Editor’s Note: Unlike those who have responded so far to the “guilt” questions, this Clergy Project member was a seminary professor, not a pastor. It hasn’t been easy since he left his faculty position, but he feels sure he’s done the right thing by being open about his change in beliefs. Confiding in an understanding wife helped a lot, too.
By Brandon G. Withrow
1. What are some of the things you regret, if any, about keeping your job in a religious setting after you no longer believed?
I was a seminary professor teaching history and not a member of the clergy, but once I settled on what my identity should be (i.e., a nonbeliever), I tried to avoid waiting too long to give my notice. I believed that since the community was by nature religious that I needed to do the right thing and respectfully extricate myself. While I didn’t try to shoot myself in the foot and drop out the next day, I did try to give my employer a reasonable notice and make the transition as smooth as possible for the school. I had no desire to disrupt the community.
If I have any regrets, it was in not resolving things sooner for myself, particularly to firmly establish a new trajectory for life. There is a period of reorienting one’s life after leaving the church behind that takes a while, particularly in figuring out who you are without something that has been such a large part of your life.
2. 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-believer?
My immediate family has been relatively respectful. I’ve had conversations with some of them, while others have let it go. A few understand where I’m at and a few don’t (“He’s mad at God,” etc.). And only a couple extended family members have been obnoxious about it. Some older friends are more distant, but that is normal for any situation when what you share with friends changes. I’ve left the church, but my community of family and friends remain religious.
I’ve gained a bigger perspective on just how much of American culture is oriented toward faith. I mean, I was a professor teaching in a seminary and adjuncting in religious studies, so I knew this was the case. But I really didn’t feel it as much as I do now. You get a real sense for how much religious privilege there is in American culture, especially for Christianity, and how that affects broader representation in areas like government. Much of American politics is religious theater, and it is effective in getting theocrats elected.
You begin to realize that your worldview is not on top of the cultural food chain and that legislated theology is only an election away.
3. What advantages, to yourself or to society, have you seen since leaving?
Besides getting my Sunday mornings back for the first time since I was four years old? I feel that it is important for secular humanists with a history like mine—raised a pastor’s kid, a graduate of Christian schools, and a former seminary professor—to be publicly out. It has given me the freedom to be myself; it also says to others like me that it is okay to not be convinced of a faith.
Most of us have the essence of our religious identities given to us from childhood. It should not be a surprise when citizens identify as Christian or Muslim in cultures and countries that also identify one way or the other. And because life is like this, it feels as right to be of a faith in a culture as it does to speak one’s native language. I want a world where individuals are able to exist and then seek the essence of their own identity for themselves.
4. What was it like the first time you taught a class after you’d realized you were no longer a believer?
I don’t remember the first time I spoke in my faith context without belief; it was a process. I did know that I was shifting in my worldview. At one time, while I was working out a complicated theological response to a scientific question, I stopped typing my notes and thought,
“Now I’m just making shit up.”
I typed in a fresh file something like,
“I may be a deist, atheist, or agnostic”
I saved it, and walked away.
After that, I remember hearing Christians talk about theology, ministers preach, and colleagues pray, and feeling like I was an outsider—like an anthropologist studying a culture. It suddenly felt like I woke up in the middle of a dream. It was disorienting in that way.
That happens all the time in a variety of conversations. When I hear Christians give God praise for miraculously saving a person’s life in a horrible disaster where thousands died, I want to respond. After all, if saving a life is proof he’s a good God, why doesn’t killing thousands work as evidence in the other direction? And if the death of thousands doesn’t work to say that God is not good (or doesn’t exist), how can one say that saving one life does prove he’s good? At that point the evidence is meaningless. So I want to say that and other things (a lot), but I frequently don’t for various conversationally contextual reasons.
But I’m practiced at holding back. I lost track of how frequently I heard Christian students in seminary talk about their faith with such certitude, all the while admitting they had never read the Bible from cover to cover or without being able to explain basic Christian doctrines without running into what was historically considered heresy. At some point there are just better things to do with your life than correcting everything.
It isn’t, though, that I don’t challenge people or try to have these discussions. I do it more formally or in the appropriate circumstances; I have a big writing project in this area right now, in fact. But I do realize that there is just more to life and for every rabbit trail debate I engage in, I’m possibly missing out on something amazing in the world that could have my attention.
Also, I think I even still hear the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:14 to “shake the dust off your feet” and move on—just, obviously, without the eternal damnation that follows in verse 15.
6. Who was the first person you told you no longer believed, if that’s already happened, and how did conversation go?
I told my spouse—the one person with whom I share everything. Though I would say that because we talk about everything, it wasn’t a revelation to her, just a resolution on my part. We have always talked about big things—science, philosophy, theology, politics, etc.—and have worked out our journeys as partners. As the German poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke says,
“Love…consists of two solitudes, which border, protect, and greet each other.”
There are many other first conversations in this area, and each goes differently. When you decide to write about these things in The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Guardian, as I did, it is hard to avoid having some conversations. I’ve heard things like,
“You may not believe in God, but he still believes in you”
“Do you mind if I keep praying for you?”
I try to acknowledge the general spirit in which a comment is intended.
I also try to remember that for some people I’m the only person that they know who considers himself a non-theist, and that is a new thing for them too. So I gave myself time to figure it out, I should probably allow that for others.
Bio: Brandon G. Withrow, a member of The Clergy Project, is a freelance journalist, adjunct lecturer in religious studies at The University of Findlay, and the author of nine books, his most-recent (co-authored with Menachem Wecker) is Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education. He blogs on science and all things related to curiosity at thecuriousape.com. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The Religion News Service, The Guardian, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and On Faith. Book and author information may be found at www.brandonwithrow.com.
>>>>Photo Credits: By Hugo van der Goes – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=151819