The following is an interview with Bruce Gerencser of The Way Forward.
It sounds like your original problem with your church was that your congregation wasn't taking Christianity seriously enough. At some point this turned to you taking Christianity even less serious than your fellow pew fillers. How might have the apathy of Joe Believer contributed to your doubts, if at all?
I was a hard-core Fundamentalist Baptist when I entered the ministry in 1976. I trained for the ministry at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac Michigan. I had impeccable Fundamentalist Baptist credentials. Over the course of twenty-five plus years in full-time ministry, my beliefs changed as I continued to study and read. I have always had an inquisitive mind and I was known as a pastor who always had his nose in a book. (some former church members and fellow pastors have suggested my penchant for reading is what led me to where I am today)
For many years, I read books that were safe, books that kept me in the Fundamentalist box. I moderated this or that belief, but I never strayed from orthodoxy. In the mid-1990's, I began reading books that I would describe as dangerous or even heretical. These authors forced me to confront the validity of many of my beliefs and, over time, my theology moderated. I became a garden variety Evangelical, quite conservative, but a long way from my Fundamentalist Baptist roots.
In the early 2000's,my political views changed from right-wing Republican to Democrat. My view of the hot-button social issues also changed. By the time I pastored my last church in 2003, I was a Progressive Christian, so far from my Fundamentalist roots, that many of my pastor friends considered me a liberal or an apostate. I still believed the Bible was the Word of God, but I believed Evangelicals had distorted the teachings of the Bible and largely ignored what the Bible said about ministering to the poor and disenfranchised.
After I left the ministry in 2003, my wife and I began searching for a church to attend. Over the course of a few years we visited over a hundred churches in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Arizona, and California. We were looking for a church that took seriously the teachings of the Bible, especially the teachings about the poor, war, and ministering the disenfranchised.
I was extremely restless and I began to wonder if American Christianity was bankrupt, and that the Christianity of the 20th century was nothing like the Christianity of the First Century. This disaffection was the fertile ground my disbelief and later rejection of Christianity found root.
Leaving a religion usually means leaving a primary social group. Did you experience difficulty maintaining friendships or finding new ones after leaving your church? Do you have any advice for others facing this problem?
When I left the ministry I lost twenty-five years worth of friends. Not one fellow pastor would call me friend. Instead, I became a cautionary tale, an illustration to be used when warning people about imbibing at the bar of the philosophies of this world. These relationships required fidelity to certain beliefs, and when I could not longer believe those things, and said so, my friends left me in droves. (here is one man preaching about me in a sermon)
Today,we have two Christian friends, Dave and Newana Echler, that we spend time with. For a long time, I was pretty much friendless. One day, through an internet search, I came across a former pastor turned agnostic named Jim Schoch. Jim lived ten miles from where I lived. For several years, Jim and his wife Tammy were our "church" and their friendship made a huge difference in our lives. Unfortunately, Jim and Tammy moved to Arizona two years ago and we were left without any non-Christian friends.
Rural NW Ohio is decidedly Evangelical and Republican. Like vampires,atheists and liberals only come out at night. We lurk in the shadows of a culture dominated by Jesus and the Christian Bible. I am the local face of atheism so opportunities to gain new friends are sparse.
The dearth of friends has had one good side effect; it forced my wife and I do deepen our relationship with one another. Our friendship blossomed and the longer we were were away Christianity the better it got. I also have met a number of non-Christians through The Way Forward, people I count as my friends.
I encourage former Christians to seek out new relationships through Humanist, Atheist, or Freethought groups. All of us like to hang out with like-minded people. The problem for my wife and I is that these groups don't exist in our area. The closest group is fifty miles away. I've had thoughts of starting a local humanist or atheist group.
We have to accept that our godlessness leaves us on the outside looking in. Loneliness is sometimes part of what is means to be an atheist. (and why some atheist blogs have become hangouts for like-minded people)
You raised six children while an evangelical and now have eight grandchildren as an atheist. I find it a interesting dilemma of indoctrinating kids into a faith that you one day leave. Whether you've done this or not, can you draw from your experience how one should deal with such a transition?
Fortunately, the effect of my atheism on my children has been quite minimal. When I first deconverted I sat my children down and told them where I was on the god question and that I was cutting them loose. I was no longer going to be their pastor, the patriarch of the family. Each person would have to settle the god question for themselves. I wanted them to know that they were free to believe whatever they wanted to believe, and that I would love them regardless of what they believe. (none of my children are Evangelicals)
Some of my children attend church, but none of them attend church on a weekly basis. According to Christians in my wife's family, I have ruined my children. I suspect the next big issue will be when my grandchildren get older and they ask, "Grandpa, Daddy said you used to be a preacher and now you don't go to church. Why don't you go to church?" My children know I will not shy away from questions like this. I hope to answer their questions openly and honestly. In the meantime, I encourage my grandchildren to be inquisitive about the world they live in. I have high hopes that one day one of my grandchildren will be a renowned scientist.
My advice to anyone going through a similar transition is that they consider the cost very carefully. I was able to hide behind the agnostic rock for awhile, but when I said, "I am an atheist," I was no longer in control of how people might respond to me. My children are often asked, "is your Dad Bruce Gerencser?" I am a frequent letter to the editor writer and my letters put my children in the unenviable position of having to defend me. (and I encourage them not to defend me)
Above all, people need to be open and honest about their beliefs. I know some atheists have to stay in the closet for the sake of their marriage or job. I didn't have to do this. I was free to say,"I am an atheist." Not everyone can do this, so I don't judge others when they don't follow the same path that I did.
I notice that in a post in January of 2011 you considered yourself agnostic while in a post in January of 2012 you identified as an atheist. Now that it is January of 2013, what are you and how did you make that final leap from agnosticism to atheism?
I explain it this way. I am agnostic on the god question but, based on the available evidence, I live my day to day life as an atheist. The problem with saying,"I am an agnostic" is that is requires an explanation. Saying,"I am an atheist" is straightforward and there is little doubt about what I mean when I use the word atheist,
I am going on my fifth year as a non-Christian. I am comfortable in my atheist skin and my life reflects this. The only time god crosses my mind is when I am blogging or swearing.
Have you found yourself taking up other more atheist-typical viewpoints since dropping Christianity? For example, are you more socially or fiscally liberal today? Why do you think certain values that aren't necessarily linked to belief or disbelief tend to fall in line with theists or atheists?
My social and political views began to evolve towards the end of my time in the ministry . I voted for George W Bush in 2000 and he was the last Republican I voted for. If I were to describe myself today, I would say I am a liberal, with a socialist bent and a tinge of libertarianism. Christian writers like Thomas Merton,Wendell Berry, Dorothy Day, Jim Wallis, and Brian McLaren, along with Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, were instrumental in setting me on a course of radical political change.
Evangelicals have a hard time separating their religious beliefs from their political beliefs. Sadly, Evangelicals are joined at the hip with the extreme right of the Republican Party. State and Church have become one, which is interesting because when I entered the ministry thirty-six years ago, church leaders emphasized the separation of church and state. These days, they deny that the separation of church and state even exists.
Atheists have varying, and widely diverse political views but, most atheists tend to gravitate towards liberal political views. I suspect this is true because many atheists also consider themselves humanists, and humanism is, at its heart, a liberal and progressive system of thought.
Do you see yourself as part of a wider atheist/skeptic political movement?
Yes, I do. I am a member of American Atheists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. These groups advance the beliefs and causes I consider important and I think it is important for me to support them.
What do you see as the most beneficial aspect of religion?
The most beneficial aspect of religion is the cultural and social identity it gives to believers. They are part of something bigger than themselves. Weekly services, communal meals, and social activities, give the believer a sense of belonging.
A common complaint of Christians-turned-atheist is that they miss the social connection belonging to a church gave them. This is an area where we as atheists must do better. Many atheists, myself included, feel like the Lone Ranger, often without even a Tonto to be our trusted friend. While I don't think we need atheist churches, we do need groups that promote a kindred spirit and fellowship among atheists. We often look for someone else to get these groups started. Maybe we need to be the one to get things going in our community.