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Friendly Atheist Forums • View topic - Full Circle

Full Circle

Tells us how you came to believe the way you do.

Full Circle

Postby xpastor on 16 Dec 2009 6:50 am

When I was a kid my single-parent mother sent me to Sunday School at a fundamentalist church only a block away from our home. In a year or two she stopped going to church. I didn't know it at the time, but she was turned off because the congregation leaders canned the pastor in a very dirty way—gave him a pair of airline tickets to visit his home in Scotland, but when he came back to Canada, his job was gone. Mom kept sending me to Sunday School, until at the age of 11, I announced that I didn't want to go anymore, and she didn't put up a fight about it. When I got to high school, I was a very bright teenager at the top of my class. I was interested in anthropology, evolution and astronomy and read dozens of books on these subjects as well as lots of science fiction and historical fiction. Probably under the influence of all the science such as evolutionary theory and the unimaginable age of the universe, I became an atheist. However, I guess I still had some hankering for the comfortable certainties of childhood. I remember writing a poem about my beliefs and ending with the question, "But why does the uncouth brass bring tears to my eye?" and I was hearing in my mind a Salvation Army Band playing "O Come, All Ye Faithful."

At university I came across Christian apologists like C.S. Lewis, Kierkegaard, and Reinhold Niebuhr, whose intellectual firepower was several orders of magnitude greater than the Christians I was used to. Besides I was in English Lit and many of the writers I loved had been Christians, John Donne and Samuel Johnson to name only a few. I began attending the Anglican Church regularly, and the traditonal liturgy gave me a sense of being in touch with Christians down through the ages. I still believed that evolution is a true theory, but I was becoming increasingly conservative: the conservative critique of liberal Christianity made a lot of sense to me, namely that there was no objective standard in liberal Christianity, the liberals just picked and chose whatever subjectively appealed to them. In my last year of university I became engaged to a girl who happened to be Lutheran, and as the Lutherans had a high liturgical tradition like the Anglicans, I opted to be confirmed in her church. I got married right after graduation.

My career goal was to be a university teacher. I went on to an M.A. immediately after the B.A. but then I wanted a break from studies and taught as a junior instructor for 4 years. Bad move. But what did we know about demographics back then? I had been riding the crest of a wave of academic hiring to get instructors for all those up-and-coming baby boomers. However, the wave broke in the 4 years that I was not moving forward with my studies. By the time I finished my Ph.D. course work at University of Southern California in 1971, entry level assistant professorships were few and far between. I eventually got a job teaching English as a second language to Francophone recruits in the Canadian Armed Forces. The pay was good, but after 3 or 4 years, the content became mind-numbing: prompting your students to run through inane dialogues in your native tongue.

I was getting restless. I was still very religious, very active in my local Lutheran congregation, often conducting the service and composing my own sermon when the pastor had to be away. Everyone said I was great at it and that I should have been a pastor. Then my denomination opened a new seminary in my old home town of St. Catharines, Ontario, and I began to seriously explore studying for the ministry.

I suspect that even in liberal denominations it comes as a shock to seminarians to find how they are hedged in by the traditional dogmas of their denomination. And mine was a conservative denomination. The Lutheran Church in North America was then divided into three large "synods" and the one which I had always attended maintained the inerrancy of scripture. (They were not, however, wild-eyed fundamentalists; they were scornful of bizarre evangelical doctrines like the "Rapture.") I think by the end of my first year I was beginning to have some misgivings, but what do you do when you've burned your career bridges behind you and uprooted your family? I hung in there, hoping things would get better. They didn't.

I didn't talk with anybody about it, but more and more Old Testament passages were haunting me, the ones I had once skimmed over, reading with glazed eye and numbed mind. I began to mutter to myself that the ancient Israelites appeared to have invented the concept of genocide, and that the Bible seemed to be a book written by barbarians, for barbarians, about barbarians. Of course you can always tell yourself it's a trial of faith and that you'll get through it. I was pulling down straight A's, and everyone told me I was one of the most compelling preachers in the seminary. So I ploughed through it all to my ordination.

At the same time my marriage was deteriorating. My wife had been very active in our church before I went to seminary and had encouraged me to go into the ministry, but she discovered that she hated the role of pastor's wife. Quarrels became more and more frequent. After two years the cognitive dissonance between what I was doing and how I felt about it together with the marital stress became too much for me. My doctor told me I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown and said I had to resign. I stayed on the clergy roster of my denomination for a few more years and sometimes filled in for meager pay when a local church was in between pastors. At the end of my time in the ministry before conducting a service I would pray in the vestry, "Oh God, if you exist, help me to bring a good message to these people."

I asked to be taken off the clergy roster and for a while I toyed with the idea of tranferring to a liberal denomination like the Anglicans. However, that was clearly not going to work out. I mentioned that in my younger days I had accepted the conservative critique of theological liberals, that they just subjectively pick and choose the tenets of their religion. I still thought that true, but I now also accepted the liberal critique of the conservatives, namely large chunks of the Bible are too self-contradictory, too incompatible with our modern knowledge of scientific fact, and too repugnant to our moral standards for this book to be considered the inspired Word of God. The liberals seemed to be satisfied with hanging on to a few inspiring snippets, but it made no sense to me. That left only one position for me at that time, agnosticism.

Around the time that I left the Lutheran Church, my wife indicated that she would like a "trial separation" which eventually turned into a divorce. I remain on cordial terms with her.

When I left the church, there were two liberating moments for me. I knew I could now call Biblical passages what they truly were, in many cases, bloody-handed genocide. And there was no longer any need to do intellectual headstands to deny the overwhelming evidence for evolution. However, I do want to make the point that I have no bitterness about the people in my church. I joined the Friendly Atheist group because I do not want to be forced to say that my former friends in the church were either stupid or evil. Many of my fellow clergy were very decent guys (ordination was for men only, another point I had some issues with) and a few of them were close to being saints in the positive sense. There were of course some major jerks.

There's not much more to my story. I left the church during a major recession. There wasn't much of a job market for 40-something ex-clergy. After a long time I gave up looking for professional work. I walked onto a construction site and told the foreman in my best proletarian tones: "I never done construction work for a living, but I done lots of renovation on two of my own homes. He hired me and was very satisfied with my work. After a year I began to get tired of the frequent layoffs in construction, and I took a job as a janitor at a factory. I was soon promoted to truck driver and a bit later to shipper. After a few years I began a long-distance relationship with a friend who dated back to the days when I started teaching English as a second language. I took a factory job in the Barrie area to move in with her and her horses and her Irish Setter, and I've been here ever since, twenty years now. I'm mostly retired now. I do work two days a week in a large hardware chain (Canadian Tire) partly because my career changes left me without a robust pension but also partly because I believe that it prolongs life and health to do a fair amount of physical labour. Of course I also work around the riding stable where I look after the website, do the book keeping and tax preparation, cook most of the meals, repair things around the barn, and naturally I do some of the feeding and mucking out of stalls.

Religiously, the more I read about evolution, the less room there seems to be for any theory of intelligent design even acting through the mechanism of evolution. Just one example of sloppy design that tells against a supernatural creator: In The Greatest Show on Earth Dawkins points out that the recurrent laryngeal nerve makes a major detour in every mammal down to the chest and then back up to the larynx, amounting to some 15 feet in a giraffe! So I am an atheist. I do admit to still having some vaguely pantheistic feelings of reverence in the presence of natural beauty—dogs, horses, starry skies, mountains, wildflowers.
Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived — Isaac Asimov ... and seminary comes a close second — xpastor
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Re: Full Circle

Postby happycynic on 16 Dec 2009 9:55 am

VERY interesting story. Welcome to the forums, I expect you'll have a lot of good insights from your time as a pastor. And I have to agree with you on a lot of the old testament... the book of Joshua especially :x Whenever I hear that nice, cheery song "Joshua at the battle of Jericho" I get a little queasy; there should not be peppy songs about slaughtering every living thing in a city...
"Isn't it enough to see that the garden is beautiful, without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

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Re: Full Circle

Postby JulietEcho on 16 Dec 2009 1:03 pm

I don't think we have any regulars with Lutheran backgrounds here on the boards, so you'll be able to provide a fresh perspective in more ways than one. I have grandparents who go to two churches - an Evangelical megachurch on Sunday mornings and a Lutheran church on Wednesdays and Sunday nights. I've been to their Lutheran church a few times as a kid, but I don't remember much about it. I know that they have a lot in common with elements of Catholicism/Anglicanism/etc. as far as taking things like Lent seriously.

I can certainly empathize with your loss of faith being accelerated by reading the Bible. When I was a kid, and later as a teenager, I used to read my Bible a lot (I would guess that I've read the entire book three or four times, having read some books as many as 20-30 times) - during boring sermons, I'd reread Ruth or Esther, and I'd read the whole thing in order on a regular basis, as my private "devotions."

When I asked our pastor why God had King David kill so many people, when God had commanded that we shouldn't kill anyone, I wasn't satisfied with the answer he gave ("it's okay because God said it") and after awhile I stopped asking hard questions during Sunday School and Youth Group. I kept finding that the only times the Bible made sense were when some sort of leader - a pastor or smallgroup leader or whoever - was constantly telling us how to read it. Additionally, all the sermons and Bible studies seemed to focus on the same books and passages, and at least half the Bible was routinely neglected.

Perhaps if I'd been brought up by liberal Christians I would have kept my faith, or perhaps not really thought much about it, but the constant immersion in evangelical teachings, the inerrant/infallible claim, the very-conservative positions that our church took - none of them jibed with my budding understanding of logic, ethics, fairness, etc. Reading the Bible can *totally* undermine faith in the Bible (and in the God described in the Bible).
"...with like-minded people one cannot discuss. With like-minded people one can only participate in a church service, and, as is widely known, I do not like church services." -Ayaan Hirsi Ali
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Re: Full Circle

Postby Jasen777 on 16 Dec 2009 2:08 pm

Good read, thanks for sharing it.
"A god that can murder a whole planet can lie about salvation." - The Parish
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Re: Full Circle

Postby xpastor on 16 Dec 2009 2:22 pm

JulietEcho wrote:When I asked our pastor why God had King David kill so many people, when God had commanded that we shouldn't kill anyone, I wasn't satisfied with the answer he gave ("it's okay because God said it") and after awhile I stopped asking hard questions during Sunday School and Youth Group. I kept finding that the only times the Bible made sense were when some sort of leader - a pastor or smallgroup leader or whoever - was constantly telling us how to read it.

I wish I had been as sharp as you when I was a kid, but maybe it wasn't possible in that era. In our entertainment such as westerns we were saturated with what a clergyman friend later described as "good clean violence" (with reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it was only a decade after World War II, which I would still describe as mostly a just war, and back in those days it seemed self-evident that the good guys had to be prepared to fight back. It still seems self-evident in some contexts. The threat from Islamic terrorists needs to be repelled with force.

PS. I do remember asking one hard question when I was in Sunday School. We were learning about Genesis, and I asked where the dinosaurs fitted into the picture. The Sunday School teacher replied, "Between the first and second verses" which didn't make much sense to me since I knew they'd lasted for millions and millions of years.
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Re: Full Circle

Postby JulietEcho on 17 Mar 2010 4:17 pm

I was reading a very interesting collection of case studies (Hemant linked to it on the main blog today) about pastors who have lost their Christian beliefs but are still preaching. I was reminded of your story for several reasons (not least of which is the reminders that those who go into ministry are often left with few career options if they want to leave later in life), but the profile of "Jack, the Southern Baptist," reminded me of your story particularly. It begins at the bottom of the 16th page of the document.

"Jack" had decided to read through the Bible by himself, carefully, in order to strengthen his faith and learn, but reading through it that way essentially led him into questioning whether or not Christianity made any sense.
Jack wrote:I wanted it to be true. And I kept telling myself, ‘I don’t understand.’ And, you know, I devoted my whole life trying to understand. And finally I got to the point where --- I’ve got to admit to myself this is how I feel. I can’t pretend any longer. You know, this is probably just--- I really started getting this way probably in the last 10 years. Realizing, ‘Hmmm, you know you’ve really given this one a chance, OK?’ It’s not like on a whim I decided to do something that didn’t work out. You know what I mean? I’ve given it a good chance.”
All five of the pastors describe their educations as being exemplary, and it sounds like the professors at the seminaries really taught them to think critically and learn skills that eventually led them to skepticism. It sounds, from many of your posts, like you had an excellent religious education, despite the fact that it was teaching you how to be a pastor. I found that really interesting.

Anyway, thought I'd point you there. The whole thing is an interesting read.
"...with like-minded people one cannot discuss. With like-minded people one can only participate in a church service, and, as is widely known, I do not like church services." -Ayaan Hirsi Ali
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Re: Full Circle

Postby xpastor on 17 Mar 2010 4:38 pm

JE wrote:Anyway, thought I'd point you there. The whole thing is an interesting read.

Thanks, JE, I will definitely look at it.
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Re: Full Circle

Postby Huxley on 27 Mar 2010 1:21 pm

I have just finished reading "Godless" By Dan Barker, about his trip from deluded evangelism (his terms) to atheism and his current fight to keep state and religion separate.

I once said Barker was a liar because he knew he was an atheist for a full year, maybe longer, whist still acting as a Pastor. I realise I was being quite sanctimonious under the circumstances and i would blame no one (in fact encourage them) to act like that, in the face of probable violence, certain ostracism and being without a roof over you and your family's head.

His story is becoming familiar to me now; he could quote the Bible (most versions) inside out but he didnt know the Bibles so he set off to re read them and understand them. Ex pastors uses Asimov's quotation as a signature and more and more I read, I see it is quite true that the best way to make an atheist is to read the Bible.

Of course Barker is not preaching now but he does make a point that he personally knows many preachers who no longer believe but have no other means of support. He obviously keeps the names confidential (I would imagine their very lives would be at risk; not just their livelihoods) but knows them all, encourages others to confide in someone suitable and he also makes the point that chrstians would be horrified at the amount of preachers that just no longer believe such things. They try to preach love and understanding and desperately avoid the G word.

Those of us who live in a country with a state religion find it difficult to imagine what its like to live in a country that pays nodding acquaintance to separation of church and state. If a Reverend (what a hopeless, shallow and inconsequential name is that) from the Cof E lost his faith, he would just join the jobless queues with barley a mutter outside the ladies knitting circle. At least if he was caught shagging a parishioner he would be forgiven. But life goes on. The most fundamental of christians here just raise both eyebrows - they simply keep their heads down as being a Christian is a bit of an embarrassment here. They are not being persecuted (much to their chagrin) they are simply ignored or patted on the head and asked to move along.

So living in a place where changing your mind because of good reason could get you visited by BillyBob and cletus with their scatter guns, is not deemed a good idea, is a bit alien to us.

Ex pastors story (which I found quite moving) Dan barkers, Joe Holmans' any amount of ex pastors, would barely raise a shrug here. Most people would say, "Crikey, I didnt know they were still worshipping God!" and leave it at that. But put into context (I sound like an apologist) and place in time, such people are to be saluted for displaying an integrity I am not altogether sure I could muster. And of course, it behoves us to rejoice when one individual breaks free from delusion and embraces reason.

I get the strong suspicion, that if every preacher, pastor vicar, priest, whatever in the US actually admitted to being an atheist, congregations would shit themselves. I really do wonder what the future of American christianity would take? Do you suppose people would prefer an eternity of damnation with the most interesting people on the planet, or prefer Heaven with Jerry Falwell?
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