Confessions of a Secret Reader

Confessions of a Secret Reader June 28, 2018

Editor’s Note:  Imagine my delight when this Clergy Project member told me that he had been a “secret reader” of the Rational Doubt blog before leaving the clergy. For me,  it was literally a dream come true. I had hoped that doubting clergy were finding solace here, knowing that they were not alone. I also hoped that once they determined they no longer believed, they could find more solace, as well as comradarie, in The Clergy Project.  Thank you, “Thomas” for letting me know and thank you for writing about it here. 

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

 By “Thomas Rhodes”

Typically it takes a butterfly thirty days or so to move from the egg stage to full maturity.  But my metamorphosis took much longer.  The process actually lasted three years. In reality it was much longer than that, but the earmarks of my transformation from a Non-denominational Protestant Pastor of twenty-five years to a convinced Non-Theist was a long incubation of many deaths. I didn’t know it at the time, but my natural skepticism had begun to spin a cocoon around my being.

I searched for answers to the angst of religion and to the haunting silence of a supposedly loving God.  Each time I confronted the silence, the cocoon spun faster. Secretly I would open up private tabs in my internet browser, looking for something other than what I knew. Quickly I began to find all kinds of forbidden devils to dance with – and no it wasn’t porn.  But to the faithful in my congregation this would be worse than porn – it was the ultimate heresy – it was questioning the very existence of God himself.

My soul felt as if I was committing adultery.  Then on one of my searches I found my first dance, the Rational Doubt Blog. Honestly I can’t remember all the steps that led to my heresy, but Google was a willing accomplice.  To read other ministers who had the same thoughts, the same doubts, the same pain, was like my first kiss when I was in fifth grade: rapturous and unforgettable.

After each blog reading, I knew this was a tribe that was willing to examine Christianity’s claims, honestly and truthfully.  I found myself saying, “Amen.”  It was habit of course, but this Hebraic word of agreement was the only word I could muster.  Day after day I found more dance partners.  They were endless.  Then, just like a miracle, I found a book hidden in my sixteen-year-old son’s room. Normally I would think,

“The Holy Spirit led me to finding this devilish work.”

But as you could guess, this kind of theology didn’t practically work in this situation.  Apparently he put on his dancing shoes as well.

The dancing devil was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. I didn’t let him know I found it, but on Tuesday’s, which was my sermon prep study day, I would sneak his yellow copy. Not only was I running with the Devil, but my first born son was running along side of me.

 Skepticismis a dangerous word in the lexicon of a pastor. We are the ones who should have the most ironclad faith.  Doubtis another word of heretical foul play. With these ingredients swirling around in my soul, I knew that the chrysalis stage of my cocoon was taking shape.

Though I continued to preach every Sunday, I no longer lied to myself. I knew I was entering dangerous ground.  But as I have always told my son and the congregations I have served,

“We should always follow where the evidence leads.”

 The cocoon was spinning faster. 

Many Christians love to provide testimonies that point to the moment they decided to follow Jesus.  Some tell the story of when they walked the aisle to that fiery Southern Baptist altar call.  Some tell the story of that Damascus Road experience when they first saw the light. More often than not, they can recall the date, the time.  Somehow this recall seems to validate the so called “miraculous.”  And maybe there is something to this date and time motif. Because I remember that moment, or at least that understanding, when I crossed into the land of no-return, the land of the free.

Traveling to visit relatives, I looked to download a new audio book for our trip.  This was my usual pattern, so that I wouldn’t be alone as the family slept during the four hour drive.  Surfing Audible, I stumbled upon a book with a provocative title, at least provocative to this secretly doubting pastor.  The title was Godless – How an Evangelical Pastor Became One of America’s Leading Atheists by Dan Barker.

Once everyone was napping, I put on my headphones.  My wife was asleep in the passenger seat and my boys were snoozing in the back.  Within moments, Dan Barker, my new dancing partner, was sharing not only his metamorphosis but was telling my story too.  For several hours I listened.  I refrained from crying. I couldn’t show my emotion and joy.  But somewhere along the highway, I was born-again.  I am not kidding.  After all my doubt, all my skepticism, I somehow crossed a line.  No fireworks.  No angels.  No white lights.  But a deep sense of relief flooded my soul. After three long years, the cocoon was shedding.  My metamorphosis was nearing its completion.

I was ready to fly.  No longer was I tortured by the mental gymnastics of retribution theology.  No longer was I looking over my shoulder wondering why God loved to play cat-and-mouse.  No longer did I have to worry that the flames of Hell were flickering below because I drank too much wine last Saturday night.  I was flying now, I was free!

Much has changed since then.  I wish I could say that I won the lotto and I’m sipping Daiquiris on a beach somewhere.  Though I think that is now a legitimate prayer, if there ever was one.  The reality is that this career transition has been very hard on our finances.  I’m no longer a pastor.  I’m not preaching every Sunday.  I’m a non-theist, still transitioning out of ministry.

Currently I serve as an executive in a religious non-profit that is more authentic than most, and have done my best to ensure that I am not in a teaching role of any kind. Though I still find it difficult to hide my secret, I just work hard, keep my nose clean, and stay humbly quiet – which I’m finding is a very good recipe for workplace success.  But after doing ministry all my life, the reality feels like a slow divorce proceeding.  I no longer believe, but the transition is taking a little longer than expected.  It is my hope and goal to be in another position very soon, so that like the Monarch Butterfly I can be free to migrate when and where I choose.  To know that my destiny, my journey, is the responsibility of choices that I make and not the choice of God, has become the greatest freedom of all.

 P.S.  I am deeply grateful to Linda and all the leaders in the Clergy Project who have been so kind, compassionate and caring. It has been such a refuge knowing that there is this Fight Club of ex-clergy who are courageous enough to get in the ring, shed some blood and then buy each other drinks at the local pub.

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

 Bio: “Thomas Rhodes”  I grew up an atheist – no churches, no Christmas services, no Easter services.  My very loving parents raised me with a healthy moral base of common sense, void of God.  Then, during a crisis in my life at the age of 17, I became a committed Christian.  I earned a B.A. in Biblical Studies and a Masters in Theology.  For the next 25 years, I worked as a non-denominational Associate Pastor and Senior Pastor.  Then, through a long and arduous, three-year process, I moved from Senior Pastor to committed nontheist.  I reside in the Midwest with my beautiful wife of 30 years and our two boys.  I love to read, BBQ and spend time on the lake.

>Photo credits: By Fri Tanke – http://www.mynewsdesk.com/se/images/christopher-hitchens-29854, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45188781

By Brent Nicastro – http://www.ffrf.org/uploads/images/Barker_Nakoma_cropped.jpg, CC BY 1.0, $3

 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Thank you for sharing your story. I too felt like i was cheating on god when i started searching websites and reading atheist books. Much luck to you and your family while you continue your transition and journey.

  • DoctorDJ

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Out of curiosity I’ve got to ask: Did you discuss Hitchens’ with your son?

    Which leads to: Are you “out” to your wife/ children/ extended family?

    Thanks again.

  • Maine_Skeptic

    “…After all my doubt, all my skepticism, I somehow crossed a line. No
    fireworks. No angels. No white lights. But a deep sense of relief
    flooded my soul…”

    Reading this, I was struck by the inverse similarity to C.S. Lewis’s salvation experience. When he left on a car ride, he wasn’t a Christian. When he got there, he was a Christian. Somewhere along the way he crossed a line.

    You said you were raised as an atheist and that you converted at 17. People aren’t usually vulnerable to Christian conversion unless they’ve already been sold the prodigal son narrative. Had you already been socialized to Christianity? Did you go looking for religion at 17, or was there already an evangelical vulture circling, waiting for a vulnerable moment on your part?

  • viaten

    Thanks for your story. I wish you all the best and hope your transition goes well. Your story seems a bit unique in that your bio says you were not raised religious, but became religious on your own at 17. I’m curious what the crisis was but certainly understand if that is a private matter, but it seems there’s an equally interesting story there.

    Before the crisis, were you ever exposed to religious ideas or to any criticisms of religion or was religion never discussed in any context? It seems being religious had not been “ruled out” for you. What frame of mind allowed you to become religious?

  • Thomas Rhodes

    This is Thomas Rhodes: I wasn’t raised in the church at all. I really didn’t have an evangelical vulture circling. Honestly, I never saw one who really believed and lived it out. And after pastoring for many years, I can still say I have only seen a few sincere handful of real believers. Yes, I sought out Jesus in an odd sort of way. But with my father leaving the home when I was 16yrs old, I believe what I was really seeking was some kind of father figure at the time and religion filled that void at least for a time. I’m glad to say my father returned several years later and he is my best friend today.

  • Thomas Rhodes

    Great questions… Yes, my son and I have discussions daily. I have not fully outed myself by declaring to him that I’m an atheist, because he has a tendency not to keep secrets too well, but he knows that I am no longer a traditional believer in God by our discussions. In regards to my wife, well… that is a difficult one. She is one of those genuine believers in God and lives it out completely. She is so kind and compassionate and not one of them (if you know what I mean). She knows that I don’t want to have anything to do with God or church. I think she doesn’t ask me for fear of hearing the real answer. I have told her that out of my love for her and the tremendous respect I have for her, that I will go to church with her on Sunday mornings, but I don’t want to have any further involvement with anybody in the church, etc… The good news, she has a healthy disdain for modern Evangelical Christianity and just wants to keep her faith private now. She also has been beat up by the church and is reeling from many years of pain as a pastors wife. Like anything this conversation will come in time, but right now we enjoy each other, our boys, and the freedom we have.

  • Thomas Rhodes

    Thank you. It is great to communicate with others, like you, and to know that we are not alone…

  • Thomas Rhodes

    Well, the truth is my father left the home when I was 16yrs old. It crushed me, as you could imagine. I am the one who caught him in an adulterous affair and had to tell my mother. I really think that the void of being fatherless, was the driver that compelled me to look for something outside of my known existence. But the good news is my father returned after a number of years and today he is my best friend.

  • mason

    You’re wise to take your time and exercise caution with the atheist label. I’ve been out as an atheist 47 years and since being on the Clergy Project since 2012 I’ve seen how those who rush to share the “good news” to loved ones, the neighborhood, relatives, and the world at large they are free of theistic nonsense chains, typically experience a lot of abuse and often severe forms of persecution.

    There are so many labels to consider if you are shopping for one that fits and can make for a much smoother safer conversation e.g. humanist, freethinker, naturalist, rationalist, agnostic, secularist, pantheist, materialist, skeptic, irreligionist, atheist, heathen, pagan, infidel, apostate.

  • DoctorDJ

    Thanks, and sorry to pry.

    I’m always curious to see how others handle the issues of raising children and “mixed marriages” vis-a-vis religion.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Also “not very religious”, “not a church goer” “nothing, really” and other vague responses that are unlikely to spur a further discussion — unless you’ve been cornered by a proselytizer.

  • mason

    Thanks for sharing your story about “secret reader” of the Rational Doubt blog. I’m proud to be in the Fight Club with you and also you kind words about the Clergy Project are very appreciated. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8eda862e3b94b2590f08260271af1be89a92d9d0b68d2dc235c89a325a576eac.jpg

  • Thomas Rhodes

    Thank you for the feedback. I’m very comfortable in my new skin so to speak, and really don’t feel that need to rush or label myself anything at the moment. I know that I’m a humanist, freethinker, etc… now. I took me approximately three years to make the change, so I think it is fair to say it will take those around me at least three years or more. And honestly, I am OK with that. I have had so many years of pain from the church, I really don’t want to invite anymore or hear the patronizing comments like, “I’m praying for you…”

  • mason

    yeah, and a person is very fortunate if all they endure is the “I’m praying…..” 🙂
    Sounds like finding a real new equilibrium with your new life. Enjoy!

  • viaten

    I can see how having such a crisis at 16 can be devastating. I’m so glad your father has re-established a relationship with you.

    You apparently went all out on the religious path becoming a pastor and all. I can’t help wonder how things might have turned out if you were 19 or 20 when the crisis happened (or not at all) and you were perhaps better able to handle the situation emotionally and had another career path in the works. Would you still have looked to religion to help you out? Would you still have eventually become atheist? These are hypothetical questions but comment if you wish.

  • viaten

    “this conversation will come in time”
    With two apparently very genuinely sincere people, I’d like to know how that goes. There’s a lot to be learned from how people on both sides deal with such matters. May your relationship remain strong. Perhaps you’ll be posting another story here in the not too distant future.

  • viaten

    I was once at an “evolutionist/atheist vs creationist/theist” debate between two authors who had copies of their videos, books, magazines, and articles for sale at their tables in the lobby. During the break when they were at their tables, a young religious guy comes up to the atheist’s table and asks, “Which of these will challenge my faith the most?” He bought a couple of the items pointed out to him. I give him a lot of credit for challenging himself.

    It seems any “true” believer should be able to delve deeply into anything skeptical of their religious beliefs without guilt, or fear of having doubts raised. But then many such believers cling heavily to a variety of apologetic arguments to maintain their faith.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Good questions, viaten. I wonder about such things, too. and continue to be grateful for my own very mellow adolescence and my religiously mellow parents who helped me to avoid making any ultimately bad decisions during that time.

  • Illithid

    I find that I say this sort of thing a lot on this blog, but I’m continually impressed by people who have the courage and intellectual integrity not only to change their mind, but to face the ramifications of that change and to refuse to live a lie. Another person might have stayed in the pulpit and continued telling people what they wanted to hear. Much respect.

  • Brian Curtis

    One of the most important realizations is that abandoning a religious faith doesn’t mean you have to give up on being kind and helpful, or lose all hope of doing good in the world. All those things are still 100% available to you–you simply don’t need the religious garbage that used to go with it (and more often than not, get in the way of actually helping your fellow man).

  • carolyntclark

    Illithid, sometimes ministers have good reason to stay and preach, even after growing out of God belief. A spouse who would divorce and sue for separation of the kids (it’s happened),
    needing time to find a way to support the family, rent, kids in college etc.
    On TCP, folks who have been there and suffered terrible consequences of an unprepared exit, usually caution about having a well thought out and practical plan before the exit.

    IMO there is a very high % of unbelieving preachers, who haven’ yet even come to grips with their dissonance. They’re suffering mental angst thinking that they must be alone in this dilemma. They need to discover the camaraderie and help on The Clergy Project.

  • Otto

    While my wife and I were not nearly as religious, it was still a big shock when I told her I was no longer a Christian. She is a very curious sort so I knew in time she would come to me with questions, she did and we had great conversations. It actually made our marriage stronger. I think taking the patient route is wise. I wish you the best and thank you for sharing your story.

    And Dan Barker’s Godless was the first book I read after deconversion. I think I read it in 2 days at most.

  • Maine_Skeptic

    “…I wasn’t raised in the church at all. I really didn’t have an evangelical vulture circling….”

    I don’t think it’s necessary to have been raised in a church to have been socialized toward the dramatic conversion experience. I was raised in a church without fire-and-brimstone sermons, altar calls, and heavy emotional manipulation. Even so, my adolescence and young adulthood were in the Deep South, where the “turn or burn” onslaught was nonstop. There didn’t have to be a specific vulture circling because there were so many vultures in the general neighborhood.

    Did you know about Christianity and the propitiation doctrines BEFORE you went looking for religion?

  • Linda_LaScola

    when I told my husband that I didn’t believe anymore, he responded, “Well, it’s about time!”

    I think he told me he was agnostic on our second date.

  • mason

    And there’s a plethora of real things to have warranted faith in. 🙂 https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ab9d3cf11dd57c171dab1e1d202a091042a92664b1c13c5e9d6ab832be1d7a22.jpg

  • Illithid

    I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for taking a while to plan their exit. Especially with a family to support. Staying long-term would be living inauthentically, though; destructive to all involved. I admire the guts it takes to make the change.