Joe E. Holman: From Minister to Atheist

Growing up, I was a typical American kid. I had a brother and a sister, a loving mom and dad, and we were taught to believe in Christianity, America's status quo faith. Mom and dad were not religious fanatics, but they were mild fundamentalists who believed that Christianity was the only way to salvation and that no one could have the highest morality without belief in the Christian God. I swallowed this philosophy hook, line, and sinker from day one, though I didn't become a baptized believer until my eighteenth birthday.

I was converted for the same reason that many others were--I was at a time in my life when I needed emotional and psychological support. I had fought my own battles with depression growing up, but when Christianity came along, that was the end of my singing the blues! Finding something to believe in is a big part of the psychological make up of the individual. I had also just fallen out of a relationship with a girl and this made me begin to "look upward" for help like I'd never done before. I was a party-goer, by and large, but I knew that someday, I would have to give up my selfish life and become a part of what I was taught God told me to do--to be baptized and live as a Christian.

I remember how it felt to start looking for answers in the bible and pray like I never had before. I was a changed man at my conversion one cold February morning in 1994. What I felt Christ did for me was all too apparent in my mind. I decided to live for him since he gave so much for me, and I was so thankful that I had escaped the eternal flames of Hell that awaited me for my former lifestyle's conduct. From then on, my life would change in ways I never imagined.

During the first year of my conversion, I read the bible through, bought perhaps 50 apologetics books and Christian evidence materials, and read them through nearly at the pace of one book per night. Nothing else seemed important to me anymore except the study of God's word. I was a living, breathing, scripture-quoting machine. Only a couple of months after my conversion, I found that I had an easier time memorizing than anyone I knew, so I put this skill to work. This came in handy as I became a determined personal evangelist.

From me, no one was safe from an argument on religion! I'd talked to everyone I knew, beginning with my close family, my friends, and my acquaintances, and they all knew where I stood on the issues: Jesus was the way, Genesis is accurate in all its teachings (and literal too), and only those in the Lord's true church (the Church of Christ to which I belonged) would be saved on the last day. I went door to door for multiple blocks, talking to every soul I could find. I had to save them from the fires of Hell like I had been saved. I sure made a lot of people mad at me who didn't want to hear it!

I had two college professors walk away from me after I basically refused to let them leave their classrooms in arguments over what they said during class. I had a math professor tell me, "Listen, I'm not going to convert to your religion, guy!" I remember another teacher saying to me, "I'm happy with my church. I don't need another." This little crusade of mine continued until a year-and-a-half after my conversion when I decided to enter preaching school and officially prepare myself for the work I had ahead. Secular college was much too worldly and "evil" for me, so preaching school shined out as my only real option.

Let it be clear that the Church of Christ is an ultra-fundamentalist group, far more conservative than even the most stubborn protestant churches out there: so conservative, in fact, that members of my group were constantly withdrawing fellowship from each other and our sister congregations that disagreed with us over greater or lesser points. According to our group, an unscriptural marriage (a second marriage without meeting the scriptural standards of God) constituted adultery, and therefore, had to be broken up, even if their were children involved.

Of course, no one could be saved outside of our group and every detail of the scriptures was the absolute word of God and had to be true! Using musical instruments during church services was wrong and sinful and Hell would be the penalty for it if done. The God of the Church of Christ was a very legally-minded God, indeed. Even a sincere candidate making his way to the baptistery out of faith to obey God, should he die, would find himself in Hell because he had to get immersed to get any forgiveness (Acts 2:38).

Beginning Ministerial Training

I began attending the Southwest School of Bible Studies in 1995 and graduated in 1997. This well respected 216 hour preparation for my preaching work taught me a lot about every area of the work of the minister. It was a thorough walk-through of every book and chapter of the bible, preaching protocol, and particularly, the fact and the how of bible apologetics. That is, the bible needed a lot of defending. It brood so much controversy and conflict on every level of thought that it needed scholars at its aide. But my best arguing experience came from real life, from running into people with radically different beliefs than mine and learning how to defend my position over theirs.

I ran into the Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses, the Baptists and Adventists, the Catholics and Greek Orthodox, the infidels and mystics, the psychics and the Buddhists, and the typical "unchurched" folk who weren't interested in religion one way or the other. To me they all didn't make sense. With each encounter, I became more and more confident that my faith was the right one to have. Every debate I watched or heard, I found that my side seemed to make the better points, and this bothered me a little because I felt that I didn't understand the opposing side's views well enough. This demanded yet more study.

In heart, I have always been a bit of a rationalist, even back then. I felt the need for compelling evidence to back up a claim, especially in a world of religions where so many flimflam artists are at work. So it bothered me when I heard others express the "just have faith" aspect of religion. Others - most people, in fact - weren't like me. They didn't care like I did if a claim made sense or not. If their parents said it, if the bible said it, if they had heard it for a long enough time, then it was true, period.
I kept trying to understand why the faith of most people wasn't as urgent a thing to them as my faith was to me. This led me to believe even more so that I was truly converted and most of those around me were not. But even amongst my own brethren, so many seemed to not be as flexible with their views as I thought they should be. Very few of them would stick their necks out in an argument like I would and put their faith on the line: "Prove to me that my religion is wrong and I'll convert to the right one tonight." I didn't see this attitude very often and this worried me.

Throughout my ministry, I remember watching and reading debates just to prove myself wrong, though this never happened early on. It seemed I could never get to a point in my mind where I just accepted I had truth. My quest for answers was unending.

Preaching Life Begins

After graduating from seminary in 1997, I held down four preaching works until my resignation as minister in 2003. In August of 1997, I began my first work. I didn't end up staying there long on account of financial reasons. The church couldn't afford to pay me enough, so after six months, my wife and I headed out for work number two. I spent two years at this church and learned a lot about human nature and people's unwillingness to change.

Throughout my Christian life, I always had little doubts that bothered me from conversion onward. They were small doubts that made my stomach burn from time to time, but I would study them away before they became a problem. It was towards the end of this work (in 1999) that I began to experience doubts a little harder. This was the time in my life that I began to first question prayer. On one occasion, our church diligently prayed that a dear elderly sister with cancer get better. She seemed to improve as her cancer went into remission for a while and I considered this a true evidence of prayer...until a year later when the cancer relapsed and she died quite suddenly! God was really working there! From then on, it was as though my mind kept a log of unanswered prayers, and the results always seemed to be 50/50 at best. This was my beginning of questioning what I believed, though I didn't acknowledge it altogether. It was just in the back of my mind.

I prided myself on being able to "answer" infidel arguments, but I would later find that my study of evidence on these issues was one-sided. Up till now, my knowledge pool was theological and Christian. I had no way to reason outside of the box. I could only arrive at Christian conclusions because that was my worldview. So I decided to take a little harder look at the other side.
I began acquiring some other books, this time books on the natural sciences and freethought. I began with Thomas Paine, George H. Smith, and Ingersoll (to name just a few), and my library expanded monthly. Plus, I began to take a closer look at astronomy, cosmology, geology, and microbiology. I was beginning to get a different picture of the world than my bible was giving me. But even now that I was broadening my horizons, my faith was still not in any danger of being destroyed just yet. I still readily and fervently opposed, like a belligerent fanatic, anyone (including those in the books I read), who opposed fundamentalist Christianity. It would take time to see a better way.

The Doubts Worsen

Before I knew it, the summer of 2000 had rolled around. I was at my third preaching work now and the work of God in the local church went on as normal. It was a hot night in August as a guest speaker addressed my congregation in regard to his missionary work that we were supporting overseas. I had been fighting away my doubts successfully up until this point, but this was about to change.
Behind him was the screen where he showed us a video of the work that the brethren were doing in India. The pagans were pulling apart a bull in a town square in honor of a pagan god. "It is unfortunate that this sort of pagan worship goes on in the world today, but it does, and we must remember as Christians that these souls are lost without the gospel. If people can be saved without it, then we are wasting our time and money trying to save souls."

It was as though time stopped for me at that moment. The speaker's words made my heart race like never before, even though I had preached and heard the same message a thousand times by now. But unlike before, I was now actually thinking of the implications of what I believed.

According to my God, these ignorant, bull-slaughtering heathens were going to be condemned to eternal fire to burn forever, and yet so many of them had lived and died under their own wrong pagan ways and laws for countless generations. It wasn't right for God to put them in Hell for simply living in ignorance as they had been taught. I felt like a twerp with my no-other-way-to-salvation gospel, futilely trying to convert a people who already had a belief system and a culture to direct their lives.

My heart began pounding and I began to sweat. I was beginning to think for myself and not just sweep every lost person into a secret compartment in my mind, never to be thought about again (as I had been doing). This Hell idea I had been preaching was starting to seem like a terrible thing. Though I wouldn't have admitted it, I never could harmonize the concept of hell with the concept of a merciful God, especially when God could easily rehabilitate sinners or just blot them out of existence. After all, you get rid of a sick dog, you don't torture it, right?

But this posed a dilemma; if God could choose to save some lost souls without the gospel, then he must do the same for everyone lest he be branded a respecter of persons (Acts 10:34-35), in which case, his word would not always be true (John 10:35). Or, if it is as the bible says, and literally no one can be saved without the gospel, then you have the uncomfortable and unjust position of making God a tyrant who condemns helpless and ignorant pagans who never heard of Jews or Jesus or the Christian Church (Luke 12:4-5; Mark 16:16; Matthew 7:21-23; John 14:6). There is no way to answer this dilemma and maintain both the soundness of God's word and the mercy of God.

I used to be content explaining this by saying that since God himself was the only immutable standard of morality, then he could do whatever he wanted with souls and his will would be "good" and ours would be "bad," but this no longer resolved the problem in my mind. Now the idea of eternal torment started to seem like the truly malicious thing it was. God was running a "little shop of horrors" all his own! The more I thought about it, I wasn't so sure I wanted to serve a monster capable of such cruelty. It would take time, but this would soon begin to interfere with my evangelism efforts.

Not a month had passed by until I found myself working late one night at the church building. I spent all the time I had to prepare bible classes and sermons, studying out bible discrepancies and evidences for and against evolution instead. My doubts, though not unmanageable, were starting to interfere with my work, and things would finally reach the breaking point by the next year. Looking back now, I can see it all clearly. My experience tells me it's the same with just about everyone; once you begin to think critically and analyze what you are taught in the bible, faith will eventually terminate in atheism.

My Last Work

The last church I preached at was my biggest work yet. I loved preaching the gospel and had given my life to cherish and defend it. I had so much on my plate with this new work: visitation, counseling, prison correspondence, bulletin preparation, preaching and teaching sermons and bible classes, and a Sunday morning radio program.

When I tried to look at this as a wonderful thing, I still found that most of my time and effort was being spent in apologetics. I found myself constantly explaining away bible atrocities, such as the Midianites' extermination at the hands of Israel (Numbers 31:15-18), and why God allowed bad things to happen to good people.

Answering the problem of evil and innocent human suffering was a big thing to all churches because it is a relevant question and every member of every church worldwide has heard every preacher they know try to explain it, but they all failed just like I did. The scriptural problems never would quit coming at me. I was constantly explaining away bible discrepancies, "patching up" the old book to make it fit a skeptical, modern world. I was constantly explaining away many errors in the text.
For instance, one passage says Ahaziah was 22 years old when he began to reign and another passage says he was forty two (2 Kings 8:26 vs. 2 Chronicles 22:2). One text has Josiah dying in Megiddo and another has him dying in Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:29-30 vs. 2 Chronicles 35:24). I was taught contradictions like these were just "scribal errors" from copying mistakes in earlier manuscripts. However, it didn't sit well with me that God did not provide us with a spiritual roadmap that could be trusted without having to go digging through a pile of human-penned manuscripts to finally stumble upon what God actually intended to say!

It was difficult trying to find scientific truths in God's book, while explaining away the many unscientific things that bothered me, like flat earth passages such as Job 9:6 and I Samuel 2:8, "the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and he hath set the world upon them." The idea that striped rods produce striped offspring in animals (Genesis 30:35-39), proved very difficult to explain, and let's not forget the work I had to do in explaining what the bible really meant when it mentioned those cud-chewing rabbits (Leviticus 11:6)!

I couldn't keep up with all the work I had to do to make Christianity seem viable. This worsened my doubts and I started realizing that the issues I was explaining away were valid discrepancies indeed, and that my way of correcting these problems could be applied to any false book, making it impossible to find a contradiction in anything. I was using bad reasoning to find my way out of erroneous conclusions, brought on by false bible statements.

So, I was forced to retreat back into the safe-haven of illusive, theistic-agnostic jargon by saying that "God is above our understanding. God is unknowable. We would have to be God to understand him." Now I was right back where I started--with no answers. And if you think defining God is hard, imagine trying to define a Trinitarian God (Matthew 28:19)! As a minister, I would explain the trinity as water, steam, and ice--three components making up one substance. This doesn't apply very well to individuals, does it? Now I had three uncreated, perfect, and infinite beings existing forever! This was an even less intelligible idea!

Like a retard in the mall, I was lost and left to wander aimlessly, playing the same old guessing game of finding what solution would solve this problem and what God wanted me to do. My spiritual world was turned upside down. Like most religious people, Christians are very theatrical in their thinking, and so was I. I kept imagining the drama that went on as Satan was before God telling him I would fail the test, but that God was telling Satan that I would pass it, just like Job's triumphant journey into greater faith. I had to stay faithful! But, this disposition could only last so long.

The time comes when you develop the courage to admit to yourself, "If there is a God, he sure has done a good job at making a universe where so many like me can't see it." In such dilemmas, you keep waiting for the right tract or email or book or conversation from a friend to come along and set you straight, but it never happens.

When 2002 came around, things were definitely changing. My preaching work was now showing serious signs of sloppiness and hurt. I stepped into that pulpit every Sunday and gave my weekly motivational speeches and forgot about my doubts for the time, though they always came back. By mid-2002, I was a virtual atheist undercover, trying to keep a paycheck coming and almost resigned to finally accepting that my god had bailed on me!

As one last measure, I decided to reach out to other ministers for help. I went to their houses, swore them to secrecy, and unloaded on them my issues. I had tried this a couple of times before with no success, but I thought I'd try it again. They didn't understand and actually attacked me viciously for asking them demanding questions they only thought they had answers to. They tried to come back with the same theistic hogwash I once so proudly peddled, but those words had lost their power. The people I went to for comfort ended up chiding me for a situation I wished I wasn't in. Several of them refused to speak to me again. I was hurt and it didn't take long to realize that I was on my own in this search.
I took any down time I had and investigated other world religions more clearly than I had in the past. To sum up the matter, not one of them struck me as divine and all of them seemed at least a little more credible than the religion I promoted. No one of them had any of the big answers to the world's problems and no one of them could explain human suffering. None of the basic philosophical arguments for God (the cosmological, teleological, axiological arguments, etc.) were valid, and a thorough investigation of the roots of Christianity revealed that it was not unique at all.

Christianity was composed of borrowed components of many religions. There were a myriad of virgin-born savior-gods in the world before Christ's time. Justin Martyr admits this much in his work Apologia I. I found nothing but dishonesty in my preaching comrades who showed no real interest in finding (or facing) the truth. I came to see that all those shelves of creationist books spoke for not so much as a microscopic part of the scientific community and that even my preaching brethren with actual degrees in the natural sciences rejected fully the scientific consensus of the real experts' opinions on evolution and cosmology.

I had been listening to dishonest crackpots who knew very little to nothing about what evolution really taught, and yet they trashed it and taught nonsense just to support the worldview of an archaic book that told of a six thousand year old earth, had numerous contradictions, false prophecies, and a plethora of errors. I was starting to see a bigger world out there than my limited Christian worldview would allow for, and I was starting to see that I needed to go back and relearn what little I was taught about science, knowing that the sources I trusted before were no good now.

There was no water canopy that surrounded the earth at creation as I had been taught (Genesis 1:6-8). In an attempt to bolster the credibility of the Noahic flood account (Genesis 6-8), I had been told that many flood myths of cultures around the world existed. This was true, but what I was not told was that a huge portion of those myths were not stories of universal floods, but local floods -- natural exaggerations from floods in history which came about as fall off from our most recent ice age. Exaggerations like this are to be expected as myths have always developed about natural disasters. There are plenty of fire myths too.

I also learned that many of these flood sagas had virtually nothing in common with each other; for instance, some flood legends, like the Pygmy version of the myth, describe a flood as an act of a god creating humanity in water. Other accounts, like that of the Hopi Indians, have an impending flood averted. The Hebrews' take on the flood was not unique and not original. Many flood stories predate theirs. The Egyptians have detailed and reliable records going back a long way, verifying that no flood occurred some 5,000 years ago or round-abouts.

So, what I once thought supported the Genesis record actually robbed it of credibility. Different races did not exist because Noah had three sons that emerged from an ark and repopulated the world (Genesis 9-11). The earth was not six thousand years old. Languages did not originate from a mysterious separation of peoples while building some tower to heaven (Genesis 11:1-9). The pyramids of different cultures around the world were not built in similar shapes because their ancestors came from the Tower of Babel. They were built as pyramids simply because they had no rebar or similar technology that would allow them to build straight upward to support their own weight when multiple stories were added to a structure.

I had been misinformed about the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which is continually misapplied by creationists everyday. The second law did not prevent or hinder evolution or an eternal universe at all. I had been misinformed about DNA and the facts of taxonomy, mutations, and genetic variants in species. I jumped at the opportunity to know the truth now. My knowledge pool was filling, and my worldview that was kept so small before and full of intolerance and scientific illiteracy, was now growing, and with this knowledge came peace like the bible only claimed to give me.
Also, I was realizing that morality which I thought was delegated by a book had nothing to do with religion. I was stunned to see many different forms of morality all over my world. Almost all higher forms of life showed the beginnings of culture, and to one extent or another, forms of morality. The morality of my people was a little different from the Head Hunters of Borneo, yet we had a similar rule that said that it wasn't right to steal. This rule was never given by a god. It was a result of rationality in species who understood that stealing could never be allowed in structured societies. Prides of lions have the same rule.

It became apparent that the greatest morality was not to do right for the bribe of a reward (Heaven), or because of the threat of punishment (Hell), but to do right for right's sake. This, to me, sums up higher morality. Morality comes no more to man from a god than it does from a god to a baboon to sacrifice himself to the leopard to preserve the lives of his troop. Once again, I looked around and saw a bigger, more natural world around me, a world that made more sense.

The Finality

I never quit getting asked what it was that finally closed my door of faith forever. If I had to pick a "nail in the coffin" that ended my theological journey, I don't think I would be able to. De-conversion takes time and a lot of thinking and rethinking. But I suppose, if my feet were to the fire and I had to pick the biggest blow, I would have to say that it came by way of understanding the basic premise of the law of rationality.

I was taught in school KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid! Look for the simplest answer first and not the most complex. You've probably heard this too. Logicians would call this principle, Occam's Razor--in a dilemma, pick the simplest answer whenever you can. I was compelled as a freethinker to draw only those conclusions which were warranted by the evidence. That meant that if I can explain design by means of evolution, then I don't need a god. If I can explain the construction of the bible on natural processes and that it is of human origin, then I am not warranted to conclude that a god wrote it. If I can look up at the stars at night, as I so fondly do, and see a natural explanation for them, then it is pointless to throw a god into the process somewhere.

Science had been replacing the god notion for centuries. Now God only existed in the gaps of our knowledge of the world. I had been holding back the progress of mankind by holding onto a book that promised the world, but delivered nothing. It was the very source of some of the problems it claimed to solve.

I could now embrace a more fulfilling and enlightening worldview. I could now have a glass of wine without fear of eternal damnation and I could breathe the fresh air of being honest with myself. I do not expect that everyone can be an atheist. I am convinced that it will not happen for a good many people because religion is a psychological thing and many people just aren't ready to make the leap to a purely material world. But as it was for me, so it will be the right move for a good many religious thinkers who find no stopping place short of rejecting theism.

I tried to resign from the ministry quietly, but the ministers I trusted in made that impossible. September 28, 2003 was the date of my resignation. I have never regretted that decision for a moment. In fact, I look back now and wonder how I could ever have believed in an angry tyrant of a god who brought unimaginable guilt and fear of eternal torture on his children. It was hard for my wife (now ex) who is still Christian and my family to adjust to my new views, and it was very difficult to hunt a new career, but it had to be done. I don't have a single regret.

After I resigned, I was put on more prayer lists than I could imagine--a lot of good they did! I got my share of emotional phone calls from ministers, friends, and members of the churches I preached at before, pleading me to "hold on," telling me I was too good a minister to leave the fold.

Generally, I got the usual thoughts from people who didn't understand my outlook and made every effort to blame my change on all the wrong reasons: "You were never really converted." "You were pushed into preaching too soon." "You just had too strict a church and their interpretation ruined you to real moderate Christianity." "You were just frustrated by the brethren." "You are just going through a phase, a sort of midlife crisis."

But when I defended my decision to leave, I quickly became the flaming heretic without hope of saving: "You are evil!!" "Do you worship the devil now, Joe?" "Joe, you have no morality!" "Will you beat me and take my wallet now that you're an atheist, Joe?" They called me not knowing what they were in for. It was almost funny to listen as they got upset and tried to get off the phone as quickly as possible. At least several preachers and long-time church friends forbade me to contact them ever again, and most of them haven't reached out since, except for one, maybe.

Looking back now, I can remember sitting on my couch shortly before my resignation and recalling the end of a movie I saw years earlier, the 1991 movie Drop Dead Fred. It's a silly little flick that focuses on a troubled girl who has an imaginary friend who stays with her until this friend feels she has grown up enough to be on her own. I can remember the emotion that ran through me as I applied it to my situation. Drop Dead Fred says to her towards the end of the movie, "I've got to leave you now. You don't need me anymore." After that, the girl went on about her life as a normal girl and Fred became some other little girl's imaginary friend.

For me, it was exactly as though my god, my imaginary friend who was a stepping stone to help me develop confidence and to reach out towards maturity in life, suddenly said to me, "I've got to leave you now. You don't need me anymore." It was sad at first, but I knew all along it was necessary. I "grew up" in my mind. My imaginary friend was gone. Santa Claus was dead. There was no ghost in the machine. Pinocchio's strings had been cut. Cinderella's magic carriage ran out of gas. My little green dragon I clutched so tightly in my arms as a small child at bedtime was useless now.

My journey through Christianity and into atheistic freethought was a journey of finding myself, and now I can say with great confidence that I have. I am one small link in a long chain, and all I can do is my little part to make my fellow links feel that much happier and that much more loved. The standards of peace and happiness I sought as I believer, I found as an atheist--Who would have thought?
What shocked me was that the evidences for naturalism were there all along, right in front of me. I never noticed them because of my former religious delusions. Anyone who wanted hard facts that would support a naturalistic universe could find a good number of evidences, if only they were willing to accept what they saw. I could now aim to live out my life with self-honesty and intellectual dignity. I was never a "sinner" and didn't need a savior. What I needed was truth and the liberty of enlightenment.

I found that life is not about Joe Holman or planet earth or my wants and desires, or those of my family. Life is about change; blind, but awesome, disappointing, but surprising, change. Life is about being born, growing, and dying, for no purpose at all except for the one we make for ourselves. Life is about the evolution of all things, great and small, and in the process, it is as though the universe, through us, developed a way to view itself.

For me, life is not the main event anymore. When my time on earth is spent, I will enjoy my eternal sleep, the only place where genuine, lasting tranquility can be obtained. In an eternal universe, who knows how unthinkably long it will be before another galaxy sprouts up somewhere someday and another planet is formed, where another innocent, naive, and zealous Joe Holman comes around again, asking the same questions and learning the same lessons.

(JH)

Buy Joe's Book! It boasts 408 pages of the full-length de-conversion story, arguments and evidence, and satirical material, in tellingly well-written fashion.