Editor’s Note: I first heard about “Dave” when I received a manuscript of his soon-to-be-released book about his deconversion. A member of the Clergy Project and an accomplished writer, he seemed ideal to be the moderator of a new feature coming soon on Rational Doubt. It’s called “Ask an Atheist Ex-Pastor”and will be a forum where anyone (and particularly doubting clergy) can ask questions about their religious doubts. Like any good pastor, Dave wants to continue to help people. He’s anonymous for now, but will reveal his identity when his book comes out. Stay tuned!
I once led a mainline Protestant congregation in Canada. Today I am an atheist. In the fall of 2009 at age 57, to the surprise and, for the most part, disappointment of my congregation, I took early retirement. Unbeknown to almost everyone, I was wrestling with classic cognitive dissonance, a preacher laden by the burden of incredulity. I was asking myself questions, which only led to more and more questions. Curiosity is an amazing accelerant.
I started to struggle with the hypocrisy of trying to convince others of a message of which I was increasingly unconvinced. I began to understand that like the long line of deities in the history of our species, the Abrahamic God made manifest in Jesus was not only a projection of our need for a First Cause, our tendency to avoid looking fate in the face or our desire for an edge over our enemies, but also a reflection of our violent, jealous, misogynistic, intolerant image. To put it simply, my mind had changed. I had embarked on a new journey.
As I began to chronicle the signposts on this sojourn, the next question was whether I should “come out” and publish the testimony of how my reconversion has transformed my life in ways that are no less radical and joyful than conversion. I knew that I could not keep my doubts to myself. Life Beyond Belief: A Preacher’s Deconversion will be released this Fall.
I have misgivings about this book. For starters, autobiography is audaciously telling the world how you are before they have asked. How could I be so presumptuous as to assume anyone would care what I think at this point in my life?
Second, a part of me would like to keep this story as my secret, lest people think less of me and tell me so. But I also know how ugly and crippling secrets are and that it is important every once in awhile to tell the secret of who we are because otherwise, we can lose track of who we truly are. We risk coming to believe the edited version of ourselves, which we hope the world will find acceptable.
I rigorously questioned my motives for writing this book. Am I caught up in the reverse of the convert’s zeal? Am I trying to disabuse believers? Do I have some axe to grind? If faith is merely personal benign belief, why upset someone else’s spiritual apple cart? Why be less than sanguine towards religious conviction?
While there are many reasons for writing Life Beyond Belief, the overriding motive is pastoral. The heart that was once surrendered to Christ, that gave itself to others and that infused my vocation with kindness, still beats in me. The book is not the angry rant of a disgruntled cleric. It is, rather, the honest account of one person’s journey from faith to reason.
There’s an old saw that preaching should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I believe, and I hope, the story of my deconversion may comfort the afflicted. Most non-believers keep their silence, not articulating their decision to eschew the dogma of faith so as not to offend and not feel isolated. Today, those who are wrestling with the tenets of religion or the increasing insights of science may be comforted to know they are not alone. There is life beyond belief.
At the same time my story may afflict the comfortable; urging committed believers to take their spiritual convictions seriously, examine evidence they may never have encountered before and determine if they can still believe with integrity.
Bio: “Dave” is a syndicated religion columnist, broadcaster and former preacher and author of Christian devotional material.