Why Can’t I Be Like Everyone Else?

Why Can’t I Be Like Everyone Else? April 8, 2016

Editor’s Note: This Clergy Project member ponders a question that I also pondered while studying non-believing clergy: what makes him different from other clergy? Specifically: why don’t more of them leave, given what many of them learn about the history of religion and the making of the bible? The answers are not easy and maybe the question isn’t even quite right.   It’s an issue well worth pondering, however, and eventual conclusions could have a profound effect on the future of religion. The following is excerpted with permission from a longer post written earlier this year.


By Bruce Gerencser

There are times when I find myself wondering why I cannot be like everyone else. I loved preaching and teaching. I loved helping others. I loved rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty in the work of the ministry. Yet, despite loving these things, they were not enough to keep me in the fold.

Why is it my former colleagues and the students I attended college with are able to continue believing and I am not?

While it would be tempting to say that I am intellectually superior to them, I know this is not the case. It would be easy to dismiss everyone with a wave of the hand and a snide “bunch of illiterate hillbillies” but I know that in doing so I would be painting with too broad a brush (a brush I wish atheists would quit using).

Perhaps there was something wrong with my faith. I have often asked myself this question. Was there something about my Christian experience that was in some way defective? I do not think so. While I certainly can see how someone might — by taking a short look at my life — conclude that the blame for my faithlessness rests solely on my shoulders; but my life, when taken as a whole, reflects that I was one who truly believed in God, Jesus, and the teachings of the Bible. Yet, I am an atheist. While I doubt I will ever fully understand why I cannot be like others, I have come to a few conclusions about the trajectory of my life and how I arrived at where I am today.

I have always valued intellectual pursuit. While I spent many years bouncing from wall to wall within the Evangelical box, even within these constraints I diligently sought to know the truth. This is why I left the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement in the late 1980s. It is also why I became a Calvinist and then later abandoned Calvinism as I embraced more of a works-oriented social gospel. While many of my former colleagues in the ministry have never deviated from the theology they were taught at Midwestern Baptist College and other evangelical institutions, I was unwilling to accept certain beliefs as “truth” just because it was the official doctrine of Midwestern or whatever group I was a part of. Years ago, I attended one of the monthly meetings of the Buckeye Independent Baptist Fellowship. It was a well-attended meeting, and every preacher had on the uniform — suit and tie.


Not I. I wore an ivory-colored sweater. The reason I remember this is because the host of the meeting pointed out the fact that I was wearing a sweater. He found my attire amusing, yet he thought that it was wonderful that I was unwilling to follow the herd’s dress code. Of course, I spent the remainder of the day having uneasy preachers look at me as some sort of liberal compromiser. Closer friends in attendance ribbed me over dressing so casually. I think this story accurately reflects how I viewed life then and still view it today. Unwilling to acquiesce to tribal demands, I forged my own path. Friends and colleagues viewed me as double minded, whereas all I was trying to do is be honest and follow the path wherever it leads. I am, today, still on this path. Who knows where I might yet end up?

**Editor’s Question** Why do you suppose you weren’t like “everyone else” when it came to accepting religion?


bruce gerencser 2015-002Bio: Bruce Gerencser, 58, lives in rural NW Ohio with his wife of 37 years. He and his wife have 6 grown children and 10 grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for 25 years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. He left the ministry in 2005 and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. He is also one of the original members of The Clergy Project, which began in 2011.

>>>>Photo Credits: By Orbitburco12 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37496046

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  • Art_Vandelay

    While it would be tempting to say that I am intellectually superior to them, I know this is not the case.

    Because you have something far more valuable than intellectual superiority. It’s called intellectual honesty. Christianity is a brilliantly-designed maze with enough social engineering tricks to trap you for a lifetime. Some of the most brilliant minds haven’t and never will figure it out. Only until you care more about what is true than what you want to be true can you emancipate yourself from it. That’s not an easy thing for anyone, let alone someone who has invested so much of their life in it.

    • ctcss

      Christianity is a brilliantly-designed maze with enough social engineering tricks to trap you for a lifetime.

      Christianity is not monolithic. I get the felling that you are thinking of something in particular, but it certainly doesn’t sound like the Christianity I was raised in. Nor, for example, would I find it intellectually honest to describe something quiet and thoughtful like Quakerism as being a “brilliantly designed maze”.

      If you’ve got a particular Christian theology in mind that you are critiquing, why not just be forthright about the doctrinal beliefs you have an issue with?

      • Art_Vandelay

        Just because Christians can’t agree on anything and have subsequently invented like 30,000 different denominations, I’m not playing that game. Christianity at it’s core, has to mean something. I get that some sects have watered down their faith so much that it’s not even recognizable but there is still a core there. We are broken, deprived, sinners and in debt to this blood sacrifice that may have occurred in Bronze Age Palestine. This sacrifice of a son from his father who is also him will free us from the reigns of eternal torment and provide us with a blissful immortality as long as…wait for it…we actually believe it’s true.

        If you don’t believe that then quit hiding behind the veil of Christianity.

        • ctcss

          Thanks for your insightful “Then you’re not a True Christian” remarks.

  • wanderer

    I’ve wondered this about myself a lot, it’s good to know I’m not alone in this question.

    • Linda_LaScola

      I think you have a lot of company, but until recently, their voices have been muffled.

  • ThalesThoughts

    **Editor’s Question** Why do you suppose you weren’t like “everyone else” when it came to accepting religion?

    Because I wasn’t raised in any religious belief system and in my childhood the emphasis was on truth and integrity, first and foremost. Mis-representing evidence in order to further my own self-serving goals was pretty much the greatest “sin” I could commit (which I still agree with, it’s about intent). If you limit your beliefs to also require that they never contradict actual evidence, there aren’t many religious doctrines that can pass that bar….

  • alwayspuzzled

    I grew up in Toledo, OH. My father’s family came from the NW rural Ohio area and I spent a lot of time during my summer vacations on my uncle’s farm outside Ottawa. My cousins and I did a lot of wandering across the farmlands and woodlands. It was a great place to learn about paths, especially about paths that never end.
    Some people are on paths that do end – in a particular church or a particular philosophy such as atheism. Sadly, some of these people whose paths have reached their destination feel compelled to claim exclusive validity for their path and their destination.
    Other people are on paths that do not end. Mr. Gerencser seems to be one of those people. I know from my days wandering the farmlands and woodlands that the paths that don’t end are a hell of a lot more fun.

    • mason

      atheism is not a philosophy; merely, and nothing more that a disbelief in any God or Gods

  • Chris J

    It’s funny, I was just telling this story on Disqus’s religion channel.

    I kinda realized I was an atheist just before I would have gone through confirmation. So maybe early teens. I wanted to take seriously the idea that I would be proclaiming my faith and my belief, so I wanted to make sure I honestly believed. So I sat in the pews at church and thought about it, and realized that I didn’t actually truly believe.

    Somehow a childhood of going to church and Sunday school never gave me enough motivation to stay.

    Looking back, the big thing for me was that I never really felt “spiritual” at any point. When I went to church, I felt a bit of awe at the big buildings and impressive architecture (and I still do), but I didn’t feel anything God-like. It’s like a “religion switch” wasn’t flipped on for me. So by the time I sat myself down and asked myself if I believed or not, all I had was a childhood of saying the words “I believe God exists” without ever truly feeling they were correct.

    This really came to a head later in life when I went to a parochial school and had a religious retreat before graduation. There was a little shrine at the school we were encouraged to go to to pray, and so I did. And I sat there and thought to myself “I’m sitting in a carpeted room in front some old carved and treated wood.” Even then I was trying to see if I could feel anything spiritual, but it felt like I was attempting to act.

    Maybe one of the big factors of who grows up spiritual and who doesn’t is who feels that “spiritual” feeling as a kid (or an adult). I dunno, I’ve never felt it so I can’t really imagine what it’d be like.

    • Kevin K

      Good grief, get out of my head!!

      I had almost the exact same experience.

      • Chris J

        Awesome! I told that story in response to someone on the religion channel at Disqus because they had a very similar experience as well. The only big difference was that they desperately wanted to believe, whereas I didn’t have quite the same drive.

        Maybe that “spiritual” feeling is like how to some people, cilantro tastes like soap. Something some folks have and other folks don’t, possibly decided at birth. That’d be interesting. 😛

        • Linda_LaScola

          I think you’re on to something and I’d like to see this formally studied. Up to now, the default has been belief, with those who don’t believe being defective or wrong, or doomed.

          • Elizabeth.

            Would you be thinking of teaming up with neuroscientists?

          • Linda_LaScola

            good idea

      • Linda_LaScola

        Me too, but not as extreme. I was not as thoughtful or introspective about religion as Chris J when I was a teenager. I went through confirmation never really examining my “faith” but just thinking the whole thing was silly and pro-forma. After that I just drifted away, not giving much serious thought to religion until decades later.

        • Kevin K

          My problem is that I made an inductive leap into non-belief at age 8. And so though I went through the motions (because I was also the obedient child and the family went to church because that’s what you did in those days), even though I knew there was no Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz. It was emotionally draining; and I was constantly looking over my shoulder — metaphorically — for someone who could see my disbelief and would “report” me.

          • Linda_LaScola

            What a shame, that little kids like you suffered and hid in our society simply because you were thinking straight,

            Thankfully, things are changing, but not fast enough for my tastes.

          • Kevin K

            Oh, I’m not complaining; nor should I. Compared to just about every other horror story you hear around these parts, I had it very, very easy. No fights with the family, nobody disowned me, I was never bullied or harmed, never threatened or shunned. I just went away to college and that was the last time I went to a church voluntarily. Got married in a church (her idea). Buried my dad in a church (mom’s insistence). Got coerced once to go to Christmas services (blerg — even though I like the music). A couple of times when I was in a performing group that did something for a friend. That’s it.

            Aside from that, a little teen-age angst; some sleepless nights pondering the “what ifs” trying to come up some agnostic deism as an alternative (that didn’t work AT ALL); and eventually reading the bible to see what the hugga-mugga was about (which only cemented my nonbelief).

          • Linda_LaScola

            Right — you got off easy, comparatively speaking – but still — kids shouldn’t be put through this at all, in my opinion.

          • ctcss

            Linda, put through what, exactly? Based on your own testimony, you never really felt a strong attraction for the religion you were raised in, and you simply drifted away. That doesn’t sound like much of a trial to me. And personally, I found the religion I was raised in to be rather interesting. I was never really given a vote in the matter (nor did I get to vote on what my mom served us for dinner), but with regard to the religion that my mom chose for us to follow, I think she did a really nice job.

            So, was I put through something (remember, I didn’t get to vote on it), but at the same time, intelligent thought was given to the choice of religion by my parents. Should I have had an adversarial relationship with them “just because”, or should I have given what I was served (both for dinner and for religion) fair consideration before deciding to accept or reject it?

            For some reason, I don’t feel like I was put through anything. (Well, I didn’t really like her meatloaf.) Rather, I looked at the religious instruction as something useful to learn about, just like I viewed other things I was given exposure to.

            To me, it’s all about how good a teacher (or teachers) one has access to.

          • Linda_LaScola

            I was not put through much and you apparently weren’t put through anything at all. But many kids suffer being forced to believe scary things for which there is not evidence. This is what I would like to see stopped.

          • ctcss

            I would like the conveying of toxic and unhelpful ideas to be stopped as well. But the problem is, unless one is going to suggest licensing people to be good parents, exactly how does one achieve such a goal? And who gets to choose? I am quite certain that there are many people who would consider my theology to be unloving or unhelpful (possibly you included), and who would wish its teaching to be stopped.

            There are no easy answers.

        • mason

          A wise teenager choice 🙂 smart girl

  • mason

    Great article Bruce and a subject I find of interest; the how and why of why people continue believing (there’s a myriad of pressures and motivations) and the different experiences of those now atheist.

    ‘There are times when I find myself wondering why I cannot be like everyone else.’

    Now I’ve never had that thought, but often wonder how family members and people I knew years ago can go on believing such absurdity. And I certainly never had half a moment where I wanted to be back on a pew or in a pulpit and not have Sundays free.

    “While it would be tempting to say that I am intellectually superior to them, I know this is not the case.”

    True, but in my opinion I think you and I and all others who have been able to discard their indoctrination (almost always during credulous childhood) into theistic nonsense, are quite superior when it comes to being intellectually and socially courageous.

    “I have always valued intellectual pursuit.” This is the anti-matter, that allowed to lurk within, is guaranteed to destroy theism. This is why Evangelicals are so anti-intellectual and anti- science. The believer values faith in the irrational regardless of lack of evidence or even in spite of evidence, so value of this nature is a guaranteed theistic train wreck. 🙂

  • Jim High

    One cannot ask questions of faith and seek truthful answers and remain in the faith. The real answers don’t allow for faith. Most people are scared to seek the truth. Being with the crowd is much more comfortable. Even some of my friends who no longer believe in the Sky God of the Bible or even the Divinity of Jesus just call themselves Non-Theist instead of Atheist because of the social stigma attached to that word. But God is either a God, or “He” is not, even if you understand God as Love or some Universal Spirit. And to be God, then God must do something that wouldn’t get done without that God. I’ve never found out what that might be. There is however a strong connection between all living things, connections we feel but don’t yet fully understand. The connection comes from our evolutionary past over billions of years. We are all part of the life that began about 3.5 billion years ago in the early oceans of planet Earth. The only God is all of us. If we could ever come together and work together as one humanity we would discover the real power of God. One final comment, live well now, it is the only life you will ever have or know about. There is no afterlife where you are you.

    • ctcss

      One cannot ask questions of faith and seek truthful answers and remain in the faith. The real answers don’t allow for faith.

      I would have to strongly (but respectfully) disagree. I think an awful lot of how a religious environment is structured (it’s theology, practice, and teaching) determines whether or not it can stand up to questions. I have a feeling that when you are referring to “faith”, you are actually referring to blind faith. I would agree that blind faith does not hold up well to questions, nor does it encourage understanding. However, religion does not not have to be structured around dogma and blind belief, at least IMO. As a Sunday School teacher, I have never asked my students to accept anything on blind faith. Rather, they are encouraged to delve into their religion, explore it’s teachings and practice, and to arrive at their own conclusions as to its worth and practicality for their lives.

      • Jim High

        Well I was mainly referring to a detailed study of the Bible. Who write it and when and why. It is a collection of humanly written books, gospels, letters and psalms that are not the word of any God. Christians read and teach the Bible total void of any context.

        • ctcss

          Then I think that we are in agreement that the study of the Bible needs to be approached in a thoughtful and perceptive manner. For those people who are religious, I think that is the only safe way in which to begin to see how God was an influence (IMO for the better, on the whole) on those people’s lives. That’s why they seemed to want to preserve their thoughts about the matter for future generations. And personally, I am glad that they did. (Not all seem to be of this opinion, however, especially on this blog!.)

  • Elizabeth.

    I keep puzzling about this from a different direction. How come I’m not one or the other? Why do I feel like progressive christianity sites, for example, are “soft-headed” and prefer Rational Doubt for conversation about basic beliefs, but am agnostic on TCP’s affirmation that there’s likely no “order of existence that is beyond the visible observable universe appearing to transcend the laws of nature, a mystical dimension”? I guess I’m more like alwayspuzzled’s “never-ending path” : ) How come?! Signed, “Very thankful for the R.D. blog!!”

    • Linda_LaScola

      Well, Elizabeth – maybe you represent another point on what is a natural continuum from non-belief to belief. Let’ say this point heretofore was not recognized because everyone was “supposed” to believe and those who didn’t were to be pitied or scorned and always encouraged to believe.

      • ctcss

        Linda, you seem to be referring to a particular approach to religion that emphasizes belief over practice. Not every religion focuses on belief alone. Jews, for instance, are very much about practice. From what little I know about their religious instruction, they are invited to delve into their religion, ask lots of questions, and examine it in detail, arguing over all sorts of points. And my own religion is also more about practice and understanding (including questions and answers) rather than just belief.

        Have you ever looked into how whether the opportunity to freely (and non-judgmentally) learn and investigate one’s religious concepts in detail in a friendly environment influences how people feel about their religion and their religious instruction?

        • Linda_LaScola

          never have — sounds interesting

        • Linda_LaScola

          Addendum — when I finally investigated religion in detail and in a friendly environment, I chose to leave it.

          • ctcss

            Yes, but which religion? Surely not all of them. Which means that you (being an intelligent person) gave thoughtful consideration to one set of religious propositions (i.e. the theology you were learning), found it to be lacking in some way, and then decided to leave that specific set of religious propositions behind.

            But that begs the question of all of the other religious propositions out there that you have not yet evaluated. Mind you, I am not saying you need to, just that you have only conducted one evaluation. Which, IMO, is not sufficient cause to reject all religion.

            So, based on your response to Elizabeth below, is your rejection of all religion based on your relatively trouble free life? (i.e. insufficient upside for the effort involved.) Because that may truly be the reason for you (and for many other people) to reject religion, that is, it just doesn’t hold an interest for you and them.

            Which is very different from my mom’s situation. She had just lost her mother at age 16, her father wasn’t friendly to her and the new religion that she and her mother were investigating, and she felt the great need to figure out if what she was looking at was worth pursuing. She told us (years later) that she felt she had received an answer through prayer about it, and decided that she could safely and usefully pursue it.

            The point was, she needed answers in her life, and her new religion appeared to be providing them in a helpful manner. So with that answer, she never looked back, but made her way forward, bit by bit. So the religion she had learned to depend on became the religion our family also learned to depend on.

            And that’s the thing. People who actually feel the need for the help that religion provides for them don’t usually have questions about whether pursuing their path is worth it. They know that it is worth it, at least for them.

            It doesn’t make the religious people somehow morally better than the non-religious ones, nor does it make the non-religious people smarter or stronger than the religious people. But it does mean that the religious people have found that religion (at least for them) is a tool that they do not wish to discard, thus their strong interest in it.

          • Linda_LaScola

            you (being an intelligent person) gave thoughtful consideration to one set of religious propositions (i.e. the theology you were learning), found it to be lacking in some way, and then decided to leave that specific set of religious propositions behind.

            ctcss: Actually, I left ALL religion – although I had not been particularly hurt by it and realized that some people were satified with their religion. I left religion, after a lot of thought and study, because it wasn’t true.

            In my case, it was not hard to leave it, because I was not particularly attached to it. I think many people who have left religion have reacted in a similar manner. But it doesn’t matter. There needn’t be one right way to leave religion or to stay in religion or become religious in the first place.

          • carolyntclark

            What is confusing the discussion is using “religion” and “theism” interchangeably. One can leave all of the “religions” but still believe in a “God”.
            I think most folks here are saying they don’t believe in “God”. So ctcss’s suggestion of evaluating different “religions” is not relevant. No god=no religion.

          • ctcss

            Yes, but what kind of (mental concept of) God have they left behind? (Theologies describe God concepts, after all.) Not all conceptions of God are identical in scope or in nature. And since there is no formal proof or disproof of God’s existence, it remains an open question, not a closed one. (The only closed questions are the ones most easily answered such as, “Is there a physical deity living on top of this mountain”, something far more easily investigated.)

            So the upshot is usually, does the person have an interest in further pursuing this particular area of thought? I would agree that pretty much everyone here is no longer interested in pursuing this question, just as they might no longer have (or had) any interest in pursuing fly fishing, stamp collecting, needlepoint, or playing rugby. (I certainly don’t follow these areas.)

            But those areas of thought and practice still remain an area to give thoughtful consideration to, just as the question of God’s nature and existence does.

          • Linda_LaScola

            no supernaturalism

          • ctcss

            Linda, I get that you left all religion behind. But wouldn’t making the statement

            I left religion, after a lot of thought and study, because it wasn’t true

            be hard to intellectually justify without having investigated all religious propositions? I get the “after a lot of thought and study” part. That’s fine. But after a lot of thought and study examining what, exactly?

            I’m not so much looking to debate you on the matter, or even in having you catalogue what you did examine. But religious propositions (theologies) are not identical in nature. For instance, you could have found convincing evidence that Jesus never even existed, and thus that would have likely been the smoking gun that would have allowed you to walk away from Christianity. But the lack of Jesus would not have made a dent in the conclusions of a religious Jew or Hindu, neither of whose religious propositions depended on the existence of Jesus at all.

            And that’s the point. When a person only thoroughly examines one area, wouldn’t they be lacking the insight to come to conclusions about areas that they have not thoroughly examined, especially ones that were widely divergent in concept? Does discarding Lamarckism after having thoroughly examined it allow one to also discard Darwinism, that is, are the concepts really the same in nature, other than the fact that they were both focused on answering questions about how species evolved over time?

            IMO, it’s perfectly fine that you have decided that religion (or God) no longer holds an interest for you. But I am having a hard time understanding how the conclusion of “it isn’t true” applies to widely divergent concepts when only some of the concepts have been examined.

            Does that make sense?

      • Elizabeth.

        Yet there have always been “freethinkers”… in the centuries they didn’t get mowed down [I’m remembering how a chaplain laughed when I was struggling with beliefs and exclaimed, “If I lived during the Inquisition, I’d be dead!” : ) ]

        Another variable I wonder about, in addition to neurobiology, is which christian ideas people were taught as children. Does it make a difference that from someone’s earliest days they were taught the songs “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children, All the Children of the World”? and the idea that God loves them…. Whereas others are taught mostly that there’s something called “God” out there, which wouldn’t engage them very much and be relatively easy to discard along with ol’ St. Nick? I’ve been wondering whether you have noticed any patterns based on how christian ideas were presented in someone’s childhood….

        • Linda_LaScola

          I haven’t noticed patterns (but had thought about it). I have wondered, In my own life, why I wasn’t enthralled by knowing how much Jesus loved me (and I DID know it, via catechism). I think it may have been a combination of personality and circumstance.

          I’ve always been pretty independent and I was lucky enough to have a very stable childhood with lots of love and security. I think that happy combination meant I wasn’t looking for and didn’t need love outside of what I was already very fortunate to have.

          • Elizabeth.

            Thanks, Linda! Our sample of two is sadly inconclusive : (
            I had a very happy childhood too… On the independence scale, like most pre-schoolers I wanted to do things my way, but mostly I wanted to make the grownups happy… a spectrum there?

            Makes me move on to wonder about the type of relationship with one’s teachers, as I think ctcss (?) mentioned…. One of my earliest memories is my Sunday School teacher, a little old (probably I wouldn’t think so now!) soft round-faced lady with a sweet voice, who showed us pictures of Jesus blessing the children…. : )

          • Linda_LaScola

            To continue our unscientific study, I’ll add that I did not have an equivalent to the sweet, round-faced lady. I had stern nuns in severe black habits who drilled us on the catechism. It wasn’t a bad experience, but I don’t treasure it either. They probably said that Jesus loved us, but it doesn’t stand out in my memory at all.

            The sweet teachers in my memory were in public school, and didn’t talk about Jesus at all.

          • ctcss

            Interesting. Never having been exposed to catechism, is it something to only memorize, or did the nuns invite discussion and questions and want you to understand what they were teaching? And in regard to your happier memories of teachers, did your public school teachers invite discussion and questions and want you to understand what they were teaching?

            IOW, did the approach make a difference in how you regarded what was being taught? And did the teacher’s efforts (or non-efforts) at helping you understand the relevance of the subject make a difference in how you regarded it?

          • Linda_LaScola

            Catechism was strict memorization, as I recall. The enjoyable part was getting the right answers, which was easy because they drilled them in to you.

            In regular public school classes, we had a combination of methods and the teachers made an effort to relate to the kids.

            The approach to the subject matter did make a difference in my interest and understanding, but I also think that I would have given up on religion at some point for the same reason I eventually did — it’s not true; I don’t accept supernaturalism.

          • Elizabeth.

            Wow… I am appreciating your mother more than ever, sending you to the sweet teachers!

            Maybe there IS some element of “caught”-ness in how attached people become to religious ideas…. I don’t know whether I’d have felt close to those ideas or felt God loved me with the stern nuns in black… would be interesting to know, but very glad I don’t have to try it out : )

            So far, I think I like best your hypothesis a ways back that likely there’s a large component of individual difference, like enjoying singing or mechanics….

            But what combination of elements does what? I do hope someone/you! will be able to study it soon!

          • ctcss

            Elizabeth, similar to my questions to Linda, did your Sunday School teacher(s) seem to want you to understand what you were being taught? And did they encourage questions and try to answer them in a helpful manner?

          • Elizabeth.

            Well… all my religious teachers encouraged questions, but growing up in the Bible Belt, the answers were assumed to fit within the “core” that Art & Dave describe here.

            At a denominational liberal arts college, teachers were open to ALL explorations, and I often wonder what would have happened if I’d been able to get to Union Sem in NY — likewise wide open — as I’d hoped.

            As it turned out, I wound up working through the thickets of literal-ism in the South and then Midwest. Sometimes I regret the time wasted on worries about hell and feeling like a blot on the mental landscape (regret totally eclipsed by the fabulous kids that wouldn’t exist!!!) but maybe working through all that has afforded some perspective on how to help others suffering from what I see as very hurtful ideas.

    • mason

      Elizabeth, What I don’t get with you mystical seekers 🙂 is why the natural Universe (micro & macro) with all it’s mysteries and marvels are not enough to challenge even the most curious person? Is not the natural, super enough? Are not the quests and constant discoveries of the sciences mystical enough? Transcend? The sciences travel the never-ending path.

      Or is it some ancient fanciful wish humans have for the world of Harry Potter too much fun to release? Just from the modicum of layman knowledge I have of astronomy, astrophysics, quantum physics, chemistry, microbiology, the electromagnetic spectrum, DNA, and the law of evolution etc., I’d feel like an anthropomorphic ethnocentric greedy glutton human to be questing for a transcending order of existence. Is the quest for the transcending portal really wishful thinking to avoid engaging with, serious study, and contemplation of the natural/real Universe(s)?

      So many folk tales and contemporary successful movies are based around the teenager or adult who suddenly acquires some supernatural power, that the idea must still resonate with millions of movie goers, yet no one levitates one inch above mother Earth, and the most popular religion features a zombie emerging from days of burial followed by a gravity defying flight up into the stratosphere.

      • Elizabeth.

        Yes, I love science and science’s never-ending path : )

        Partly it’s because I seem to be a pretty thoroughgoing skeptic, and categories like “a mystical dimension” seem too broad to rule out. But I do categorically rule out ideas like “the theory of substitutionary atonement” unless this universe is warped in an atrocious direction which I hope it’s not!!!

        It’s partly also because it feels a little like thinking the religion I happened to grow up in is the only true one to think that the species I happen to be part of is the highest form of life so far. Doesn’t seem like a proper scientific humility : ) …Why shouldn’t there be something like supra-human intelligence around? Are we humans “It”?! We’re pretty awesome, but maybe it’s “people to _x__” like “dolphins to humans.”

        Another piece is in my reply to Linda….

        But I take to heart what you’ve written in the past about the ways religious ideas can endanger people. Some are awful; others, like compassion, helpful. If one stays in a religion, I think it’s critical to examine everything closely and hold ideas lightly for further development. Actually, what I like is to keep working on a Theory of Everything, along with scientists, philosophers, artists, poets, tai chi masters, everybody! : )

        It’s always fun to hear what you have to say, Mason!!! Tho it’s going to take me a while to get the zombie out of my imagination : ] Thank you!!

        • mason

          Yes, tis good fun Elizabeth! Mystical is one of those words that’s as slippery as an eel. 1. of or relating to mystics or religious mysticism. “the mystical experience”

          2. inspiring a sense of spiritual mystery, awe, and fascination. “the mystical forces of nature”

          Definition 2. sans “spiritual” (another slimy eel word) is something I relate to but 1. is in my BS category.

          There may well be in our galaxy, Universe, living creatures with intelligence and technology far superior to ours, a species with a million years in technological development vs our puny, not much over 100 years if the earliest technology is counted.

          My critique for those playing with the mystical eel is they always seem to be seeking some form of magic and reality that is not subject of the the laws of physics/quantum physics.

          Maybe the zombie and eel can become buddies. 🙂

          • Elizabeth.

            Yes, I agree “spiritual” adds nothing to def #2

            I needed a Mason-ic analogy-maker for my reply — would have been better to write “people to __x__” as “ROCK to people” — sort of a whole category difference, not just a different species.

            I tend to assume the “laws” of the universe are uniform [as the gravitational waves’ “chirp” may have meant in Feb.], so if there is a “mystical dimension,” it would be operating along whatever lines are factual, just not understood yet.

            I’m remembering maybe 50 years ago reading a short story about our universe being actually an atom inside the jewel of a gigantic ring being worn by some being or another.

            I just tend to keep a big bunch of options open ….like ….the zomb being an eel (though I don’t currently operate on that possibility)

          • mason

            “so if there is a “mystical dimension,” it would be operating along whatever lines are factual, just not understood yet.” well said Elizabeth

          • ctcss

            I’m not entirely comfortable with the implications of the term “mystical dimension”, but I also agree with her statement.

      • ctcss

        Is not the natural, super enough?

        Nope. Or, to put it another way, just how awed and joyful would you be to realize you were about to be destroyed or killed by forces or organisms impelled onward by a blind, ignorant, and unthinking universe? It’s one thing to be in awe of the mathematical purity and beauty of some force or mass as it loops and swirls majestically across distances both great and small. It’s another altogether to realize that force or mass has you in it’s very blind cross-hairs.

        And no, the concept of God I am interested in following does not engage in such things. That’s why I follow God rather than following matter. I think that matter is interesting, but I don’t wish to bow down to it or to worship it. To do so, IMO, would be to exult in blindness and ignorance, and to place myself at their mercy.

        So yes, we will need to continue to agree to disagree with each other about such things.

        • mason

          Regardless of what you choose to believe, every creature and inanimate object is in the cross hairs of the destruction and chaos of the Universe. That’s what makes life precious. The natural is more than enough for me, I’m a non-greedy materialist. Let the disagreement continue; I’m content. “Following matter,” LOL I’m just one minuscule manifestation of the Universe. I am the Universe. I am God.

          • Elizabeth.

            Mason, the way you lay it out here is the first time I feel like I’ve gotten a glimpse of what people [including some mystics : ) ] may mean when they say “I am God.” Thanks!

          • mason

            Glimpses are good! 🙂 We are the Universe expressing itself as humans for a little while.

        • Elizabeth.

          Being in the crosshairs is that pesky problem of what we think of as “evil” — things that affect us negatively (zika, tornados), or that set living things against one another (spiders/flies, zebra/crockodiles). What to do with all that?

          Some, like Augustine & others, say evil has no reality — it’s simply the absence of good. Others attribute it to a malevolent force (Satan, or a Zoroastrian dualism). But your question is reminding me of how surprised I was by a third view a while back when Chris Highland (in “Nature Is Enough” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biYwWuOgY38 ) described beholding in a Yellowstone valley a grizzly eating an elk carcass just as a moose calf burst out of the forest running from a coyote. The surprise was Chris’ describing this as an awesome moment of the wonder of nature, asking, “Do we really want anything else? something more than that?” He says in that segment, “The beauty of nature grabs us and draws us in.”

          I would have a really hard time affirming that scene…. I’d wish I’d never seen it & wish I could change it some way.

          So… I’m with you on not being satisfied with nature as currently “is,” and with Mason in saying, Yes, we are in the crosshairs of meteorites & microbes. As I wrote recently, at present I’m sort of a Zoroastrian-like dualist, not sure what the outcome will be, but wanting to be on the side of helping all things as much as possible….

          Thanks as always for all the ideas

          • ctcss

            described beholding in a Yellowstone valley a grizzly eating an elk carcass just as a moose calf burst out of the forest running from a coyote. The surprise was Chris’ describing this as an awesome moment of the wonder of nature, asking, “Do we really want anything else? something more than that?” He says in that segment, “The beauty of nature grabs us and draws us in.”

            I wonder how Chris would have felt if it was he who was being grabbed and drawn in? It’s far too easy to be in the catbird seat when nothing is threatening you. It’s far different when you, or those you love and care about are shredded, burned, or crushed by the blind forces of nature.

            To be in awe of raw, random force is to worship raw, random force. Approving such action as perfectly fine is, to me, about as primitive and amoral as it gets. This is not something to exult over, at least IMO.

            I sometimes think that there is some human thinking that fancies that it is possible to be clever enough to ride the tiger, that is, to convince themselves that they can safely control the cruel and mindless forces around them to suit their own purposes. To me, that’s a bit like aligning one’s self with Joseph Stalin on the notion that if one can stay on his good side, one might be able to accomplish good with evil.

            Evil, however, is evil. No matter how much one tries to atone for the bad done in the name of accomplishing good, that bad is being done with one’s consent and approval.

            But as I said before, I am not against things such as nature. But I am not interested in aligning myself with the unthinking directives behind it, nor using it as a model for justice.And if Jesus thought that whatever the world dished out was perfectly fine (admiring the “beauty” of it), he would have left every tragic thing that he encountered just as it was.

            Somehow, I just can’t see that as something he would have done. And if he had, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to follow him.

          • Elizabeth.

            I should have sketched Chris more fully … a street chaplain of Compassion for years, and very active helping especially the vulnerable against evils of all kinds. And yes, he did think of himself as also threatened by the forces of nature…. As I understand him, as he began to let go the idea of a protective, intervening god-force, it was exhilarating to feel one was a conscious, responsible part of this vast interactive and potentially dangerous swirl of forces. I will look back to describe more accurately, but want to add these essential elements to what I wrote….

          • ctcss

            Thanks. I would be interested in hearing more about it. And I hope I wasn’t giving you the impression that I thought of him as evil. I have found the ex-pastors here to be genuinely kind and loving in their interactions with others.

            What I was getting at was more along the lines of breaking the 1st commandment when one changes what they worship from God to some other perceived power. It’s not that God will punish them for doing so. Rather, it is the danger that can come about by being “talked into” accepting the sovereignty of something other than God. In essence, it is all too easy to become the victim of something that one feels that they have no recourse to combat. Furthermore, it also points out the possibility of those that they love and care about becoming possible victims as well.

            Basically, it is somewhat like fatalism, but putting implacable material forces in the place of an implacable God. That, to me, is simply choosing to worship another power, but not recognizing that one has done so, even if one has forsworn all belief in God. One is still believing that one must obey the mandate (unthinking though it may be) of a higher power.

            Personally, I would rather choose to stick with an approachable, loving God than to instead go along with an unthinking force.

          • Linda_LaScola

            I don’t think Chris “worships” nature.

          • ctcss

            I don’t think he worships nature either, at least in any formal or informal sense. The point I was getting at was the effect of acknowledging the sovereignty of a power. If one chooses to acknowledge the sovereignty of matter as as power, one is worshiping matter in the same way that one one worships God by acknowledging God’s sovereignty.

            People worship lots of things, money, power (in the sense of desiring it), possessions, etc.

            To worship something is to tacitly give it power over one’s self, to obey its “edicts”, and to succumb to its “rules”. If Chris acknowledges the power of nature over himself, then he is placing his fate in nature’s hands, that is, willingly giving his fate over to something blind, indifferent, and merciless.

            And if people should state that they have no say in the matter, that’s why I earlier compared such a mental stance to fatalism, simply exchanging the belief in an implacable, merciless God to belief in implacable, merciless matter.

          • Elizabeth.

            Chris-wise : ) ….about a year ago he wrote the R.D. blog “Taking the Sacrament with Naturalist John Muir” and said,

            “I do not worship nature. Yet, this patch of coast is spongy and porous. Everything that religion, faith and god meant to me for many years has been completely absorbed by the slippery, salty environment. I’ve squeezed out a deep appreciation and respect for the natural cosmos. As the title of my last e-book puts it, Nature is Enough. It surely is.” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rationaldoubt/2015/04/2050/

            Another relevant comment — http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rationaldoubt/2015/03/clergy-doubt-9-retired-episcopal-priest-thinks-nature-is-sacred-not-jesus/#comment-1899375752

            But I think the allusion to natural evil must be in the video linked above… will go back & listen probably later this week. Meanwhile, interesting bio! https://chighland.com/about/

            That’s an interesting question, the relation of awe to worship….

  • I think about this sometimes when I’m spending time with my siblings, who as far as I know retain most of their Christian beliefs. My guess about the differentiating factor is commitment to objectivity. At various times my thoughts drifted toward questions, “What if I’ve always been wrong? Am I satisfied having blind faith in beliefs that aren’t reflected in the way the universe is? Is my own subjective discomfort enough to prove that the opposite viewpoints are false? Can I be positive that my spiritual feelings are coming from outside myself?” The more that I let those questions in, and the more I learned about numerous topics other than religion, the more that I leaned toward “no” answers. I wasn’t able to give it up until I fully committed to finding my way out of my own head. I’m pretty sure I’m not smarter than my siblings, just more tenacious and perfectionist when it comes to critically analyzing my positions.

  • Maura Hart

    why would you want to join the delusion you so recently escaped?

  • davewarnock

    I was speaking with another former Christian this week, and we were talking about this very thing; why we couldn’t leave well enough alone. I think it is this: courage. As arrogant as it sounds, very few of us as Christians had the courage to ask the tough questions and be honest enough with ourselves to go where the answers led us. Most of us aren’t willing to do that because it generally costs too much.

    Take heart, Bruce- you are one of the courageous ones.

    • ctcss

      As arrogant as it sounds, very few of us as Christians had the courage
      to ask the tough questions and be honest enough with ourselves to go
      where the answers led us.

      But what were these tough questions? And weren’t they most likely questions that came from examining a very specific theology? (i.e., they weren’t universal throughout religion.) The thing is, there were many Christians who did question and challenge the current religious status quo, and sought to change the surprisingly unjust and the unloving ideas that they found within it, but they didn’t consider throwing out everything. For some reason, they saw something very good in the basic ideas at the core of Christianity, and they wanted to make sure those good ideas were kept.

      In essence, the answers they obtained were ones that kept them wanting to continue traveling forward and moving higher on their religious pathway. So yes, they were being honest with themselves as to where their answers were leading them. Unless, of course, you are trying to say that there is only one possible answer, and that answer is limited to the limited human manner of perceiving things.

      IMO it takes just as much courage to sincerely and persistently travel a worthy religious path as it does to sincerely and persistently travel a worthy non-religious path.

      • davewarnock

        The basic ideas at the core of Christianity are these:

        Mankind is born sinful and broken and in need of a savior- which God, in his infinite wisdom and love, provided for us in the form of his own son (which is himself, actually- as part of a Holy Trinity). He arranged for his “only begotten son” to be brutally murdered on a cross- which has (in some sick way) become the symbol of Christianity. Now, all who place their faith in the sacrifice of Christ to atone for their sins are saved and get to spend an eternity with him in heaven.

        So, no- I didn’t see anything good in those basic ideas at the core of this religion and saw no reason to keep them. If you need to do that for some reason, more power to ya.

        And I’m not sure how much courage it takes to do the same thing that everyone else is doing. Being religious in this country takes as much courage as breathing.

        • ctcss

          The basic ideas at the core of Christianity are these:

          Not every form of Christianity adheres to the concepts you are citing.

          Being religious in this country takes as much courage as breathing.

          You seem to be thinking of religion as comprising only a mainstream social construct, approved by all. But religion can also be found as a non-mainstream phenomenon, that is, not approved of by all, or even of most. My religion is very non-mainstream, and finds disapproval from both the religious and the non-religious. And yes, that means that it does take courage to practice it, just as it takes courage to be an overt non-believer in areas of society where belief is considered to be the social norm.

          Societal support is not what either of us are depending on as we try to follow our paths in life.

  • Sophia Sadek

    Your journey reminds me of the life of Charles Potter. He started out Baptist, migrated to the Unitarians and Universalists, and ended up founding a Humanist organization.

  • carolyntclark

    ctcss ” Not all conceptions of God are identical in scope or in nature. ”

    Me .. I think all the conceptions of God involve the existence of a supernatural entity.

    ctss…”the upshot is usually, does the person have an interest in further pursuing this particular area of thought? ”

    Me… Philosophers, mystics, theologians pursue this particular area of thought but, in spite of their status, they are as incapable as I am of knowing the unknowable. The pursuit of profound answers is futile. Life is too short for treadmill thinking, chasing fantasy and wishful thinking.
    I’m content with awe of the universe and appreciating life based in reality.

    • ctcss

      Me .. I think all the conceptions of God involve the existence of a supernatural entity.

      Interesting. Both you and Linda (and many others) keep referring to the term “supernatural” when you refer to God, giving that as a reason to reject the notion of God. In my religion, we also reject the notion of supernatural and magic, but we don’t reject God, nor do we regard God as supernatural. However, we also don’t regard God as physical, that is, God is not composed of, nor bound by, matter, energy, time, or space. (Conceptually speaking, God couldn’t be God if He were just another player in the material realm of things, that is, bound or limited by it.)

      So, what, exactly, do you mean by supernatural? If you mean outside the realm of the current knowledge and understanding of what humans “know”, that’s not exactly an impossible bar to clear. It sounds like you are just using supernatural as a convenient term to dismiss something that you feel safe in disregarding without the need to investigate it further. (Once again, my religion rejects the supernatural. What it does not do is accept the human view of all that exists as definitive, authoritative, or even accurate.)

      So, I am guessing that if you were to encounter something that was unexplainable in human terms, you would simply refer to it as something currently unknown or currently not understood. That’s fine. But what I am guessing that you and Linda are insisting upon is that this unknown and not understood thing could only fit within what humans currently perceive as acceptable knowledge. That is, it could only possibly fit within the currently known human frame of reference and understanding.

      So, no surprises desired here, no concepts outside the current realm of human thought? The human frame of reference alone determines what is possible?

      That sounds amazingly like a dogmatic stance.

      Mind you, I am not trying to convince you of God’s existence here. I am just pointing out that your viewpoint seems extremely human-centric.

      Engaging as it is, the pursuit of profound answers is futile. Life is too short for treadmill thinking, inventing a god, chasing fantasy and wishful thinking.

      I also find it interesting that you equate the profound with the impossible to know or to find out. And, on top of that, you are once again dismissing something beyond the humanly known and accepted as “treadmill thinking, inventing a god, chasing fantasy and wishful thinking”.

      Once again, how is this not a human-centric, dogmatic stand to take?

      It also seems to combine the realization that there are some things that can be “unknown” (i.e. not yet understood), and yet simultaneously also claims that knowledge of God’s non-existence can be “known”.

      This is why I was bringing up the question of what concept of God is being considered by you and Linda. (Using the term “supernatural” is far too vague and easily dismissed IMO.) And thus, can something be confidently rejected if it has not been thoroughly examined?

      Once again, not trying to argue that God must exist or be true. Just pointing out that it strikes me that dismissing something without fully investigating it is not a firm platform upon which to stand.

      • Linda_LaScola

        My point of view doesn’t sound dogmatic to me. Your’s sounds supernatural.

        I have dismissed many things without fully investigating them and I imagine you have too, because they were too far fetched. Can dogs fly? Are insects living in a virtual reality that humans cannot fathom? Is my neighbor a spy? an alien? a guardian angel?

        I haven’t given much thought to those notions, but I’m an intelligent and thoughtful person who has rejected the notion of god. I understand and accept that some inteligent, thoughtful people have not.

        • ctcss

          Thanks for the thoughtful response Linda. And once again, I am not trying to convince either you or Carolyn to believe in God. However, the reason I made the comment about your stance sounding dogmatic was that you made a truth claim, i.e. “it wasn’t true”. (Your words.)

          I could easily accept “It doesn’t strike me as being true”, or “I don’t see how that could be true” or even “I could never believe in the truth of that”. But “it wasn’t true” carries with it the strong implication of having been thoroughly investigated and found to be false. Since you admit having not investigated it since it was simply too far fetched to be believed, all you are offering is your sincerely held opinion, and I can accept it as such. My own sincerely held opinion is that God exists.

          But the truth claim of “it wasn’t true” crosses the line from opinion over to fact. And declaring an opinion to be fact is usually when something becomes dogmatic.

          Do you see the difference?

          • Linda_LaScola

            There are some things that don’t require thorough and continuous investigation to assert whether of not they are true. I say belief in god is one of them. You don’t agree.

            Of course, because one can’t prove a negative, the existence of god can’t be known for certain, but that goes for a lot of things that I (and you and many others) don’t believe or spend time considering.

          • Pofarmer

            “the existence of god can’t be known for certain,”

            That’s kind of a tipoff.

  • Elizabeth.

    whew …that question got an airing!

    Bruce’s answer on his original post is probably the best one: “I can’t be like everyone else because I am me…. I value honesty over conformity and independence over sameness.”

    Since many religionists hold to honesty and independence, too, probably it comes down in the end to: “because I’m me.”

    But! I still hope you study it, Linda!

  • viaten

    I think the reason why I wasn’t like other believers was because of my natural curiosity and skepticism and wanting to be sure about religious claims and, more importantly, not having an idea stuck in my head that God would be disapproving of questioning, essentially preventing a superstition from taking hold. I don’t particularly remember explicitly being taught or having it drilled into me not to question faith.