February 17, 2008, I preached my last sermon, said my good-byes, and changed out of my clergy garb for the last time. Since then, I’ve learned some things similar to Josh’s experiences, though our roads have had some different curves.
Where do you go when you leave the church?
1. I went back to church:
I got a job back in the town I had grown up in, and attended a few Lutheran worship services with friends who were part of the worship team there. It’s a beautiful service, but I was suddenly an outsider. Even as a theist, I would not participate in hymns or prayers I could not support the message of. Now, there was little I could give voice to. I had to get out and put some space between myself and church.
2. I studied other religions:
An old friend found me on Facebook. He’s been a member of the Sikh clergy since I last saw him. We exchanged a few stories, and I started reading up on Sikhism. I admired much of their philosophy that I could find, but I had no real connection to it.
3. I looked for a church-replacement:
I did Google searches for secular or humanist groups around here, with no success, then tried “universalism”. If nothing else, people who described themselves with such a term would not consider me hellbound…
Different visitors to this site are at different points of their de-conversion journey. However, I’ve been noticing an increasing number of people at the point where their fear of Hell and eternal condemnation is keeping them from getting any further.
This isn’t a point that everyone reaches. For some, the same arguments which cause them to doubt the existence of a god (problems with scripture, the existence of multiple religions with contrasting views, logical problems with an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent deity creating a world where evil happens, simple lack of evidence, etc.) also keep them from being able to believe in a hell enough to fear it.
For others of us, it was studying the contradictory and confusing Biblical descriptions of Hell and how to avoid it that helped us realize that the hypothesis of God made no sense. By the time we came to doubt God, we already had lost our fear of hell.
But when you wake up at two in the morning from a nightmare inspired by Sunday school depictions of eternal torment, not everyone finds logic and reason to be persuasive enough to chase away fear. Some find, at times like these, a story can bring more ease than a rehearsal of facts.
For de-converting (or even faithfully believing) Christians troubled by thoughts of Hell, I like to recommend two books. Both were written by believing Christians. Both operate on the premise that God exists and is benevolent. I don’t expect either to be of any help or interest to atheists or agnostics (though I could be wrong), but fears need to be faced where you are, not where you’d like to be or where you think you’ll be ending up. I’m writing this post under the premise that some de-converting Christians might need to face their fears about de-converting as Christians before they can let go of their Christianity…
While I was still working as a pastor, I brought my doubts to my bishop and he started the process of finding me a spiritual mentor. The process of my leaving licenced ministry for an indefinite period of time went faster than the process of finding a spiritual mentor, and by the time I first met the pastor who would be my mentor, I was already unemployed. We agreed to meet anyway, and see how things worked out. I was very unsecure in my deconversion and was hoping there was something obvious I had overlooked.
One of the first things my mentor asked me to do was read a book called The Shack, written by William P. Young. The tagline on the front cover reads, “Where tragedy confronts eternity” and on the back cover is the claim that in Young’s story, he wrestles with the question, “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?” Young wrestles with this question through the fictional character Mackenzie Allen Phillips (or Mack, for short), who suffers some horrible tragedies in his life, then one day receives an invitation in his mailbox which may or may not be from God.
Please be aware that this article contains SPOILERS and that if you want to be surprised by anything in the book, you should read the book before finishing this article. You may still find nothing in the book to be surprising, but at least that won’t be my fault…
I was an ordained minister for almost three years when I asked to leave and have my license revoked because I could no longer see any reason to believe in God. I have now moved out of the house I was living in (provided by the parish I worked for) and into an apartment. Packing, tying up loose ends, saying good-bye and moving can be painful no matter what the surrounding circumstances, but in this context I found myself dealing with more stress and depression than any previous move I’ve made.
I boxed the birthday card the Sunday school had made for me, telling me, “Yu are a good Minster”. I packed away the photos of the confirmation class I taught, and the farewell gifts presented to me by the congregations I ministered to. I also found, and carefully packed, gifts I had been given at my ordination: from my family, from the congregation of the church I interned at, and even a a few from some of the dear women who had taught me Sunday school decades previously. They were all so proud and so happy for me at my ordination. I felt like such a disappointment as I put their gifts in boxes to go with me on my move. I couldn’t throw these things out, though. Not yet. It would hurt too much. It doesn’t matter that I have no practical use for greeting cards, angel statuettes, or portable communion kits. I look at these things and think about the people who gave these to me, people who felt that God had touched their lives through me, and now I could not even manage to believe that there is a God who could do so…
Recently, many books and websites have been written on the dangers of theism. Theism is described as an irrational belief leading to irrational actions including flying planes into buildings, bombing abortion clinics, or considering prayer to be an appropriate alternative to seeking medical care. Because these actions can affect more people than the acting theist alone, and sometimes affect them in a fatal manner, non-theists are being called to not settle for being non-theist, but to become anti-theist.
There are choices to be made, though, in what goals one will choose to pursue, and what means one will employ to pursue those goals. Is it best to spend time and energy challenging every theist or even every theistic argument one encounters? Or is this like giving money to an individual begging you for money instead of giving to a charity that provides food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, or medicine for the sick? I have heard this latter question debated in classrooms and hallways, on Internet forums and television shows. In some ways, it depends on what you are trying to accomplish by giving your money away…
I’ve long been familiar with the type of argument that is known as “the God of the gaps”, though it has only been within the last year that I’ve heard that name applied to this particular argument from ignorance.
Shortly, for those who are unfamiliar with the phrase, a “God of the gaps” argument points to one area where either humanity as a group, or the individual making the argument in particular, have less than complete knowledge. The one proposing the God-of-the-gap argument then declares that God fits into that gap of knowledge. At one time, it was possible to respond to any question of how or why by responding that God was the answer, or at least the cause. As humans have discovered how various things work or why they happen, the gaps for this God to live in have gotten increasingly smaller.
The God of the gap is popularly invoked to explain the very beginnings of the universe, consciousness, common understandings of morality or the existence of living organisms. If we don’t quite know how something happened, God did it. If we aren’t sure why something happens the way it does, it happens that way in accordance with God’s plan…
Carried the Cross, in his post Reasons I Remained Faithful for so Long, described himself as having felt like a “doubting Thomas” at different points in his life, wondering if some sin was keeping him from being able to accept Christianity as “Truth”.
I think about this myself, as I struggle with my faith and doubts, wondering if God exists and, if God does exist, if the Christian understanding of God has any truth to it. John 20:29 haunts me. “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'”
Then I wonder, who are these people Jesus is referring to? According to the gospels, Jesus had told his disciples that he was going to die, then rise again “on the third day” (Mt 17:22-23, Mk 10: 32-34). The disciples had, reportedly, witnessed many miracles, including Jesus raising people from the dead. If the gospel accounts are true, there is no reason for Jesus’ disciples to doubt his claim…