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