I’ve recently gone from being a minister to an atheist.
I don’t know how many people make this move, but I’m guessing it’s not a huge number. I am one of a select few, then.
While my category may not be statistically significant (no one is talking about the great resignation of now-atheist ministers), perhaps my story is significant when we consider how the spiritual and religious landscape is evolving.
After being spiritual, sometimes religious, for 52 years, I am now completely out—out of all of it. No tiptoeing around it by calling myself “spiritual but not religious,” which is quite in vogue these days. No, I’ve gone full-blown atheist and secular humanist.
And god (?!), does it feel good!
I spent the last 10 years as a pulpit minister in an uber-liberal denomination. Some members considered themselves Christians and some didn’t (I was in the latter camp). I believed I was in a healthy denomination because we read the Bible metaphysically and metaphorically, not literally. We were welcoming and inclusive. Surely, that was better than the judgmental, noninclusive denominations.
However, I discovered that many people see all denominations as the same. People assumed we hated gay people and believed people of other religions were going to hell, neither of which was true.
To survive, I had to become an apologist of sorts if I was going to reach anyone new. “Don’t judge me/religion/Christianity by those evangelicals,” I would plead. When I preached about Jesus, my message was to live with the kindness and compassion he did, not to worship him because of a penal substitutionary atonement theory (because he died for your sins). I brought in the Buddha and brain science. Surely, people could see we were a different, modern kind of religion.
I resented the atheist trinity of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris because they poked fun at a god we didn’t believe in either. I agreed with most of what they said and wished they could see that liberal religions like mine were at least atheist-friendly.
And then my belief system started to crumble in front of me and I realized how right they were not to let religious liberals off the hook.
My deconstruction started with the institution. After a decade of trying to make churches work, and after the abominable treatment of some members and the decline of virtually every church around, I finally realized these seriously flawed (and I believe dangerous) organizations could no longer be my employer.
I had tried over and over to rescue some of the positive aspects of religion. I believed there was some way to make this work until I finally grasped the Sisyphean futility of it all. Ministry had become a job of prophetic institutional hospice. The big ship was going down and those I served and those who employed me just did not (could not) fully face it. I tried to address it, but you know what they say about prophets in their own land.
So I quit and gained my life back. (More on what ministers experience in another blog.)
Instantly, I realized I would never go to church again. Not even for Christmas and Easter. Before I left, I thought I would be a semi-regular attendee. I’d ease my way out.
Wrong. My wiser self knew otherwise.
Still, I considered myself “just spiritual.” Maybe if I jettisoned the word religious from my identity, I’d be able to keep some of my former self. Wrong again. Seemingly overnight, I became a humanist.
A few short months later, I had what I call an “anti-unitive experience.” Unitive experiences are often what bring people to a belief in some sort of god. Many people find themselves sitting in nature and this ah-ha moment comes over them, like from an outside source, and they just know there is more to this world.
I had one at 18 and “knew” there was some kind of something behind this world. God was just a short-hand word I used, without ever believing in the man in the sky. Still, I felt there was something else or something more to life.
My anti-unitive experience was almost exactly the same. Outside in nature, an ah-ha came over me from nowhere, and at that moment, I knew there didn’t need to be anything else to explain this world. As quickly as I was in with the god concept, I was out.
For weeks I tested my theory. Everywhere and every time I was confronted with something I would have explained with a spiritual answer, I no longer needed that answer. Reality and life became all that I needed. Sure, there is more to it, but that is another blog for another day.
The critical awakening was: this moment is enough. This is it. I don’t need anything else for it to all make sense. Be here now and it all makes sense. Atheism is more than enough.
It was quite a jump, yet the most natural thing ever. I can’t believe it myself sometimes. How do you go from a full-in believer, finding such growth and gifts and happiness from a belief system, to a complete drop-out, finding even greater levels of happiness without it? Fascinating.
Some friends are worried about me. They don’t think I’m going to hell, as religious liberals don’t usually believe in that. They worry I’m depressed or overreacting. How could I possibly walk away from my entire belief system? It must be the trauma (yes, trauma) of being a minister. But that’s not it. This is a healthy change, coming from the depth of my being. I keep assuring them I’m fine.
Because I am. Actually, I’m great.
I didn’t realize how exhausting defending spiritual beliefs had become. As people run out of the doors of churches, leaving us with empty buildings, and the percentage of those identifying as religious continues to decline, ministers try everything to persuade people that their church is one of the good ones. We all become some sort of apologist, trying to explain how “we aren’t like the other guys.”
After I started posting about my experience, some ministers admitted to me their beliefs were changing, too. Ministry isn’t working for them either. Because, quite honestly, this church/religion thing is not working in huge ways. Even more modern, liberal religion is failing. (Again, another topic for another blog.)
Now that I’ve crossed over to the other side, I know I am home. No more apologizing and twisting like a pretzel to make my beliefs make sense in the face of reality. And I also don’t buy that those 52 religious years were just a harmless part of my evolution (you know, “you had to go through that to get here, so it’s all good”).
No. I actually find that my former beliefs were a major part of life’s problems. They caused a lot of my suffering. Religion isn’t what I needed to get me here. It turns out it was what kept me from getting here all that time.
Leaving ministry and religion has improved my life a hundredfold. Life just works better and makes more sense. It’s a much kinder way to live. Yes, kinder. Christians don’t own the patent on kindness, not by a long shot.
I thank god (?!) I live where I can (still, for now, anyway) choose what I believe—even though I can’t choose to control my body anymore.
I’m an atheist at peace.