As I’ve said many times, I never wanted or intended to become an atheist. Just after I got over denying my atheism I tried to make one last go of faith to at least see if I was wrong about God’s nonexistence. So I contacted a pastor on Facebook whom I’ve never actually met and who knows absolutely no one that I know.
Derek is a pastor that I met via a Facebook group. The group that we are both in is very left of center morally and politically. He is the resident pastor of this band of atheists, vegans, feminists, LGBTQ, environmentalists, and over all self proclaimed progressives. He is well loved in this group and rightfully so. He does an awesome job pastoring these very non-religious people in the moments they need a pastor.
Oh, he’s a Universalist. A mainline pastor who belongs to a historic denomination that no longer holds to the moral (or theological) standards of old.
On his blog he writes how he used to be an atheist, but decided to believe after all. As I was just admitting to myself that I was an atheist, I decided to see if he could change my mind. I’ve copy/pasted our conversation below. It’s been edited for length.
Me: Honest question. Let’s be straight with each other, I would venture to say most of us pastor types have HUGE doubts. I saw on your blog that you spent some time as an atheist. What made you change your mind? Sometimes as pastors we give bs answers to personal question because we think people need to believe that we believe. But I’m having a small crisis and could use some straight talk.
Him: No problem. My atheism ended when I had a moment of… contact, I guess you could call it, with God. I also call it a smack upside the head, a reminder of a core truth.
It was pretty devastating because I had built a life around pretending to be Christian (PK, you know how it is) and having to rebuild around an actual relationship was like razing a building to the ground and starting over from scratch.
Me: So…I think we’re both familiar with religio-speak…can you be a little more specific, but in plain English?I’m trying to shed Christianese in an effort to be more honest about God, and I’m having a hard time processing a reality with God without spiritual language…if that makes sense…
Him: I heard God ask me what the hell I thought I was doing. I didn’t have an answer, and so started rebuilding.
Me:This is stupid, I know..but… when you say heard? Like how? To clarify, when I was 19 I once thought I heard God. Not audibly but like an epiphany sort of way. You?
Him: It sure felt like I heard an audible voice.
Me: Shit. That almost pisses me off. Not at you, but at God.
BTW, you may have noticed by now that I swear. I swear a lot. I’ve never met a pastor who didn’t. We just don’t do it around you.
Him: right ear, to be specific.Everyone gets it different, though. I have yet to hear two people with the same story. There are definitely times when I would have preferred an epiphany, so I could rule out some other kid being in trouble, getting yelled at, and me hearing a voice.
Me: No, you want the voice. Voices are good…well, unless your schizophrenic.
Him: There’s always something, though. Something else it could have been. There isn’t a method that precludes doubt.
Me: You see, I teach that, but I don’t believe that.
Like burning freeking bush and the parting of the red sea or the Resurrection of Christ…those are a hell of a lot more to go on then what I’ve got.
Him: Isn’t the Bible a long record of people seeing the Glory of God up close and then still getting it wrong?
Me: That’s what I teach anyways. I recently even had a sermon title “Miracles Don’t Produce Faith”
Him: Look at the Gospel of Mark. It’s original ending was the apostles running away, scared, at the sight of the empty tomb. Thomas Sunday is always my favorite sermon to preach.
Thomas Sunday is the Sunday after Easter, where Thomas doubts that Jesus rose from the dead. He straight up says, “unless I put my fingers in the holes in his hands and his side” he will not believe. Of course Jesus comes to the rescue. For him anyways.
Him: I joke a lot about pastors needing atheist days. Like sick days.
“Hi, sorry, I can’t come in today, I don’t believe in God. No, just a flare up, I’ll be fine tomorrow.”
Me: Well I need faith insurance for when I get sick… lately I feel like I need disability benefits.
Him: Does your church do sabbaticals?
Me: Nope. My wife has a theory of sabbaticals… they’re vacations of no return.
Him: My peer group swears by them, but I’m at least seven years away.
What IS important is that you give yourself permission to doubt. I mean real permission. Where you acknowledge it as just a part of faith.
Me: I imagine this is what falling out of love is like. I’ve been fortunate (blessed?) in marriage, but I imagine this feels something like a beginning of a divorce.
Him: Hmmm. You do a lot of marriage counseling?
Me: A lot, no. I usually refer out, but I do prelim stuff & pre-marriage stuff.
Him: I get a lot of it, but mostly because my people are stubborn.
Me: Oh, so you must have humans in your congregation.
Me: Well but this is a long distance relationship with someone who never calls anymore.
Him: Do you remember what it was like when you talked a lot? What that looked like?
We’re talking about prayer here. Calling and talking are euphemisms or chrisitianese for prayer.
Me: It was messy, always was. Perhaps not always the best relationship, but one nonetheless.
Him: Don’t evaluate it, describe it. What did the calls look like> How did they go?
Me: That’s what’s tough…it was always hard. I eventually became to guy who was like “Well God told me…” and I was wrong. Like so wrong. I got over that stage but never reconnected.
Him: You’re still grading it, still evaluating. Hard, easy, messy, these are all evaluators.If this were marriage counseling, you’d be the guy who can’t stop grading his wifes performance, rather than simply saying what she did for him.
Me: I feel like the person complaining about the quality of communication.
Him: You’re a screw up. We all are. We are sinners preaching to sinners in the desperate hope that our own sin and theirs doesn’t get hopelessly in the way.And it is fine to be unhappy with that, but in order to build you need to get passed her being BAD at it, and find the part that you liked, what attracted you in the first place.
Him: This is, of course, all predicated on one thing.
Me: Which is?
Him: Do you want to save the marriage, or just shoot for a divorce that is as clean as possible?
This is not the first time I’ve heard deconversion metaphorically compared to a divorce, but it’s certainly to the most poignant use of the phrase.
Me: Problem is there is no “clean”.
My flirtation with Atheism is weird
So I’m married to God but flirting with this hot chick Atheism. Let’s just keep riding this wave of metaphor.
Him: There really isn’t. We rarely stay “friends” with our spiritual exes.
Me: It doesn’t feel like a choice as much as an epiphanyWell…I kinda work for mine…so there’s that. A very sad epiphany by the way.
Him: Yup. We who have gone pro have an especially tough row to hoe.Can you express the epiphany in a single sentence?
Me: No one is there.
Him: [Is this epiphany] As strong as the one when you were 19? [The one that turned you into a Christian?]
Me: Oddly, yes. I wasn’t raised a Christian, come to think of it I was 17. I was invited to a youth group trip.But yes, just as strong but a billion times more…umm… entangled? Like falling in love and getting a divorce
Him: When you pray, what do you do?
Me: Well, I’ve stopped. But a few short weeks ago I’d simply ask if anyone was listening.
Him: Do you mind if I give you homework?
Me: It’ll bug me if it is the same thing I tried, but I ain’t got nothin’ better to do.
Him: Firstly, this is a book I use when I don’t have my own words for prayer. It really can help… like a lectionary for prayer, rather than preaching. http://buff.ly/1dYh44J
Secondly, get a hold of a journal or diary and write your prayers. Think of them as letters to God. Be brutally, painfully honest.Communication is a two way street. But we’re used to instant returns on our communications. So try a form where you are used to a bit of a lag.
Sorry, that was apparently my inner Dalek. EXPLAIN! EXPLAIN!!
Imagine you were at a conference or something on the eastern seaboard. You’re a long way from your wife and trying to talk to her but you just can’t. The phone just isn’t working. You wouldn’t assume that she had ceased to be, or even that she didn’t want to talk, you would find a new way to communicate.
Labyrinths, Mandalas, Lectio, painting, music… there are countless ways and variations to pray.
Another example would be the picture that’s hanging on your wall right now or something that has been on your office wall at the church forever you never even look at it anymore, though it is still as there as it ever was. When we only experience input in one very specific fashion, it quickly blanks to nothing.
I don’t know why, but this is when I decided to drop the hammer…
Me: For the purpose of full disclosure,I should probably mention I’ve already…er…hired a divorce lawyer? I joined The Clergy Project. I haven’t taken them up on the job retraining yet.
Him: And that’s fine. It’s a good precaution to take. You still have to do right by your family, after all.
Then we return to talking about “the picture on the wall.”
Me: You see, there’s the problem. I feel like God should be WAAAYYYY more active than a picture on the wall.
Him: Oh, God is. But we can be really, really good at ignoring things. And if you always expect God to speak in the same way, eventually, you don’t hear God speak.
Me: Are we though? Are we? Or are we good at seeing things?
Him: Like good at seeing nothing?
Me: In sense yes, seeing when there is nothing.
Him: Could be. Again, because we’re doing faith. I don’t know why God set things up this way, but easy answers aren’t apparently a part of the Plan.
Me: Yeah, I’m really not liking the plan.
Him: I mean look at all the people (even the supposedly religious) who just say “fuck it” and build a cohesive worldview around something concrete, like homophobia or greed, or whatever? We both have ’em in our churches. I have one lady who I am fairly certain actually worships our flower beds.
So I ask again. Is this a marriage [faith] you actually want to save, or are we past that, and just trying to negotiate the divorce. And be totally honest.
You’ve fallen out of love. Do you want to love again?
Me: It’s tough because the analogy breaks down a bit. I’d walk through flames if I knew someone was on the other side. And in a marriage situation, there’s no way you’d only ask me as a husband to be the only one making an effort.
Him: You will never KNOW. Some days you will believe so hard it is like knowing, and love so hard you won’t care. Others, less so.Actually, were this a marriage, you would hear me that way.Because you can’t control how God will act, all we’d really talk about is what you were doing.You’d get really irritated with me for always “Taking God’s side.”
Him: Here is my honest belief.
God exists, and IS trying to communicate with you, nearly constantly. The connection has been lost. And because we always walk a doubt tightrope, anyway, you’ve lost the connection. (I say that because I’ve done it myself.) I believe you can fix your antennae, as it were, and tune back in to what God is saying to you.
Me: You see, that pisses me off. Like the creator of the Universe can speak light into existence, but somehow can’t figure out how to communicate in more obvious methods?
Him: Well, if God did, there goes OUR job security…
Me: I’d be ok with that. In fact I’d prefer to make that exchange.
Him: I wouldn’t. I’m pretty sure I’d be utterly unemployable. (Just kidding, of course.)
Me: Yeah, but I also really do feel utterly unemployable…which is sinking feeling.
Him: We pastors tend to make great social workers. My uncle employed social workers and said that burnt out pastors made the best ones.
The point, for you, is you need to look at your relationship with the Lord independent of the entanglements. Career wise, staying is the smarter move, at least at the moment, but that’s a crappy reason to be a pastor. Can you accept a relationship with the LORD where, so long as you are doing it right, there will always be room for doubt? If yes, and you want to give rebuilding a try, then great, I’ll help you in that process any way I can. If no, then you need to work on getting out. Maybe another epiphany will come along later, maybe it won’t. But if you feel like every sermon is a lie, that can lead to a devastatingly dark place, which can crush everything else in your life.
Me: Thanks for your time.
Him: Good night. I’ll be praying for you.
If you’re wondering I never did the homework. I had no energy to even pretend to pray. This was the last time I had a serious conversation where I attempted to find reasons to believe. After this conversation I become much more comfortable considering myself an atheist. I guess you could say I filed for divorce from God at the end of this conversation.
Derek’s a good guy. I admire the fact that he seemed ok with me becoming an atheist. He sensed I was looking for reasons to believe and so he tried to persuade me to believe, but at the end of the day I got the sense that it didn’t really matter to him if I believed or not. I don’t think he think’s faith is that necessary to the average person. I still don’t quite get his liberalism.