Learning to Navigate a Good Life without God

Tim Sledge proves ex-clergy can still be good pastors

“The trouble with born-again Christians is that they are an even bigger pain the second time around.” So said Herb Caen, the San Francisco columnist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. I don’t know what Caen’s experience was, but these days we know that the zealotry of the born-agains can be so tiring. A few of them drop in here at the DC Blog to comment and complain. They admit—they confess to the world—that they are devotees of the ancient Jesus mystery cult; no rational argument can dissuade them. They remain under the spell of the 1912 hymn, “I will cling to the old rugged cross.”

Just how does that work? How do they remain unfazed by the irrationality of the old cult? In an article that John Loftus posted here a few days ago, “The Making and Unmaking of a Christian Zealot,” by Dale O’Neal, we find a thorough description of clinging strategies. O’Neal’s article should be bookmarked, studied, shared. I’m big on common sense reasoning to jar folks out of the foolish old faith, but so much of the time that just won’t work. Pay careful attention especially to O'Neal’s discussion of Groupthink, Gaslighting, Gaslighting 2.0 and Gaslighting 3.0.

The trickery began even in the Bible; O’Neal points out that the apostle Paul “…gaslights Roman Christians who would dare question the justice of God: ‘Who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘why did you make me like this,’ will it?’ (Romans 9:20). The objective of Paul’s gaslighting was to generate sufficient mistrust in his readers’ rationality so they would consider a possibility they otherwise would have considered foolish.”

How true the observation of Valerie Tarico and Marlene Winell (Psychological Harms of Bible-Believing Christianity): “One requirement for success as a sincere Christian is to find a way to believe that which would be unbelievable under normal rules of evidence and inquiry.”

O’Neal is one of the few Christians—but, happily, the numbers seem to be growing—who snapped out of it: he realized that a brutal human sacrifice is at the heart of the faith. The crises we face today do not mix well with massive allegiance to such ancient superstitions and magical thinking. Our planet is in danger, as recent publications by David Wallace-Wells (The Uninhabitable Earth) and Catherine Ingram (Facing Extinction) make all too clear. Wouldn’t the world become alarmed if a few billion people suddenly came under the spell of any of the other ancient cults?

With some introspection, even born-again Christians can see that magical thinking (e.g., “I belong to Jesus”) doesn’t work as promised. Wouldn’t you think that being born again in Jesus is an amazingly transforming event? Of course, that’s the way it’s hyped. One of the reasons that 30-year Southern Baptist preacher Tim Sledge saw his faith erode was that the folks who claimed born-again status didn’t function all that better in the world than anyone else. Where, after all, was Jesus in the mix?

Over the years, Sledge made mental notes of items that didn’t make sense if Christianity is true. He called these “exceptions to the faith,” and eventually they weighed too heavily. His departure from belief—and from the church—is described in his 2018 book, Goodbye Jesus: An Evangelical Preacher’s Journey Beyond Faith. (My review of the book is here.) His success in bringing growth to a megachurch in Texas had its downside; the old guard didn’t like changes that the influx of new members brought. A brutal pious conspiracy forced him out of this job. Was this any way for born-again Christians to behave?

But Sledge had been a success in ways that broke the mold. In his various pastorates he could see that the theoretical born-again transformation did not heal the damage and scars that life had inflicted. He pioneered therapy groups within evangelical circles to help people heal, and in 1992 published Making Peace with Your Past: Help for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families.

Sledge has kept on writing since the release of Goodbye Jesus. This year he published a quick and thorough debunking of Christianity, Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief. (My review of the book is here). His deeply embedded pastoral instincts—yes, many preachers are genuinely caring people—are now represented in his just-published, How to Live a Meaningful Life: Focusing on Things that Matter.

It’s not hard to find the voices of ridicule, those who scoff that we can be good without God, i.e., “Where do you get your moral standards?” “Why does life matter if there is no God to welcome us to heaven?” Never mind that secular ethicists have been providing answers to these questions for centuries; never mind that the Bible is such a mixed, defective bag of moral advice.

But in this new, short book (157 pages), Sledge offers practical advice for achieving “good person” status. This does not involve complex philosophizing, but rather a healthy commitment to introspection. Over the years, I have fondly recalled Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character (1977-1980), Roseanne Roseannadana; slipping to the role of a therapist, she bluntly advised, “Just look at yourself!” That’s actually pretty good advice, and one of the early chapters in Sledge’s book is titled, Introspection, which gets it off to a good start.

He provides an example of this in his own life.

“The truth smacked me in the face in 1988, when I spent five days at The Meadows, a recovery facility in Wickenburg, Arizona. I went there to gather material for a sermon series at the church I pastored but ended up doing work as an adult child of an alcoholic.

“It was a life-altering week of small group therapy, and the question I heard over and over was, ‘How does that make you feel?’ At first, I’d answer with something like, ‘I think the situation I’m in is a difficult one.’ The group leader would respond, ‘You didn’t answer the question. How does that make you feel?’ My answers were sourced from thinking more than feeling. My group leader was working to help me zero in on one or more basic emotions—shame, guilt, anger, sadness, fear, pain, loneliness, peace, or joy.

“In those few days, I discovered I had spent a lifetime shelving away many of the emotions inside me…I learned that when I embraced a downbeat emotion, when I gave it a voice, I reduced its power, and could more easily let it go.” (pp. 22-23)

When we’re armed with this level of honesty, we can move on to consider the values that are the foundation for a meaningful life. In the longest chapter of the book (50+ pages), titled Values, Sledge lists seven of them, e.g., strength, kindness, humility, generosity, and he discusses the complex nature of each one.

In the opening of the section, Strength, he draws attention to another common Christian gaslighting technique:

“When I was a committed Christian, I looked to God for strength. I studied the Bible and did my best to obey its commandments. I prayed. I worshipped. I attempted to practice a sense of the presence of God. And through all these activities, I believed that I received a strength that comes only from God…

“…part of my new, secular, meaningful-life mindset is the belief that we must find our own inner strength.” (p. 33) That can be a major challenge for those who think they’ve depended on God for strength; that’s part of the gaslighting, persuading the faithful that they can’t trust their own gumption and abilities, that an infusion of God is required.

In this section Sledge stresses learning. “Become an avid student of your own distinctiveness. Learning about yourself, your gifts, your blind spots, and the areas where you need to grow are all important.” (p. 43)

“…cultivate an inquisitiveness about all kinds of things. Increase your awareness of all that surrounds you: the universe, the earth, your culture, your work, your friends, and your family.” (p. 43)

“This isn’t about comparing your learning power to anyone else’s. It’s about getting out of auto-pilot mode, looking at life with more curiosity, and paying more attention to what you see.” (p. 44)

“…cultivate an inquisitiveness about all kinds of things…get out of auto-pilot mode…”

Failure to embrace this advice means so many humans are stuck in the ancient-superstition mode, willing to remain unaware of how the world works, e.g., the effectiveness of the scientific method; evolution by natural selection; the fact of diversity in sexual orientation; the present peril of our planet; the age and expanse of the cosmos. The current state of knowledge gives us a lot to be terrified about, but there’s the flip side as well.

As Sledge points out: “When I left my faith, I didn’t lose my sense of wonderment—in fact, my capacity for wonder grew. My old approach was pretty much, ‘Isn’t God great.’ After leaving faith, I began to read and learn more about physics and astronomy. As my understanding of these fields of study grew, so did my capacity to experience wonderment at the magnificent complexity of existence. I also became more aware of how much I do not and cannot know, which added to my sense of wonderment.” (p. 100)

Christians would do well to escape the auto-pilot mode in one crucial area especially: academic Jesus studies, which has been in turmoil for decades. It seems that what we actually know for sure about Jesus is virtually nil, because of the nature of the gospels. Official church policy, of course, seems to be: don’t go there.

The arrogance of religious faith also gets punctured. Prayer itself is an arrogant gesture: “I have captured—little me, on this planet training a star among billions in one galaxy alone—Yes, I have captured the attention of the Force that runs the Cosmos.” This dawned on Sledge as well:

“Recognizing the limited scope and significance of my finite life on earth makes humility a little easier than when I believed the God of the universe had personally called me to be a minister and was preparing an eternal home in heaven for me.” (p. 59) This sort of belief fits well in an ancient cult that had almost zero knowledge about the world; in our post-Enlightenment, post-Scientific Revolution setting, it has no place at all.

Sledge has a mind that was well primed to move beyond faith when enough of the “exceptions to the rule of faith” had piled up. I myself, in my final year of leading worship services, had grown so impatient with the exercise. I wanted to say to the congregation, “What in the world do you folks think you’re doing? Asking God for favors, singing songs to him and stroking his ego (…how great thou art…).” Sledge noticed this too:

“I remember one song often sung as a solo in church, and it repeated—over and over the words: ‘My God is real. My God is real.’ We didn’t need songs that said, ‘My spouse is real’ or ‘My car is real.’ But we did need a song that said, ‘My God is real,’ because none of us could see or hear God in any normal way. We needed to get together and stir ourselves up with song and sermon to stoke the fire of our faith.” (pp. 76-77)

It is impossible to come away from this book not appreciating what a fine pastor Tim Sledge was and is. The final eight pages of the book are a recap, a quick outline of the main themes and sub-themes of the book; at the end of which he adds, “If you want to make the meaningful living principles and core values in this book a driving force in how you think and live, I recommend that you re-read this chapter frequently.” (p. 153)

These two recent books, Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer and How to Lead a Meaningful Life fit very neatly together, exactly the same size (though not quite the same thickness). They’re a nice gift set! The first offers good insights into why and how Christianity has been falsified, and the second explains why and how—if that message has been taken to heart—to pick up the pieces and move on. Sledge’s website, MovingTruths.com, offers more resources to continue the quest.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.