Seminary Professor Handles the Guilt of Non-Belief

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.

Religious Theatre Nativity scene

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.

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

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”

and

“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.

================

Brandon WithrowBio: 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

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  • Maine_Skeptic

    “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.”

    For what it’s worth, I agree. Thanks for sharing this and thanks for the other writing you do.

    You were raised as a conservative Christian, went to a conservative seminary, and were hired as a professor at a conservative seminary. Despite having more indoctrination than 99.99% of Christians, you still walked away. Why do you think you left, but so many other professors don’t do so? I would expect seminary professors to have a higher degree of cognitive dissonance than most pastors, given that your work would more frequently bring you face to face with religion’s logical flaws.

    • http://www.discardedimage.com Brandon Withrow

      Thanks for the question. I’m guessing there are many reasons others don’t leave. When one’s income is dependent on not seeing something, that can make it happen. I think that family and community, and the fear of losing them, are other factors. I’ve met faculty who are actually skeptical of their faith, but resolve that dissonance using “mystery of the faith” type thinking. There are those that I know who dismiss so much of what is in the Bible as ancient thinking, but remain Christians because “they worship God, not the Bible.”

      I’ve learned to not underestimate the power of confirmation bias. We see what we want or need to see. It is often not an intent to deceive others, as much as it is that the human brain finds a way for us to accept what we cannot imagine being without regardless of what is clearly before us. This is true for any human being, religious or not.

      For me, I think my curiosity—I read widely—pushed me to keep testing life and how I thought things were. Not only had the Bible contradicted those things for which there was clear evidence, but other issues came into play for me, including philosophical and moral difficulties I had with Christianity and other faiths. I’m just not the kind of guy who can be in constant denial and had to move on.

      • Linda_LaScola

        I’d say “all of the above” and then some. People do what they have to do — it could be what comes naturally because of their personality. It could be based on financial/social/family issues,

        You felt it required a level of denial that you couldn’t handle, but another person might have found a different way to finesse it. One huge over-arching issue is the society we all live in, which still pushes people to religious faith and social conformity. That’s changing and people like you, Brandon, and other “out” members of The Clergy Project are making it happen.

        Also, active non-believing clergy are having an impact. Consider Andy, the very liberal UCC pastor who recently posted here http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rationaldoubt/2017/06/curious-guilt-formerly-fundamentalism-now-progressive-pastor/. His congregation welcomes all and focuses on social justice issues.

        • http://www.discardedimage.com Brandon Withrow

          I definitely have discovered that each person brings to the idea of religion their own rationale for it and so the reason they stay or leave is built on how helpful that rationale continues to be.

      • Maine_Skeptic

        “I’ve learned to not underestimate the power of confirmation bias.”

        Preach, bro. I don’t know if our species will survive its own coping mechanisms.

        “I’m just not the kind of guy who can be in constant denial and had to move on.”

        So for you, the skepticism was hard-wired? If you had superpowers of denial and could unsee the cracks in the wall, would you have been tempted to do so?

        • http://www.discardedimage.com Brandon Withrow

          I think I was always questioning where I was in relationship to evidence. I moved from highly conservative Christianity to a liberal one over the years for that reason, from creationism to actual science, etc. The conservative connections I managed to keep were for varying reasons, though I kept moving. So skepticism was in me, yeah. I think that I stayed in the faith because, as I see with many educated individuals, I had an advantage of knowing how to to reimagine my faith for new situations. And because it felt like real progress, I stayed longer. But because I’m ultimately a questioning person, I eventually ran out of the ability to remodel my faith. Kinda like a car, you can repair it and repair it, but eventually it needs to be retired.

          • Maine_Skeptic

            That makes a lot of sense, and it’s clearly not the first time you’ve thought about it.

            I’ve reached the point where it seems “normal” for people get caught up in herd reasoning, and it doesn’t surprise me that much any more. Even the election of president 45 wasn’t a shock as much as a disappointment. What piques my curiosity now is the question of why sometimes we DON’T do that. And what’s the best way of appealing to that fearless honesty in other people?

            The first time I made a costly choice to put facts over faith, I was surprised I’d done so. It hadn’t seemed like the sort of thing I would do. Nor do I think anyone on the outside looking in would have guessed it was coming. I wasn’t angry or scared. I just wasn’t going to go along any further.

    • mason

      That’s the billion dollar question I ask myself many times. I keep coming up with; they lack enough intellectual courage to pursue whatever curiosity and questions they possess. Of course I think there are thousands who are so entangled in the theistic Third Reich that they can’t even imagine not wearing the uniform. Any other ideas?

      • Maine_Skeptic

        I notice that both you and Brandon mention curiosity in your responses. You mention “intellectual courage,” which is a phrase I’ll probably borrow, because it takes into account that intellect itself isn’t lacking among believers. I know very intelligent believers who simply employ their intellect and education in covering up holes in their world view.

        Wouldn’t it be funny if cognitive science someday determined that “curiosity” was actually just a low tolerance for cognitive dissonance? We’re tempted to think of it as courage to look at problems head on, but maybe it’s just that we have no choice.

        Did you feel that you had a choice? Could you have decided not to see that something wasn’t right?

  • viaten

    Thanks for your story. It’s always interesting to hear how different believers find their way out of faith.

    There is one little thing you mentioned that always gets me when I hear it. Perhaps you can explain why some believers say this and what they think it means.

    “You may not believe in God, but [God] still believes in you”

    It seems so contrived. People who say it seem to think they are making a point without understanding how pointless it is. It’s not unlike church signs that try to be clever for the sake of being clever. It reminds me of sayings like “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” or “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”, or “Control your anger before your anger controls you”, but at least those sayings make some sense.

    Why does God have to have belief in anything or even hope for anything? Doesn’t he know who his “true” believers are and aren’t, who will and won’t be truly believing just before they die?

    I’ve heard of parents saying to their kids, “I believe in you” to encourage them in different situations but I wonder what kind of pressure that puts on kids (or what they take it to mean). I’ve even heard of bosses using lines like that in pep talks (“We just know you can make the deadline”) to motivate (pressure?) employees. I get the impression that saying “God still believes in you” might be an attempt to do something similar. But I can’t see God saying to someone in the afterlife, “I was believing in you and you let me down.”

    • http://www.discardedimage.com Brandon Withrow

      Yeah, I totally get what you mean. It is a “first will be last” kind of thing. I believe it is also intended to be encouraging, as in saying, “I still love you and so does God” or, “we all have our doubts, but faith will eventually prevail.” I think that is the case, but it can sound trite. But yes, I’m not sure an all-knowing God can believe in something (or even be curious about anything). That being, at least in a large portion of Christian traditions who hold to that form of God, knows everything and how it will turn out. I was told that, however, a surprising number of times.

    • Jim Jones

      > “You may not believe in God, but [God] still believes in you”

      “Define ‘god’.”

  • ElizabetB.

    Great to have an update! After your earlier post have enjoyed your tweets & look forward to the book project!!

    That touches on science/religion relationships, I think? ….A question that’s been growing for me as I’ve started listening to process theologians (Homebrewed Christianity, etc) is to wonder why many of them, who as a group are very keen on science and all the ‘-ologies,’ use the word “god” to name things that are going on in the universe/s — like Catherine Keller’s “the relation to all that is.” In college I enjoyed reading Whitehead. I’m wondering whether some use the term “god” just to be in that general tradition? …. maybe to avoid being ‘non-theist’ or ‘atheist’? Have you explored process & developed any perspectives on it? Or do I wait for the book!

    Enjoy the clarity of your writing & thought
    Thanks for your work!

    • http://www.discardedimage.com Brandon Withrow

      Good question. First, yes, the book does look at curiosity’s place in science and religion.

      As for process: I can’t say I know the motivations of those who tend that way, but use the vocabulary of confessional Christianity. I did consider process theology at one point, but I felt that it ran into similar issues (and different) that I saw with panentheism and pantheism, which I also considered. I do understand the appeal of it though. I (at this point) do very briefly mention in the book (which does discuss science) things like pantheism and panentheism, but not process. When/if the book gets published you’ll probably see why that is the case.

      Thanks for following me on Twitter.

      • ElizabetB.

        That’s what I mean about clarity of expression — I couldn’t figure out how to say “but use the vocabulary of confessional Christianity.” Thank you!! Your brief use in these comments was effective I thought: “It was like a light came on that couldn’t be turned off or even being born again. : )” As someone steeped in Christian language, that really helps me get your meaning.

        About electing theocrats — back in the 70’s I heard a speaker say about Israel/Palestine, but it seems pretty universal: ‘What they want is a theocracy — & they all want to be theo” : )

        Thx too for the Curious Ape reminder — the titles look super! that will help with waiting for the book, & seeing how pan(en)theism fits in there. Tweets… my pleasure!! I’d never have known about the Philosophy Force Five & met Existential Comics : ) Too sad to contemplate

        All the best!

        • http://www.discardedimage.com Brandon Withrow

          Thanks. Glad this has been helpful. :)

      • ctcss

        the book does look at curiosity’s place in science and religion.

        When you are referring to being curious, are you excluding the possibility of curiosity being successfully applied to religion? While I can easily concede that an approach to religion that is based largely on belief might find curiosity less than helpful, I don’t see why curiosity would be deal-killer for an approach to religion that is based on practice and exploration (i.e. making the effort to live it and learn what it is all about).

        Ideally, religion should present a non-trivial subject area to explore, otherwise why bother? And given that it likely focuses on something beyond, or rather different from, the ordinary and everyday, it could easily take a lifetime or more to adequately perform such exploration, assuming that one doesn’t run into a brick wall early on. And even if one does encounter such a brick wall, that doesn’t necessarily kill the need for further exploration of religion. It simply may mean that one religious approach (i.e. a failed hypothesis) may need to be discarded and replaced with a different religious approach that hopefully lacks such a brick wall.

        The point being, an in depth exercise of practice and exploration brings with it a demand for an overriding interest combined with a commensurate commitment, whether the non-trivial subject being explored is one’s marriage to another person, raising a child, climbing a mountain, embarking on a journey to explore Mars, or seriously delving into one’s religion. Basically, it calls for having skin in the game along with having one’s head in the game. Walking away is normally not on the short list of options when both interest and commitment are high. (Think Lewis and Clark, the Wright brothers, Edison, the Apostles, etc.)

        And the thing is, this boils down to making a choice of what path to explore because basically, all paths do not head in the same direction unless they are very closely aligned in the first place. One is not likely to be able to embark on a lifetime space flight to Alpha Centauri and also to be an involved, physically present parent back on Earth. Religion does not go in the same direction (or focus on the same things) as physical science, nor does physical science focus on or go in the same direction as religion. Physics and metaphysics are not closely aligned. If they were, the question of the existence of God would be readily answered.

        IMO, both types of paths are valid areas to devote serious, thoughtful exploration to, but are not likely to be undertaken by the same person because of the need to devote the required resources.

        My 2 cents.

        • http://www.discardedimage.com Brandon Withrow

          Thanks for the input. Not sure I’m getting everything you’re saying, but I can say that I actually do see both religion and science as driven in part by curiosity. The results differ based on accepted sources of truth, an individual’s personal biases, and the power of social influences, etc. Depending on where that curiosity takes an individual the results re: faith likely will be different from person to person. This is why it never surprises me to find religious individuals in science or new religious perspectives applied to scientific conversation. I think the discussion is more complicated when one zooms in on the personal level to ask why an individual pursues answers or not in life. But curiosity is largely behind the rise of religious answers.

        • ElizabetB.

          Thanks for asking about curiosity, ctcss!!! ….I was curious : ) about it too but didn’t want to take up more bandwidth than I already had. Thx!!

  • http://preachermansecrets.blogspot.com Stan Bennett

    Hi Brandon, I appreciated reading about your journey.

    When I went to seminary, I got the feeling that several professors no longer believed… which stands to reason as they are in the field of critical study. Did you have any colleagues who struggled as you did? Did any of them come to you privately and say, “Me too?”

    • http://www.discardedimage.com Brandon Withrow

      I did talk with some colleagues at other institutions who approached me about their doubts after my initial articles in The Chronicle and The Guardian. But most were not to the point of saying they no longer believed, as much as they were willing to acknowledge that the more you know, the harder it is. In private that openness was stronger as was discussion of fears of what it meant for keeping their children with a roof over their head and with health insurance if they did leave Christianity. I had also relatively recently (to that time) published a book on the problems of academic freedom in religious higher education. There is little recourse (internally and legally) for professors who change their minds in many Christian institutions.

  • Jim Jones

    > It suddenly felt like I woke up in the middle of a dream. It was disorienting in that way.

    Once the brain starts working it’s like an ice dam melting. Nothing can stop it – it’s like a cascade.

    • http://www.discardedimage.com Brandon Withrow

      For me, I remember originally trying to describe it using the religious language I knew. It was like a light came on that couldn’t be turned off, or even being born again. :) And yes, once I was willing to accept the reality of what I saw, it was everywhere. In this case, the ice melting is sounds about right.

      • Pofarmer

        And everything is just – different, at least it was for me. Things made sense……

  • mason

    Well done mate! A pleasure to read such succinct writing. All answers provided clear yet precise exposition. My two favorite lines;

    1. “Besides getting my Sunday mornings back for the first time since I was four years old?” I sure hear ya on that one. I’ve calculated (very conservatively) just the wasted Sun & Wed hours at 5,408, … 32 full weeks of time in church; time that could have been so much better spent!

    2. “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.”

    We actually went canvassing the neighborhood near our Baptist church when I was 14 and we were instructed to do the foot dusting curse thing if we weren’t well received. We did it after one elderly man said bluntly, “No thanks, not interested!” we then performed the Christian foot dust curse and he got pissed, threw open the door, and screamed at us, “Get the hell off my property assholes!” I always remembered his indignation, and after I became an atheist would have liked to apologize, and also thank him for shaking us up but he was certainly dead by then.

    • Maine_Skeptic

      “We actually went canvassing the neighborhood near our Baptist church when I was 14 and we were instructed to do the foot dusting curse thing if we weren’t well received.”

      Evangelism Explosion, by any chance?

      • mason

        I think it was just a case of rudeness, disrespect, and ignorance fueled by dangerous irrational explosive belief. :(

        • Maine_Skeptic

          Ah. The timing may have been off, but in my youth, Evangelism Explosion had Baptist youth ganging up and appearing on the doorsteps of the heathen to lead them to Jesus.

          • mason

            Thanks, I hadn’t heard the term before. Seems like we’re still just one tyrant and a few laws from a new Inquisition.

    • http://www.discardedimage.com Brandon Withrow

      Thanks.

      Evangelicalism always felt awkward to me. I mean, I did it because I thought I was supposed to, but it always felt intrusive. I had moments of being yelled at as well.

      • mason

        Guess I was lucky only got yelled at once. Then again, maybe more push back would have helped to wake me from the delusional slumber. :)

    • Ingeborg Nordén

      Matthew 10:14 — my favorite Bible reference when some fanatical preacher won’t take no for an answer. (The guy is welcome to think we’ll spend eternity on fire in a lake of molten sulfur, but he’s got no reliable proof!)

  • Pofarmer

    “that legislated theology is only an election away.””

    This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. My home state of MO has gotten horrible about it. Now, what do we do about it.

    • ctcss

      Basically, handle it as each item comes up. Trump felt that he could just issue an imperious and heartless edict declaring Muslims to be unacceptable visitors, but quick action by some states, some clear thinking by the courts, and Trump’s own ineptness in expressing what seems to be in his heart of hearts exposed those edicts for what they actually were.

      The 1st amendment is a wonderful protection for our country whether one is for religion or not. If a well-crafted suit is brought to bear on a law that is constitutionally illegal, it will eventually be seen for what it is and disallowed.