[The backlash has begun, so I must clarify. My purpose in sharing Jeff’s story is not to glorify atheism or to come out as an atheist myself. (Huh?) Nor do I claim that his recollections are exactly what others involved would remember. But I am convinced that prevention and healing can only come through understanding, and understanding can only come from truly listening to the person who lived it. Please read from that perspective.]
Meet Jeff Trueman:
Church-planter in Italy.
In 2005, after forty years of faith and ministry, Jeff admitted to himself and to the world that he could no longer live as a Christian. “I consider myself an atheist. By that I mean that I do not believe in a God or gods. However, technically, I could be considered an agnostic, because I cannot say that I know there is no God or gods.”
I have no doubt that others in local pulpits and on faraway fields have waged battles similar to Jeff’s. Some have reconciled with faith, others live as if they have, and yet others, like Jeff, have rejected it all. What leads away from faith? What might protect it? And what can we learn when we engage in conversation with those who become atheists?
I will offer no additional explanation or analysis. There is power in narrative—in a story’s ability to define the undefinable. This is Jeff Trueman’s.
“My faith was sincere and heartfelt. My thirst for God was painfully genuine. It was my desire and regular prayer that I’d be [as good a] Christian as a saved sinner can be, the child of God that Jesus suffered and died to procure.”
At what age were you saved and under what circumstances?
Religiously, I was raised as a nominal Protestant Christian. For several summers, as a child, I attended a Christian summer camp. It was overtly evangelistic and undoubtedly planted ideas that later contributed to my conversion.
In high school, I had classmates who were born-again Christians and vocal witnesses. They’d corner me on occasion, trying to convince me to “trust Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.” I enjoyed debating with them from my perspective as an agnostic. I respected their dedication and sense of purpose in life, but I just couldn’t buy into the whole Jesus thing they said was at the root of it.
Like many teens, I struggled with feelings of self-doubt and loneliness. While having a jovial exterior, my interior life was quite a bit more serious. My teen angst came into sharper focus as my senior year of high school progressed and I had to think about college and career.
One Sunday, after a particularly depressing Saturday night, I kept my promise to a pretty blonde believer to go with her to church. To my genuine surprise, I found myself getting emotionally involved with the offer of forgiveness and new life that this Jesus was extending.
I found myself crying out to God for forgiveness and told him that, if he wanted it, he could have my life—lock, stock and barrel.
I surrendered completely to him. It was an incredible experience and it brought unbelievable relief to my struggling soul.
I immediately told some of my Christian classmates about my experience and how I was now a Christian as well. They took me under their wing, got me started on reading the Bible and introduced me to a good church and some mature Christians who could disciple me. I was treated as a Trophy of Grace, and made to feel incredibly welcome in this new Family of Faith. It was a very heady experience for this once-lonely teenager!
As I read the Bible and was discipled, I came to understand the actual “mechanics” of the Gospel message and how redemption works. As my understanding grew, I called out to God for forgiveness. I must have prayed a version of The Sinner’s Prayer dozens of times during that first year, just to be sure I had it right!
With hindsight, how do you analyze your conversion today?
What I experienced was not so different from what many others have experienced by “converting” to other religions or ideologies. The heady sense of relief is understandable. I was a teen, burdened with all that baggage, and I was able to give it all over to someone else! God was now responsible for my life. He would watch over me, care for me, guide me through the maze I faced and provide for me. He had accepted me for who I was and was going to work with me to make me that person he wanted me to become.
I was forgiven. I was accepted. I had a future, a purpose in life.
It really was a genuine conversion—a paradigm-changer for me. A whole new way of seeing myself, others and life itself. Deep emotional needs were being met in the context of this new paradigm, and deep psycho/social needs were met in the context of my new “family,” the church.
After the usual “honeymoon phase” of the experience, I started thinking about it less emotionally and more rationally. That’s when the questions and doubts began. But, of course, my mentors had answers for all of that, calling my questions “tactics of the Evil One” that needed to be resisted by faith. It was spiritual warfare and I needed to learn the tools to defeat The Enemy. What they were actually doing, albeit sincerely, was performing a spiritual lobotomy, guaranteeing I wouldn’t think about my doubts and the reasoning behind them.
How long did you believe and live as a Christian?
Forty years—from 1965 to 2005.
“I’ve been asked if I am angry at having “wasted” such a large portion of my life promoting an ideology that I can no longer believe in. In the first year or two after giving up on the Christian faith, I did struggle some with occasional anger. But, it didn’t take long for me to mature out of that posture.”
Was your shared faith a crucial component of meeting and marrying your wife?
My wife and I met at Bible college, as we both were preparing for full-time Christian ministry. We wouldn’t and couldn’t have joined our lives unless we shared a common commitment to God and his Word. Godliness was as much a qualification as the various other levels of attraction.
When and why did you begin to consider a life in overseas ministry?
Immediately upon accepting Christ, I was told I needed to share my faith with others, to be a witness to my family and friends. As I put that precept into practice, I found that that was really all I wanted to do! I was a senior in high school and making career decisions, and there was no career I wanted more than to tell others about Jesus full-time.
I prayed a lot about it and finally decided on Columbia Bible College. I was there for the entire 4-year Bachelor program. You don’t get out of CBC (now Columbia International University) without being seriously challenged about serving as a foreign missionary. Passionately wanting to be in the center of God’s will, I responded to that challenge somewhere during my sophomore year. I was willing to stay stateside, but planning to go overseas. I just needed God to tell me where.
Upon graduation, still waiting for clear guidance from God regarding missions, I accepted a call to serve as a youth pastor in a church in Sarasota, Florida. From there, my wife and I taught for a year in a large Christian school, then it was on to seminary near Philadelphia. I was asked to be the interim pastor at a church in northeast Philadelphia. Within a few months, the pulpit committee asked if I would be their pastor. After due consideration, my wife and I accepted the call.
What drew you to the particular form of ministry you chose?
At first, ignorance and enthusiasm. I wanted to serve God full-time and the only ministry I knew about at the time of sensing my “call” to ministry was preaching and teaching.
One evening after our 3rd annual missions conference at the church I was pastoring, our speaker, George Murray, presented my wife and me with his vision of building a church-planting team in Italy. A team of missionaries, each with a different and complimentary gift-mix. He wanted us to join this team. That brought missions back into the forefront for both my wife and me. We could see ourselves in that kind of work.
I gave the church my notice, we did support-raising and arrived in Italy in September of 1977.
Do you see any value or gain in having believed and lived as a Christian during those years?
Of course! I realize that I cannot separate the person I am today from the influence of the evangelical world in which I lived for so long. My values were shaped, if not created, by my faith community and its teachings. Despite its many faults, Christianity brings a lot of good things to the table. It directed me toward compassion and kindness in a way I’m not sure a secular environment would have. It reinforced my own natural passion for justice and honesty. It encouraged a love for nature that I believe to be fundamental to any conscientious resident in the biosphere.
Christianity gave me a platform from which to minister to people. As a missionary pastor, I had the right and responsibility to get involved in their lives and try and help them sort out their very real problems.
Even if the doctrinal foundation under that platform was untenable, I still cannot overestimate the privilege it provided to touch lives. And, I can look back and name people whose lives are better today because of my ministry. I value that highly.
Christianity isn’t the only ideological system that teaches and reinforces quality character. But, my culture gave me Christianity, and I don’t regret it.
“The whole process took so many years. When I finally gave myself permission to ask the hard questions and accept the answers, no matter where they led, I was relieved to finally be honest with myself.”
At what point did you begin to doubt the existence of God?
I started having serious questions not long after my conversion, but I was told this was “normal” and taught how to deal with them as attacks of The Enemy. Right from the start, I would read things in the Bible that seemed to contradict reality as I experienced it.” This spiritual battle continued, off and on, for years, growing in intensity and frequency. While I regularly beat myself up for being “of such little faith,” I was also increasingly frustrated with God for not playing by the rules—rules that he himself laid down in his word.
As my disappointment with God grew, so did my anger at him.
Then, one day while jogging, I had an epiphany! It hit me like a bolt from the blue: Jeff, the God you’re angry at doesn’t exist. Maybe there is a God. Maybe not. But, if he exists, he’s not as you’ve imagined him and he’s not playing by the rules you’ve understood from all your studying and reading.”
I returned home from my jog both relieved and devastated. Relieved because I finally had an explanation as to why, for me, Christianity just didn’t seem to work. But, devastated because I felt I had lost my Center.
Did anything cause or precipitate the doubt?
On the one hand, I can honestly say that no big event, no crisis, shook my faith. I have no horror stories. I loved the Bible and the idea that I had a communication directly from God to me. I loved being part of the international Christian family, “accepted in the beloved” no matter where I went in the world. I loved the music and good preaching. I was never mistreated or abused by the Church.
My problem was that I couldn’t stop thinking. I asked questions and all too often the answers just didn’t measure up. I blamed myself for not being spiritual enough, for not having enough faith. For years, I combated the doubts, but the suspicions lingered there in the back of my mind.
The second element that led to my doubting God was that Christianity just didn’t seem to work. I was taught the promises of God and then found that all too often he didn’t come through on them.
It seemed that the Christian experience was kept alive by our own efforts. Like an old-time pump pipe organ, stop pumping and the music dies. Stop reading the Bible, attending church, listening to sermons, reading Christian books, and the experience starts to fade.
I longed for and prayed for the promises in John 7. But, apart from moments of exuberance after a worship service or a particularly good quiet time, my experience in life and ministry was that I didn’t have the overflowing river of Living Water Jesus had promised.
I didn’t go from evangelical believer to atheist in one fell swoop. Even after I realized I had lost confidence in some cardinal elements of evangelical orthodoxy and felt constrained to leave the ministry, I still considered myself a Christian.
But there really was little or nothing in the Christian experience that required God’s presence to explain. It was all explainable by simple reason or psychology.
If I was honest and took off the spiritual labels we put on it, it all looked strangely like a big mind game. I desperately didn’t want that to be true—but the suspicion haunted me.
Further pondering led me to the realization that I was actually more of a deist than a theist. From deist, I eventually had to admit that I lived my life as if there were no god at all, and I had no confidence that there was one.
So, I felt constrained to admit that I was an atheist.
Did you have sounding boards to process with as you were grappling with your questions?
During my years in Italy, I’d found it difficult to talk with colleagues or mission leaders about my struggles. It would have been ministerial suicide to confess my doubts to my colleagues. I did talk with our mission director a couple of times during those years. He was sympathetic, but offered no counsel. I think he felt (or hoped!) it was one of the passages the believer goes through, a Dark Night of the Soul, and that I’d eventually come out of it closer to God than ever.
I put out some strong hints to some of my coworkers, thinking maybe one of them would approach me. No one did.
Once, at a prayer meeting for missionary men, the leader asked us to go around the circle and tell one joy in our ministry that year, one disappointment and tell the group if we felt we had compromised our integrity at any point that year. When it was my turn, I told the guys that I felt I compromised my integrity every morning that I got out of bed in Italy. I expected some questions, but got none.
We’re all afraid of vulnerability, and no one is more afraid of it than missionaries.
Who were the first people you told about your “deconversion”?
Once again, this was a process, not an event. When we returned to the USA for good, having left the ministry, I felt I needed to tell our children what was going on. They were all adults by then. So, I had a talk with each of them.
Our oldest son smiled and said, “Dad, I’m just wondering what took you so long!?” He was already in a similar place and had been there for a number of years. Our oldest daughter took it well, even though at the time she was still something of an evangelical Christian. She assured me of her love and trust. She knows me and believes in the integrity of my journey. Our next daughter was very sympathetic. She admitted that she was in a similar deconversion process and for similar reasons. Our youngest son, after years of deep thinking on the matter, has come to a similar place as mine.
Each child has told me that I had no negative impact on their Christian faith, that they were not encouraged to leave the faith by me or my example. Each told me that they had been in the process long before they knew anything about my struggles.
Like me, they simply couldn’t get Christianity to square with reality, and they couldn’t live in a fantasy with any sense of integrity.
As for telling my wife, she and I had discussed my struggles numerous times over the years and she basically assumed, like our mission director, that it was another Dark Night of the Soul. When I finally made the unilateral decision to leave the ministry, she was shocked and heartbroken. I knew she would be, and this contributed to me delaying the decision. She was in genuine mourning for more than a year, and still is to some degree.
How did you feel about making your disbelief known to others outside the family?
Initially, there was a fear of losing my identity. Psychologically, we each need a “place” where we’re known and esteemed. A social context in which we live, where we can relax and be ourselves. A sense of home.
After years in public ministry, my “place” was well-established as a Christian leader, a missionary, pastor, teacher. In my little world, I was esteemed and respected, valued and loved. Losing my faith and “coming out” would destroy all that. It would leave me “homeless,” and that definitely scared me.
Related to that was knowing how much my disbelief would hurt the many people I knew and loved in that evangelical world I called Home. People in whose lives I had invested. People who loved me as their friend and pastor. I hated hurting them.
How did you finally make your abandonment of faith known?
I wanted to get it out there myself, in some sort of public statement. But that seemed ludicrous to me. In the end, I wrote a paragraph and posted it on my Facebook page. In the announcement, I included my email address in case anyone wanted any clarification. That definitely did the trick, and opened the door to a lot of corresponding with concerned friends.
How did friends who were believers respond to your decision?
They responded in varying ways. All were shocked at first. Some admitted that they were angry. Some tried to argue me back to the fold. A few were accusatory, saying I had chosen “the path of least resistance.” A few seemed convinced I had a secret moral failure in my life that I had chosen to pursue. I think these people fully expected that subsequent news about me would include that I had left my wife to live with another woman. I don’t doubt they were a bit disappointed to learn that my wife and I are still very much together.
But, for the most part, the ones who contacted me expressed sadness and disappointment, but ended by assuring me of their continued love and prayers.
How did the mission respond?
It didn’t respond at all. I have yet to hear anything on the subject from my mission or any of my missionary colleagues. And I find that troubling, but not totally unexpected. As I mentioned earlier, over my final years in Italy, I had put out what I felt were obvious declarations of distress, thinking someone in the mission would approach me on the subject, offering some pastoral care or something. I got nothing, either before I quit or after.
Do you personally know other missionaries/pastors who seriously doubt or disbelieve, but have chosen to remain in spiritual leadership?
One or two have confided in me their serious doubts about the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture and other evangelical orthodoxies. They have somehow managed to live with the dissonance and continue in ministry. In at least one case, I’m convinced it’s largely fear of losing their “place” and their financial security that has kept them from acting honestly.
“I miss the esthetics of the faith: the fellowshipping, the worship singing, the comfort of the rites and rituals. If I could only believe the doctrines, I’d go back to all that in a minute.”
What did you gain when you began living/identifying as an atheist?
Integrity: I was finally able to be the person I truly am. No more posing or posturing. No more religious “oughts” directing my thinking.
Freedom: I was free to act on my own merit, according to my own sense of right and wrong. Having shed the orthodox blueprint for Truth, I was free to do my own thinking, my own research, and come to my own conclusions.
Genuineness: This is probably the bottom line. I was able to be a genuine person.
What did you lose when you began living/identifying as an atheist?
Christianity had been my paradigm for 40 years. The church had been my family, my life-context for all that time. I still feel “homeless” to a real degree, though I’ve gotten used to it by now. We all want to feel significant someplace. And I was something of a leader in this community. I lost that prestige immediately. It was exchanged for disdain. Love was replaced by fear and diffidence.
In what way(s) are you a different person today because you’ve embraced atheism?
I didn’t “embrace atheism.” Atheism isn’t a belief system with its own orthodoxy that one embraces, anymore than baldness is a hairstyle. Atheism—or, more accurately in my case, agnosticism—is what is left after one gives up belief in gods.
That said, I’m no different at all today. I am still the very same “Jeff” that my Christian friends knew back then. If we were to spend an evening together, I think they’d see that I’m still the same guy, maybe even better.
But, I do feel that I am now a more honest person than I was then. I can give honest answers to honest questions in a way I couldn’t as a believer, when I had to answer with “orthodoxy.” I have no hidden agendas in my friendships now. I am not responsible for your eternal destiny, so I can be with you as I feel I should be with you.
What do you view as hardest: living as a Christian or as an atheist?
I’d say they both have their difficulties. One significant difference for me is that the Christian has a support group that is lacking for the atheist. The Christian has the church, where wounds are licked by loving family members, shaken beliefs are strengthened, flagging enthusiasm is stoked through worship, questions are answered, etc. The atheist, on the other hand, is usually pretty much alone.
If Christians feel maltreated by society at large, much more so the atheist. Things are changing as the “nones” grow in number, but atheists remain a misunderstood and despised sector of our society.
All things being equal (which they never are), I’d say it takes more courage to openly live as an atheist than as a Christian, in our American society.
What do you view as most hopeful: living as a Christian or as an atheist?
If a person can believe and put himself/herself into the Bible paradigm, then there is obviously great hope to be found in Christianity. It is the archetype of all Happily Ever After scenarios. But, for me, it is just fantasy, and the hope it whips up is mere emotion, with no real life substance.
The atheist has no hope beyond the grave. At least, nothing he or she can count on. This life is all there is. But that means he should make the most of it. Enjoy every minute of it. Invest in the good of those who come behind him, who will be left after he is gone. As for death, it need not hold any fear for the nonbeliever. If there does prove to be some sort of afterlife, I am absolutely certain it won’t be the one depicted by Christianity.
What do you view as most fulfilling: living as a Christian or as an atheist?
When I embraced Christianity by faith, I believed it to be a picture of how things really are. For years, the plotline gave my life meaning, as long as I didn’t look too closely. But, it’s my nature to look closely. I simply couldn’t hang onto that belief in the face of daily reality. It took years for me to be willing to face that fact.
When, at last, I was willing to admit to myself that my faith was built on fiction, I found myself with a potpourri of feelings: sadness, loss, relief, hypocrisy, loneliness, and not a little anger.
I felt I was living a lie. I was trapped in that lie because I was one of its paid storytellers. I had built my entire life on the veracity of the Story. Giving it up wasn’t merely changing jobs. It was changing life as I knew it.
But to go on with the game after I knew the truth was unthinkable. As it was, the final years it took to extricate myself from it all almost killed me…literally.
So, which do I find most fulfilling? Reality. Yes, I look back with nostalgia on occasion. But, I’ve never once, in the ten years I’ve been out of Christianity, doubted the wisdom and the rightness of my decision to leave it in my past. Learning to live in the real world has certainly had its challenges, and it’s generated its own set of questions. But, in the end, it’s far more satisfying.
Christian belief is a faith posture. And, in my experience, faith cannot be commanded. Like romantic love, there is a personal, subjective element to it that cannot be simply willed into existence. Faith involves a personal feeling of confidence in the object of that faith. If a believer loses confidence in the cardinal objects of his/her faith, then deconversion is inevitable, whether kept private or openly admitted.
I very much wanted to live my life to its end as a believer, serving my God to the end of my days. But, as the years passed and the unanswered questions accumulated, I found it increasingly difficult to maintain confidence in the credibility of the Bible and the picture of reality it proposes.
I called on God continually to help me understand, to “help my unbelief.” What I got back was a prooftext, a Bible PostIt, calling on me to do the very thing I was finding impossible: “Trust in The Lord with all your heart. Don’t lean on your own understanding….”
Over and over again, for years, I would “re-up” and commit myself to “trust,” to have confidence in God and His Word. To try and stop thinking, looking for answers…to not use my brain, the mind that He gave me and that was trying to understand, to reconcile the Biblical paradigm with life as I saw it and lived it, with the world that science was unveiling with ever more evidence.
But, as I tried to put that text into practice, the dissonance only grew greater, and my sense of dishonesty grew with it. Some people can live in relative peace with accumulating apparent contradictions. I, for whatever reason, cannot.
God knows I tried.
Please join the conversation. What strikes you from this interview? How have you personally experienced doubt? How does this description of rejected faith impact you? If you can do so without attacking Jeff, leave a comment below and use the “Like” and “Share” buttons at your convenience. (There are now 2 comment options: the Facebook box and the WordPress box.) To subscribe to the blog, email firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t forget to add me on Facebook!