Thank you Dennis for sharing with us!
Hi, I’m Dennis. Thank you for allowing me to share my de-conversion story with you.
I’m living in New England and no longer in the ministry. Originally I was a conservative, one might say “fundamentalist” Presbyterian. I left my last pastorate in 1995, was relieved of my ordination in 1997 and had my name removed from the last church of which I was a member in January of this year, 2012. I’m a member of The Clergy Project and self-identify as a skeptic and atheist.
Going, going, going……GONE!
My de-conversion was not a casual, spur of the moment decision. It was a long, slow, lonely struggle; a series of sometimes arduous fortuitous “ah ha” moments; a gradual wearing-away, an erosion of Faith. Ultimately, my departure was the final whimper of a faith that had been fading and fading for decades until it merely winked out of existence.
Born in the Bible belt to moderate Christian parents, I ecstatically embraced fundamentalist Christianity at age 17. Thirty-three years later, I soberly and deliberately abandoned it, along with any belief in any deity. I had been to seminary where I studied the Bible in its original languages and waded through all the theology. I had taught and stridently sought to defend it as an ordained minister and pastor for sixteen years. It was not a decision borne out of ignorance or lack of understanding. Without pride, I would say I understand Christianity and the Bible far better than the vast majority of believers who go to church every Sunday morning and at least as well as good many of their ministers. Ironically it is that very understanding that ultimately lead to my unbelief.
My conversion was genuine. I was at the beach on summer vacation with my then girlfriend’s family, members of a fundamentalist denomination. We attended the Sunday evening worship service of a sister church. All I remember of the sermon was fire and brimstone, threats of hell, promises of heaven and calls to repentance. Although up to that point I had resisted and scoffed at the evangelicalism and literalism of their faith, that night I was deeply moved. During a long solitary walk on the beach afterwards, I fell to my knees and asked that God show me he was real. There were no overt signs, no miracles; no Venus arising from the sea, just the stirring of a profound new emotion. I felt changed; my sensibilities had changed and I felt the stirring of what seemed like a new person. From that moment on, I considered myself “born again” through the Holy Spirit of God to a new life. I set my feet on the path of being a believer and pursued it doggedly and persistently for the next twenty-five years. Oddly enough my girlfriend was not particularly pleased, nor was my parents or extended family for the most part so there was little support for this radical change in my life. It was a constant uphill fight.
In college, I was involved with the Navigators and with a large vibrant local Bible Church. Throughout college, I continued to feel the very personal presence of God and prayed frequently and fervently and it was there that I decided I wanted to enter the ministry. I had been well schooled and firmly believed in the “fundamentals” of the faith, the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the Bodily Resurrection, the Vicarious Atonement and the Second Coming of Jesus in Glory, by people who were intellectually engaged. I had been taught and believed that all the answers to all life’s vexing questions were to be found in the Bible because was the inspired, inerrant and infallible Word of God. I believed as fervently as any of my fellow believers. Convinced that I was being called to the ministry, I enrolled in seminary.
The seminary I attended was academically oriented and intellectually challenging; yet still unswervingly committed to the inspiration, inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. I looked forward to finally really being able to dig into the Bible and understand theology. So, I was ecstatic when I began my New Testament Introduction course because I thought that now I would really find out the basis for trust in the authenticity and reliability of the New Testament. However, when reading for class regarding the dating, authorship and canonicity of the gospel, I was absolutely dumbfounded. What I thought would be a flood of evidence attesting to the scripture left me saying to myself, “Is that it? Really?” However, more significantly by the end of my first year, that strong felt sense of the personal presence of God which had developed and carried me through College had faded and I wondered what was wrong with me. In reality it turns out, I was simply maturing, moving beyond my naïve, Sunday school understanding of the Bible, faith and the Christian Life. My intellect, which had been submerged and suppressed in order to swallow the “party line” that the Bible is the only source of truth and that all else was to be subjected to its judgment, had begun to assert itself.
I took solace in the idea that much smarter and more learned men than myself believed, so I held on and continued my march toward a position in the church. Eventually the broader, sweeping themes of the Bible from a literary and theological perspective and the intricacies of Systematic and Historical theology captured my imagination. I was able to place in stasis my questions about the troublesome “details”. The sweep of Biblical themes, the intellectual challenge of Theology, and the intriguing study of the original languages, even cognate languages like Aramaic and Ugaritic, helped to blind me to that initial revelation of the intellectual issues at the very root of what I believed. Nonetheless, I can remember even then, looking at an aged and erudite professor and wondering if he really and truly believed the fundamentals of the faith. How could he know so much and be so learned and yet still believe? I both envied him and secretly questioned his integrity.
During my first pastorate, the second significant fissure opened. Continuing to feel the absence of that companionable presence of a personal God, I wondered about the power and presence of the Holy Spirit I thought I had in my own life and I had learned of in seminary and Systematic Theology. As I prepared my first sermons, real sermons to be delivered to real people, I found it difficult to truly support from scripture the topics I chose and to expound the faith I had had in college. There were no classrooms here, no one interested in grand sweeping themes of Redemptive History. These were people who wanted a simple faith to which they could cling with absolute certainty. I knew it was not simple. And I knew now it was not certain, at least not as certain as I had been led to believe. More importantly I saw little evidence in the life of believers for the radical resurrection power promised in my theology. These people were no better or worse than anyone else. They didn’t find their lives any easier or harder than anyone else; and they were certainly not, nor was I, examples of the all-consuming power of a supposedly risen and victorious conqueror Christ. They were just people. Even those who were in the hierarchy of the church and who should have been more “spiritual” seemed no more “enlightened” than anyone else. The politics, the struggles and the intrigues were no less prevalent. The Body of Christ was no more redeemed than any other earthly organization, or so it seemed to me.
I also began to struggle with the problem of evil and God’s judgment. I found it hard to truly embrace the teaching that people who were actually doing good deeds and seemed to be genuinely kind, compassionate, decent, human beings were not “good” by God’s standards and would, if they did not believe the right things and call on God by the right name, be destined by God to eternal torment. For a time I could justify evil in terms of free will and man’s responsibility, but the grinding paradox of that position consistently wore at my thinking. In addition, I wrestled to reframe what now seemed to me the apparent misogynistic diminution of women in the Bible and it stuck in my craw. I knew all the “pat” answers I had been taught in seminary, but without the cloak or erudition at school, that looked thread-bare, worn and empty.
Eventually I left my first church, in the wake of one of those all-too-common church intrigues, both frustrated and dismayed. Failing to quickly find another full time pastorate, I began looking for a “secular” job and found out just how hard that was, with nothing but a theological degree and a few years church experience. I finally ended up in an entry level clerical position at a bank. Called as a “Teaching Elder” at a church in my denomination, I also continued to teach, preach, serve on the session, and do some pastoral activities assisting the full-time Pastor. Frankly, it was a relief. I could exercise my most significant gifts and pleasures in the ministry while avoiding the more onerous and troubling aspects of church life. It was also refreshing to have a job that didn’t depend on the whims of a particular church’s economics.
This pattern continued on in various church groups for the next seven years until I moved with my job to another state. It was at this time another crack appeared. By this time I held a “professional” position. I had significant job experience, a solid resume, and an engaging job with which I supported my growing family. As part of the move, I intended to decrease my involvement in the church and focus my energies on my secular job. That didn’t happen. Shortly after moving, the pastor of the church we were attending and which was in our denomination, resigned and I found myself right back in the ministry, part time, as their interim pastor. By this time I was even less impressed with the “sanctification” of the saints, even more questioning of the simple truths that supposedly made up the faith and not willing to trust myself and the welfare of my family to the vicissitudes of the church. So I resisted a full-time or permanent call. It was no longer critical for me to “identify” myself as a pastor. The paucity and irrelevancy of much of what was taught and done in the church was beginning to become clear. The world was a much wider, deeper place then I had allowed it to be and the worldview of the Bible was becoming more and more provincial. It was at that church, while counseling a prospective member of the congregation that the last supporting pillar fell.
The woman I was counseling was highly intelligent, meticulous and a tad obsessive. Each sermon brought new questions and Bible reading even more. My answers to her questions spawned more questions, good thoughtful questions and weighty objections. I was drowning in questions, gasping for air against the waves of objections, until finally I had to admit to myself I couldn’t give her any good answers. She was not challenging or angry or strident, just persistent in her desire to understand in the face of her reason. The reason and intellect that had laid buried so long and which had been gradually shaking itself awake, finally stood up and glared at me through her eyes, spoke to me through her voice and I was left speechless. My answers didn’t satisfy her and they no longer satisfied me; but they were the best and the brightest the Bible and my theology had to offer. My eyes were finally wide open.
I continued with the church, growing more and more distant from what I was preaching and teaching. I became more and more disgusted at being expected to tell people what to believe and how to live their lives. I found the Bible harder and harder to defend and I had less and less of a passion to do so. Increasingly the issues I had had with the Bible, with theology, and with what I now clearly saw as the irrationality of what I had been taught would no longer lie down and be quiet. I had suppressed them; I had put them on the back burner thinking one day they would become clear or if not they didn’t matter. Now they mattered. All the other reasons I had clung to the faith and the ministry had become unimportant and I realized I was being intellectually dishonest. I no longer had any reason to remain unless I could genuinely and honestly embrace what was supposed to be believed and taught, and I no longer could do so. At that point I began just going through the motions and looking and longing for a way out.
Thankfully my living didn’t depend on the church but my family did. My marriage was built on the rock of a common faith. There were certain expectations and absolutely no room for doubt without threatening the fabric of that marriage and potentially my relationship with my children. So, I began to gradually pull away from the church making excuses which were, in themselves true, but were not the real reason for distancing myself. I went into “hiding”, going through the motions without letting on to anyone, including my spouse, where my real thinking was taking me. Although I would have thought it would have been more obvious, no one seemed to notice or particularly care until I “came out” with my unbelief. In the end, the marriage ended in divorce. Someone once said “People change and forget to tell each other”. I would add, sometimes they change and telling each other is just too dangerous, and the stakes too high, so they remain quiet and struggle alone. Eventually that struggle takes them so far away they cannot turn back. They wrestle with being what they cannot help but be, yet that which they know will shake their world.
And so it was at the beginning of last year I began my first “year of being an atheist”. I am finally able to pursue intellectual interests which have lain fallow for decades. I am finally consistently exercising appropriate and honest skepticism to the world around me. I finally realized that God did not flee from me, nor did I abandon him, he was just never really there to begin with. All of the things I had tried so hard to believe, had thought I believed and (now to my dismay) taught others to believe, were merely the fabrications, myths and stories of a single ethnic culture’s early days. What I had taken to be the cohesive, infallible “Word of God” is really only a collection of documents written by persons unknown, telling stories the origins of which are dubious, and are honestly of questionable reliability and uncertain transmission. It is not a unified work and no basis for unquestioning trust and faith.
I have turned my back on the Promised Land with its dictatorial theocracy and chosen to hike the desert of reason, unaccompanied by any supernatural pillar of cloud and fire, or tabernacle. Each dawning realization became a stepping stone across my personal Jordan only in reverse, a crossing of my own choice, a returning to my true and authentic self. This desert is not the harsh, inhospitable, dangerous, forbidding place I was warned about. It is lush and rich, full of oases and gardens in riotous bloom, with secrets ripe for discovery. Ultimately, natural reality is the only foundation upon which one can securely build a life of honesty and compassion. I have found my fellow wanderers to be far more satisfying companions, more loving, kind, accepting and honest than I ever met while living in the Promised Land of the church.