"An Atheist Perspective" An Article I Wrote Just After My Deconversion

First let me share a photo that was take in 1985. Here are the two men I admired most, Drs. William Lane Craig and James D. Strauss, both at my graduation from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in June of 1985.
I had just earned a Master of Theology degree in the Philosophy of Religion under Craig, which was my third master's degree. I had earned the other two under Strauss. I had just been accepted at Marquette University the next school year for a PhD degree in Theology. It turned out that I only had the energy and finances for a year and a half of full time study there, so I took a Senior Minister position in Angola, Indiana. 
I had hopes I would return to finish my PhD, but something happened on the way to paradise. The rest is history, as they say. 
Now about that article. It was written twenty-two and a half years later. In January 2008 I had sent the following short essay to "The Christian Standard" for publication. I had previously published more than a dozen articles with them on various topics, and thought their readers might be interested. It was rejected. Anyway, I just found it and realized I had never shared it before. Enjoy. 
An Atheist Perspective 
As a former minister in the Restoration churches who is now an atheist, perhaps the readers of Christian Standard might want some insight into what it’s like to change one’s mind on such an important issue, and how to deal with people they know who are presently having doubts, or who have already left the fold. Be assured I will offer no argument that will adversely affect your faith in what follows. 
Why would I do this? Because I still have a heart for people. Nothing has changed with regard to that part of me. I know of several troubling examples of someone rejecting his or her former faith, which places an extra burden on his or her parents, spouses, children and church friends. For some of them it’s like facing a divorce. My interest is purely to help Christian people understand the doubter and the apostate. I hope it provides a platform to discuss these issues openly here and in your churches. 
Given the rise and prominence of atheists in the last few years there are Christians in the pews who probably know a person like me, who is an apostate to the faith he or she once believed, preached, and/or defended. Let me describe this experience and offer some helpful suggestions to the Christian on how to think about and treat these people, especially if it’s someone you personally know. 
The experience itself is painful, very much so, especially if one has been a Christian for a long time and preached it like I did. It went against the very things I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe there is a God who loved me by dying for my sins and who would bring me to an eternal bliss for accepting and loving him in return. To renounce these set of beliefs was entirely foreign to me. All that atheism offered me on the other side of the fence was an ultimately meaningless world with no hope of everlasting existence afterward. It meant that there is no one “upstairs” who would help me in times of need, and that there was no moral guidance from him on how I should live my life. To reject these beliefs meant I was alone in a cold dark world where the fittest survive. 
Of course, I don’t think disparagingly about these things now, being on the other side of the fence. I’ve learned that since this life is all there is, I must give it my all, everyday. But to consider these ideas was initially very scary. Especially scary was the threat that if I became a non-believer and ended up deceived by the devil, I would spend forever in hell. That’s why it is painful, very much so. I didn’t want to be wrong about the most important issue I’d ever have to consider. So one day I would doubt, and the next day I would repent for having considered such thoughts in the first place. Some days I would agonize over the truth, and then pray to God, “Please God, help me from being deceived by Satan.” As the doubts increased I would pray, “God, help me know the truth.” 
To the perceptive Christian I sent signals to my friends and family that I was beginning to doubt with a question here, a question there. But my questions were shrugged off for the most part. I was told the devil is trying to deceive me. I was told to stop reading my books. I was told to immerse myself in the Bible. I was told to pray and to fast. But no one treated my questions seriously, for the most part. So I tried keeping them to myself not to cause any alarm. The only two people who did treat them seriously were Dr. John Castelein and Dr. Virgil Warren, the latter of which I corresponded with for about six months, and whom I am indeed grateful for his attempts to help. I suppose if it wasn’t for him I probably would’ve abandon my faith earlier—who knows? But by the time I reached out to them it was probably already too late. 
At this point some Christians in the same position as me have simply reaffirmed the Christian faith and turned their backs on their doubt. But I became immersed in my doubts and succumbed to them by defecting from the faith. 
Now I lack the fellowship I once had with former Christian friends, and that too is painful. Some of them have personally attacked me for my decision, and this added to the pain. I merely began seeing things differently—everything! From my perspective I merely put on a different set of glasses to see the world through. 
So let me offer some helpful advice when dealing with doubters in your family and church. It comes from someone who eventually rejected Christianity, and it’s written in the spirit of what Christian professor Dr. Ruth Tucker wrote to believers that “…you seek a better understanding of those who do not believe…and that you listen carefully to their stories and respond with honesty and sensitivity.” [Walking Away From Faith: Unraveling the Mystery of Belief and Unbelief (Downers Grove, IVP, 2002), p. 12]. 
Christians who experience extreme difficulties in their lives are more susceptible to entertaining their doubts. Whether it’s a natural disaster, the loss of a child, a bankruptcy, a divorce, or moral failure they can be open to new ideas. Tom Spoors, who was the former director of the “Leadership Institute” at Great Lakes Christian College, once said that conversion takes place mostly because of “a crisis plus information,” and I think that equally applies to those who eventually deconvert. So be especially caring toward these people. Christians who experience moral failure can be the most susceptible to doubt if the church rejects them. This is a sticky problem and may be the nature of the beast for all I know, since the church must “discipline” a wayward sinner. But don’t forget to heed Paul’s advice that you be sure afterward to forgive and comfort them lest you cause them to be “overwhelmed by sorrow” at your disciplinary actions (II Cor. 2:6-7). 
Be perceptive when you notice a change of behavior or that the person is questioning certain things in the Bible. These are the initial signs of doubt. Become involved as much as you can and see where you can be of assistance. But treat his or her questions seriously. If the church refuses to be a place where people can be honest about their questions then where else can they turn to for answers? If you merely shrug off these questions or tell doubters to pray, you’re not helping them, since they may not have the faith their prayers will be answered in the first place. You must give them the freedom to ask questions in a non-judgmental atmosphere. Then you can try to get answers that satisfy, or point them toward people who can answer them. 
But above all continue to love that person no matter what, which is what Jesus would have you to do, I think. The minute the church turns her back on doubters the less of a reason they have for wanting to come back to their faith. This was the final blow to my faith. I had little or no Christian contact because my Christian friends didn’t want to be around me for the most part. Even when I attended church I felt their judgment, so I stayed away. Granted, the less I believed the less I wanted to be around church people. This is probably a catch-22. But it is no excuse not to try. The longer I stayed away the less I believed, and that was all it took to lose every ounce of faith I had left. 
But what should Christians do with apostates who have made their unbelief public? Hopefully you reject the idea of burning us at the stake, okay? At that point you can still show you care, and that’s probably all, even if each specific case will be different, depending also on the defector’s attitude. My experience is that the apostate is the same person she was before, for the most part, except that she no longer believes. If she was caring and giving before, she’ll still be caring and giving afterward. If she was a hard worker before, she’ll still be a hard worker afterward, and so on. And while she may give to different causes, and may work hard at other things, her personality doesn’t change. 
Regarding apostates, Professor Tucker listed five myths about us which I think are instructive if you want to understand us: 
1) "They are angry and rebellious." She found virtually no evidence for this. Rather, people felt sorrow, initially. They experienced pain, not anger. 
2) "They can be argued back into faith." Not so she says. Because the person leaving his/her faith has thoughtfully considered the reasons behind this decision, the Christian who attempts this is more likely to deconvert in such an exchange. 
3) "Doubters can find help at Christian colleges and seminaries." According to her this does not seem to be the case. 
4) "They abandon their faith so that they can go out and sin freely." Tucker points that this is not a motivational issue in de-converting from faith. 
5) "They were never sincere Christians to begin with." On the contrary, she has come across example after example of the most earnest and sincere Christian believers who became non-theists. [Freethought Association of West Michigan, Meeting Minutes for October 24, 2001]. 
John W. Loftus, Angola, IN