The Curious Guilt of a Formerly Fundamentalist, now Progressive Pastor

Editor’s Note: The following responses to my “Guilt” questions come from the somewhat unique perspective of a very fundamentalist pastor who switched to being a pastor in one of the most liberal Protestant denominations – the United Church of Christ (UCC), sometimes jokingly referred to as “Unitarians Considering Christ.”  He’s happy and fulfilled there and plans to stay until retirement, but the old guilt perseveres.

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By “Andy”

  1. What are some of the things you regret, if any, about staying a member of the clergy after you no longer believed?

Life opens to us when we leave God out of the equation. Accordingly, my interest in all things scientific has exploded (particularly biology, geology and paleontology). If I regret anything, it is the lost opportunity to explore other career fields that are now of greater interest to me than religion. Other than that, no regrets.

If I were younger and preparing for a career, I’d leave the church and pursue a discipline more relevant to human life.

  1. What are some of the things you learned about yourself, your family, your congregation (or religious community) or society from your new perspective as a non-believing clergy?

and

  1. If you haven’t left the clergy or don’t intend to, what are some of the things you’ve learned since staying on?

I’ve learned that there are more people than I originally thought who are on the same secular journey. Even in the church, at least in the mainline churches, many people seem to be functional atheists, giving lip service to the theological propositions, but not having what conservatives would call a “personal relationship” with God or Jesus. Their relationship to God seems to be mediated through the institutional functions and functionaries of the church, (e.g., rites like baptism and roles like pastor or priest).

I’m amazed how ‘God’ doesn’t factor into many of the decisions my congregants make daily. Instead, it is reason that seems to prevail. This makes it easier for us, the mainline liberal clergy, to speak from the pulpit, because we can cite professionals in a variety of secular fields to affirm the positions we take. We can then find “proof texts” in the Bible for those needing some kind of scriptural support for what is really just solid, scientific research.

So, for example, I can cite Micah 6:8 in our call for justice (God requires justice), while citing real evidence from psychologists and social workers about the damage done to the mentally ill in the current prison-industrial complex. Accordingly, my church has urged our elected officials to fund the construction and equipping of a mental health crisis care center to divert the mentally ill from prison, where their condition only worsens. It’s a matter of justice. (This is a current example of something that is happening, and it excites me).

The point is that most of my congregation is functionally atheist or agnostic anyway. Metaphysics is just window dressing, and it is something I can tolerate.

  1. What advantages, to yourself or to society, have you seen in staying in the clergy?

For me, this is the most important question.

guilt soul in bondage

Guilt plays a major role in my life as an atheist pastor. But it’s not the kind of guilt an outsider might expect. I have no guilt over my own position, or any perceived deception in which I am engaged. (See question 3, above—I think most of my congregation is functionally atheist anyway, so I’m not deceiving anyone.)

My guilt stems from the years I spent as a believing pastor, and specifically from the damage I have caused to people of prior congregations—all the biblically-based judgment and hatred I spewed, all justified by recourse to a deity by whom I felt authorized to tell other people what to believe and how to live.

I can still remember a counseling session I had with a married couple who had relationship issues. This was shortly after my ordination as a Southern Baptist minister many years ago. I can still hear echoing in my mind the advice I gave them from the so-called “household codes” of Ephesians and Colossians, which authorized wives to be in submission to their husbands. That was my assessment of their problem. Just follow what the Bible says. How horrifying to me now. It really does haunt me. (Jokingly — if there is a God, I’ll be judged more for that kind of thing than for denying God’s existence!)

I look at it as an equation: I must spend an equal (if not greater) amount of energy correcting some of the flagrant mistakes I made as a youngster in ministry over 30 years ago. That is the advantage of staying in ministry for me. It gives me time to “do penance” (as it were), outspending with good, the evil I have perpetrated on good people.

My current context in ministry is exclusively focused on charity—addressing the concrete needs of our community (food, clothing, etc.), and justice—addressing the underlying, structural causes that make charity necessary in the first place (unjust laws that make and keep people poor and homeless). It’s simple, forthright, and indisputably relevant. I love what I do, and the difference congregations like mine are making for the benefit of our world. I’m still not sure I’ll ever do enough to outweigh the evil I have done in the name of God.

  1. What was it like the first time you preached a sermon after you’d realized you were no longer a believer?

I honestly have no recollection of this. My transformation was gradual enough that I can’t assign a date, or even a year, to my first sermon as an atheist pastor.

  1. Were there times while speaking to someone it was hard not to just blurt out what you wanted to say? If so, please describe.

No. I am honest enough to confess that I don’t think belief in God is an essential part of belonging to a religious organization that is actively involved in works of charity and justice.

  1. Who was the first person you told you no longer believed, if that’s already happened, and how did conversation go?

The only person to whom I have said, “I don’t believe in God anymore,” is my wife, who lovingly accepts my position. She is far more interested in the fact that I love her and treat her with dignity and respect, than that I believe in the supernatural. She is a theist herself, but has what I call occasional “bouts of agnosticism”—which occasions much laughter.

That said, I have certainly intimated it time and again to my congregation and other pastors in my area. I have actively courted atheists in my sermons, and in the articles I write for a religion column in my local newspaper. I have frequently asked some of my ministerial colleagues whether belief in God makes any actual difference in our morality, i.e., in our interaction with other persons and with our planet. Most verbally agree that it doesn’t.

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Bio: Andy”, a former Southern Baptist Minister, is currently a Pastor in the United Church of Christ. He plans to retire in the church, despite his rejection of metaphysical speculation (God, salvation, heaven, etc.). His life has been an evolution from traditional theism, to non-theism (via Tillich and Spong), to agnosticism (via linguistic philosophy), to ‘incipient atheism’ (via secular humanism). He holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from a major American university.

>>>>>>>>>Photo Credits: By Elihu Vedder – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 47.74_SL1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10187693

 

About Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers” (2010). She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and is a co-founder of the Clergy Project.

  • Lerk!

    I enjoyed this post.
    I have a niece who married a member of the UCC. Unfortunately, she converted him rather than the other way around. I feel sorry for his parents because their insistence on being at their own church every single time the doors are open means that formerly enjoyable family occasions no longer happen. It’s very sad.
    Maybe someday he’ll see what has happened, or something will shake him into realizing that what he was doing before was better.

    • Andy

      This is why I am no longer interested in ‘God talk’. Whether God exists should make no difference in living a responsible, moral life. I wish more Christians would get over the metaphysics and just concentrate on personal character–the way we treat each other and the responsibility we bear to our planet. In my congregation we have no doctrinal standards; a person joins on the basis of his/her desire to join one of our public service teams, trying to make our community and our world better places. Thank you for your comment.

      • mason

        And alas, if only all the attendees of churches, mosques, and synagogues, were magically imbued with this mindset, it would truly be Heaven on Earth. Do you have a link to your church Andy?

        • Linda_LaScola

          Hey Mason — “Andy” is an active pastor and while he is as open as he says he is in his post, he’s still a closeted member of The Clergy Project and intends to stay that way.

          Certainly the people in his UCC congregation are lucky to have him. I can say that many UCC congregations are just focused on helping their communities and I suspect many of them are led by good pastors like Andy, who are leading people to a more secular future, but still aren’t “out” themselves.

          • Linda_LaScola

            Here’s a clip from about Andy from the Book, Caught in the Pulpit – Leaving Belief Behind. It includes a quote from his interviews:

            Andy, who himself transitioned from conservative (Southern Baptist) to liberal, is as honest as he feels he can be with his congregation. He is truthful, “with one exception”: He feels unable to say he doesn’t believe in God.

            “One of the values that helps me justify so-called lying to people, or not being forthcoming, is that I feel like I am blunting the negative impact of at least one religious community on the world. I think religion, especially Christianity, has been a very damaging force, and continues to be in national politics, so you can imagine my viewpoint on separation of church and state. I have taken one church out of that orbit. I have shielded the citizens of this country from the negative impact of one religious group, blunted that force, and helped to turn it into a choice for good, and charity, and works of justice.”

          • mason

            :) so I’ll put a hold on the link request.

      • ctcss

        Whether God exists should make no difference in living a responsible, moral life. I wish more Christians would get over the metaphysics and just concentrate on personal character–the way we treat each other and the responsibility we bear to our planet.

        This strikes me as being a bit short-sighted. Perhaps I am misunderstanding you here, but you seem to be assuming that all moral problems have been solved and that good behavior is a no-brainer which doesn’t require any further thought.

        From what I was taught, the whole point of following God (or being at one with God) is to live in accordance to a higher ideal (conceptually speaking, the highest ideal) than just what seems to be “OK” to us at any given point in time. Doing so requires embracing a larger perspective and going beyond what we each personally think we already know or feel comfortable doing.

        The Jews already had a well-established set of moral behavior when Jesus spoke his parable of the good Samaritan to them. In it he made the story-line rather offensive to get his audience of well educated Jewish leaders to think beyond where they were at the moment. The story of Jonah also lays out a a tricky proposition that (to me at any rate) is a beautifully contrived narrative designed to get the reader to think from a rather different (and evolving) perspective because it starts out making things seem rather simplistic and tribal, but leads one to reconsider things from a larger perspective (God’s perspective).

        “Be ye therefore perfect even as your father which is in heaven is perfect” is a statement meant to get people to go far beyond even the humanly good. It asks the reader to reconsider who they really are and therefore what standard of thought and action they should be living in accord with.

        Jefferson’s declaration of independence makes an entirely false statement “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” because it is obvious that individual primates are demonstratively not equal. But he obviously wasn’t thinking in such a narrow way. In fact, he makes it very specifically about equality based on the higher notion all men’s rights based on being created equally by God. And yet, despite having such lofty thoughts, he still excluded women and blacks from being accorded these innate rights. He was obviously a good person and a good thinker, but he (like all of us) still wasn’t “there” yet.

        Jewish law and English law had been long established and yet people were still wrestling with (and often blind to) what was still required to live in the highest way possible. Thus it would seem that these kinds of goals are not easily attained, and whether or not you personally think that that a yardstick (i.e., God) that goes beyond where humanity finds itself at any given moment is useful, to me it seems sort of obvious that God is not so much an outmoded concept as much that a limited, less-than-helpful notion of the ideal (i.e. God) is what is needs to be replaced with a more accurate notion of what the ideal (i.e. God) actually is, and thus, what we should desire to live up to.

        So for my part, I don’t think that metaphysics is in any way outmoded or useless. To me it is all about considering things more deeply, and accepting that there is more out there than whatever I may personally feel is “OK” according to current human thought.

        My 2 cents. (And yes, I am glad you have found your own way forward.)

        • Andy

          Your two cents are worth more than that! Your response is well-thought out and I thank you for it. Here are a couple of thoughts in response.

          1. There have been attempts, valid in my opinion, to work out ethical theory without recourse to God. David Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, is an early, but good, example. He appeals to common human sentiment as the observable ground for all the moral rules he sees in play among humans.

          2. The notion that we somehow need an objective, external (to us) standard by which to live morally is not necessary, in my opinion. Granted, many Christians–and people of other faiths–find it helpful to believe that what they are doing is ordained by God, I don’t think it’s necessary, however. Fact is, it can be argued that since there is no scientific way to prove either the existence of God, or what that God might want, people fill in what they subjectively think God wants them to do. Scripture is no help here, since, from an historical-critical perspective, it is a human product, and what one author deems the will of God, another author deems not to be. A good example is Paul’s approval of meat offered to idols, something that is excoriated by the writer of Revelation. Ultimately, we do, in fact, follow what we subjectively find to be right, only later canonizing it with recourse to ‘God’.

          3. I don’t have any final answers here, but I like what one of my ethics professors once taught–that perhaps ‘self-interest’ (NOT Selfishness), is a good place to start. It is in my self interest not to murder, not to rape, not to pillage; it is in my self-interest to respect others, etc. I think most common human prescriptions and proscriptions follow this rule–that our existence is at stake in how we treat others–because what goes around comes around. The essential law of life on earth is survival.

          Thank you ctcss for your thoughtfulness–and for reading my two cents!!

  • Maura Hart

    he ought to go over all his sermons and count up how many damned gays he damned to hell. how many killed thems elves. how many women he damned to stay in abuseive relationships. how much money his “church” stole from people who realy needed it.

    • Andy

      Not sure what your point is here. As far as guilt is concerned, I bestow enough of that upon myself and need no help to understand the mistakes I’ve made.

      • Linda_LaScola

        Andy — Maura has posted here a couple of times before. I think she has been very hurt by religion, but wish she wouldn’t lash out at clergy and former clergy who are no longer making whatever mistakes they once made.

        Maura — instead of insulting and castigating the current and former clergy who gather here, I hope you take the time to engage in civil conversation with them. I think something good could come of it.

    • mason

      Maura Hart, Like you, I was also badly burned by religious nonsense. But while we’re tossing about “oughts” you might consider the fact that it required exceptional intellectual courage for Andy to move from superstitious belief to a life of reason. You ought to consider he has been very forthcoming and regretful for his actions as a religious fundamentalist in his answers. Maybe you ought to reach a little deeper and uncover some heart in Hart. You write about gays being driven to suicide by hatred, and indeed this has happened. It happened to my best friend’s cousin. So are you now attempting to use hatred in an attempt to hurt, injure, or destroy Andy, who has completely changed his belief and self actualization? How about a greater sense of reason, and heart Maura?

    • Jim Jones

      Delusion is popular and powerful. Few if any of us are free of it.

      62,979,879 Americans thought that Donald Trump would make a fine president, better than any woman.

      • Maura Hart

        And see what happened? Altho they ate not deluded , they are happy racists

  • Maura Hart

    did that first guy kill his wife after he advised her to stay?

    • ElizabetB.

      Thanks, Maura… I hear you, not to forget or gloss over the pain we cause. I am wondering whether you think processes like Truth & Reconciliation programs help? …..I think too about these leaders who were victims too, of indoctrination from childhood that brought them painful regret after breaking free…. Do you see a time that they can begin to forgive themselves because at that time they “know not what they do”?

      • Maura Hart

        Well, I guess forgiveness is up to zombie jeebus. Will it remove the razor scars from my wrist? Will it loosen the noose from my friends neck?

        • ElizabetB.

          Maybe sometimes the only response can be lament — mutual lament for the evil visited on both, recognizing the comparative depths of harm in the individual cases ….and maybe like “Andy” here, using the anger and regret to fuel work to obliterate those harms for others. I’m so sorry for the suffering you bear. Maybe R.D. can be part of the support network….

  • mason

    Andy, Your first line is a powerful keeper: “Life opens to us when we leave God out of the equation.”

    That is so true, for those who have the fortitude to boot the non-existent deity out of the door, out of the equation, and out of their life. It can take some time and transition to understand how the new equation functions, solves, and resolves all the events of life, but after 46 years with the Godless equation … what a wonderful life. I shudder when I think I might have not made the change.

    …. “my interest in all things scientific has exploded (particularly biology, geology and paleontology). If I regret anything, it is the lost opportunity to explore other career fields that are now of greater interest to me than religion.”

    I and hundreds of others on The Clergy Project share that regret. I often offer a heartfelt thought of thanks to the Internet & Google, as it has allowed me to play catch-up and explore most of the sciences at a cursory layman level, especially astronomy, neurology, microbiology, evolution-DNA etc etc.

    Thanks for sharing your candid responses Andy.

    • Andy

      Thank you Mason; you obviously understand the struggle and then the freedom!

      Isn’t science great?!

      Much appreciated, friend

      • mason

        Yep, sure do bro, … and yes science (it’s real by golly) is. :)

    • ctcss

      “Life opens to us when we leave God out of the equation.”

      For myself, I’d rather say “Life can open to us when we leave [an unhelpful concept of] God out of the equation [and replace it with a more helpful one].”

      Mason, there are lots of conceptual notions about God out there, just as there are lots of conceptual notions about government out there. If one chooses a more helpful concept, there is no reason it wouldn’t be a benefit. Personally, I would find my life to be a lot poorer without the concept of God I was taught. People need to remember that they have a right (heck, and a responsibility!) to make a reasoned and thoughtful choice as to what path would be most helpful to them, whether it be a religious or a non-religious pathway.

      “my interest in all things scientific has exploded (particularly
      biology, geology and paleontology). If I regret anything, it is the lost
      opportunity to explore other career fields that are now of greater
      interest to me than religion.”

      Conceptually speaking, this seems to imply a false choice. One can be religious and have no problem with science. Religion and material science speak to very different areas of thought. Thus, for example, I could study ancient languages, and practice needlepoint, as well as study astronomy without any of them interfering with one another despite the fact that they focus on differing areas of endeavor. Religion and science does not have to be an either/or kind of thing.

      • Andy

        If by religion you mean the organized effort of humans to relieve suffering, I agree. If it’s discerning the will of ‘God’, I see it as being destructive to scientific inquiry–e.g., Scopes trial, etc.

      • carolyntclark

        I’m with him ↓
        “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance.”
        ― Neil deGrasse Tyson

        • alwayspuzzled

          “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance.”

          Depending on the model used, about 90% of the universe is dark energy and dark matter. That is a hell of a lot of scientific fudge.

      • mason

        “Personally, I would find my life to be a lot poorer without the concept of God I was taught.”

        So are you going to share the concept of “God” you were taught?

        If you have never lived, created, or developed a Godless life, how could you possibly know your life would be a lot poorer? That’s pure bias confirmation speculation. Have you done a double blind study on yourself? :)

        “Religion and material science speak to very different areas of thought.” Huge false equivalency ctcss.

        Thought? That’s using the term in the most promiscuous fashion. Science requires and demands evidence and independent confirmation from many sources about and thoughts, ideas, or theories. Religion says, “Hey go ahead and believe any damn irrational myth or fantasy you want to and treat it as factual.”

  • Jim Jones

    > Even in the church … many people seem to be functional atheists [whose] relationship to God seems to be mediated through … rites like baptism and roles like pastor or priest.

    So they’re almost back to being ancient Egyptians or other ancient peoples!

  • See Noevo

    “Accordingly, my interest in all things scientific has exploded (particularly
    biology, geology and paleontology). If I regret anything, it is the lost
    opportunity to explore other career fields that are now of greater interest to
    me than religion…If I were younger and preparing for a career, I’d leave the
    church and pursue a discipline more relevant to human life.”

    Which particular aspects, if any, of geology and paleontology would you find
    more relevant to human life?

    • Andy

      An appreciation for the relativity of human existence, and thus pure humility. We are not separate beings in the universe; the universe is in us.

      • See Noevo

        Everyone, even non-PhDs, knows the earth and plants and
        animals exist.

        How would studying rocks, and plant/animal remains in rocks,
        increase your appreciation for the relativity of human existence?

        By “relativity of human existence”, do you mean humans are
        no more important than rocks, and plants, and animals?

        • Andy

          I mean only that we are made of the same ‘stuff’ that the universe is made of. The words ‘ more important’ reflect a value judgment that isn’t relevant. Things just are. I would say this about us: In humankind, the atomic world has reached self-consciousness, and as such, we have an even ‘more important’–if I use those words–role as responsible agents in the care of nature. Hence science.

          • See Noevo

            “… and as such, we have an even ‘more important’–if I use those words–role as…”

            No, you may not use those words.

            At least not if you want to be logically consistent.

          • Andy

            You are so right!! Thanks

        • mason

          In the big scope of reality, yep, …no more important than a single quark or electron. :)

          Our importance resides with self, family, friends, pets acquaintances, and the tax collector. We are the apex predator on this planet and do both wonderful and despicable things, but in the big picture … we won’t even be a faintness of remembrance; less than the shadow of a bee’s wing. And that’s our everlasting peace; recirculated in the chaos, creation, and destruction of our Universe. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7df3fd069e929a56ccb422a9c7c2dd2f170de4a2d9f4b4082f9704d384386f93.jpg

          • See Noevo

            The Muslims may replace Mason & his Minions with Mud.

            No big deal. Mud’s just as meritorious.
            In the big picture.

          • mason

            I’ll certainly be replaced. As for my minions; pure myth

          • Andy

            Love it! The main character in one of Camus’ novels stands naked before what he calls ‘the benign indifference of the universe’!! I love the image of atomic recirculation! Thanks.

  • DanH

    Best summation I have seen please watch it all.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhD0hbGEDSU

    • ElizabetB.

      Interesting! reminds me of process theology, except that in p.t., seems like the universe doesn’t exactly “know what it’s doing” — there’s genuine uncertainty, and free decisions. Glad to learn about Babylon 5!

  • Mark Rutledge

    Thanks Andy for such a great article. Your conclusions mirror many of my own except I had a much easier and luckier path getting there then you did. One of my teachers used to say that guilt is the flatulence of conscience– get rid of it!

  • Maine_Skeptic

    I’m starting to wonder if the first sign a pastor is no longer a Christian is that he or she is “exclusively focused on charity—addressing the concrete needs of our community (food, clothing, etc.), and justice—addressing
    the underlying, structural causes that make charity necessary in the
    first place (unjust laws that make and keep people poor and homeless).”

    It’s kind of ironic, because the traditional Enlightenment-valued Christian focus on charity and justice is the reason the word “Christian” is treated in our culture as synonymous with “good.” Meanwhile, it’s the most zealous Christians in our culture who insist that taking care of the poor and sick is “coddling them,” and “real love” means trying to make them feel guilty and afraid all the time.

    As I was going through my deconversion, it was eye-opening for me when I realized it was always the moderate and liberal churches who were actually out caring for the sick, feeding the poor, and comforting victims of injustice. While some conservative churches also do that kind of work, they tend to do it primarily as a bait-and-switch tactic to recruit converts. The “love” they show is always with hooks attached, and once the barbs sink in, “love” is replaced with spiritual blackmail.

    • ElizabetB.

      Whew Strong words. Great points.

      Yesterday I happened across this clip from Franklin Graham saying ” ‘I’m a progressive’ is just another word for ‘I’m an atheist.’ ”

      When NAACP activist Rev. Dr. Wm Barber heard Graham’s announcement that he was going to ‘preach the gospel’ at the NC state capitol, he said, “The question is, Is that gospel going to sound like Jesus?”

      There are sure radically different ways to read the bible — stark contrast in this “Rev. Graham vs. Rev. Barber | Are All Progressives Really Atheists?”
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjdxe4yfxB8

      Thanks for the thoughtfulness

    • Doubting Thomas

      There is a wonderful irony in the idea that a person’s religiosity is inversely proportionate to the amount of good things they do.

      “I could tell our pastor had become an atheist by all the charity work he was doing.”