So I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I actually know an atheist ex-pastor. I’ve called him Mark. Mark converted to Christianity after the tumultuous teen years. It did him a lot of good and straightened him out quite a bit. He went off to Bible college and found he had a knack for biblical scholarship and leadership. He eventually became a pastor and served for about 10 years before giving up on faith and quitting.
The process of deconversion for him was about 1 million times harder than my own experience. Him and his wife came a very conservative southern baptist background. He lost his faith, got a new job 1,200 miles away from home, she became pregnant, their marriage fell apart, she moved back home, gave birth to their first child, and he still stuck out here around my neck of the woods. That doesn’t even touch on all the pain this guy has been through.
Over the last year Mark I have gotten together periodically and talked things out. I’m deeply distressed with how bad his depression can get, but being 1,200 miles away from your home and your brand new baby girl, I get it. Often I have just tried to be a friend and an encourager.
Mark on the other hand has been dead set on getting me to quit being a pastor and to work with him at his company. He hasn’t tried to deconvert me, but he understand the fragile financial foundations of most churches and as a friend he wants to see me on more solid footing.
So I called him up today to see if I can take him to lunch.
Mark: So hey man, what’s been going lately. Still like working at the church?
Me: No, I hate. Every minute of it.
Mark: So you finally ready for new job?
Me: Yeah, but I’ve got insurance issues to work out. The wife needs surgery for carpel tunnel, and usually when you start a new job insurance doesn’t kick in for like 3 months. So I’ve got to decide do we get her the surgery now and I wait 3-6months for recovery and then get a new job? Or do I get a new job now and wait 3 months for the surgery?
We talk about his company’s policy on benefits. Order our food and sit down.
Me: Remember that organization I was telling you about last time we went drinking?
Mark: Oh, yeah. What was it called?
Me: The Clergy Project.
Mark: Oh, yeah that’s for pastors who don’t want to be pastors right? Don’t they do something with like job retraining?
Me: Yeah, they got some grant or something. But it’s mostly a support group for pastors and ex-pastors who are atheists.
Mark: right, yeah, I really want to look into that.
Me: So, I’m a member.
Mark: Wait, what?!
Me: Yeah, I don’t believe but I’m stuck at my job and…yeah….
You should’ve seen his face. It said, “You son of a bitch”. He looks almost annoyed with me, but still has a small smirk on his face.
Me: So I’ve actually been a member since February. Sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. But it seemed weird to tell you before I told my own wife.
I actually still don’t know Mark that well. We’ve talked very deeply about his life and his experience and I’ve often thought about telling him. But when you are in my position, you have to fully trust someone before telling them. Everyone I’ve told has known me for over 12 years. A couple of the guys have known me almost 20 years. I’ve known Mark for 1 year. So the prospect of telling him was scary. But I figured after all, he probably knew what I was going through better than I did.
Mark: So how did it go talking to your wife about this?
Me: Actually she wasn’t the first person I told. A month ago I was on camping trip, got drunk, and told some of my closest friends.
Mark: No way, that’s exactly what I did! I was camping with some friends, got drunk, and just told them I didn’t believe anymore. That did not go over well. They were all real serious Christians and then they kept asking me,
“Well are you sure?” “Have you thought about this…”
And i was like “fuck you, of course I’ve thought about this. What, do you think I just woke up one day and just decide not to believe anymore?”
So how did it go with your friends?
Me: Well one of the guys I told was a guy I went to seminary with. It was good. I got really super angry and pissed off at God.
Mark: Were you angry at God or angry at being duped into believing?
I can tell Mark was more pissed about being duped.
Me: No, actually angry at God. It’s like reading a fiction book and hating the antagonist. Because the villain isn’t real but you still hate them. You know?
Of course he knows. He knows better than I do.
Me: So at the end of the conversation he told me, “John, I love you and your still my friend regardless of what you do or don’t believe.”
Mark: Wow, that’s like the best possible thing to hear isn’t it? I’ve only had one person tell me anything close to that. Just one. Everyone else I’ve talked to there is this little caveat they put on our friendship. Like they can’t fully accept this is who I am. They think this is just phase or whatever.
But man, I’ve been so disappointed. In people I thought were friends, in God…in a lot.
We talk about how things with my wife went down.
Mark: I feel really good about you and your wife. You guys aren’t like me and my ex. You guys have passion and friendship. Besides you were already not that conservative to begin with.
Coming from his Southern Baptist background he likes to twist the knife and tell me I was never a conservative christian. It’s a joke, or a half joke. We laugh.
Mark: But seriously, my wife was very one dimensional, all she was was her faith. That’s it. Her faith was the only thing she was about, and I thought that was attractive at the time. Where as your wife, she’s way more open and interesting. You should have your wife call my ex.
Me: yeah I don’t know. I thought about it but I don’t know how that would work.
Mark: Listen my ex has been processing this for 18 months, and obviously your wife could use a friend. And honestly I think it will be good for my ex too. She thinks that there’s something wrong with me. She needs to know that people like us exist and it’s not just me, but this happens all the time to all sorts of people.
Me: Yeah, but I also don’t want your wife to think that my deconversion is your fault. Like, would that make more trouble for you?
He pauses, thinks about it.
Mark: Nah. Have your wife call.
It was a good meeting. We talked about the reasons why we don’t believe. He told me what it was like for him to keep preaching after he lost faith. We discussed the things that are important to us. Oh and we had this chuckle.
Me: For the longest time I just kept going back to the Clergy Project page but not signing up.
Me: Well, they make you sign a document that completely rejects any supernatural explanation to reality. Even though I rejected Christianity I just wasn’t sure if I was ready to say there is no spiritual existence. So I didn’t sign up because I didn’t want to lie.
Which is weird.
I’ll lie every Sunday for a living but I don’t want to lie to get the free help I need? Like I’ll lie to Christians but not to atheists? WTF is that about?
We both start chuckling at the absurdity of it all. But the truth is a little more stark. I lie because I need a job. My wife needs surgery, and my kids need clothes. Tonight I’ll discuss with my wife if we can put off surgery till I get secured in a new job.
Just before I leave, we’re outside his office building and he sees someone from work. He introduces me:
Mark: Hey this is my friend John, he ‘s pastor not far from here but I’m trying to get him to come work with us.