to me, who or what were the voices I heard? If it wasn’t God impressing on my mind certain Bible verses or decisions, who was?

I grew up in an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) home. I was raised by parents who believed, at least outwardly, that the Christian deity was the one true God and the Bible was his revealed will for mankind. The Gerencser family attended church every time the doors were open. This stopped for the rest of my family when my parents divorced. I was fifteen at the time. Unlike my family, I continued on in the faith, attending church every time the doors were open. I believed every word in the Bible was the words of God. I believed in a God who was personally and intimately involved in my life. My parents may have forsaken the way, but I was determined to stay the course. Church friends from my high school days will tell you that I was a true-blue believer, as will my heathen friends whom I attempted to evangelize.

From my preschool years forward, my mind was bombarded with sermons and Sunday school lessons. By the time I was eighteen, I had heard almost four thousand Evangelicals sermons and lessons. Those whom I listened to had several motivations. First, they wanted to lead me to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Second, they wanted to teach me the way, truth, and life found within the pages of the King James Bible. Third, they wanted to indoctrinate me in the one true faith. Week after week and year after year, these promoters of what they believed was the old-time religion assaulted my mind with Biblical “truth.” They wanted to make sure that I was steadfast in the faith, and that when I entered the “world” my faith would stand; and it did until I was fifty years old.

At the age of fifteen, I believed God spoke to me, saying that he wanted me to be a preacher. At the age of nineteen, I enrolled in classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern was known as a première IFB preacher training school (and it was cheaper than many other IFB schools). While there, I met a pretty dark-haired girl who believed God had spoken to her too. God wanted Polly to be a pastor’s wife. Both of us had minds open wide for whatever it was these great men of God were going to teach us. And for three years, our minds were pummeled with preaching and teaching that only reinforced the beliefs we entered college with.

This is not to say that I was blind to the contradictions that surrounded me; not textual contradictions, but failures of preachers and teachers to practice what they preached. During my three years at Midwestern I noticed that there was a do as I say, not as I do mentality. Girls weren’t allowed to wear slacks, but the college president’s wife and daughters were allowed to do so as long as they were away from the college. The president’s youngest daughter was permitted to single-date, while the rest of the single students were required to double-date. Dating students were not allowed to physically touch each other; that is, unless they were in one of the college’s Shakespearean productions. Then touching, kissing, and even cursing was permitted. Students were not permitted to listen to secular music, yet at the annual Valentine’s banquet, secular songs such as I’m on the Top of the World by the Carpenters were performed by college students. Silly stuff, right? But there were serious contractions too. One of the teachers was a homosexual. He lived in the dorm and often had students as his “roommates.” Homosexuality was considered a sin above all sins, yet the college administration turned a blind eye to this man’s “sin.”

During my sophomore year, a huge scandal broke out. The college basketball coach and drama department chair had an affair with the wife of the college dean. The matter was quietly and discreetly handled, with the offenders being dismissed from their jobs. Not one word was said to the student body. Gossip and complaining (griping) were swiftly and severely punished. After three years at Midwestern — having experienced and seen behaviors that were contrary to the company line — you would think that I would have had doubts about Christianity. Sadly, I didn’t. I developed a people are people approach to moral and ethical failures. The Devil and the flesh were the problems, not God and the Bible.

I left Midwestern in the spring of 1979 with a pregnant wife in tow. My faith was stronger than ever, and I was ready to make my mark as a God-called, spirit-filled preacher of the gospel. Over the course of the next four decades, my beliefs and practices would change, but my commitment to God endured. While I considered myself a progressive when I left the ministry in 2005, I still believed the basic tenets of Christianity were true.

When I look back over my life, the only conclusion I can come to when attempting to understand why I made certain decisions is that I had been deeply and thoroughly indoctrinated by Evangelical preachers and teachers. Even as a pastor, I continued to immerse myself in books that validated my beliefs. I attended conferences and special meetings that only reinforced my beliefs. Worse yet, I took my beliefs and passed them on to thousands of other people; people who saw me as a man of God; people who believed my sermons and teachings were straight from God; people who wanted someone to stand between them and God and tell them what to believe and how to live. That the churches I pastored prospered (until they didn’t) was evidence of God’s blessing. This was especially true during the eleven years I pastored Somerset Baptist Church in Southeast Ohio.

The question then, based on how I was raised and what I was taught in the churches I attended and as a college student, how could I have turned out any other way? If I were to psychoanalyze myself, I suspect I would conclude that the church became stand-in for my parents after my mom and dad divorced. I would also likely conclude that Evangelicalism fed my perfectionist, OCPD tendencies. I had a deep-seated need to be right. I also had a need to be wanted, loved, and respected. The ministry gave me all these things.

So yes, the decisions I made as an Evangelical pastor were mine, but they were not made in a vacuüm. The only way to understand how and why I made the decisions I did, including the ones the harmed me personally and my family, is to view them from a sociological or environmental perspective. The sum of my experiences affected how and why I made certain decisions. The decisions were mine, of course, but now you know why I made these choices (ignoring here, for now, discussions about whether any of us has free will).

My Christian faith rested on a Bible foundation. I believed the Bible was a supernatural book written by a supernatural God.  The Bible was God’s roadmap or blueprint for my life and the lives of my wife and children. It was only when I learned that the Bible was not what Evangelicals claim it is that my Christian house came tumbling to the ground. Once I understood that the Bible was written by fallible, errant men, and that it was not in any way inspired, inerrant, or infallible, I was then free, for the first time, to seriously and thoroughly investigate the claims of Christianity. And when I did, I found out that the emperor had no clothes, and that the wizard behind the screen was self, not God. Understanding this ripped my life to shreds, forcing me to rebuild it from the ground up. Every former belief and presupposition was investigated and tossed aside. At the age of fifty, I was forced (or better put, had the opportunity) to build my life anew. I am blessed to have my wife and children walking along with me as I find my way through this wild, woolly world. My writing is my way of helping those who may be where I once was or who have recently exited the cult. I am not an expert or an authority, but I am one man who knows that it is possible to live a wonderful, abundant, satisfying life post-Jesus. I hope, by telling my story, that people will see that a good life is possible without all the religious baggage. And sleeping in on Sundays? Priceless….

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven 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.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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Are Children Born Atheists?

babies

Recent discussions on Fundamentalist Tony Breeden’s deconstruction of my life have revealed that I need to clarify something I wrote several years ago in the series titled From Evangelicalism to Atheism. In Part Two of the series, I said:

One of the questions I am often asked is, Why did you become an Evangelical or Why did you become an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist?

This is the wrong question. The real question is, how could I NOT have become an Evangelical or Independent Fundamentalist Baptist?

Every child born into this world is an atheist. Not one of them knows one thing about god or religion, nor about sin, salvation, or morality. As far as god and religion are concerned, every newborn is a blank slate.

Belief in god must be taught and learned. This teaching is done by parents, extended family, and the culture/society the child grows up in. Children taken to a church, temple, or synagogue, are taught to KNOW god, to know their parents’ religion.

Most children embrace the religion of their parents. Parents who worship the Christian god generally raise children who are Christian. This is especially the case when it comes to Evangelical children. From the toddler years forward, Evangelical children are taught that they are sinners in need of salvation. They are taught that unless they ask Jesus into their hearts, they will end up in hell when they die. Every Sunday at church, at home during the week, and at school, if they attend a Christian school, Evangelical children face an onslaught of manipulative evangelistic methods geared to help them accept Jesus as their Savior.

The focus of discussion on Breeden’s blog is my contention that children are born into the world atheists. Scientific studies challenge this notion, so I want to clarify what exactly I mean when I say “Every child born into this world is an atheist.”

While there are tentative studies that suggest that humans have some sort of innate disposition towards religion/spirituality, this is hardly settled science. In a recent comment on Breeden’s post, Michael Mock had this to say:

  1. Claiming that human beings are born atheists or religious is at best misleading and at worst wholly incorrect; the actual state of affairs is more complicated than that.\
  2. Research has shown that children have this natural tendency to interpret features as if they have a purpose, but if you look at the incredible variety of human religious beliefs, it’s extremely hard to argue that “this naturally leads to a belief in a Creator God” when the vast majority of what it leads to is more along the lines of animism, pantheism, or polytheism. (Seriously, check out a book on traditional creation myths some time. They are, quite literally, all over the place.)
  3. If the tendency towards religious belief is a natural human trait (as we appear to agree that it is), then we should expect it to manifest more strongly in some individuals and less strongly in others – as, for example, some people are extremely artistic while others essentially have no use for art at all. Given “tendency towards religious belief” as a general human trait, the existence of a minority of atheists isn’t “abnormal” on the contrary, it’s expected.

Simply put, if humans have some sort of innate (biological) disposition towards religion/spirituality, it is the result of evolution, not the Christian God. Somewhere in our evolutionary past, it became advantageous for our species to have some sort of religious belief. As Michael makes clear, this belief was and is expressed in countless ways. Monotheism was a late-comer to the religion party, as the Bible clearly shows with its mentions of polytheistic cultures. In fact, a fair, unbiased reading of Genesis 1-3 reveals polytheistic, not monotheistic beliefs. (Please see The Evolution of God by Robert Wright.)

If this innate disposition leads people to embrace some sort of religious belief, it is certain that geography, along with sociological, cultural, and tribal influences determine what that belief will be. (Please see Why Most Americans Are Christian.) And that was the point of what I wrote in the post mentioned above — a subject I have returned to several times in recent years. Breeden, ever the young-earth creationist, seizes on minute scientific studies and findings and uses them as a jumping off point for his beliefs concerning the Christian God. What I find amusing is that Breeden — a man who rejects evolutionary biology — uses a trait possibly given to humans through our species evolution as “proof” of his Fundamentalist beliefs. Lost on Breeden is the fact that the vast majority of humans who have ever walked on the face of the earth have embraced Gods other than Breeden’s Evangelical God. Even today, Christianity in all its forms — many of which Breeden considers false religions — is a minority religion. Worse yet, WHICH Christianity is true Christianity? Evangelicals, believing that their God is the one true God, can’t even agree on crucial doctrines such as sin, salvation, the nature of God, baptism, and communion.

Leaving behind the scientific debate about whether humans have an innate disposition towards religion/spirituality, I want to conclude this post with a discussion of why people choose a particular religious belief (or none at all). The science is clear on this point: which religious beliefs people choose is largely determined by geography, along with sociological, cultural, and tribal (family) influences. All anyone has to do is look at a map of religion concentration to see that Christian cultures and families beget Christian children, Muslim cultures and families beget Muslim children, and Hindu cultures and families beget Hindu children. And as we are now seeing in secular, non-religious countries, secular cultures and families beget secular children. Here in the America, Evangelicals are alarmed over the rapid increase of NONES — people who are atheists, agnostics, humanists, or are indifferent towards organized religion. This turning away from religion is similar to that which has been going on in Europe for decades. Will this turning away from Christianity’s Gods ultimately result in most children not having religious beliefs? Time will tell. I know with my own children, I see a rising indifference towards religion. This indifference, of course, is being passed on to my grandchildren — to which Nana and Grandpa say AMEN! While several of my children still attend church, they have embraced expressions of faith that Evangelicals considered heretical.

In November of 2008, I attended church for the last time, finally admitting that I was no longer a Christian. Over the past eight years, I have, through my writing, attempted to give an open, honest accounting of my life. Part of this accounting is determining exactly how I became an Evangelical Christian and pastor and why I spent much of my adult life preaching a religion I now believe is false.

I was born almost sixty years ago to Christian parents who lived in a Christian country and a Christian community. My first few years of life were spent in Lutheran and Episcopal churches, but at the age of five my parents moved to California and while there met the Evangelical Jesus (and the God of the John Birch Society). From that moment forward, my parents and the churches we attended indoctrinated me in the one true faith — Evangelical Christianity. Is it any surprise, then, that I had several born-again experiences, attended an Evangelical Bible college, married an Evangelical girl, and spent twenty-five years pastoring Evangelical churches? Of course not. How could I have possibly turned out any differently from the way I did? I conservatively spent more than 12,000 hours attending church services, along with spending tens of thousands of hours reading and studying the Bible and reading religious books. I no more could have been an atheist than the Pope could be one. Everything in my upbringing and experiences told me that Evangelical Christianity was true and that all other religions were false.

For these reasons, it is rare for someone such as myself to embrace atheism. Most pastors-turned-atheists leave the faith at a much younger age than I did, leading some people to question my motives for doing so. Some atheists have even questioned my mental stability, saying that I should have figured out the truth about Christianity years before I did. What a stupid man you were, Bruce, to give fifty years of your life to a lie, some atheists say. Perhaps, but I was disposed towards being a true-blue, all-in kind of believer. This is why I find dismissals of my past by Evangelicals (and some atheists) so offensive. As countless people will testify, If anyone was a true Christian, it was Bruce Gerencser. That people find my current godlessness troubling and disconcerting is understandable.

How is it possible that the man they once called Pastor Bruce is now an atheist? One former parishioner and dear friend finds my story so troubling that he wrote to tell me that he couldn’t be friends with me anymore. My atheism was causing such psychological discomfort that he was losing sleep. He simply could not wrap his mind around how a Christian man so dear to him could now be working for Team Satan®. Several former church members have friended me on Facebook, only to unfriend me weeks later because they can’t stomach my atheism. One woman wrote to tell me that she really wanted to remain friends, but she couldn’t because she found my current life discouraging and depressing.

I receive frequent emails from Evangelicals who are having doubts about Christianity. I encourage these doubters to think about WHY they are Christians. Often, after decades of indoctrination, doubters think that the reasons they are Christians is theological in nature. They, after all, remember the date, time, and place Jesus saved them. What I try to do is get them to look at the geographical, familial, societal, and sociological reasons for their beliefs. If these doubters can see that it was outward influences and not Jesus that determined what religion they embraced, they are well on their way to understanding that all religion, including Christianity, is of human origin. Even if it is proven someday that humans have some sort of God gene, this will in no way discredit the human nature of all religions. The only way to dismiss the humanness of religion is to embrace the teachings of this or that religious text (texts that were written, drum roll please, by humans).  This is why it is vitally important to disabuse Evangelicals of the notion that the Bible is an inspired, inerrant, infallible text written by God. Once they see that the Bible is NOT what their pastors, teachers, and religious culture say it is, they are then free to examine their beliefs in the larger context of why people embrace particular religions. And more often than, such inquiry will lead to their abandonment of Evangelical Christianity.

As long as the Bible, and not science, history, skepticism, and rational inquiry, rule their minds, Evangelicals will continue to think that they are Christians because God chose to save them. Until their minds are unshackled from the Bible, the only thing that can be said of Evangelicals is that they are fortunate to have been born in the right country to the right parents and immersed in the right culture so God could save them from their sins and make them members of Evangelical churches. Quite lucky, don’t you think? I wonder why the Evangelical God didn’t do that for most of the people who have graced the pages of human history? That’s a question for another day.

Bruce Gerencser