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Originally published November 7, 2014 as a guest post on TeresaMacBain.com, it was then reposted here November 10. Teresa MacBain was my predecessor as Communications Director at The Clergy Project and had asked me to write about my deconversion for her personal blog, about how I had awoken from comfortable slumber to embrace the truth of reality. This was, of course, before Teresa would later return to the Christian faith, repurpose her blog, and remove my article from it haha! But have no fear, here my story of waking up remains. And it always will. To read more about my deconverison from confidently believing evangelical pastor to humanist writer and coach, go here and here. Enjoy!
Waking Up: A Story of Losing Faith But Finding Everything Else
I loved being a pastor. Sure, any job has its set of hang-ups and frustrations. But the community-building, organizational development, Sunday morning preaching, and in-depth classroom teaching, it was in my soul. I even loved all the hours-long meetings. I found the job not just fulfilling. I thrived on it. And by-and-large, it’s all I ever really wanted to do.
I loved my Christian faith. Sure, sometimes a difficult question rolls your way that forces you to rethink how you’ve come to approach a particular subject. But over the years, I had found a way to spin pretty much any biblical text and make it fit reasonably well within my own little theological system. It was never a perfect system, mind you, but pending all the information on the table, it was a good theological grid nonetheless. A progressive evangelical one. One that positioned itself by featuring the Great Big Epic Story of God. It was great and glorious, incredibly constructive, hopeful, and positive. It was a story where all humanity was embraced in his love and empowered to be the best version of themselves. Love, joy, and peace. Acceptance and community. And a redemptive plan that bestowed a sense of wonder and purpose upon every member of society.
I loved it! I loved it all.
And then I began to realize my faith was a fantastical dream.
And I began to wake up.
My journey from faith to atheism, from being an evangelical pastor to, well… not being an evangelical pastor, the journey was not an easy one for me. It took about two years. Two inwardly torturous years. And unlike many other pastors facing similar faith crises, I actually left the ministry prior to coming to grips with the fictionality of the Christian god. See, I left my profession in a last ditch effort to find God anew. To free up space in my heart, soul, and workweek where I could truly seek him without the distraction of everyone else’s spiritual journeys taking precedence over mine.
But I’m starting to get ahead of myself. Let me back up a bit…
And now that I’m backing up, with what do I begin? Well, when faced with all the Bible’s internal inconsistencies and its plethora of contradictions against historical record, archaeology, and science, many a follower gladly resigns his faith for something that sits a little easier. For me however, though all these disappointments do factor into my story, it by no means centers on them. And yet even as I fought to maintain my denial, the truth was beginning to break inevitable. I soon began to consciously realize that I was indeed becoming an atheist. That I needed to make some changes. That my eyes were opening and I was beginning to shake off the dream.
Over the course of an agonizing and daily battle to maintain some shard of faith, something along the line of a proverbial last straw broke in the spring of 2011. Much could be said here, but a nutshell will do for now. It was the moment I went to a group of professional peers, of other evangelical pastors, most of whom were significantly more conservative and fundamentalist than I was. I went to them seeking their help as I fought the good fight to preserve my faith. But it became the moment I realized their faith was no stronger than mine, that doubts had likewise overcome their belief in God and Bible, and that they had absolutely no word of encouragement or advise to share with me. Not anything “pastoral” anyway. Their counsel to me, if one can deem it as such: But what else are we to do with our lives? We are pastors. This is who we are. We can’t just stop being pastors simply because we’re not sure we believe in God anymore…
And here I was the progressive often questioned as being too liberal… Here I thought these guys were gonna help strengthen my faith, not merely accept the doubt… Really?
And more questions: Is this what it means to remain a committed pastor? Are these the good guys??? Those who publicly outcast gays and condemn heathens to hell, even as they’re privately convinced that their god is most likely myth…
I couldn’t do it anymore.
My eyes had been opened and now refused to close.
The dream was ending.
And yet, even here, I continued to hold out for the possibility, as slight as it may have been, that God might still exist. Even though an immense forest of spiritual isolation and inner emptiness continued to thicken, I still wanted God, needed God, longed for God. I couldn’t just give him up. And so I kept praying and holding out for the day that he would answer my prayer and revive my sense of faith.
But in the meanwhile, I needed to make some hard decisions. One in particular. What to do with my profession. How could I continue pastoring, preaching, teaching, if I was becoming increasingly convinced that it wasn’t true?
So even as I continued my desperate prayers to the god I called Father, I reasoned it like this: Either (1) Christianity is myth… And if this is the case I simply cannot allow myself to knowingly perpetuate false truths. If God is not real, I cannot condemn people to an imaginary hell and a life of psychological torment. I just cannot. I reject this as a possible pathway. Either that or (2) if there is some sort of god out there, I have clearly lost all ability to discern such truths. And the dear sweet people of this church, they deserve someone who can. So either Christian ministry is unfit for this world or I am unfit for Christian ministry. But either way, I need to transition out.
And since I still held hope for the restoration of my own faith, I wanted to transition out in a way that left intact the faith of my congregants. Maybe I had lost all ability to hold my belief-system together, but I didn’t want to be responsible for the crippling of that in others as well.
So how, then, was I to break the news to my church? What was I to say? I loved these people dearly. In the four years that my family and I had been there, they had done nothing but trust and embrace us. They were a true community of love and grace, an exceptional embodiment of servanthood. They deserved an answer. Why was I leaving them?
I eventually sorted those questions out. And there too, the church’s response was supportive and rather beautiful. But I also had more logistical matters to deal with.
One of the greatest challenges for an unbelieving pastor is often determining a new profession. How to provide for one’s family and ensure there is bread for the table. Meat and potatoes are good too. Pasta or pizza on occasion. In other words, if professional experience and educational degrees suddenly lose all significance, what the hell is one to do for money?
Thankfully, I had an old friend who was currently managing the downtown Chicago steakhouse I had waited on tables at through seminary. Before my transition even began, I went to him and secured my old job back. It was a good job, actually much more profitable than any of my ministry positions had ever been. Unfortunately however, few former pastors find such connections to maximize. And the vast majority of them seem forced to either remain in ministry or accept a lifetime at minimum wage. Not an easy set of choices…
But by the end of 2012, I would be settled into my new job and enjoying the freedom that allowed me to simply be me. To be me. No longer constrained by a profession that was contingent on the construction of my most inner beliefs. And early the following year, yes, I would finally come to accept the impossibility of the god found in the Christian Bible. And I would come out publically as an atheist. For a time, I would be angry and bitter, feeling manipulated by religion and duped by God. I would feel those things at first. It would not be an easy transition. In fact, it was kind of murderously brutal, actually. But eventually, the spiritual numbness would recede and I would begin to feel alive again. And actually, quite joyful.
More joyful without Jesus.
Today, nearly two years into my public atheism — into my sanity, my life is full and exciting. Though divorced, I maintain a strong and quite healthy relationship with my ex-wife. And my children — oh, my children! — they are a light to my life, my joy and hope! I remain at the steakhouse, currently functioning in their customer service position.
But some of the most exciting opportunities I’ve seen have been in relating with other former pastors such as myself. The fundamentalist Bible school and seminary that I attended has unknowingly produced a group of “heretics” that meet online and in real life, providing one another a sort of group therapy, post-indoctrination. This year I also became a member of the Clergy Project, a kind of safe-haven oasis for unbelieving pastors, those both former and still active. And now I’ve also most recently joined the ranks of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
All this to say, my life post-faith continues. And it continues well! It was dark and ugly for a good long time. But I have made it through the valley to discover the sun shining vibrant upon the hillside. I am daily making new friends and expanding my connections in new communities. And I am having an absolutely fantastic time. I really had enjoyed the dream of Christianity and its god. True, it really was a beautiful existence as I experienced it. But, alas, it was a dream nonetheless, and a delusional one at that. And as I’m still only beginning to discover, the greatest part of having delusions is waking up from them.
Thank godlessness, I am now awake and I AM ALIVE!
Follow more of my post-faith journey here:
“Grieving God: A Hard Story That Ends Well”
Join me for the whole damn enchilada:
The Rise and Fall of Faith: A God-to-Godless Story for Christians and Atheists