Christian Nightmares Too: An Interview with a Gay Former Southern Baptist Pastor
A few months ago, I got a nice email from Larry Pate, the man behind the blog Holy Fucking ShitBalls. It included the following:
As a seminary-educated, former Southern Baptist pastor, I’ve witnessed (and embarrassingly participated in) the scam known as organized religion from the inside out. Hence, I have no qualms about exposing it for what it is.
Naturally, I had to find out more. This interview was done via email, and it’s one of the most compelling and insightful discussions I’ve had in a long time.
Can you tell us a little about your background? Where did you grow up? Were you raised as a Christian?
I am the older son of two, born to working class parents near Asheville, North Carolina. Since both of my parents were Southern Baptists, I was raised in the fundamentalist tradition of the blood sacrifice and soul-saving grace of Jesus Christ. In the vernacular, I was “saved” at the age of 10 during Vacation Bible School. At that point and for the next decade and a half, I was addicted to the practice of religion.
Because I sensed from a young age that I was different (attracted my gender), and because I was uninterested in sports, more inclined to academics and arts, I was ill-fitted for the pressures of adolescence. My church, which was a small congregation within walking distance from my house, was a safe zone—a sanctuary in more than one sense—where my sexuality was never in question and where I was affirmed when I began learning to play the organ and acquiring leadership and public speaking skills. By the time I graduated from high school, I had served as organist, youth group leader, and the church’s sexton, while holding other part-time jobs in town. Interestingly, as I became more steeped in church, my parents were distancing themselves, having become disillusioned and disinterested.
After high school graduation, I entered a large state university two hours from my hometown where I lived in a dorm. Away from my biological family for the first time in my life, I immediately gravitated to the Baptist Student Union (BSU) and the First Baptist Church. Within those walls I was once again safe from the awkwardness of not being athletic or a sports enthusiast or having interest in college clubs, fraternities, and drinking parties. I held a number of leadership positions at the BSU and at the church during the four years in which I earned my Bachelor’s degree, finally becoming paid staff my senior year at the church. While this was uncharacteristically a “high church” tradition for Baptists and far from the little country church in which I was raised with its emphasis on Biblical literalism, it was still a safe haven for me to escape peer pressures and a college culture that, at the time, I considered to be hopelessly hedonistic.
What made you decide to go to seminary?
During my freshman year of college I voluntarily submitted to vocational testing and, to my surprise, ministry was the number one result of the aptitude exams. Number two was physical therapy, which now that I’ve been an out gay man for 37 years, I can possibly understand. In retrospect, I spent too much time in college playing church, even working two summers for the Baptist Home Mission Board. My college studies were entirely secondary to my religious commitments, and it seemed a given that full-time pastoral ministry would become my calling. I was “licensed” to preach by the denomination my senior year of college; and I visited the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and was accepted pending college graduation.
In addition to absorbing all matters Christian during my college years (at the expense of my studies), I also witnessed how positions of influence, authority and power can corrupt clerics. Both of my role models, ministers at the church, had illicit sexual affairs. Both were married men and the parties with whom they had secretly carried on were church members, one of them being an underage boy, the other being the wife of one of the deacons. I pretended that these were anomalies and that carnal passion was altogether unrelated and antithetical to physical desire. I now know that to be untrue with a very fine line between religious and physical passion. Curiously, both men died relatively young; and in my “vengeful God” theology, I attributed their premature deaths to disobedience. To sin.
As a pious Christian, I also had a chance encounter, a “moral failure,” while active at the BSU. Confronted by the chaplain, I denied the incident and adamantly refused to resign my positions. He predicted that my peers would delegitimize my leadership and force me out. They did not and, like my two mentors, I survived the episode unscathed. It was only after being in seminary and coming out several years later that I addressed a long letter to the Baptist State Convention’s director of campus ministry, detailing how poorly this incident had been handled by the BSU chaplain at the time.
Concurrent with this process of preparing for ministry was a very real pressure to conform to an ecclesiastical culture in which marriage was if not a requirement, an expectation for any successful ministerial candidate. While I had had some limited sexual experiences with men, which I dismissed to adolescent experimentation, I had never engaged in sexual activities with women. I desperately hoped that I could perform satisfactorily. I had misgivings, even to the point of contemplating breaking off my engagement to a young woman to whom I had proposed senior year. However, one of the ministers, the one who had an affair with a boy, assured me that I would adjust to heterosexual married life just fine and that it was my obligation to marry the woman. I now realize decades later that he believed the sacrifice of his sexuality should be mine as well.
On the day of my college graduation, I was married in my fiancé’s church, complete with hand bell choir, solos, congregational readings and singing—a truly high-church affair. The ceremony lasted almost longer than the marriage.
How long were you a pastor and what was that experience like?
All Master’s of Divinity candidates at the seminary were expected to be at least part-time pastors by their second semester. I pastored a rural Kentucky congregation for about one year before my calling and my marriage imploded simultaneously. I can now, some 35 years later, look back to my period as a seminarian and Baptist pastor as the time in which my faith began to crumble.
Every accredited graduate-level seminary or divinity school has academic requirements, which include Biblical languages (Hebrew and New Testament Greek), church history, theology, clinical pastoral ministry, Christian ethics, and Biblical criticism. The latter may be included in scriptural studies; but my time at the Southern Baptist Seminary included separate courses in textual criticism. The coursework was arduous, far more challenging than the master’s degree I completed eight years later.
My pastoral duties were routine although compact since it was only a weekend responsibility and a small congregation. I married them and buried them and I preached every Sunday. My flock responded positively to my leadership and they were stunned when I resigned before completing my first year as their pastor.
Without devolving into extraneous details, I will say that it was my seminary courses, the texts, coursework, lectures and research, which cast into question Biblical authority and thereby theology. While I had studied the Bible devotionally for years, it was only in the context of seminary that I was expected to study it critically. In other words, is the Bible the inerrant, infallible, unchanging word of God? Was it what it purported to be? Learning that the bulk of the Hebrew scriptures were altogether fictitious, plagiarized versions of other ancient mystery religions with a desperate agenda to galvanize and perpetuate an ethnic minority, and then to learn that the Gospels were not in fact the actual words or deeds of Jesus, since they were authored in thousands of variant forms generations after the death of Jesus, all produced an intellectual and theological crisis for which I could no longer authenticate myself as a minister of the gospel.
Curiously, my seminary professors cautioned us that the churches we served, that the congregations we pastored, weren’t ready to understand the Bible in these terms and that should we attempt to teach or preach Biblical criticism, we would do so at our own peril, i.e., probably lose our jobs. That fact alone was one that ate at my sense of integrity in being called to represent a truth that was in fact a fiction. Had I taken some comparative religion courses during my undergraduate years I might have never entered seminary; but now into my second year of a three-year Master’s of Divinity curriculum, my calling and my faith collapsed. My final semester was one of reading from the variant texts of the Greek New Testament, not one containing an entire “book” of the New Testament, and all with differing “verses” that seriously called into question the traditional understanding of these texts and the theological traditions established upon them. In ecclesiastical terms, it was an epiphany to learn that the foundation of Christianity was built upon confusing, conflicting, and competing claims to truth, with obvious parallels in so-called pagan traditions.
When did you come out as gay?
I knew from a very young age—as I believe most children know, that I was “different.” Due to my religiosity and a literalist interpretation of biblical passages regarding homosexuality, I believed I was damned to eternal torment. I prayed daily as a young teenager that this “curse” would be removed from me and that I would be delivered from an obsession which I knew to be sexual perversion. Because I was overactive in my church, I had a key to the building; and there were times when I was so overwhelmed with shame, anxiety, guilt, grief and despair, I would flee to my little church, fall on my knees at the alter and beg my God to remove this “abomination” from my heart and mind. My imaginary god did nothing of the kind; and I defy anyone to say I simply didn’t beg or scream or pray hard enough. My teenage years were ones of conflict and confusion, of fear of being discovered (or “outed” as we say today) of extreme guilt and self-loathing. My self-hate and low self-esteem were reflected in poor grades in high school and unease in social situations outside the safe and secure walls of the church.
It should be noted that this was the 1960s and despite the sexual revolution that was making headlines in the larger culture, homosexuality was still very much a closeted subject and believed to be a psychological disorder. If the subject was treated by mainstream media at all, it was covered as depravity and scandal, as ruined and wasted lives. A great aunt who worked in the local bus terminal’s restaurant told lurid stories of “faggots and queers” being dragged by police out of the men’s restroom there after being caught in lewd sexual activities. That only underscored a conviction that my life would eventually be an embarrassment and scandal to my family, friends, church and community, and that I deserved nothing less than torment and damnation.
I wanted so very desperately to be “normal” that while in my senior year of college, during which I was having sex with my roommate (who was later a soloist and groomsman in my wedding), I followed through on an ill-conceived marriage in mid-1975. It was hardly consummated despite the two years in which we lived together at the seminary as husband and wife. It was easy for me to fault the rigors of the academics with my poor bedroom performance, but in my heart of hearts, I knew my marriage was a sham. Our sex life was a disaster and I was emotionally and physically incapable of satisfying her.
One and one half years into my marriage, I disclosed to my wife that I might be homosexual. She was bewildered although she had been cautioned by some of our mutual college friends that there were rumors of my homosexuality. I had denied them at the time, feverishly wanting to convince myself that I could be heterosexual. What ensued thereafter were six months of personal therapy outside the seminary campus with a secular counseling agency. I had sought out therapy while in college, but the student counseling center was less than enlightened relative to sexuality and my college counselor insisted that I had to overcome the compulsion to have sex with men for the sake of my future and for my eternal soul. The therapeutic experience in the late 1970’s while in seminary was altogether different wherein the culture was already beginning to reflect the presence of sexual minorities, although it was not until 1979, when the Stonewall incident broke down the closet door once and forever.
While my wife believed that my therapy—along with fervent prayer—would “change” me, it was only a matter of a few weeks before I realized I wasn’t broken and there was nothing I needed to fix other than my self-image and my dishonest marital relationship. In late 1976, I told my wife that the marriage had to end, that I was withdrawing from the seminary and resigning my church. Looking back, and with no support at all from peers or family, I’m not sure where I found the emotional muscle to follow through with this drastic change of life. However, by 1977 I had returned home to my parents, with whom I had not lived in six years. I was broke, without work, and with no realistic blueprint for my future. Despite that difficult period of transition and adjustment, I never regretted that I had ended both my marriage and my ministerial training.
Did people at your church know you were gay? Do they know now? If so, what was their reaction?
When I resigned from the pulpit of my little Kentucky church, I was purposely vague in offering much explanation. I was far too tender, emotionally and spiritually, to debate with anyone the merits of what I was embarking upon. My wife was angry and bitter once I declared the marriage to be over, and she disclosed my homosexuality to her family, to our mutual friends from the seminary and college, and also to some folks at the church. It was seemingly her attempt to vindicate herself so that she would be held blameless for the failed marriage and perhaps some retribution for what she I believed I was doing to her. Among her last words were those assuring me that my life would be one of ruin.
While I no longer adhered to biblical authority and theological orthodoxy, I still enjoyed the communal experience of church—it’s grandiose traditions, liturgical celebrations and rituals, music, art, and drama. I simply couldn’t return to my hometown fundamentalist church and instead I attended the grand First Baptist Church of Asheville. Its home is a magnificent and historic building that more resembles a Catholic basilica than a protestant denomination. There I sang with the chancel choir, seated behind the senior minister each Sunday with the service broadcast live on local television. I struck up a friendship with the organist, a closeted gay man, and I was content with my role as a layperson with no formal membership in any church.
All of that changed when Anita Bryant made national headlines with her antigay campaign in Miami. At the time I had withdrawn from the Baptist Seminary, the Southern Baptist Convention was embroiled in a major internal dispute relative to the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. Shortly after I left the seminary, its administration was deposed by a newly elected conservative board of the Convention and those professors who taught Biblical criticism and alternative, non-orthodox Baptist beliefs, were expelled. Concurrent with this was the Convention’s public positions on social issues that were threatening their literal and legalistic understanding of the Bible. When the Convention formally endorsed Anita Bryant’s efforts to flagrantly discriminate against gays and lesbians in Florida, once again I was confronted with a moral dilemma. It ended for me—after 25 years—by finally leaving the Baptist church.
Still seeking that communal affiliation, with a growing interest in social justice issues over evangelism, I discovered the left-leaning United Church of Christ (UCC). And although I was closeted at the First Baptist Church, I joined the UCC with full disclosure and I was welcomed warmly. During my tenure there, prior to a job transfer to Alabama, I was elected Chair of the Board of Deacons, Chaired the Music Committee (which leveraged the purchase of a new organ), and again I sang with the choir.
My coming out process became full circle and fully complete when I organized Asheville’s first LGBT support organization in conjunction with a United Way-funded family counseling service. I had stayed in contact with one childhood friend from my little neighborhood church there, and he was struggling with his sexual identity and seeing a counselor. It occurred to me that he was surely not alone and that many in Western North Carolina were probably enduring the conflicted and confusion emotions.
Despite the presence of two or three gay bars in Asheville, there was no community-based organization for support, education, and activism. With the help of a roommate and a few close gay friends, that changed in 1979 when we chartered a group and I was elected its first president. With only a half-dozen in the first couple of weekly meetings, we soon outgrew the counseling agency’s offices as we were attracting up to 100 gay, lesbian, and transgendered people from Western North Carolina. We found a new home at the Episcopal cathedral in Asheville and the organization soon made headlines with my interview and photos. It was only then that I fully came out to my parents and to my employer. My parents were divorced by that time and they grieved at my coming out, with my mother pleading with me not to “embarrass the family.” Years later she became far more knowledgeable, comfortable and supportive of me, accepting my partners as family.
My employer was a local unit of a national non-profit where I held an administrative position that required me to appear on television and to make public presentations in schools, churches, industries and civic organizations. My dual role as a “gay activist” and the local agency’s official most often seen doing interviews almost cost me my job. I refused to soft-pedal either role and I prevailed, although I am certain that senior management was relieved when in 1981 I accepted a position with another unit in South Alabama.
My UCC church was distressed that I was leaving and honored me more than was necessary. The LGBT organization I founded in 1979 is still in existence and it has spawned a multitude of LGBT political, cultural, athletic, and arts groups. I was asked to return to keynote their annual meeting in the late 1990s and I was delighted and gratified to see that our early efforts had yielded dramatic results with lives affirmed and changed forever.
In your first email to me, you referred to organized religion as a scam. What do you mean by that?
The Abrahamic religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—have been institutionalized to such a degree through elaborate buildings, salaried professional staff, print and electronic media productions, and partisan political activities that the tribal roots of all of these Bronze Age traditions are long lost. Christianity, which I know best, has become corporatized, most especially in America. It requires revenues over expenditures, i.e., profits, in which to perpetuate and inculcate the culture with elaborate, even theatrical messages of salvation and redemption. One need look no further than the emergence of televangelism during the last quarter of the 20th century, the slick studios, adoring audiences on their feet, and of course, “all major cards accepted” by all of these predatory, proselytizing rackets. While living in New Orleans, I noted that one large suburban church (whose senior minister was caught in a sexually-compromising position with one of his same-sex members and it was quickly hushed up) bought a downtown office building, which they labeled their “corporate offices.” Somehow I don’t think the historic Jesus, Moses or Mohammed would have ever framed their teachings within a corporate framework.
Most disturbingly, organized religion preys on ignorant, unformed, vulnerable and gullible people. Pat Robertson recently assured an out-of-work, almost broke couple that if they gave a generous contribution to “God” (i.e., Robertson’s 700 Club) they would be blessed many times over with financial prosperity. The rise of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” which all too many prominent evangelists preach, is evidence in itself of the craven fraud of religious racketeering. Periodically an exposé of a prominent evangelist’s lifestyle blows up the double standards of the self-sacrifice which they preach versus the lavish lifestyle they lead behind gated compounds, traveling in private jets, with multiple homes and vehicles and investment accounts around the globe. Big religion has become big business. Look no further than the Crouch family’s Trinity Broadcasting Network, shiny made-for-TV evangelists like Benny Hinn, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, Rod Parsley, James Robinson, Paula White, T.D. Jakes, and John and Matthew Hagee. Most of these are family owned and operated enterprises with policies and income known only to the family. Parsley has proudly stated, “I just love to talk about money. I just love to talk about your money. Let me be very clear—I want your money. I deserve it. The church deserves it.” (source: Chris Hedges, “American Fascists,” p. 171). These predators preach a false message of material wealth for gullible believers, and poverty, deprivation, and financial ruin for those who reject their self-serving gospel.
Popular and successful evangelists, particularly televangelists, often acquire celebrity status with a cult following. While Roman Catholics are mass-centered and parishioners are typically satisfied to attend any mass, anywhere, irrespective of the priest presiding, evangelical Protestants are centered in “the Word,” whereby the quality—and often the volume—of the preaching is paramount. When these men (rarely women) are gifted speakers and can entertain, thrill, frighten, and motivate large numbers of people (and also large monetary collections), they become almost god-like themselves. Their narcissism knows no bounds as their following grows, with larger building projects, national television exposure, and book, DVD and movie deals. Some, by virtue of their popularity, are considered to be spiritual or morality experts and are invited to testify before Congressional committees or advise presidents. In my personal training and theology, nothing can be farther from the historical Jesus than today’s successful megachurch pastor or televangelist.
God has become a business. A very big and very profitable business. I’ve borrowed the pejorative term “scamvangelist” from another blogger to better describe their ilk. Worse yet, religion in the U.S. is a tax-exempt racket, which deprives the country of desperately needed revenue. Despite strict IRS rules against partisan politicking, many evangelical churches are now testing the IRS, openly preaching partisan politics, endorsing political candidates (generally Republicans), and challenging the IRS to investigate their violation of 501(c)(3) rules. In too many mainstream religions, preachers, priests and imams have become nothing more than political operatives. Since Barack Obama became president, the envelope has been pushed even further since he represents “the antichrist” for these theological train-wrecks. Demonizing the culture, its popular celebrities and elected officials is always good for the bottom line, however. In fact, religious adherence historically declines when believers aren’t presented with an “us versus them” paradigm. They’re far more comfortable knowing they’re at war with something or someone.
Closely related is the relatively modern development of religious organizations that are not exclusively affiliated with one denomination, but frame a social, cultural or political mission that appeals to narrow ideological communities. These quasi-religious organizations include The American Family Association, The Family Research Council, Liberty Counsel, all of which are designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “hate groups” since they rail against homosexuals and the reproductive choices of women. They are also tax-exempt organizations whose officers appeal to the baser, prejudicial instincts of the population in perpetuating endless culture wars. Some, including the National Organization for Marriage, Mission America, Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, and Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, receive direct funding from ecclesiastical sources, either through the denominations’ national budgets or individual congregations who buy into their narrow, Byzantine bigotry.
In addition to the profit motive, there’s an intellectual scam being perpetrated by clerics of every stripe. Every graduate of an accredited graduate school of theology has been exposed to church history, linguistics, Biblical and textual criticism, Christian ethics, clinical pastoral care, and advanced theology courses. Yet popular and prevailing myths of Biblical literalism, magic and miracles, apocalyptic violence, the “second coming,” heaven and hell all still pervade the belief systems of too many religious people. The crime is that those who teach and preach such nonsense know better. At best it’s intellectual dishonesty; and at worst it’s economic, cultural, and political opportunism.
Given the power many of today’s popular preachers, “prophets,” and priests have accrued, to challenge or to contradict their distinctive, customized, and self-serving interpretations and theology is to reject God. Or so they would have their minions believe. Having spent decades as a Southern Baptist, I can attest to the cultural conformity that exists within that denomination. Clergy are not only to be respected, but they are to be revered, hence the title “Reverend.” Disobedience to the teachings and instructions of pastors is conflated with disobedience to God. Men of the cloth still have the power to excommunicate congregants—figuratively and in the Catholic tradition, literally—who stray from the party line. Authoritarianism and control mechanisms are built into every church’s bylaws either implicitly or explicitly. In the vast majority of faith traditions, righteous certitude is reinforced with ancient creeds and denominational statements of faith. A critical questioning of human or Biblical authority is not only disparaged, but also considered to be evidence of “back-sliding” into heresy or sin.
Finally, the dominionist movement, which completely politicizes Christianity and seeks to redefine democracy as theocracy, is perhaps the most extreme example of religious scam. One doesn’t have to look far into the halls of our Congress or the courts or state legislatures before finding public officials who call for a state religion (as did the N.C. state legislature in its last session) for which the Bible supersedes the Constitution, and Christianity and its powerful leaders—often evangelists, self-styled and self-appointed preachers and prophets—are to be consulted prior to the enactment of public policy. These radicals believe that America is, in fact, a “Christian nation” and that the country has strayed from its foundational, fundamentalist Christian beliefs. Separation of church and state is a myth to this crowd, and their leaders, including the pseudo-historian David Barton, speak convincingly of a country governed by (his) almighty God. The inherent problem is that such a God is invisible and not audibly heard except as seen and heard by fallible, often craven, agenda-driven human beings.
When did you stop being a believer and why?
After moving to Florida in 1998, I volunteered extensively for a local hospice agency and in one year I was honored with their “Unsung Hero” award. One of their chaplains took an interest in my background and skills, suggesting that I finish my Master’s of Divinity and specialize in clinical chaplaincy. I found a multi-cultural, non-denominational seminary in Miami, which accepted all of my Baptist seminary credits and I enrolled there in the fall of 2001. Needing a local church to validate my ministerial credentials upon completion of seminary, I joined a United Church of Christ in Ft. Lauderdale where I was immediately called upon to be a liturgist, offer prayers, and to write litanies for worship.
While I had rejected fundamentalist Christianity in the 1970’s, I thought that perhaps I retained enough theological understanding and interest to actually make chaplaincy work for me and, more importantly, for people facing acute or chronic medical conditions and end of life issues. However, during that first semester back in divinity school, 9/11 occurred. I was at a boyfriend’s house (himself a devout Catholic) when we witnessed the terrorist attack in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Seminary classes were cancelled that evening and Will and I went to the Catholic cathedral in Miami for a memorial mass.
When classes resumed at the seminary the next week, nothing was the same for me. One of my professors abandoned his lesson plans and we spent three hours that evening searching for evidence of “God” in the horrific, unspeakable attacks on our country. Curiously, neither he nor my classmates had anything close to theologically satisfying explanations for a God who was allegedly omniscient (did he know that thousands of lives would be taken on 9/11?), omnipotent (could he have prevented this unspeakable evil?) or was he simply a fraud, uncaring and unwilling to intervene? In other words, why did this happen? More broadly, why is there suffering if God is able to end it? In the midst of my new plan for the final decades of my life, one in which I wanted to devote myself to people who were suffering, I experienced a real and final crisis of what little faith I had. I couldn’t answer these fundamental questions for myself, much less for one who might be holding a child dying of cancer.
Unable to convince myself of the simultaneous presence of omniscience, omnipotence, and a merciful god who loves his creation, I knew what little belief I had hoped to regenerate had crumbled around me in late 2001. I withdrew from the seminary, ceased attending church, and I threw myself more into the critical study of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. I wanted to be certain that there was no rational foundation for faith even before I read any works by contemporary atheists such as Dawkins, Denkins, Hichens, and Harris. I spent the next full year re-examining the theologies for the Abrahamic literature and by the time I read “the new atheists,” I was not only a doubter, I had become a disbeliever. Having read even more since that time, having had personal encounters with other skeptics and former believers, I’m now fully, 100% convinced, that gods have and are and always will be human constructs to satisfy human insecurities, provide for social order and control the culture. They are products of overactive imaginations, human desperation to believe there is life after death, and—too often—calculated schemes to extort and exploit vulnerable peoples.
When I left Christianity, although it was ultimately very liberating, it was initially really hard: I struggled with depression, anxiety, anger, etc. What was it like for you? Have you gotten over it? If so, how did you do it?
My experience has been quite the opposite from yours. I have found my journey from ardent believer to strident disbeliever to be one of total empowerment. With certain knowledge that there is no supernatural, transcendent reality outside of ourselves, that this life is our only life, I find that I am even more curious about the wonders of the physical world. A friend who was also raised Southern Baptist but has since converted to Episcopal, bemoans what he believes is my willful denial of mystery. I have tried to reassure him that in my evidence-based reality, there is still much mystery, much wonder and awe. In fact, I consider the tenants of faith, fluid as they are relative to thousands of denominations and faith traditions, to be not only intellectually constrictive, but utterly void of mystery. I certainly know that many shrug off the problem of human suffering to a God “who works in mysterious ways.” That may be a self-gratifying notion of mystery to them, but to me it reflects a lazy, uncurious, sheep-like acceptance. Of course sheep are often metaphors for God’s people in the Christian and Hebrew texts; but sheep as we know are always fleeced and then slaughtered.
If I harbor anger or resentment about religion today, it’s twofold. One is entirely directed toward myself. While I was a product of a religious family, I could certainly have taken a different path once I left home for college, rather than falling into the safe, false security of primitive belief. Yes, it did provide sanctuary for my sexual confusions, and it also helped me to develop leadership, organizational and public speaking skills. However, had I not taken the easier route, had I explored other faith traditions, had I taken some comparative religion and philosophy courses at my secular state college, had I challenged myself spiritually and intellectually, I would have probably never matriculated for seminary. And since seminary and ministerial preparation was my prime motivation to get married, I surely wouldn’t have followed through with an ill-conceived marriage, which only inflicted unnecessary hurt on my wife and our families.
Some people in their later years defiantly declare they have no regrets. I tend to believe such people are either idiots or liars. I honestly regret the years that I devoted to the folly of religion. At age 60, I look back with embarrassment at my gullibility and adherence to such irrational ideologies. There may be something sacred in our universe, something so mystifying and awe-inspiring that human minds may never conceive or understand it. But it’s not the ancient, tribal magic and miracles described in the Abrahamic religious traditions.
One thing I think a lot of people get out of church is the sense of community it offers. Where do you find community these days, or what’s your new “church”?
I have no parallel experience to “church” in my life today, nor do I seek one. However, I can still enjoy classical, even “sacred,” organ or choral music within the confines of some churches today. I still own a church organ, which I enjoy playing occasionally. By attending cultural events presented within the walls of a church or synagogue, I am not endorsing their theology or creed. I’m simply enjoying timeless classics of fine musical literature, which is performed by gifted artists in churches. Pragmatically, most of the fundamentalist, right wing churches have little to offer in the way of art and culture and I find myself more often than not in Episcopal, Methodist, or Presbyterian churches. These are also the denominations that are most often engaged in worthy social justice issues, programs of benevolence for the marginalized or impoverished of our world. Hence, if I must pay an admission price to enjoy a cultural event, I have little concern that it will be used for predatory proselytizing.
Intellectually, I enjoy informed dialogue with people who have survived the fundamentalism of their youth and have come out more enlightened, liberated, and free. Skeptics and free thinkers are still often reluctant to self-identify since society still has a strong cultural tradition for spirituality. However, I see that changing rapidly among younger people who no longer feel compelled to claim an obligatory faith.
I also identify with those who’re engaged in progressive politics. Having undergraduate courses in history, social science, economics, and political science and a master’s degree in public administration, I am compelled to stay informed of vital issues in my community and in my country. Where possible and practical, I lobby for legislation that reflects the best of our nation’s values, and empowers our citizens through education and opportunity.
While living and working in Louisiana, I was asked to help lobby for the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. I did so with enthusiasm and I was later invited to the White House to witness the renewal and extension of the act by President Clinton. Successful endeavors such as these, collaborating with motivated individuals and organizations, provide me with a real sense of purpose and community, knowing untold millions will be advantaged by such actions.
Given the information age in which we live, anyone who seeks a sense of community can find such, somewhere and somehow. There are enough special interest groups, worth causes and organizations, volunteer opportunities, and local and national programs and efforts with which one can network, affiliate and enjoy some sense of contribution and community. The age of the village church being the epicenter of a community is gone forever, and I don’t mourn its passing.
What would you say to someone who has released they are no longer a believer but is afraid to leave the church/and or abandon Christianity?
Although spirituality is deeply personal (and too often on public display to satisfy personal or professional agendas), I would suggest uninstalling this obsolete program with the fullest information available. Reading, studying, and reflecting on subjects related to comparative religions, the origin and development of sacred texts, and the history of religion in world civilization are among the places to start. Obviously, one’s own faith tradition possesses almost endless titles written from a sectarian perspective. However, if you are honestly seeking objectivity and less biased perspective, you must go outside of your particular faith or denomination and seek out established researchers and scholars of religion, often teaching at the major universities of the world.
Former Catholic nun and now liberal religion researcher Karen Armstrong’s seminal publication, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is a great starting point, followed by her book, The Battle for God.
Christians seeking a critical understanding of the Gospels, i.e., the foundation of Christianity, should certainly study the Jesus Seminar’s publication, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. This is written by a large consortium of religious scholars (including Dr. Armstrong) from around the world and their credentials are beyond question. Prior to the seminar’s examination of the five gospels, they offer a quick summation of Biblical literature—when, where, how, and for whom ancient texts originated—and a discussion of the Jesus of history versus the Christ of faith. And there are crucial distinctions. Bart Ehrman is a former fundamentalist Christian who’s now agnostic or atheist and chair of Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. His publication, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, is a must-read, particularly for those who insist that scripture is a monolithic work, inerrant and infallible. A more recent work, God’s Problem, examines suffering and faith and how the two cannot coexist.
Anyone interested in apocalyptic (“rapture”), end-times (“second coming”), or the historic and contemporary exploitation of the last book of the Christian Bible in the Left Behind series taken from a literalistic interpretation of The Revelation, should read A History of the End of the World, by Jonathan Kirsch. His research is consistent with my semester-long seminary course in The Revelation, which lays bare the contemporary, hysterical, fear-mongering, self-serving theology of end times preachers and prophets.
Once a critical understanding of what has been considered as authoritative sources for religious belief has been considered, contemporary skeptics and atheists should be studied. Among those are The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, The End of Faith by Sam Harris, and God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. Online interviews featuring all of these writers are freely available with minimal search effort.
For those who want to retain some measure of personal faith but understand more fully the human origin of the Bible and its archaic texts, Bishop Shelby Spong’s The Sins of Scripture is very helpful. Spong addresses the Bible’s authorship, along with problematic passages for the modern world, including the text’s patriarchal references to women, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. He concludes with an examination of proselytizing and missionary expansion that often includes religious bigotry and exclusionary creeds.
The critical thinker can and should start by doing research with these tools and others, but that is perhaps the easiest part of evolving into free thought, skepticism, or disbelief. Coming out to one’s peers, friends and families is far more difficult and can often be emotionally traumatic. For those of us raised in a strict religious tradition, irrespective of faith, questioning or repudiating faith is often met with not only harsh, judgmental criticism, but also with social ostracism. In American culture, it has been historically an assumption that everyone adheres to a religion, even if they aren’t particularly observant. It’s perhaps most strongly inculcated in Jews and Muslims since it’s accompanied by a cultural and ethnic identity. But even for Christians, an expression of doubt or disbelief can often become the subject of argument and dispute, and worse yet, for loss of friends and family. Even the workplace for many is one in which it might be unwise or unsafe to articulate questions that most believe are authoritatively addressed by their Bible.
We’re only now learning with anonymous polling how many Americans consider themselves non-religious. However, polling is very different than personally identifying as an agnostic or atheist with friends, family and co-workers that one has known for a lifetime and has to relate on a regular basis. Holidays take on a different meaning for many after abandoning virgin birth and bodily resurrection, but that doesn’t mean we have to forgo them. While I never had much use for Easter, doubting the specious resurrection story early on, I’ve always been a big fan of Christmas. The Bethlehem story (all of which is myth and lore) can be portrayed inasmuch as flying reindeer. The lights, carols and candles of the holiday season can still be a source for mysticism and reflection if one is open to such.
Finally, in the larger urban areas of the country there are fledgling, sometimes-established groups for skeptics, freethinkers, agnostics and atheists. As in every other endeavor in which one seeks solidarity or community, identifying and establishing a relationship with like-minded people is helpful. Sometimes such organizations are small and difficult to find, but they exist and they can be invaluable to one who has consciously begun to question and abandon long-held religious sentiments.
Everyone has a choice: to desperately cling to traditional belief systems utterly unsupported by evidence, or to engage one’s critical faculties in examining the tangible, evidence-based realities of the universe. It’s really that simple.
On a final note, I rarely consider myself a “militant atheist.” I recognize that I’ve had some extraordinary opportunities to examine religion and its failure to meet my intellectual criteria. While I may question people who still adhere to baseless, ancient dogma, I rarely challenge them on a personal basis. Where I do become agitated and militant is when religion is used as a weapon or a calculated ploy to advance a cultural or political agenda. Because so few believers have the critical skills to objectively evaluate their beliefs, I won’t stand by while opportunists—whether preachers or politicians—manipulate and exploit ignorance for personal gain. I can still quote scripture and verse and I can call up fire and brimstone when required.
Despite my disbelief, I hope my legacy will still be one of insightful, honest compassion and service to those I’ve met and known in this brief pilgrimage we call life.
Check out Larry Pate’s blog Holy Fucking ShitBalls.