A Note From A Former Baptist Preacher…

“Fundamentalism isn’t about religion. It’s about power” – Salman Rushdie

I was having a conversation with Ernest Perce, a friend of mine who is also an atheist and a fellow State Director for American Atheists, Inc. (Pennsylvania). Like myself, he is also a former minister, and we have a lot in common. We are about the same age, we both have families and we were both firebrand Preachers of God’s Holy Word in all of it’s brimstone and sulfur glory. We worked tirelessly for the advancement of the Gospel and made our best (and very successful) efforts to convince anyone and everyone that in spite of all the judgment, condemnation, and flat-out horrific acts of violence on the part of God against humanity, He loved us and that there was joy unimaginable in a life dedicated to the Lord Jesus Christ. Like many of us who served God in a “holy capacity,” Ernest and I carry a lot of baggage, and sometime those bags get extremely burdensome.

Wonder Working Power…

One of the things that irritates me most about arguing with a Christian is when they tell me that I wasn’t a “true Christian,” that I had could never have “known Jesus” if I am an atheist now.  I can give you scriptural references that they used, none of which matter, but suffice to say, they are clueless in their arrogance, hubris and piety to suggest that I was “faking it.

Most of us were not faking it, and like Ernest, we believed with every fiber of our being that we were anointed, called directly by God into the ministry and that we were doing his work for the good of all mankind.  When we behaved badly, as many of us often did, we justified it by telling ourselves that because we were doing such great works for God, Satan had singled us out for an endless stream of temptations in our lives so that God could test our loyalty, force us into humility, bless with forgiveness and usher us into redemption.

We believed in the “wonder working power” of God, that he charged us with the responsibility to care for and nurture the souls of our congregations, to keep their hearts and minds full of the “Word of God,” and to keep the world out.

Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen…

As Ministers, we were not just glad-handing, side-hugging prayer warriors that would meet and greet our flocks with wide smiles, reassuring words and cock-sure grins that oozed assurances of a grand life in mansions that stood along streets of gold, no matter what trials and tribulations we had to endure in the here-and-now.  There may be suffering in this life, etc., etc.

As Ministers, we were also the go-to guys for God. When the pomp and circumstance of the worship service was over, when the musicians went home and the choir hung up their robes and when the church building sat idle, we would be called on to minister to those who were in great need.

When they came to us so distraught from the circumstances in their lives that they were at the point of giving up, they sought us out for counseling.  But when they confided in us of their struggles with internal feelings of loathing and self-doubt, searching for reassurance or perhaps validation, we had no compunction about telling them just what the Lord expected from them, and quite often those words were hurtful.  But we believed they needed to hear them because God doesn’t mince words when it comes to sin, after all.  Tough love, etc., etc.

Weapons of Mass Destruction…

People often ask why so many of us who are former Ministers are so strident and seemingly unbending in our disdain for the accommodationists mindset.  They wonder why we go out of our way to “blaspheme,” and why we are ill content to leave alone the personal beliefs of others.  They ask us why we are so damned meddlesome and almost evangelical in our efforts to promote reason, logic, skepticism and freethought.  Well, let me enlighten y0u…

In the hands of the layman, religion is still a formidable weapon against the weak-minded, lonely and distraught.  The average Christian might witness to a hundred people in their lifetime, and maybe ten will “accept Christ.”  Out of those ten, a few will end up joining the church and getting involved.  The layman’s job is now done, and aside from the friendships that are formed and the occasional consolatory shoulder offered, he or she has done their job of winning the soul.  These new converts are now at the mercy of the Pastor.

In the hands of the Minister, particularly the charismatic one, religion is a weapon of mass destruction. By virtue of our reach, our position in the community and the influence over our flocks, the Minister has the ability to touch the lives of thousands and thousands of people. And the damage we have done and that Ministers, Preachers, Pastors and Priests are still doing to those who are under their care is loathsome.

When I look back at the hundreds of lives I have negatively impacted with religion, I cringe. When I think of those who have come to me for counseling, distraught and already confused by their indoctrination, and how I proceeded to destroy their sense of self-respect, further convincing them that they were an abomination in the eyes of God and that their besetting sins would assure them a defeated life in the here-and-now and also an eternity in hell, I wince.  What I know now to be unthinkable, I believed then to be righteous.

 All My Bags Are Packed…

My friend, Ernest, was a Faith Healer. I was a Nouthetic Counselor.  You know what a Faith Healer is. A Nouthetic Counselor offers psychological therapy solely based on Scripture. Together we have destroyed hundreds of lives.  Together we carry the baggage of these lives each and every day, and we open them up every time we read a story that exposes the evils that come from religious indoctrination.

  • When we read about the child that died at the hands of a medical charlatan, we open a bag.
  • When we hear about the teenage girl who was disowned and kicked out of her house because she got pregnant, we open a bag.
  • When we watch the story about the young man who took his own life because he could not bear being called “faggot” one more time, we open a bag.
  • When we read about the First Amendment being trampled on like a wayward piece of trash, we open a bag.
  • When we are told about the old woman who was conned out of her life savings by a nefarious televangelist, we open a bag.

We open a lot of bags, and we carry these bags with us because they are a part of who we were, and we need them as a constant reminder. Not just as a reminder of what the realities are in a world that is poisoned by the specter of religion, but also of what could be.  Of what is possible.  We are the ghosts of Christmas future, and we work diligently to convince the world or anyone who will listen to us to give pause to the red flags we raise, because much like like those that warn coastal residents of an impending storm, our flags are a warning that something wicked this way comes.  We know from where we speak…

You’re Doin’ It Wrong…

The Faith Healer can no more cure cancer than the Nouthetic Counselor can cure homosexuality, because faith healing does not work and you cannot “cure” homosexuality.  The faith healer may genuinely believe that they have “god-given” powers to heal the sick, but when the healing does not work, they do not even entertain the idea that there is something wrong with what they are doing. The faith healer does not question their abilities or methods because they believe what Scripture says about healing, and they believe they have the power to heal. Their fierce devotion to a perfect God and their blind obedience to an inerrant Scripture allows for no other explanation of the failed healing other than spiritual weakness on the part of the sick who are obviously “doing it wrong.” Thus, the faith healer is left with no other option than to tell the afflicted that remain in their condition due to a lack of faith.

When you are finished reading here, I urge you to wander on over to the No God Blog and read Ernest Perce’s story.   Ernest was a Faith Healer of some renown and his story offers much insight into that world, and chronicle his eventual loss of faith and why he had decided to become an activist.

As for me, I was part of a Reparative Therapy Ministry that was so fundamentally anti-LGBT that it put Exodus International and the Bachmann’s to shame. Some of my idols and mentors included Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.  My bigotry against homosexuals was legendary, and in the course of my years as a counselor, I destroyed the lives of some wonderful people who needed only to be told that they were just fine the way they were born, and that they were not a aberration.

It was not the sick who were doing it wrong. It was not the homosexual who was doing it wrong.  It was people like Ernest and myself who were doing it wrong, filling up bag after bag after bag with the memories of those who sat before us, in tears and in pain, looking for solace in a God who did not exist.

Obligations…

Former Ministers are unique in the atheist movement, and we are often maligned for being too outspoken.  We are accused of damaging the efforts of those who are trying to make inroads with the religious community. We are chastised for being polemic and are often told rather plainly to shut the fuck up.

But we cannot, because we know things about religion and about the inner workings of the church and ministries that the layman does not. We were “them.”  We were “they.” We were part, parcel and cause of the very things that make religion the poison that it is, and we have an obligation to call it as we see it. Therein lies our redemption, not to a god or mythical savior, but to our fellow humans who we have done a grave disservice to.

We have an obligation to expose the dark underbelly of religion as only those who were “behind the scenes” are able to. We have an obligation to call out the nefarious efforts by the religious right in their attempts to infiltrate the lives of every living human being on the planet and to keep in the forefront of every thinking mind as many examples of the damage that the religion machine churns out every day, because we were once part of that machine.

At The End Of The Day…

When it is time to shut out the lights and rest our minds and bodies, we ask ourselves if we had done enough. We ask ourselves if we have used our unique experiences as Ministers in the fight to set free the minds that are shackled in dogma and chained to doctrine to their full potential for the day. The answer is almost always “no,” and we allot a few more minutes to compile mental lists of what we will do tomorrow.  There is always more to do.

Yes, we are strident.  But we have to be.  This is our calling, but it comes not from an imaginary god.  It comes from within. Those whose lives we have destroyed deserve nothing less than our best efforts to do all that we can toward a goal of eradicating the bigotry, discrimination and hatred that the religious community so often perpetrates against the human race and calling to the attention of the world that we are mad as hell and we are not going to take it.

We are not afraid, and we know things.  Terrible things. We will not go quietly into that good night until we have fought with full measure.  We can do no less…

  68 comments for “A Note From A Former Baptist Preacher…

  1. January 11, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    Powerful stuff.

  2. otrame
    January 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    Okay. You made me cry.

    You kind of broke my heart a little. You have sinned and you cannot be washed clean in the blood of the lamb because you know that all that gets you is bloody. Fortunately you can work to undo some of what you have done, which is what you are doing. While it is true that “none but ourselves can free our minds” you can help point the way. Stridently, blasphemously…

    Beautifully.

    I don’t know if it is any consolation, but the very fact that you really believed it, that you approached what you did with a fundamental belief in the the value of the truth, is what led you to find the truth, and your own freedom. Your freedom will help others be free. Of course it will only help those who actually believe in the value of truth, but there are a lot of people like you were out there and if you keep talking you can show them where the truth really is.

    We all do wrong. Paul was right about that. And as atheists we don’t get to pretend everything is okay because somebody supposedly got nailed to a tree. We have to live with what we did wrong. Nothing that you do now will free you from what you did then. But you can’t let that cripple you. If you do, then you can’t help others trapped as you were. We all do wrong. Once we realize it, if we can’t fix it directly we can at least try to make up for it in other ways. I honestly believe that you are working to make this a better world. I think you do make this a better world. That is the best you can do.

    • Al Stefanelli
      January 11, 2012 at 1:05 pm

      Wow, man.. Thank you for that. Seriously.

      • rapiddominance
        January 11, 2012 at 6:15 pm

        This comment says a lot about the love, the long-suffering, and the ability and willingness to forgive that exist within the atheist community.

        That the free thought crowd not only forgives, but takes in as its own, a former pastor who wrought devastation in the wake of his proselytizing activities, should not go unnoticed by those who profess a monopoly over forgiveness and spiritual healing.

        I’m curious, Al–whenever you return to the people you once pastored and tell them that the things you used to tell them were not only untrue but also dangerous, what kind of responses do you get?

        And also, because Christians often pride themselves on THEIR ability to forgive, I wonder how they have responded when you apologized to them for where you led them?

        If this is too personal, I understand. Its amazing how much you open yourself up to people already.

        • Al Stefanelli
          January 11, 2012 at 8:27 pm

          Rapid, Unfortunately, the responses I have gotten from those who I have been able to find have been less than welcoming, and there was little in the way of forgiveness from those who I have managed to contact. The Freethought crowd usually acts more “Christ like” than most Christians I know. As far as things being personal, well, I am a public figure of sorts and my life is largely lived in a glass house. It needs to be that way. Transparency, and all that. Thank you for your comments.

          • rapiddominance
            January 12, 2012 at 2:06 pm

            So when is transparency necessary and when is it not? Under democratic rule, we expect our elected leaders to act openly (though we acknowledge a few exceptional circumstances). But democratic peoples also recognize a place and necessity for anonymous action.

            What I liked most about your “atheist pamphlet” idea was probably not at the top of YOUR list. Not that you’re too dumb to see it, but because you had a whole other set of priorities at the time of writing. That is, its a way for members of your community who have difficulties with opening up to be MORE transparent. By degrees. A way to “get involved”, “be yourself”, and “shape the world”. Your idea allows so many adaptations that people of all sort of talents and limitations can get involved and not only serve their communities but grow as individuals (more so, in a team atmosphere).

          • Al Stefanelli
            January 12, 2012 at 2:13 pm

            Transparency is necessary in many area, but it should be voluntary. In the public sector, I reason that transparency should be the modus operandi, but again, voluntarily. If someone is going to be a public figure, they might consider a platform of transparency. However, not everything need be out there for the world to see. The question is choice, though. I choose transparency in the things I reveal about myself to the general public based on a very private set of criteria. There is, of course, a definite place for anonymity and that should never be changed.

            No, the pamphlet was not at the top of my list, but I always keep postcards from my Freethought group on hand, as well as my American Atheist business cards. I also carry full color copies of the cover of my book, with my author website printed on it that I leave in hospital waiting rooms, etc.

            As you observed, there is no one right way or ways that work for everyone, but everyone can find something that does work for them.

  3. oldebabe
    January 11, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    I really feel for you, and what you are going thru, mainly because I never did. Apparently, I have always been, since childhood (I just never thought about it at all), not interested in religion, tho both parents were Baptists. I’ve never understood why people need to feel powerless, and evil, and needing `worship’ of something unknown and unattainable, and useless, etc., and can’t imagine how it must feel to convince them of all that, and then find out that none of it is so, and no need to believe it. Not a good scene, perhaps, but.

    Apparently, many people are looking to be led (for some reason… it seems to depend on what is deemed the most impossible), and if you hadn’t influenced them someone else probably would have. Or did.

    Simply, each person’s life is their own, and we get to decide what to do or not to do in our lives, whatever anyone else says. We just have to do it, and no one else can do it for us. You did it, yourself, right?

    • Al Stefanelli
      January 12, 2012 at 3:01 am

      I suppose it does come down to our own choice, but there are far too many who are unable to free their minds from the servile credulity that is religious indoctrination. I am glad that you were able to choose enlightenment, though. 🙂

  4. Pierce R. Butler
    January 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    Very moving and painful stories, but I fear that Ernest Perce still hasn’t shaken his mind free of pulpit-pounding:

    I want to talk to you about someone very special. She is the mother of our movement and she will change so many aspects about your life. When she speaks to the masses, you will feel that you are the only one she is talking to. She will shake your foundations as a human being. This is what will make us different from all the other atheists in the movement.

    So pardon me if while we talk a few tears well up in my eyes and I begin to shout with excitement and that old prophetic fire flickers within in my eyes as I tell you about the greatest evangelist to ever walk the earth. She’s my mentor. She’s my teacher, she’s the voice who was left crying in the wilderness. She paved the way for American Atheists, and her name is Madalyn Murray O’hair. Now my new friend, freely you have received, so freely you should give!

    Anyone who embodies the “atheists are just another bunch of fundamentalists” cliché is Not Helping.

    • Al Stefanelli
      January 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Pierce. I appreciate it. Ernest’s blog was aimed at the segment of our audience that are former preachers, thus a good part of his offering today is in that vernacular. 🙂

      • Pierce R. Butler
        January 11, 2012 at 8:57 pm

        You guys actually talk[ed, in present cases] to each other that way?

        *Boggle*

        • Al Stefanelli
          January 11, 2012 at 10:51 pm

          No, we don’t, but we understand each other in a way that is unique to those of us who spent time in the ministry.

  5. January 11, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Al, my friend… My eyes welled up. All I can say is “Thank you” for doing what you do, and for choosing to be a part of my show. If you have ever bestowed a single true blessing, it would be your gift of knowledge and wisdom to all of us who fight right along side you. You make it a hell of a lot easier brother.

    RJ Evans
    TheAmericanHeathen.com

    • Al Stefanelli
      January 11, 2012 at 2:37 pm

      RJ,

      As you to me, I to you. I know the hard work you put into American Heathen Radio, and I am honored to be a part of it. Thank you for your friendship, bro…

  6. January 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Thank you! Like you, although probably not to the extent that you do, I carry a good collection of bags. (Once I gave a brief rundown of my life as a Christian missionary, missionary trainer, and pastor’s wife, ending with the comment, “I feel as if I had disclosed my criminal record.”)

    I know I will never be able to undo the damage I caused, especially since I “converted” and then steered people into missionary work, and I see them multiplying my efforts many times over.

    We are not afraid, and we know things. Terrible things. We will not go quietly into that good night until we have fought with full measure. We can do no less…

    You challenge me. I have been careful, too careful, possibly, trying to keep my fundamentalist son from restricting my contact with his boys. Maybe it’s time to take the risk. Thank you for rattling my cage!

    • Al Stefanelli
      January 11, 2012 at 8:32 pm

      Thank you, Susannah, for your thoughts. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is look in the mirror, and even harder sometimes is to listen to the voice coming from the reflection.

    • rapiddominance
      January 12, 2012 at 2:56 pm

      Hey Susannah,

      I asked Al this, so I guess I’ll ask you as well: Have you gone back and apologized to those you led astray?

      I’m not interested in the guilt aspects of this. I’m more curious as to how you went about it and the response you received (Al has already answered me if you’re interested in his experiences under #2 Otrame). There seem to be at least three necessary parts: 1) The god thing isn’t true. 2) This is how your beliefs are harmful to you and others. 3) I’m sorry that I brought you to this point. In some cases, aggitated responses might prevent you from going the full distance (for your own safety, if nothing else) but thats probably not always the case.

      One other thing, regarding the part about your fundamentalist son. I have no idea what those circumstances are (and they are frankly none of my business) but be careful that you distinguish between wisdom and permission. Al is obviously not advocating a major family decision on your part, so the perception (whatever it is) is purely your own. Your word usage implies a long term, complicated struggle possibly coming to a resolution. It raises a flag in my mind; however, I’m confident that you genuinely care about both son and grandson and that your love will work in your favor, regardless of your immediate decisions. Take care.

  7. Brad
    January 11, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    As a lifelong Evangelical (in the pew, not the pulpit), its hammered into my head again and again that I should be doing more for Jesus. Sharing my faith, saving the lost, reaching out to the world. “Casual Christians” that don’t are just “lukewarm”, or “not doing God’s will” or “not advancing the Kingdom” or even “letting my friends go to Hell”.

    Sure, I taught an adult sunday school class, and I still play bass in the worship band, but it’s not like I was really saving souls.

    Now that I’m seriously questioning the foundations of my faith, reading your story and that of Ernest Perce, I’m kind of glad I’ve been such a “casual Christian”. Less responsible for leading others astray, if you will.

    • Al Stefanelli
      January 12, 2012 at 3:03 am

      Skepticism is the gateway drug to enlightenment, Brad. Keep asking questions, there are no bad ones. The Freethinker is truly free.

  8. January 11, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    I’m afraid I can’t do better than say “what he said” and point to otrame’s post.
    This was strong stuff indeed.

    And your right.

    There is no shortcut to redemption for us atheists. We have to work at it and work hard. It seems to me that you are doing just that!
    Keep up the good work, and do allow yourself some time off from the thoughts of your past. We all fuck up, sometimes big time.
    The important bit is realizing the fuck up, and doing your best to do something about it. Seems to me like you got both of those bases covered.

    Again, keep up the good work!

    • otrame
      January 11, 2012 at 8:35 pm

      Erm….

      See, my nym is based on the Spanish for “other me” (blending the words otra and me into a single word) and the fact that the otra ends in an “a” indicates my gender.

      Just saying. 😎

  9. rikitiki
    January 11, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Wow, just wow. Al, thank you for that – and all the insightful posts you do here. I learn so much.

    • Al Stefanelli
      January 11, 2012 at 8:28 pm

      Thank you, Riki!

  10. rapiddominance
    January 11, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    In the hands of the layman, false kindness, pretense of concern, a ponzi-scheme, a crowbar, and/or the loudly screamed words “Fire!” in a crowded room are all formidable weapons against the weak-minded, the lonely, the distraught, or those simply not paying attention at a given moment.

  11. January 11, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    Al,
    Thank you so much for sharing this. It is wonderful to know that there are just a few people who can understand the terror and the shame of the baggage of yesterday. Yet, at the same time, a kindred person who understands that all was not terrible and can lean on the experiences that make us who we are are.
    Thanks for all the hours you spend with me, thanks for allowing my small story to be a part of your huge world here at the freethoughtblog. I’m so honored.
    Sincerely,
    EPV

    • Al Stefanelli
      January 11, 2012 at 10:50 pm

      You’re most welcome, bro. Indeed.

  12. Sheila
    January 11, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    I wasn’t a minister (mainly cuz, I am lacking a penis), but I was a christian fundamentalist (church of christ) for approx 42 years. I converted my husband, who was a ‘nothing’ beforehand, and his parents, and his two brothers before we were married.
    Now I am an atheist, and I still have scars from my fundy upbringing and from the lives I ‘converted’,which amounts to harm, in this instance. I should have left my husband and his family alone; but at the time, I truly believed I was obtaining ‘stars in my everlasting crown’ by converting him and his family. He was better off without me in this respect, for sure!
    Just want to say that at the time, I was 100% SINCERE. I know many xtians are just full of show; and don’tn actually believe, but I DID at the time and that makes it even more hurtful now when I realize that I wasn’t ‘helping’ anyone; least of all, myself.

  13. Passerby
    January 12, 2012 at 2:17 am

    Don’t cry, don’t cry…*manly tear*

    It is hard enough on a man to know that he has done wrong. But to bear witness to the wrong being continued, indeed expanded, and seeing for yourself the effect must be crushing. You are a better man than many to do what you do, even while being detracted by both sides.

    It’s often said that courage is not the absence of fear, but knowing and still acting regardless. I can only imagine the degree of pain you must experience having to see the aftermath firsthand, and the fact that you refuse to let it silence you, and speak up even louder in its presence, shows a degree of courage and a strength of character far above many.

    As a Soldier and an Atheist, I want to thank you for what you do against those who would abuse our Constitution, and our human rights, for their own theological gain. Thank you.

    • Al Stefanelli
      January 12, 2012 at 2:49 am

      Thank you, I appreciate your understanding and your comments. They mean a lot to me. From one old soldier, please accept my thanks and sincerest gratitude for your service.

  14. Colin
    January 12, 2012 at 4:58 am

    Thanks for this Al. I was wondering whether a book of recollections (a sort of “how I poisoned everything”) might not have some impact, coming straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. I realise that such a collaborative project giving real examples from many ex ministers of religion would be personally difficult but it could be worth considering. It might be redemptive, providing atonement through personal testimony of the harm caused by religion and would strike nearer the bone that stories of inquisitions past.

    • Al Stefanelli
      January 12, 2012 at 8:57 am

      Hadn’t thought about a “How I Poisoned Everything” book, Colin. Not really a bad idea. Gonna have to let that one soak a while.

      • niftyatheist
        January 12, 2012 at 12:33 pm

        May I chime in and add my wish to Pierce’s that you will write a book? I favour an approach of “How I Am Working on an Antidote to the Poison” rather than the above. 😉 I see Al as much more a part of the cure than a part of the sickness! But most of all, your writing is simply wonderful, Al. I have found myself wanting to start a file of quotes already and I have only read a handful of your blog posts yet! BTW, do you mind if people quote you on Facebook etc with a link to the blog? (wow, two comments in one morning – a first for me I think! lol)

        • niftyatheist
          January 12, 2012 at 12:34 pm

          Damn. Colin, not Pierce. Sorry, Colin.

        • Al Stefanelli
          January 12, 2012 at 12:41 pm

          I like the idea, Nifty. Just not sure when I would have the time to write it. I have this blog, the American Atheist blog, the American Atheist magazine, the National Examiner and I send content to other venues as well. Plus, I have two radio shows and a TV show I do on a regular and semi-regular basis, as well as the current book I am working on that is due out in the spring. But… I really like the idea… Hmmm. I need to put in a request for a 37-hour day.

          I don’t mind quotes at all, either. Never have. I figure if I put it out there, then it is open for quotation. Thanks for your thoughts. 🙂

  15. Sandman
    January 12, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Another moving piece there bro. Its always good to remember the f ups we have all made, but don’t carry guilt on your back like an a SAS backpack….it will break your back, make you ill, and hamper you when its time to fight back. Set it down, carry your food (your experience), our ammo (a determination to set things right) and your gun and bayonette (your wordsmithing and with….they are all you need. Even the best and greatest of men make balls ups sometimes – its how we act to sort them out that separates the wheat from the chaff.

    Your mate Ern is a bit of a card….gotta say he hasnt lost that fire has he?

    This had me wondering tho:

    “Will your atheist group be an elitist group because they are educated and we aren’t? You bet your damned life they might be.”

    Tell Ern to ignore the twats and numptys….and dont make it sound like we are all asshats as its not a persuasive way to get people to “come out”. Also, feel free to tell said asshats from me to feck off. You guys are just the sort of people we need on side, and if THEY cant see that then its THEY that are the stupid uneducated ones.

    I’d also suggest you, Ern and other ex-wariors for Jeebus set up some form of counselling safety net system to look after ex-pastors who have come out and are undergoing the dark tea time of the soul, and to spred the word there is one. It must hit you hard, and it will be easier for others to follow your lead if they know they wont face their trials alone.

    Good luck bro, and you and Ern keep hammering at the anvil.

    • Sandman
      January 12, 2012 at 7:06 am

      corrected version:

      Set it down, carry your food (your experience), your ammo (a determination to set things right) and your gun and bayonette (your wordsmithing and wit)….they are all you need.

      fecking termites in my keyboard.

    • Al Stefanelli
      January 12, 2012 at 9:00 am

      Thank you, Sandman. Not sure if you remember an old Star Trek movie, but there was one when this oddly emotional Vulcan offered to take the pain away from the good Captain and crew. Only Kirk did not want his pain taken away, as it was part of who he was. Baggage can be productive sometimes, but in excess, it only weighs you down. I cannot forget the people I have hurt, but I am not sure that forgetting them would be a good idea. 🙂

  16. January 12, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Thank you for the time and effort you put into spreading the word! I can’t imagine what it would be like to wake up from a delusion and realize the harm you may have done in that deluded state. As several have said, what’s done is done and putting down the baggage from the past is easy to recommend but can be difficult to do. Sharing your story is of great value to us, and we appreciate what you’re doing! Thank you!!

  17. niftyatheist
    January 12, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Al, I can only point to Ostrame’s and Susannah’s posts and add my thanks to you for this wonderful and moving post. As another atheist woman who has lurked fearfully around the edges of our theist society, I am enormously heartened to read your blog. If true believers like you and your friend Ernest once were, can emerge from the fog of Xian belief and – even more amazing – have the courage to speak out against the tyranny of religion when it is so dangerous and painful to do so, my faith in humanity is restored. I believe that there are many more people out there, professing theistic belief because of fear of the cost of not doing so, who will be strengthened by your writing. Thank you.

    I will be a new regular reader of your excellent blog.

    • Al Stefanelli
      January 12, 2012 at 12:23 pm

      Thanks, Nifty! I am overwhelmed by all of these comments. Thank you for yours, and I hope you enjoy reading.

    • Al Stefanelli
      January 12, 2012 at 12:42 pm

      I will be a new regular reader of your excellent blog.

      Thank you, Nifty. I’m glad you like what you read here. I write for my readers. 🙂

  18. Paul Davidson
    January 12, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Am very fortunate. Raised catholic but it never stuck. Even as young child remember asking ‘Really?!?!’ quite often.

    Would just like to mention that as one who does not profess that your effort, your heart, your passion are highly appreciated. Hope they continue for long time.

    Two words come to mind:

    Thank you

  19. barbf
    January 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    I am a non theist of buddhist leanings in the philosophical, not liturgical sense. It was painful reading your story because you seem to have simply changed the focus of your disgust from those sinners out there, to yourself. You are not guilty of anything that must be expiated by self abuse. Yes you mistakenly counseled hurting individuals in a way that did not lead to healing. First, remember they had a part in the decision making as well. You are not in contol of life even if you think you are. This does not change what happened, or relieve the responsibility you do have, but recognizing that the burden is not yours alone should give you a little room for reinvestigating the current situation. I believe you feel strongly about evangelizing to undo what was done in the past, but I wish you would question your use of such similar means to address the problem. First the past is past, it cannot be remade. Deal with today. When today comes to an end allow yourself to rest in the knowlege that done is what had to be done. You do your best every day even when you don’t think so. If you could have done more on that particular day, you would have. Think about that for a few minutes. For whatever reason, days begin, run their course and come to an end. Give yourself cedit for what you did do. Spending time in regret is self defeating and serves no purpose. No one cares how heavy your burden of guilt may be, they have their own. I know this sounds harsh, but it is also quite liberating. You are choosing to open those bags one by one to keep the pain fresh, to fuel the fire of repentance. Perhaps it even makes you feel special like you did as a preacher to be the worst sinner,w hen you know the concept has lost its eternal meaning. Forgive yourself for the past and move on to help make the world the place you want it to be free of dogma. Jettison the extra baggage. Allow yourself just what you need for today, you’ll travel much lighter of heart and your words will be even more powerful without the guilty ego.

    • Al Stefanelli
      January 12, 2012 at 5:07 pm

      Heya, Barb. I guess I can understand how it might appear disgusted with myself, but I am not. I am saddened that I had destroyed lives and I am angry that the things I have done while a minister continue to perpetuate.

      True, the eventual choice to believe comes down to the individual, but using scare tactics, lies and coercion to achieve a goal is quite the wrong way to go.

      I do not use the word “evangelizing” in a literal manner, but to point out the level of commitment that I have in our movement, as compared to the level I had while as a minister.

      I deal with every day by never forgetting the past, because, as you said, what is done is done. But, as we all know, for each one of us who breaks free, there are a thousand more willing to take our place. It’s a never-ending battle, and the only way that I can keep my weapon (word processor) sharp is to use it, and never forget what could be.

      I do have a refuge, and that is my family. I am not an angry man, nor an unhappy one. I am one who knows what he has done and knows what he needs do to. But when today comes to an end, I will have long logged off the Internet and will usually finish it out with my wife of twenty-plus years.

      It’s not so much regret, though. While there is some of that which still lingers, the knowledge that there are those who have benefited from my activism is what drives me, and that is a positive. Guilt? No, I don’t do guilt.

      The bags that I carry do not weigh me down, but the do keep the perspective fresh and they do serve as a motivator. I don’t feel special doing what I do, but I don’t have much of an ego to inflate. I don’t acknowledge the concept of sin, so therefore there is nothing for me to feel guilty about.

      I thank you for your comments. They were well thought out and sincere. I travel light, but I will always keep that baggage with me lest I forget, or worse, become indifferent.

  20. RW Ahrens
    January 12, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    I’ll add my thanks, here. Others have been very eloquent, so I won’t try to outdo anybody, but thanks, Al, for doing everything you are doing and putting up with everything that’s thrown at you.

    If there really was a heaven, it’s be made for people like you who really care about others. (…and there wouldn’t be a cloud or a harp in sight!)

  21. 'Tis Himself, OM.
    January 12, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    Thank you for this, Al. I was moved. It’s not easy confessing one’s sins* and I appreciate you doing so.

    Yeah, I’m still a cultural Catholic, even though I left Catholicism decades ago.

  22. F
    January 12, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Truly awe-inspiring. Thanks for laying this bit of your life bare before us. I certainly hope your message here can help others – preachers or parishioners.

  23. JJ7212
    January 13, 2012 at 12:09 am

    Mr. Stefanelli, I have a question. Christopher Hitchens once said that “There are two things you should know about the clergy. First they don’t really know what they’re talking about. And second, they don’t want you to know that they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

    I agree with it, but what do you think? In the Marines, I taught many classes and thoroughly researched my given subjects. I tapped danced a little to get through tricky points, but after time I eventually learned more and became a better leader/instructor. The immoral and confusing teachings of the bible have got to be hard to preach about every Sunday and even harder to speak sensibly about. How much did you BS the congregation even though you, at the time, were a believer? I love the Hithens quote and it’s hard to ask a regular preacher about it. Thanks.

    You are a personal hero of mine, Mr. Stefanelli. I hope to meet you someday! Thanks for your integrity and valuable perspectives!

  24. Al Stefanelli
    January 13, 2012 at 12:21 am

    Heya, JJ,

    I’ve met my fair share of ministers who were largely clueless.. They are out there. Thing is, I spent years studying the bible so I could be ready at any moment to defend my faith. The more I studied, the more intelligent I thought I was getting. In reality, I was dumbing myself down, which is probably what Mr. Hitchens meant. Unfortunately, I will never be able to ask him.

    The immoral and confusing teachings of the bible are hard to preach if you don’t believe in them, but if you really believe you are anointed by God, and that he is inspiring your messages through prayer and fasting, you’d be amazed how easy it is to dole out the fire and brimstone.

    I didn’t to that much BS’ing from a Scriptural standpoint. I was pretty thorough in preparing my sermons. I did, however, preach about moral things that I was not exactly abstaining in, myself.

    Next time you are in the Atlanta area, let me know!

  25. jj7212
    January 13, 2012 at 6:13 am

    You’re the coolest, Mr. Stefanelli. I hope to someday share my moderately crazy church experiences with you too in person! It’s not as extreme as your story, but I was very fortunate that when I was 19, and at a low point in my life, I just couldn’t find that “jesus feeling” at church which I was so desperately looking for. I somehow mustered enough common sense to know that the Marine Corps had the ‘thing’ (meaning many various things) that I was really looking for. I was in for 13 years, but got out in 2007 and came to rural Japan with my wife and two boys. Having fun here, but what I took away most from the Marine Corps is the benefits of a thorough meaning of leadership, morals, and values. Completely secular based. And THAT’S what made me go from not really caring about church to flat out atheist. You and I both have a lot of leadership experience and we both focused a lot on morals and values. Probably why I connect with your articles… We both might not be astro physicists or biologists, but it’s the christian morality and the harm that I want to expose just like you. I hope to be as involved as I can in 2012 even though I live in BFE Japan! Thanks again for your honesty, Mr. Stefanelli. Peace.

  26. rickschauer
    January 13, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Al, again another great piece…one I will share with my evangelizing sister and cousins – and hopefully help them discover the same reality-based thinking you have. You are extremely encouraging to me and give all of us great hope for our collective future.

  27. heddle
    January 13, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    One of the things that irritates me most about arguing with a Christian is when they tell me that I wasn’t a “true Christian,

    I feel your pain. So many times when I explain that I was an adult, a professional scientist, and an atheist when I converted to Christianity, I get the old “You must not have been a true atheist” vomitous spiel. It is irritating. I agree.

  28. rapiddominance
    January 13, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    If Al, or anybody, should do this book, be certain you bring the science, too: Charts, statistics, studies, diagrams, pop up pictures for the fundies, and especially documented case histories showing otherwise mentally healthy humans descending into borderline-personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and other religiously spawned forms of mental illness.

    CONNECT THE DOTS!!! Faith to implications; implications to lifestyle habbits; habbits to neurosis; neurosis to, well . . .

  29. Rumtopf
    January 13, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    Oh diddums.

  30. Rumtopf
    January 13, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    Well dang, the reply button failed. That was for Heddle’s whining.

  31. January 14, 2012 at 3:29 am

    rapiddominance,
    Sorry for the delay in answering. Your questions brought up some memories I try not to think about too much. I’ll try to keep my answers brief.

    Have you gone back and apologized to those you led astray? … I’m more curious as to how you went about it and the response you received … There seem to be at least three necessary parts: 1) The god thing isn’t true. 2) This is how your beliefs are harmful to you and others. 3) I’m sorry that I brought you to this point. In some cases, agitated responses might prevent you from going the full distance (for your own safety, if nothing else) but thats probably not always the case.

    As far as I was able to, I have attempted this. Reactions have been varied, and painful.

    I have told my kids on several occasions that much of what I taught them was wrong. I’ve apologized, and we’ve argued out some of the issues, but usually when the discussion gets heated, one or the other of us cuts off the conversation. We’ll get things sorted, eventually.

    As for specifically religious discussions; my daughter was furious at me for agreeing with someone else about #1; the stories about God are not true. What most offended her was that this was in the presence of her college-age daughter; how dare I confuse her that way! The topic is on hold.

    A couple who were close friends as well as co-workers in the church for years, and now are on the mission field, (I was the one that brought them into the church, and mentored them through the early years) heard only my first sentence, and immediately turned to re-evangelizing me. We have not talked since, although that may be partly my fault, as I haven’t pushed the connection.

    My best friend heard me out on points 1 and 2, then suddenly announced that she needed to go home. I have not heard from her since. She has changed her e-mail address and her phone number; her son does not reply to my requests for a new address. This situation has lasted two years, so far. I thought she would be accepting; she’s had her doubts before. I really miss her.

    I didn’t get that far with my brother. He was so angry when I politely turned down his request to write evangelistic messages for his mission radio program that he cut me off the mailing list for several years. I’m back on, now, but he never writes personally. I think someone in his office must have thought that deleting my name was an error, and re-instated me.

    My son was offended by my absence of God-talk when he asked for advice, and cold-shouldered me for a couple of years. In that time, I only saw his boys once, and that in a large group. He has since warmed up, but we stay clear of religious topics.

    Another close friend, a pastor, switched immediately to urging me to attend his new church, made his excuses, and hurried away. I haven’t seen him since, although that also may be my fault; I haven’t visited his church.

    And so it goes.

    One other thing, regarding the part about your fundamentalist son. … Your word usage implies a long term, complicated struggle possibly coming to a resolution. It raises a flag in my mind; however, I’m confident that you genuinely care about both son and grandson and that your love will work in your favor, regardless of your immediate decisions. Take care.

    Thank you. Yes, gradually things with my son are improving. And his oldest son, 16, at a family gathering a few days ago hinted that he may not be a believer any more. And he’s now of an age where he can maintain contact on his own. There’s only the younger one to consider now.

    “… long-term, complicated …” Yes, that it is. I’m part of a large extended family, mostly made up of second-, third-, and fourth-generation missionaries and other full-time Christian workers; I’ve been walking on eggshells around them. Maybe it’s time to crunch a few.

  32. AJS
    January 14, 2012 at 5:08 am

    I’ve been walking on eggshells around them. Maybe it’s time to crunch a few.

    Not exactly to do with religion, but I was in a relationship like that with someone once. I spent the best part of two years going out of my way not to provoke them — “walking on eggshells” was the phrase I used, too; then one day I dropped my guard for a moment, and received The Push for my efforts.

    But once I’d got past the initial shock of splitting up, it really wasn’t that bad. I was free again, from a whole bunch of artificial constraints I had been imposing on myself almost without realising.

    The costs, I came to realise, had been outweighing the benefits, and I was better off without that person because I could be true to myself. Of course it would have been lovely to help them overcome their character flaws and live happily ever after. But I wasn’t going to be the one who could do that.

    Sometimes you’ve just got to cut your losses.

  33. Aquaria
    January 14, 2012 at 10:13 am

    I know it’s going to be laughable and stupid, but I really do want to know how you became a jaysus-humper, heddle. Because I can’t imagine not believing in sky fairies, and then somehow devolving into thinking they’re absolutely real.

    I mean, I have my suspicions about how it happened, since you’re not the first atheist I’ve known to become a jaysus-humper, but you might actually have gotten there in a way the others didn’t. I’m prepared to be shocked. But I doubt I will be.

    So tell us how it happened. Leave out nothing.

  34. Sir Shplane, Grand Mixmaster, Knight of the Turntable
    January 15, 2012 at 2:20 am

    This is one of the best things I’ve ever read.

    I think the next time I’m playing a thematically appropriate tabletop RPG, I’ll roll up an ex-priest of some evil religion or other who’s trying to turn as many people as possible away from whatever horrible thing he used to worship.

    • UsagiRyu
      January 21, 2012 at 11:38 pm

      Your ex-priest doesn’t have to be from an “evil” religion. Could be a “Goodly” one that he feels also stifles and abuses worshipers. He could be warning away from ALL religions.

  35. January 23, 2012 at 9:29 am

    You have my sympathy, for your struggles with your early conditioning, and for the guilt that you still feel obliged to retain. I commend the valuable work which you are now doing, in helping to disabuse others whose young lives have been similarly blighted. I was more fortunate: the first time I was sent to Sunday school, at the age of four, I picked out the vicar when he came in, then went up and called him shit-face – presumably the most telling insult I had yet acquired (by my mother’s account, I don’t recall the incident). It was a few more years before my subversion allowed me to escape entirely, but my struggles look trivial beside yours.

    Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel that, in the understandable euphoria resulting from your release, you have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. For the kind of bullshit which you were, and, it seems, most of the human population is, entrapped by, I prefer to use scare-quotes: “religion”. Religion exists, but almost nobody notices the fact – it is routinely conflated with superstition, either traditional or new-age.

    If you were familiar only with toy ovens – mere plastic boxes with light bulbs inside, useless for actually cooking food, you would be understandably disinclined to credit the existence of genuine functional ovens. But if you explored more carefully, your views might change…

    • Azuma Hazuki
      January 24, 2012 at 10:35 pm

      And what religion might this be, Vijen? Because if it’s another heaven-above-and-hell-below terroristic assault on all that’s good and decent in the human mind, don’t even bother.

  36. AD
    January 26, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    First time visitor to your site. This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read. This comment is coming from a somewhat jaded 50 odd year old who thinks he’s seen everything but what you wrote here was something new to me. I really appreciate such honest self appraisal. I’ll be looking in again for sure.

  37. piero
    January 28, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    I was moved to tears by your post, Al. Yet I cannot help thinking that you are too unforgiving to yourself. I believe we are not really in control of what we do: at any given time, we do what we can, neither more nor less.

    I have done many regrettable things in my life. But is it right to say “I” did them? I don’t think so. It was my “then I” who did them. My true “I”, my present “I” would not do them. Why then did my “then I” do them? Because at the time my brain was different, my circumstances were different, my fears and compulsions were different.

    I don’t want to derail this thread and turn it into a discussion about free will. Neither do I think it would be a good idea to do away with the concept of responsibility. But punishment is not vengeance; it is the resource we have to prevent bad things happening again. You already have punished yourself, and you won’t be doing the same again. So the goal has already been reached. Give yourself credit for it.

  38. Chris
    February 23, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    Al,

    It was a very honest and thoughtful piece. I’m a Baptist Pastor, and I understand a lot of what bothered you about that experience. Likewise, you’ll understand that I see another aspect of ministry, and that is showing love and helping people. I won’t bother you with drive-by evangelism, that would be patronizing. I pray that you will find peace, and hope that you are not offended by that prayer.

    Chris

    • Al Stefanelli
      February 23, 2012 at 2:45 pm

      I take no offense, but I have peace, Chris. Nor do I take issue with anyone showing love and the desire to help people, so long as it does not come with credulous servility. Christian charity does not disturb me in of itself, but calling it altruism when it is, in large part, merely a contract that exchanges an act of benevolence in exchange for allegiance, does. I am not suggesting that this is something you do, personally, but it is the doctrinal basis for evangelism in general. With that said, I return to you the wish that you find peace, and hope you are not offended by this wish.

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