From Pastor to Apostate October 25, 2010

From Pastor to Apostate

A reader shares this story of a former friend and pastor:

When I was a young teenager I followed a boy I had a crush on to his church youth group. I went for less than a school year. At first it was all about impressing the boy, then when I learned what they truly believed it was all about trying to understand that.

The church had a youth pastor who was a very charismatic, intelligent, and passionate young man in his 20s. We had many discussions. He, very sincerely, tried to convince me there was a god. If I had been more emotionally insecure or intellectually deficient he might have convinced me.

After many months of wrestling with my own understanding of reality and trying to fit in I eventually gave up and stopped going. I also stopped going because, when I realized the boy wouldn’t accept me if I didn’t accept his superstitions, I lost all respect for him.

Since I began my adult exploration of religion I’ve thought about the pastor a lot. I know that he left that particular church shortly after I stopped going so I wondered what happened to him. Well, I found him on Facebook and we exchanged messages for about a week. It turns out that he left the church a few years ago and is now agnostic leaning towards atheist. I was astonished!! And, I admit, more than a little gratified.

He was an evangelical Christian pastor whose life was working for the church and he has completely left that life behind. I know it must have been difficult for him, but he did it and it sounds like he’s very secure in his beliefs now.

That has to be one of the most difficult life transformations to make… I’m still amazed when I hear stories like Dan Barker‘s.

There ought to be a medal for any pastor who leaves the faith because he “sees the light” and realizes no god exists.

I wonder where you even begin a transition like that.

Who do you tell first?

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  • Revyloution

    Growing up secular, I’ve always been amazed at people who can make those huge transitions. The scariest belief I ever had to loose was in thinking that Ayn Rand had a good economic philosophy.

  • pirmas407

    Revyloution, I thought of this quote from John Rogers:
    “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

  • I was a Pentecostal minister for a decade or so. I am also gay. Getting divorced, leaving the ministry and then coming out were all sort of overlapping situations, but leaving the ministry was probably hardest and took the longest, because I moved from hard-core evangelical fundamentalist to a more moderate gay-accepting Christianity, then toward Universalist Christianity …. some psychic/woo-woo dabblings along the way, (Tarot, etc.) … and ultimately realizing it’s all hogwash.

    When I first got onto the Internet in the mid-90’s I spent a LOT of time reading the materials at (back when they were at and other such places. I suspect that a large percentage of recent atheists credit the Internet for giving them access to new perspectives. 🙂


  • Jude

    I led Sunday School singing for years after I became an atheist. It really isn’t that difficult to parrot the words without believing in them.

  • It is always uplifting to read stories like this, as it’s very much like my own – fundamentalist evangelical, almost a minister, to atheist. I felt somewhat alone until I found you all on the internets.

  • Ben

    Growing up Catholic and being around a whole bunch of priests (scary, I know) apparently there are a lot of them who are very skeptical and go through serious periods in their lives where they “struggle” with their faith.

  • Having worked in two churches and being a part of the ordination process in a Protestant denomination, I can say it’s not easy. Especially facing the reactions of people you love and admire who don’t understand.

    But it more than makes up for itself in the freeing of mind and emotion…

  • I was a fundamental independent Baptist pastor, missionary, and evangelist. I’ll tell you how the process went for me:

    1) started wondering why my denomination kept claiming to be “the one” while I saw obvious flaws and parts of the Bible we didn’t live by.

    2) started really seeing deep Biblical contradictions and errors, especially during preaching.

    3) went to seminary and wound up fighting against a corrupt system instead of learning

    4) left the church, but not God. Studied the Bible, the Quran, history, and science. For once, I read the Bible with a critical eye and saw how terrible the things it contained really were, while at the same time learning how Christianity and God really came to be through Babylon and Rome rather than Abraham and Jesus.

    5) got involved in some charismatic supernatural hocus pocus for a while, still believing there had to be some truth to the supernatural or virtually everyone wouldn’t believe in it.

    6) was led back to church by family. Got involved in the ministry and decided to try to go back to full time ministry.

    7) went on a mission to Mexico and realized the “love of Jesus” was nothing more than interfering in a perfectly-functioning society and threatening them with hell in exchange for casting off their own beautiful customs and traditions to be more like me.

    8 ) realized that it was all crap and gave up. Understood that all religion, from extremism to liberal ecumenicalism, was destructive to society and had been holding back medical, technological, scientific, and societal advance since man first invented it.

    9) read Hitchens and Dawkins and realized unbelief wasn’t good enough, that there had to be action, because religion destroys everything it touches, and I want my children to live in a world of peace where they won’t have to understand words like bigotry, hatred, segregation, and intolerance.

    10) made the full transition from spirit-filled fundamentalist evangelist to active atheist.

  • Meanie

    leaving the church is no small matter. Not that losing one’s faith is a small matter, but actually “coming out” and leaving the church involves leaving one’s total way of life, in the case of pastor (or church secretary – me) it also involves losing one’s income, circle of friends, network, and entire identity within the community at large. Props to all who can do it.

  • Zoe

    Who do you tell first? Well, God of course!

    Otherwise you get these conversations:

    Ex-pastor: Ehm, yeah, so I don’t believe in God anymore.

    Family member: Oh my word, I don’t know what to say…I’ll pray for you.

    God: I’m right here, I can hear you! You could’ve told me first, it’s so crushing to find out this way.

  • I quit four sermons into an evangelistic series I was preaching in Mexico. Fortunately I was single and a little less than half way through my Master of Divinity program. Ironically the process started with my Astronomy class my freshman year of college.

    My junior year I did a talk at Theology Club worship where I threw out my notes when I got up to speak and instead talked about doubt. That talk was well received. When my doubts got more specific in the Seminary I identified professors I respected that I could tell had dealt with similar doubts, but their advise wasn’t helpful.

    I detailed the whole process a few months ago on my blog, you can find the first post in the series here.

    I don’t think anyone deserves a medal for it because the freedom that comes at the end is well worth the hell it takes getting there.

  • muggle

    I can’t even comprehend how much courage it must take once you’ve committed yourself to faith that far. I also feel that way when I read all the heartbreaking pleas of how do I deal with my family?

    I had a hard enough time breaking free just as I was coming of age and leaving home already intent on disowning my parents because they were physically and verbally abusive. How hard it must be for those who love and feel loved by their religious family. Let alone meaning giving up a livelihood and figuring out how else to make a living when you’ve already invested all so much time, energy and resources into making a living preaching.

    I read Dan Barker’s “From Preacher to Atheist” and I related to a lot he said but he was in so much deeper than me. It takes guts to break free even if it basically costs you nothing as it really didn’t me. But it takes real courage when you’re faced with losing everything.

  • Michelle

    pirmas407 – I am so stealing your quotation. I can more or less understand fountainhead (except the sex parts) she should have just stopped there.

  • Revyloution

    pirmas407, that’s frelling hilarious. And right on the money too.

    This bookish 14 year old believed that claptrap until he was 35.

    Muggle, your story always leaves me feeling warm inside. Anyone, with enough courage, can break away from serious hardships to carve out their own piece of happiness. Ive said it before, but well done, well done.

  • Sean

    Some of you have probably seen this, but here’s a paper by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola about preachers who don’t believe.

  • Peter Mahoney

    On YouTube, there are some great videos by Edward Tarte, who was a catholic priest about 40-50 years ago, and he now is an atheist. He has dozens of calm, articulate videos about why he no longer believes, how he tries to reach out to current priests/ministers in his town, how he calmly debunks catholic ideas about hell, eucharist as christ’s body, etc.

    It’s worth searching Youtube for EdwardTarte if you are interested in this. He makes great videos.

    (This was NOT a paid commercial for EdwardTarte ….. I’m just a fan!)

  • Thankfully I am not a pastor, but I am a music director in a Southern Baptist church. I haven’t yet come out publicly as this, though meager, is my only source of income. I have been looking for a full-time job in the secular almost a year and haven’t found anything.

    As soon as I find something else I plan to leave the church behind and come out to most people. I’m still not sure how I’ll come out to my family (father is a Baptist pastor, mostly fundametalist, strong young earth creationist…) though…

    My blog is the first part of my coming out, and explains my story in full.

  • Alex McDowell

    I like to think that all these stories indicate an approaching and inevitable “tipping point”. This ridiculous mythology cannot stand in the face of reality. It will take time, but it’s accelerating.

  • Telling myself was the hardest part. For years I believed in God, but had doubts about me. Reading God is not Great and The God Delusion were helpful, as were sites like this one and Deconversion. Still, I was seriously breaking down over how much I was failing to find God’s presence or understand God’s will when God seemed so distant and His Word so contradictory. I ended up seeing a Christian councellor who unintentionally helped me realize the extent of my doubt. So, I talked to my wife, my friends, my parents, my bishop, my archdeacon, my parish, telling them I had to step down from ordained ministry because I no longer had any confidence that I knew God or God’s will. In my last week of ministry, pulled over to the side of the highway after conducting my last service at a senior care home, I realized I was crying because I did not believe I was leaving these people with a god who would care for them in my absence. It was five days before my final Sunday service and then three months of unemployment while searching for a job, when I finally realized and accepted that I no longer believed in a god.

    I’m still working on believing in me.

  • muggle

    Muggle, your story always leaves me feeling warm inside. Anyone, with enough courage, can break away from serious hardships to carve out their own piece of happiness. Ive said it before, but well done, well done.

    Thank you, Revyloution, but as I said, I really didn’t have as much to lose as a lot of people do. No loving family, no money and just starting a career in upstate New York, not the Bible Belt or anything, in the ’70’s when basically anyone but the most fanatically religious (and back then they were actually looked on as kind of odd at least in my neck of the woods) in New York pretty much would shrug their shoulders at my disbelief and say you think what you think and I’ll think what I think.

    In many ways, overcoming abusive parents was even harder. It took me 10 years to break free of gawd but it’s been a lifetime struggle to overcome those emotional scars and I don’t think I’ve been 100% successful. I still have trouble trusting people for instance which makes making friends difficult and I still flinch at hands in my face so much that I have to tell my grandson not to put his hands in my face same as I did his mother when she was little. Do you know how much kids naturally touch the faces of grownups they are close to and how, if you don’t explain why you flinched and pulled away, they will take it as pulling away from them? Sure at 7, I said I’m never making a child of mine feel this way and I’m proud I didn’t but it took conscious effort, even leaving the room a couple of times when she was at her worse. It seems easier with my grandson but then he’s not my main responsibilty much as I babysit and I’ve had plenty of practice on his mother dealing with children more reasonably.

    Quester and SecretAtheist and to anyone else who’s struggling with the issues of making a living in a religious organization having lost your faith, good luck in your endeavors and I hope you are soon free. You will find your strengths when you’ve had the strength to search your conscience and decide to make the change. Here’s hoping you find a new job soon and that family and friends are accepting and, if not, you will find new close relationships that are and will love and support you for who you are.

    Revyloution is right about one thing: when you break free of chains that shackle you, you do carve out your own piece of happiness on your own terms. This is why Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” is one of my all-time favorite songs. I feel that song down to my gut. I may not be wildly successful financially but I know I was true to myself and did it my way and that one reason I don’t have a lot of money is because I put more importance on things worth so much more than money.

    In the end, you and whoever you have built a relationship with are all you’ve got. I know my daughter and grandson love me for who I am because I am not hiding that from them. I support them for who they are and they support me for who I am. Now that’s something money cannot buy — and something you can’t have when you’re pretending to be someone you’re not.

    And, in the end, I think that’s the reason I am happy — happier than a lot of people who have so much more than I do materially.

  • Some of you may think this story is kind-of ridiculous, but it is none-the less true.
    I’ve been an atheist my whole life but married a moderate Christian. We lived a simple secular life until our kids were about 3 and 8. My wife’s best friend who was a fundamentalist evangelist Christian convinced my wife that she needed to get our kids in church (her church). Being a “good husband” I went along with them and gave it a try for a couple of years. The cognitive dissonance I felt inspired me to launch my own little blog. My wife and I were both bothered by the extreme evangelical viewpoint on proselytizing. We did, though, make friends in the church and participated in a tight-nit bible-study group. After a couple of years of this, I finally put my foot down and said I wasn’t going anymore. My kids and wife followed suit. My wife, though, admitted that she didn’t really have the courage to break the ties on her own… she only did so because I did. The incredible thing was that I (a life-long atheist) and my wife (a very moderate Christian who detests proselytizing) were having emotional difficulty walking away from a church that neither of us believed in. These churches are masterful in getting into your psyche and convincing even people that know better that the churches somehow represent all that is good and that leaving them is bad. What churches do is really quite evil when you think about it. Anyway, I can only imagine what it must be like for a formal believer to separate themselves from a church when I experienced a little of the separation anxiety myself when I never believed any of the stuff. My whole family has now been church-free for over 2 years now. 🙂

  • Peter Mahoney

    Are there some secular or other analogies for this experience of leaving one’s faith? A spouse cheats on you…. you partly cherish the marriage and what it was (or what you THOUGHT it was), but must comes to terms with having been deceived. Or you find out that Bernie Madoff embezzled all your retirement savings, shattering your belief that you are financially secure for your future. Or we learn that Santa is a myth… but really wish he wasn’t. I guess I’m wondering how losing religion is so different. All have disappointment, maybe anger, denial, etc.

    I guess losing religion/belief is different in that many peers will give you support in dealing with your cheating spouse, your child/parent who died, your embezzled retirement funds, etc., BUT for your nonbelief the religious believers will just try to suck you back into the myth.

  • Quester

    @Peter Mahoney,

    For me, I likened it to a divorce where the spouse owned the house (I lived in a rectory), controlled the income (I was a pastor), and all your friends and family like your ex better than they like you. But despite all that, you had to divorce this spouse and leave this relationship, because your spouse- with whom you have built a life and many wonderful memories- never existed and still doesn’t. All the support offered locally are for those who divorce because the spouse is abusive, and that support (still being metaphorical here) consists of interpreting that abuse as love. As a person who left because this “spouse” was imaginary, I have my self-appointed support groups trying to tell me that my spouse really wasn’t abusive- it just looks that way. When I answer that I wasn’t abused, that I left because the marriage was pretend and the spouse was imaginary, I am met with incomprehension and accusations that I am either lying, or attacking them.

    I wouldn’t say this is worse than its secular equivalents, but it’s got its fun twists.

  • muggle

    Hmmm, Peter, interesting analogies. I put forth one above about having child beaters for parents. That’s been far, far tougher to overcome.

    I also divorced so I can see that analogy but that only took me four years to get wise to.

    Questar, I related to your analogy, however. My ex basically lived off lovers. I feel pretty stupid for falling for being another meal ticket and thinking I was different but after the painful ending of it, looking back, I can see that the man I thought I was in love with never existed.

    Basically, part of his problem and why he was so messed up is because his father threw him out of the house when he was 11 years old after his mother died of breast cancer. He quickly learned to survive by finding meal tickets (to put it politely) when a rich guy in New York pulled him off the street after two years of doing even less savory things that throw-away boys in NYC do to survive.

    Frankly, I don’t think he ever even got to know who he was himself including gay, straight or bi. He just became whoever he needed to be for the meal ticket he was using for survival. What he really excelled at was reading people and reading what they wanted then becoming that. Out of necessity, he became an excellent actor.

    But figuring that out left me with the painful truth that I was likewise duped and never really knew the guy I lived with for four years and accepting that I fell in love with an illusion, a carefully crafted illusion.

    I can definitely understand how painful it is to admit that what you loved and adored was imaginary.

  • Peter Mahoney

    @Quester and muggle: insightful perspectives… thanks! Peace.

  • This is wild… I thought I was fairly alone in the world… not just christians becoming atheists but pastors becoming atheists… Thank you, everyone, for posting. Too bad we all can’t go out to dinner and swap stories.

  • Quester

    @Peter- you’re welcome. I appreciate your asking.

    @CapnJammer – There’s a good many of us, though we appear to be spread out and thus largely invisible. Heck, even I’m not fully “out” as an atheist as I’m allergic to confrontation.

  • Gareth

    Peter Mahoney: “Are there some secular or other analogies for this experience of leaving one’s faith?”

    I believe that the closest analogy may be one leaving their culture. A recent immigrant who eschews their old culture and adopts the new for instance. The emotional investment is similar, the desire to not critically examine positions that are difficult or impossible to defend. Religion is, at bottom, a culture that one attaches to oneself (or you can argue that one has attached by parents, etc). Most humans want to be associated with a culture, a way of life, and do not want to hear that their culture is flawed. Opening one’s eyes to the flaws evident is seen as traitorous, much like pointing out flaws in any given religion’s doctrine.

    What makes tearing oneself away from religion is not the religious doctrine per se, it is the knowledge that what one takes for granted can no longer be. Giving up that association is, I believe, the difficult part.

    Just one opinion though.

  • godfree

    Quester, I loved your analogy.You ‘have a book’ in you. Think about it.

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