My Family After Losing My Faith

My Family After Losing My Faith July 20, 2017

Editor’s Note: This is Matthew’s second Rational Doubt post since he recently joined The Clergy Project. The first time, he discussed his experiences giving up fundamentalism. This time, he approaches an aspect of leaving religion that is a huge issue among fundamentalists, clergy or not. As you will see, being clergy – especially one with an unusual pastoral relationship with members of his own family – makes things much more difficult.

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By Matthew Hullinger

One of the greatest concerns that I’ve noticed when a person is deciding to come out as a non-believer is wondering how their family will react. It’s understandable because family is generally “there” for us, even when the rest of the world has turned against us. Coming out as a non-believer is often a slap in the face to those who have known you the longest. While we like to think that the family bond is unbreakable, that is not always the case. However, I think it’s possible to survive and even thrive if people in your family turn their backs on you.

My story might be a bit different from others since the majority of my family actually attended my church. I was not just their blood relative; I was also their pastor. As I was losing my faith, I not only felt a deep, personal emptiness, but I also felt like I was letting my family down. The desire to not hurt my family is the single most important factor that kept me in the pulpit for several years after I was no longer a believer.

Today I am out and while some in my family have turned against me, others still treat me with respect and love. Sadly, I rarely talk to my mother and father anymore. The change has been more than my mother could handle and she spends her time crying, praying and pleading with God to bring me back to the church, out of fear that I will end up in hell. This deeply hurts me. Not only is it saying that I can’t possibly be a good person as a non-believer, but it also says that she believes I deserve to go to hell just for being a non-believer. As a person I have changed very little over the last few years, but since faith has left my life, my mother now views me as something dirty and evil.

Here is where I want to express perspective on family:

Family isn’t blood – it’s love.

Now we could go into a philosophical argument on what love is but all I am talking about is the connection that draws people closer together and gives them the desire and motivation to support each other. Since my family has rejected me, I had to redefine that need for closeness. Granted I am very lucky because my wife is also a non-believer. She is my rock, which I know sounds cliché, but it’s true. In addition to my wife, I have my kids whom I adore. Then I have what I call my family. These are my closest friends – those who stood by me during my entire struggle with faith and helped me get back on my feet after I left the ministry. I don’t have many friends now, but I cherish the ones I do have. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them and there isn’t anything they wouldn’t do for me. We’re family even though the blood tie isn’t there. As humans, we need to have deep bonds and usually our biological family is where we find them. However, it is also important to know that we could eventually lose those bonds. It could happen when a family member turns on you or when a loved one dies. We all go through these times of loss.

It has become completely apparent to me that our time is far too precious to waste on people who don’t like you for who you are or what you do or do not believe. Life is short if you waste it, but as the Stoic philosopher Seneca once said:

“Life is long, if you know how to use it.”

Seneca

From the book, On the Shortness of Life by Lucius Seneca, “Seneca the Younger”

Now I try to use my life wisely and to cherish those who cherish me. I try to remember that I’m alive to live – not to live according to someone else’s image of me.

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Matthew HullingerBio: 
Matthew Hullinger is a 33-year-old former Pentecostal minister who lives in the Midwest with his wife and daughter. After leaving the ministry, Matthew finished college with degrees in Business and Accounting and found a new career in accounting. In his free time, he maintains the “Recovering Theist Support Group” on Facebook.

>>>Photo Credits: By I, Calidius, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2456052

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  • mason

    Matthew,
    Really appreciate this telling of your family treatment of you, which is typically a difficult part of anyone’s experience who quits believing the evangelical propaganda.

    Some questions: Does it bother your parents that they have estranged themselves, I assume, from their own grandchildren? What do your kids think about the situation and do they grasp what religious belief has done to their extended family? How is the relationship with your wife’s family?

    Most all the former liberal Christians I know about, hundreds, who’ve become apostates, do not suffer this kind of family abuse. I know if I’d had continued in the Evangelical delusion, and a family member of mine had announced they’d quit believing, I would have acted poorly like your parents, though probably not as extreme. I’d have offered the “I’m praying for you,” or “I know deep down you still believe,” type of pious insults.

    Sorry your parents are this way but not uncommon behavior among Evangelicals. I’ve heard of several parents and spouses who’ve said things like, “I’d rather you’d have died than do this to me,” or “I wish you’d of had an affair, that I could forgive, but not this.”

    To me this just underscores just how virulent the Evangelical belief virus is once allowed to take a human brain as it’s host; it takes basically decent human beings and turns them into pious egotistical abuses and haters, even in your case, between parents and a loving son. And oh, how we hope that one day, the delusional fever will break and their brain degeneration disease will be cured, just as our was.

    In my case there was already a division in the family between Pentecostal and Baptist. My father, myself, and one sister became Pentecostal; my mother and two other sisters stayed Baptist. The baptist minister told my mother the age of speaking in tongues was over, and it was caused by demons today. So the whole family situation became at best a frail detente and my parents quit sleeping together. After all who wants to be in the bed with a man that has a demon come in and out of his body?

    Of course after I became an atheist, well I moved 1600 miles to another city and that solved many problems. Over time, I came to realize that “friend family” can be much more valuable than “blood family.” Blood family is by default, friend family has to be created, nurtured, and cultivated.

    • Jim Jones

      > I would have acted poorly like your parents, though probably not as
      extreme. I’d have offered the “I’m praying for you,” or “I know deep
      down you still believe,” type of pious insults.

      I’ve been to numerous churches, read many books, saw Billy Graham in 1959 and gave online Christians an unfettered go at me (What is the very first step to belief?). And so far none have succeeded and many have said it is impossible to convince anyone – they have to convince themselves (paraphrasing).

      All I am asking is for something, anything, better than “Some dude said this”.

      • ElizabetB.

        Wow! You really set off quite a discussion with your question!!

        Maybe the religions are powerful stories, that get their power from the way we humans are put together — like psychologists Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell explored how there are recurrent “myths” that humans seem to have talked about from the earliest times: “the hero” “the youth” “the mother” “the trickster,” in stories from Gilgamesh to Star Wars. : ) The stories of Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Luke Skywalker, etc, are dramatic, that people can get caught up in and sort of adopt as a worldview that works for them. Some think of the stories literally, others symbolically.

        I’d say the first step of “belief” in anything is that it has to have the feel of truth for you. If the U.S. survives this president, Mr. Putin may have to take his first step toward believing in democracy : )

    • Matthew Hullinger

      My parents are bothered by the fact that they estranged themselves from me and my kids but at the same time they see it as I who have committed the transgression and so I wouldn’t say they feel guilty. The good news is, not long after writing this blog, my parents and I settled into a new normal where we don’t speak of religion while around one another and so far we have gotten by. It’s still tense but not nearly as bad as it once was.

      My two older kids, who were raised in the faith don’t know exactly how to take my transformation. My son expresses his own lack of belief but is upset with me for the indoctrination I forced upon him as a child. My daughter says she is spiritual but only in the sense that she still believes there is something bigger than us in the universe. She doesn’t hold any hard feelings against me.

      My younger daughter, who is still at home, finds it fascinating that I used to be a minister and likes to ask me questions about the Bible. She jokes about how silly it all is. She also hasn’t experienced the estrangement from my parents. She still goes to their house from time to time but they never mention religion around her and she doesn’t mention it when she is with them either.

      • Jim Jones

        There’s always the “God made me an atheist for reasons only he knows. Who are you to reject his plan?” approach.

        As for kids, Maybe Yes, Maybe No

        by Dan Barker

        In today’s media-flooded world, there is no way to control all of the information, claims, and enticements that reach young people. The best thing to do is arm them with the sword of critical thinking.

        Maybe Yes, Maybe No is a charming introduction to self-confidence and self-reliance. The book’s ten-year-old heroine, Andrea, is always asking questions because she knows “you should prove the truth of a strange story before you believe it.”

        “Check it out. Repeat the experiment. Try to prove it wrong. It has to make sense.” writes Barker, as he assures young readers that they are fully capable of figuring out what to believe, and of knowing when there just isn’t enough information to decide. “You can do it your own way. If you are a good skeptic you will know how to think for yourself.”

        Another book is “Me & Dog” by Gene Weingarten.

      • Linda_LaScola

        Great — it sounds like things are looking up!

        • Matthew Hullinger

          They are. There is still a tension that you could cut with a knife but we’ve been able to get along good enough to visit a few times. My mother was also recently diagnosed with breast cancer and is going through treatment, which I think has actually helped us come back together as a family.

  • Jim Jones

    > The change has been more than my mother could handle and she spends her time crying, praying and pleading with God to bring me back to the church, out of fear that I will end up in hell.

    Try reading “Where is the Graveyard of Dead Gods?” (by H. L. Mencken) to her?

    Religion is about social conformity, not at all about belief.

    When you identify as an atheist your family will see it as your rejection of them. Insanity ensues.

    They don’t know anything about their religion or how they differ from other sects. All they know is that they are ‘in’ and you are ‘out’, not like a neighbor (a different religion) but more like an outlaw.

    • Matthew Hullinger

      That’s a great suggestion, thank you. I also agree with your assessment and over the last few weeks have begun to communicate again with my parents, having found a new normal in which it seems that we can get along.

  • Duane Locsin

    “The change has been more than my mother could handle and she spends her time crying, praying and pleading with God to bring me back to the church, out of fear that I will end up in hell’

    I am sorry to hear about this and your mothers very real pain that she believes her son will be eternally tortured.

    this is INFURIATING how Religion really gets in family.

    Why does a “loving” god have the need and use of fear and eternal punishment for the very hernest followers to have genuine doubt and eventual non belief.

    I don’t need an answer since I do not believe, but the very believers do.
    (This is something that needs to be pondered by Christians every time something like this happens)

    • mason

      What has happened to Matthew is very common among Evangelicals; almost unheard of among liberal Christians. They are so brainwashed and programmed to treat someone who makes an adult decision to no longer believe in their brand of fundamentalist theism as someone who has gone on over to evil Satan’s side.

      • Matthew Hullinger

        Exactly, I think Jerry DeWitt puts it pretty well in his book when he talks about how it was better for his family to believe he was just a backslidden believer than an atheist. Stating that you no longer believe in your families fundamentalist faith is one of the hardest things a former fundamentalist will ever go through.

    • Linda_LaScola

      It is infuriating. I didn’t hear about this sort of reaction until I became familiar with fundamentalist Christianity. I personally have never seen a Catholic or mainline protestant family reaction this way.

      • Matthew Hullinger

        My Half-Sister was shunned by her mother for several years after she left the Catholic church and joined a protestant one. That’s the only example that i can think of from a Catholic perspective, however I think culture played more of a role in this, being that my half-sister and her mother are Filipino.

        • mason

          A new member of TCP from Poland recently told me how Poland is still very Catholic, 96%, and it’s not a good thing to come out as an atheist there.

      • mason

        It’s a dirty very nasty not so little secret that all fundamentalists understand how the deal works and how they are to shun, condemn, and persecute those who leave the belief;

        Of course all this abuse and division is in the name of “love.” This really needs to be, if at all possible, exposed to the general public.. You’re a very well read and erudite person about religion, and were not aware of this norm of cruel-abusive behavior that persists within the Evangelical world and other forms of Christian fundamentalism today.

    • Matthew Hullinger

      This type of thing happens all the time with evangelical families. I am currently speaking with a couple of people on my facebook group who are facing the same type of struggle. One was basically forced to lie and say she was still a believer for fear of losing all ties to her family and the other says she is far too afraid to ever be truthful to her family, knowing that she would be ostracized in the same manner.

      Sadly, it would have been the same type of situation if I had come out as Catholic, Baptist, or Methodist. The key aspect to most evangelical and fundamentalists churches is the belief that only those in your home church actually hold the truth and sometimes even churches from the same denomination can be shunned for being evil due to even the simplest of differences.

      I remember, for example, when the pastors wife of a church in the next town over was caught picking up her relative at the Casino. This church was the same denomination as we were but the prevalent idea was, if that churches pastor was preaching correctly, his wife wouldn’t go anywhere near a Casino, not even to pick up a relative.

      There was also a fairly large schism that occurred in my local church when I was a small child. One half of the church believed that salvation came through confession of faith, while the other adhered to the much older pentecostal notion that only those who speak in tongues were truly saved. It ripped the church apart even though both groups were tongue speaking pentecostal believers.

      • ElizabetB.

        This is one heartbreaking issue… If a wry smile could help, this Emo Philips story was voted the funniest religious joke of all time — no doubt by listeners who weren’t actually experiencing these issues. We might say, “saddest” joke —

        “Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, ‘Don’t do it!’ He said, ‘Nobody loves me.’ I said, ‘God loves you. Do you believe in God?’
        “He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Are you a Christian or a Jew?’ He said, ‘A Christian.’ I said, ‘Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?’ He said, ‘Protestant.’ I said, ‘Me, too! What franchise?’ He said, ‘Baptist.’ I said, ‘Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?’ He said, ‘Northern Baptist.’ I said, ‘Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?’

        “He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist.’ I said, ‘Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?’ He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.’ I said, ‘Me, too!’

        ” ‘Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?’ He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.’ I said, ‘Die, heretic!’ And I pushed him over.”

        May perspective on the actual size of these issues grow around the world!! I am thankful for your large family of love and support, Matthew, and hope so much that the biological family ties will strengthen too!!!!!!!
        https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2005/sep/29/comedy.religion

        • Matthew Hullinger

          Haha! I hadn’t heard that one before but it is so true!

  • mason

    Hey Linda, maybe it’s time for the next LaScola & Dennett research and publication with a book about how Evangelicals in the US abuse family and friends who dare to discard the God delusion? I think it’s time they are “called out” on the despicable way they treat and persecute those who change their belief system. I think Matthew’s situation happens by the hundreds of thousands or more every year just based on the number of new “nones” yearly and the percentage of Christians that are Evangelicals or some other brand of Christian fundamentalist sects.

    This whole situation of what happens in our country reminds me of a family that covers up abuse and incest. I’ve read hundreds of stories from members of The Clergy Project who have experienced what Matthew has, and much worse.

    New TCP members often express fear and anxiety about what might happen to them via their spouse, family, and church members; they know what’s potentially coming, and they may have engaged in shaming and abuse of an apostate themselves. Sometimes I feel like I’m reading someone’s plea for help and support who’s living in a totalitarian society somewhere.

    Titles: DARE TO DISCARD -What happens when an Evangelical quits believing-
    SHEEP WITH FANGS -How Evangelicals abandon the Golden Rule-
    NOT PEACE BUT A SWORD -How Evangelicals punish their own-
    EVANGELICAL VENGEANCE -The Dark Side of Christian Fundamentalism-

    Anyone have other title suggestions?

    • ElizabetB.

      Last night I was listening to Sam Harris’ interview with Sarah Haider, of Ex-Muslims of North America. It’s unnerving to hear her talk about the security precautions her organization has to take because family members — might actually try to kill them …even here in the U.S. There’s a whole spectrum of extremism that I don’t like to think about — but we must
      https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/leaving-islam

      • mason

        Yes, it’s the dirty secret, that’s not so little but very ubiquitous in the US and other countries that ranges from the kind of abuse Evangelicals, Scientologists, and other absurd religious groups dish out, to the “honor killings” carried out by radical Muslims.