Editor’s Note: This post is derived, with permission, from a letter Dennis Augustine wrote to Sean Faircloth thanking him for guiding him to The Clergy Project. Augustine describes how he came to atheism via emotion, not reason.
By Dennis Augustine
It’s been a few months since Sean Faircloth put me in contact with a screener from The Clergy Project and my official coming out as an atheist. I want to thank him for the role that The Clergy Project and he and his colleagues play in helping to create a community of folks like me. It’s so very comforting to understand that there are people who go through the same deep personal, emotional, psychological, practical and social issues that I did.
I’ve spent the last few months in a concerted effort to rebuild my life and psyche from the ground up — teaching myself that I am not a degenerate, worthless sinner whose only salvation comes from believing the unbelievable. I have a sister who blamed the Church for the anguish that contributed to her bipolar disorder, which in turn, contributed to a postpartum psychotic episode she suffered a few years ago. During that episode she killed both of her children–one was five years old, the other just two months. I helped raise those children and the pain of their loss was a big factor in my decision to come out and be genuine about my disbelief. My journey hasn’t been easy; I was indoctrinated from childhood by parents who were also ministers; the shame of sin runs deep and learning to truly love oneself without prior experience is something that’s not easy for a 44 year-old man.
I’ve been trying to figure out how I can not only make amends for promulgating the falsehoods that I did as a minister, but also how to best use my natural love for people and the love for the truth that drove me away from the faith to help prevent the kind of psychological abuse that I endured.
All this has been very much inspired by the types of conversations I’ve had with religious people (conservative, evangelical Christians in particular) over the last few months. Those conversations have been both enlightening and frustrating. It’s pretty pointless trying to reason with a believer. It is futile to try to reason a man out of a belief that he wasn’t reasoned into. It’s also very difficult to get believers to listen to anything that threatens their faith.
In an effort to understand how to help others I began asking myself, “How did I manage to break free? What really was the catalyst?” The answers to that question came to me very lucidly recently.
After watching two poignant videos —a documentary entitled, “Kumare” and a series of deconversion videos posted on YouTube by a former minister, I’m convinced that reason, while having great prophylactic value for the un-indoctrinated, is pretty ineffective against the armor-plated defenses that shield believers from reason: the shame of sin, the terror of isolation and a fear of death (the ultimate isolation). What’s really been driven home to me was that it was my inability to overcome the shame of sin despite my best efforts that drove me to a tipping point. Once I accepted defeat and admitted the impotence of faith to cleanse me of these feelings, I rebelled against the idea that I was a worthless degenerate and slowly started to embrace my own self-worth. What a revelation for me!
I think that it’s easy for people who are so steeped in a scientific environment dominated by the intellect to think that evidence and reason will make the difference. It’s possible, but only after one breaks through the walls around someone’s heart.
It’s mostly my naiveté and zeal as a freshly-out atheist that’s gotten me so riled up, but I do hope that my voice will underscore the obvious: the way to reach believers is to make them value themselves, to let them know that they need not be ashamed of being human and to let them know that they will not be alone if they make one of the scariest decisions a person ever has to make.
Bio: Dennis Augustine is a former Pentecostal minister who had doubts in seminary as he learned about the problematic history of the biblical cannon. His faith in God died a slow painful death for years. When his sister murdered her own children there was no more denying it. Today, Dennis works as a software developer and business analyst in Toronto, Canada. He speaks out passionately about rational thought and the psychological and social impacts of religious faith and hopes to contribute to research in these areas in the years ahead.