Only Human

Only Human June 25, 2018

Editor’s Note:  Here’s a first post by another recent Clergy Project member referred to the blog by Mason Lane.  Everyone’s story is unique, of course, but this guy takes the cake – and took his whole leadership team with him when he left religious belief.  We’re going to want more detail, but this is a good start.

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

By “Fresh LA”
I’m only human; what a statement in the making. As much as the masses pulled on me to be their sidewalk prophet, a headline prognosticator or a lowercase messiah delivering them from clear and present dangers, I could only ever manage to be me – only human.

Almost three decades ago, the small mid-western church I attended saw the future in me. They raised me up and held me in the sun of all their hopes. It was an obvious precursor to the iconic scene in Disney’s hit movie The Lion King with King Mufasa and his son Simba.

In the years to follow, I rose high, and like Simba, I bore the weight of the crown, traveling coast to coast and then to the nations, forging alliances with evangelical power-brokers from DC to Colorado Springs. In religious circles, they transcended Disney’s cartoon characters to a Greek demigod-like status. But, in the end, they proved to be only human, and I proved I too was only human.

However, unlike the mythological Icarus with his wax and feather wings, I didn’t experience a lethal fall.

There were plenty of hot trials to cause such a deathly descent — the fall of friends collapsing under the weight of their own headlines (i.e. Ted Haggard), the occasional death threats from deranged believers, the constant grind of ministry or the sudden death of my daughter. None of these things melted the wax holding together my “higher calling” and sacred beliefs. No, it was a small, laser-focused rational thought.

What was it? Well, like a hazy spiritual-experience, I can’t really say for certain.

It happened one early morning, or it may have been late at night. It could have been while I was pacing the floor of my small pastoral office in the northeast, or while backpacking on India’s northern border with Pakistan.

I can’t remember.

One thing is for certain, it probably wasn’t the first time I had thought it, but definitely this time, I could no longer resist. After almost 30 years, I was worn down enough to finally let it linger and burn.

The first feather to break away was Original Sin, then Biblical Inerrancy, followed by Substitutional Atonement, Eternal Estates and the Second Coming. One by one, every angelic feather that gave my belief lift, broke away from the dogmatic strength of my arms. Grasping at air, I fell. But unlike Icarus. I fortunately drifted downward to a soft landing on my backyard patio surrounded by family, friends and my ministerial staff.

Together, we talked. Frequently, our honest and vulnerable conversation lasted late into the night. We rehearsed our individual descents into humanity with no topic out of bounds. No longer were we evangelical demigods trying to manifest the divine. We were just us, featherless and crownless. We talked about everything from movies, music, headlines, science, religion and memories. And here in this hot jungle of animated thoughts and emotions, it was decided: Icarus has fallen, and Mufasa is dead.

The conclusion to my current story is as follows: Myself, along with my wife and entire church leadership, de-converted. We decided, rather than destroy the thriving church we had built together, the middle path of doing no harm would be the best approach. Undoubtably, the Buddha would be proud. Quietly, over three years, we worked ourselves out of our jobs and found gainful employment. Today, I am happy to just be human with no one putting their faith, blame or crowns on me. It’s enough to just be authentic; to be real in the now, no longer a lowercase messiah, headline prophet or evangelical demigod – just me. I’m only human after all.

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

Bio: “Fresh LA”is a child of the 70s who grew up northeast of St. Louis, MO. His life journey involved a two-century old family farm, a mid-west bible college, almost 30 years of church planting in the northeast and responsibilities as a professional evangelical adviser, nationally and abroad. These days, he’s content to work as a project manager by day, and at night, blog about his past and present experiences as a human, nothing more and nothing less. To learn more, visit http://www.freshLA.me.

>>>>>>By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25659874   :   By Jacob Peter Gowy – Icarus http://www.museodelprado.es/imagen/alta_resolucion/P01540_01.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27493281

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  • alwayspuzzled

    It is interesting that personal testimonials are an important part of both the “saved by Jesus” experience and the “saved from Jesus” experience. Perhaps the same psychological foundation supports both atheism and theism.

    • Linda_LaScola

      I’d say both groups want people to know what they’ve been through — and people want to hear about it.

      It’s a phenomenon that applies to many aspects of life. Think of all the people who like to talk about their travels — and those who enjoy hearing about them.

      And exciting experiences, and heroic acts and close calls, etc. etc.

      • alwayspuzzled

        The examples you site are mostly for entertainment.
        Personal testimonials are about membership in the tribe. The person giving the testimonial is affirming his/her emotional investment in the tribe and his/her loyalty to the tribe. For someone already in the tribe, the testimonial confirms that her/his emotional investment in the tribe is fully justified.

        • Linda_LaScola

          I could give a testimonial about the benefits of growing up in Pennsylvania, or studying in Spain, or working on a tobacco farm, or conducting research with non-beieving clergy, or being raised catholic.

          All involve some tribal influences. Some people listening would be entertained, others interested, others inspired, some bored, some fascinated.

          • Lerk!

            I don’t completely disagree with you, alwayspuzzled, but what Linda adds here is important. The word “tribal” implies a really strong connection, the emotional investment you speak of. But the emotional investment in the deconversion story is in the leaving, not in a new tribe. Oh, yes, we’re thrilled to find that we’re not alone and find comfort in being able to say to those people “hey, me too!” It may be hard for you to understand, though, that we don’t feel like we’ve joined anything. I didn’t become an atheist — I just don’t believe in gods any more! I quit being a Christian, and that leaves me in the position of being an atheist.

            As some have said, we aren’t defined by something we are not. I’m not a Spaniard, either, and while there is a large set of people in the world who are non-Spaniards, that would only be important to me if I were the only one in the room or else in a very small minority.

            Maybe I’m reading you wrong — maybe you’re a non-believer as well. But it sounds to me like you really don’t comprehend the perspective of a former believer.

          • Otto

            >>>”I didn’t become an atheist”

            This is a great point and I have made it before. When my ‘Aha’ moment happened I went upstairs to talk to my wife, I didn’t say I am now an atheist, I said ‘I am no longer a Christian’. I took on the ‘atheist’ label by default.

    • mason

      Interesting observation alwayspuzzled.

      Humans telling their stories is deeply woven into humanity’s fabric and have been the source of inspiration, entertainment, illustration, love, hatred, divisions, wars and pleading for peace. Personal stories can be incredibly powerful. Christians believe in a story about a zombie. Muslims believe a story about Mohamed riding up in the sky on a winged horse. I’m a story addict and story writer.

      Stories have always been classified as fiction and non-fiction. Theistic religions, especially the fundamentalist brands shamelessly sell, what has now been exposed with the advent of science, fiction as non-fiction. https://skepticsannotatedbible.com/

      Same psychological foundation? I don’t think so, not even similar. Quite antithetical actually.

      The Evangelical believes in and embraces the supernatural; zombies like the risen Jesus and those other zombies who put on a show in Jerusalem after Jesus came back from the dead. I’ll not list more of the myriad of irrational things fervently embraced by Evangelical Jesus believers in the supernatural.

      Atheist only means non-belief in any deity, and there are some atheists who do not believe in any deity but do believe in supernatural phenomena like vampires etc. But the vast majority of atheists are also materialists, rationalist, skeptic who demand rational evidence to believe anything. Evangelicals pride themselves in having faith/belief without any evidence, Hebrews 11:1. Most atheists entirely eschew and reject living or thinking in that manner.

      Atheists and Evangelicals have an entirely different view of our world and the Universe and an opposing mentality when it comes to evidence or what even constitutes evidence. Atheists may like fairy tales and zombie stories, but they don’t believe them. These fundamental differences create completely different psychological foundations.

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7d7717deb3d53e805e576f76ea580779fb1adf8b103795dbf5a143387504ee38.jpg

    • FreshLA

      Thank you for your comment @alwayspuzzled:disqus. I think for me, sharing my story and writing about my experiences, have both proven to be the most honest and authentic thing I do as a writer. At the very least, the vulnerability proves therapeutic for me, and often aides the reader with his/her own personal reflections. Beyond this, I don’t know if I can comment with any great authority concerning the psychological aspect you’ve mentioned. I’m working on a follow-up article that will hopefully spark some additional thoughts and conversation.

    • Otto

      Either way it is a personal paradigm shift and regardless of what is being shifted to or from, people like to explain their change and tell their story.

      I do find it interesting that the “saved by Jesus” stories are often embellished to the point of absurdity.

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rolltodisbelieve/2018/03/04/the-cult-of-before-stories-glenn-hobbs-totally-an-ex-satanist/

      • mason

        LOL … yeah Otto, Hobbs must have taken the Art of Prevarication 101 course at Trump University. Like sociopaths, pathological liars just don’t know when to quit. I wonder if the “Hobbs” name was plagiarized from the movie, “The Natural”, another fantasy story?

        Going from the Satanism Cult into the Jesus zombie cult is certain to ensure absurdity continuity.

        A “saved by Jesus” from a life debauchery was a valuable testimony story in the Baptist culture I was indoctrinated into. Saved from a life of drinking, drugs, gambling, smoking, playing pool and cards etc. was popular but no one ever admitted to having been a rapist, that would have not brought out the fellowship and praise welcome mat.

        I’ve heard some doozie “salvation” stories, but the Hobbs tale gets the Oscar for best fantasy.
        https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/65f2091bad5b7f940e00bd2c1afb957a6da26411cfbd0c9a2346b0eb29c6051f.jpg

        • Lerk!

          When I was in high school (sometime around 1976) I went to a Baptist revival with a friend. The guy giving his “saved by Jeeeeeesus” testimony confessed to having been a police officer! This was in Port Arthur, Texas. You wouldn’t hear a Baptist in that area talking about that as being a sin these days!

      • carolyntclark

        For me, a large part of the enthusiasm for retelling the story is due to the wonderful sense of clarity and freshness brought by discovering the godless universe.
        Even many years after the AHA moment, I’m still celebrating.

        • Otto

          I completely agree, and for me it was the unexpected suddenness of that moment.

          • Lerk!

            I call it a “wait… what?!” moment.

          • Otto

            I definitely thought “well that is over and there is no going back now”. I can only describe it as going through a door and ending up somewhere you did not expect.

      • alwayspuzzled

        The deconversion shift would presumably be from a paradigm that placed high value on emotional investment and group loyalty (as evidence by personal testimonials) to a paradigm that placed high value on the exercise of reason – a rational investment in empirical reality. It is unclear why a rational investment in empirical reality would inspire personal testimonials of a quasi-religious nature.

        • Otto

          It sounds like you are working hard to validate your conclusion.

          • Linda_LaScola

            Gee, I thought Lerk! was going out of his way to be clear, to try to explain it to you. I’m guessing no explanation will suit you.

          • Otto

            I agree with Lerk!….think you hit the wrong button…lol

        • Lerk!

          I don’t know that most people have a testimonial when it comes to becoming a Christian. I certainly didn’t! Most of us were taught it from the time we were toddlers, and we because Christians by going forward at a church service at an age when we began to feel guilt about our feelings. Some people have testimonials about becoming or re-dedicating themselves to Christianity, but I doubt it’s a majority. I “obeyed the Gospel” at age 11. I was never “bad.” I never needed saving from anything real, only from a mythical god about whom the story is that he threatened to send non-believers to a mythical place of torment. Not much of a story there!

          Having said that, the cult of before stories is quite popular among Christians.

          We former believers tell our stories because it was such a huge shift in our lives! We’re just amazed that we believed the mythology for so long! When I personally look back it’s as if I had believed the sky was green for most of my life, finally realizing it’s blue. How in the world could I have ever been so credulous!? Once you realize it’s mythology, you really start to think about why it took so long to realize it and what the things were, whether big or small or even tiny, that pushed you into reality.

          One thing about being able to communicate thoughts via language is that it made the human species a species of storytellers.

          I don’t know that the desire to tell the story has anything to do with the psychological foundation of belief in gods or the realization that there are likely no such things. The story comes after the fact and is just there to describe the shift. If, as you suggest, the “psychological foundation” were the same, the stories would be the same or very similar. Stories about conversion to Christianity (or other religions) are quite different than stories about deconversion.

    • ElizabetB.

      I’d say the underlying similarity is a radical change in worldview — like the story told by Derek Black who grew up in Stormfront and has become an outspoken anti-racist
      https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/22/podcasts/the-daily-transcript-derek-black.html
      Somehow worldviews involve deep emotional attachment….

      • alwayspuzzled

        How does reason fit in? In theory, atheism is a product of the exercise of reason. Reason requires a commitment to objective (as opposed to subjective) reality. (I don’t think this is controversial.) Reason would therefore want to reduce as much as possible the role of emotion, since emotion blurs and distorts our perception of objective reality. (I don’t think this is controversial, either.) One would think then that there would not be much interest among atheists in “saved from Jesus” personal testimonials, since such testimonials have considerable emotional content, purpose, and impact. But there does in fact seem to be a great deal of interest. This is what Daniel Maguire would call being “so busy unbelieving”.

        • ElizabetB.

          Seems like reason can be a factor in changing one’s worldview either way — from theistic to nontheistic OR from nontheistic to theistic. (An inexact example of “to theistic” comes to mind of T S Eliot’s move from Unitarian to Anglo-Catholic.) Either direction, and whether the change happens in a flash or comes after decades of deliberation, seems like emotion usually attends the change. I don’t think of these R.D. stories as being told in order to influence others to “go & do thou likewise” — not motivators, or evidence — but as simple human sharing. For me, one reason : ) I enjoy reading and thinking about them is to see what clues I haven’t thought of…. and as someone who sort of lives in in-between-land, it’s comforting to know others have been there/here

          Yes, Maguire is tough on both theists and nontheists who get hung up on literalistic readings of religion! I need to re-read him!!

          • alwayspuzzled

            “emotion usually attends the change”
            Yes, this seems exactly right.

            What I find interesting is the role of emotion in maintaining and sustaining the new worldview.

            Most of the people who adopt a “saved by Jesus” worldview maintain that view by making a large emotional investment in it, an investment that is repeatedly confirmed and reinforced by their membership in a like-minded community. Since the initiating “saved by Jesus” experience is usually emotionally motivated, it makes sense to maintain this worldview by means of a continuing emotional investment.

            The “saved from Jesus” worldview is, in theory, produced by the force of reason. One would then expect that the force of reason would be sufficient to maintain and sustain that worldview. No emotional investment would be needed. No like-minded community would be needed to repeatedly confirm and reinforce a “saved from Jesus” emotional investment. For many “saved from Jesus” people, this may well be true. And it makes sense.

            But there is one thing that doesn’t make sense. If someone is “saved from Jesus” by the force of reason, they should not need to make an emotional investment in their “saved from Jesus” worldview. Yet some do, and they find venues of like-minded people where their emotional investment in a “saved from Jesus” worldview will be repeatedly confirmed and reinforced. This does not make sense. It suggests that, despite their claims, reason was less important than psychological factors in their change of worldview.

          • ElizabetB.

            Thanks again, Always! ….I can’t quite see how sharing experiences indicates that reason was not a major factor in one’s move from theism to non-theism. I’m thinking of “The Hot Zone” which I read back in the 90’s I think — quite a thriller, describing the efforts to understand viruses like ebola by means of reason. The storytelling did not mean that the tool being used was emotion rather than reason. Why should a new non-theist leave behind the basic human traits of community and sharing?

            It sounds like the storytelling makes you question whether reason actually plays a major part in the move from theism to non-theism. What do you think would be some *psychological* factors that could lead someone from theism to non-theism?

          • alwayspuzzled

            Perhaps I am too cynical.

            On the other hand, we have a president who was elected because he promised to Make America White Again, so I don’t think my cynicism about human nature is totally unjustified.

            Richard Rohr has suggested that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but rather the opposite of faith is the psychological need for certainty. That may not always be the case, but it may be true in some cases.

            Here then is one factor that could turn a theistic worldview into an atheistic worldview. Suppose that someone holds a “saved by Jesus” worldview because, among other things, it satisfies his need for certainty. Then, for whatever cause, he begins to question the dogmatic scaffolding of his “saved by Jesus” worldview, until it no longer provides him the psychological certainty he needs. But he still has a psychological need for certainty. Progressive Christianity, in practice, will not provide certainty, nor will agnosticism. Atheism, then, by default, becomes his supplier of psychological certainty (especially if he is a binary thinker, as many people are) – if he cannot be certain there is a God, then it must be true with certainty that there is not a God. He then makes an emotional investment in his new “saved from Jesus” certainty and finds a venue of like-minded people to confirm and reinforce his new worldview. And now, instead of belonging to a group who congratulate each other on being “spirit-filled”, he belongs to a group who congratulate each other on being “reason-filled”.

          • ElizabetB.

            Thank you, always! I hadn’t thought of that!
            Very *reason*able! ….Seriously, I think that’s a good point to ponder : )
            Very interesting, & Thank you!!

          • ElizabetB.

            That’s such an interesting analysis! Building from it, I am thinking how some distinguish between “a-theists” and “anti-theists,” saying an atheist means someone who does not have belief in a god, whereas an anti-theist means someone who believes there is no god. Within that paradigm, I’d say I’m an agnostic atheist — I don’t believe in a god, but I’m agnostic about the nature of ultimate reality. I just don’t know!

            When you cite the “binary thinkers” who think “if he cannot be certain there is a God, then it must be true with certainty that there is not a God,” maybe it’s the anti-theists you are describing? ….since the if/then doesn’t logically follow (I don’t think!)?

            About the testimonials — it sounds like you’re not questioning the rational basis of someone “saved from Jesus” if they don’t engage in the storytelling. But it sounds like you think that if they gather and tell stories, it can not be just because they enjoy it — it must indicate that their lack of belief in a god or their anti-theistic belief is caused, not by reason, but by psychological factors such as need for certainty. – I think that’s the place I can’t really follow….

            BUT I think that the Rohr /”certainty” hypothesis contains much important perspective and calls for a lot of thought — AND I think this is a great observation: “And now, instead of belonging to a group who congratulate each other on being ‘spirit-filled’, he belongs to a group who congratulate each other on being ‘reason-filled’.” Well put!!

            Many thanks for the thinking!!!

  • mason

    LA, This is the most unusual deconversion story, of many hundreds that I’ve personally. read. And yet, the seminal nature of your group deconversion story has commonality with the majority of individual deconversion accounts; the seed of a seemingly small rational thought.

    We who have made the journey from Evangelical to humanist, atheist, agnostic, rationalist, materialist or whatever, all remember being warned that such thoughts or doubts were Lucifer speaking to us. (Lucifer must travel at the speed of light, he was the Angel of Light, or have an omnipresent quality enabling him to make the rounds to billions of human ears and whisper rational thoughts)

    I’m so happy for you, your wife, children, and friends that you all had the courage to discover that honest questions and discussion unlocks the cage door. Enjoy your beautiful flight with your fellow cage escapees.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/abaf5f88c356ed638706c0b76a24106082de97ccdd85845a699babfe478db82c.jpg

  • Maine_Skeptic

    “…It happened one early morning, or it may have been late at night. It
    could have been while I was pacing the floor of my small pastoral office
    in the northeast, or while backpacking …”

    That probably sounds strange to some people, but I think it’s self-aware of you to admit this. If you’d have asked me in my first year away from my “spiritual covering,” I’d have told you my beliefs came unwound in the six months before I left. But I found a short-term journal I’d forgotten about, in which I outlined the concerns that eventually led to my leaving. The thing is, the journal was written 18 months before I left. I’d actually started figuring things out WAAAY before I left, but in the schizophrenic denial of a doubting believer, I’d stuffed it back into my subconscious and never admitted it to anyone. My emergence resulted from years of quietly arguing with myself.

    As with every emergence story I’ve read on this blog, yours seems almost painfully abridged. That’s not a criticism; I think I understand why. If you told the entire story of, for instance, how an entire group of church leaders could decide to leave at the same time, you’d probably have a book instead of a blog post. I’m glad you’re free.

    • FreshLA

      Abridged…most definitely. My follow up article is posted now – EXIT PLAN. If you click through the link on my bio, you can find a podcast recording on the ABOUT tab. My wife joined me for the discussion and together we did our best to unpack our journey up to this point. I totally identify with your comment: “My emergence resulted from years of quietly arguing with myself.” Yes my friend…it’s good to be free 🙂