My Religion Story
Bruwer Swanepoel – July 2020
I was born in September 1951 and somehow developed an affinity for religion when I was about 11/12 years old. I lived with my grandmother in Ficksburg, Free State between the ages of 5 and 9 and then moved back to my parents in Pretoria. We lived in a flat, very close to the Pretoria West Power Station, but moved to a 2-bedroomed house just down the street when I was 11. I have a younger brother and sister. We attended primary school in the city and travelled there by bus. My brother and I got bicycles for Christmas 1963, and during my last year in primary school (1964) we cycled the 5 km to school with my 5-year-old sister sitting askew on the bicycle frame in front of me and she crying from the cold when arriving at 7 o’clock on some mid-winter mornings.
It was during the last two years of my primary school days that I developed this desire to attend church services. I cannot say where this desire came from, but with hindsight am pretty sure it had to do with peer pressure. Although my parents were believers and members of the local Dutch Reformed congregation wherever we happen to live, they were not regular church-going people and religion was not dominant in our family life. I started to regularly attend the Sunday morning church service as well as the Sunday-school hour afterwards, together with my two best friends. I sometimes also attended the church services on Sunday evenings. I was 12 years old, but distinctly remembered a couple of times when my parents walked me to the Pretoria West bus station on a Sunday evening on my way to church, and me walking back home alone from the station afterwards. I felt good about going to church twice on a Sunday. During my last five school years, my brother and I attended “Hoërskool Brits” and were resident in the school hostel. All hostel residents had to go to church, marching in a row from the hostel grounds to the church and back, twice on any given Sunday.
I was 16 years old when I contracted meningitis (second time in my life) and spent many weeks in Pretoria General Hospital recovering from the illness. It was during the final phase (a week or two) while lying in a general ward after having spent most of the time in isolation, that a man appeared in the doorway, looked around the ward and then approached an older man across the ward from me. A very short conversation followed after which the man looked up, saw me looking at them, got up, came over to me, sat down next to my bed and asked me if I knew Jesus. I remembered saying YES, but when he prodded and me not giving good answers, he politely asked if he could explain to me the way to salvation. I was initially a bit shy, but then became curious and eventually thrilled to listen to him reading a few verses (from the Gospel of John) and explaining to me how easy the way to eternal salvation was. He then did to me what I later had done to many dozens of others. He held my hands and prayed with me and helped me to accept in prayer, Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour. It was an overwhelming experience. Up until a few years ago, I could even remember the exact date and the specific passage in the Bible that he shared with me.
I would say that this incident was the 1 st highlight of my “faith career”. About nine years later when I started working and becoming more involved in the church and “growing in my faith”, this incident featured prominently in my personal witness to fellow and would-be “re-born Christians” for the next 25 years. After matric, I spent one year in the army (Parachute Battalion Tempe, 1970) and thinking back, would say that I was comparatively active in living my faith. One “struggle-with-the-flesh” I had, confirmed this ……. masturbation. In those days, masturbation was a particularly shocking sin ….. it could even get you blind. I made a pact with God: He helps me to get my Parabat wings, and I will not masturbate for that whole year. I can remember trying really hard and praying a lot about this. Even so, I couldn’t keep my part of the deal …… but He did. I didn’t give it a second thought then but reflected on it many years later when I was intimately involved in seeking the intervention of God in the lives of people and situations, through prayer. I will return to this point later.
I then spent five years at the University of Pretoria, most of the time in hostel residence. To a large extent, I kept up the faith and my church-going activity. I met my first wife at university and got married while I was still studying, and we shared the same passion for church-going and religion. Her father was a quiet, humble and deeply religious man. I had studied with a Railway’s bursary, and we moved to Johannesburg when I started working in January 1976. We stayed in a bachelor’s flat in Hillbrow for two years and were active members of the Irene congregation of the Dutch Reformed Church in Doornfontein, Johannesburg. It was a special congregation in the sense that its members lived in Hillbrow and Berea, an infamous big-city neighbourhood which, at the time, was by far the most cosmopolitan in South Africa. I started reading the Bible with more intensity, and I took it seriously …… the guidelines, the promises, everything. As a result, among other things, I started giving my “tenth”. I clearly remember that in 1978 my gross salary was R750 per month and I gave R75 to the church. One day, for some reason, I handed my R75 to the pastor (“Dominee”) himself, and he asked me if I was “a child of God”, and I remember being honoured to say YES. In those days, the term “child of God” was still novel in Afrikaner church circles, and I was quite taken with the question. I kept up my tithing activity for many years, and later on, when I became a deacon, realised that I was
giving way more than the average. We bought a house and moved to Kempton Park in 1978 and joined the Edleen congregation of the Dutch Reformed Church. It did not occur to me then, but reflecting on this many years later, I realised that, given our Afrikaner backgrounds and historical time frame, to immediately join the local church and getting involved in the church structures, were not even a point of consideration
or discussion…… it was the norm. Towards the end of the 70s and throughout the 80s, Afrikaners flocked to the church in higher numbers than ever before. It was the heyday of the Afrikaans churches, and they had a considerable influence on the politics of the day, which was getting increasingly tense.
I started my own business towards the end of 1984 and struggled financially for about four years before things started to pan out and then got better. My commitment to the church and faith grew significantly stronger during this time of financial uncertainty and relative hardship. I started reading the Bible with even more passion and intensity, working through 2 Bibles and starting the 3 rd one, over the next 15 years …… meaning I paged so often and made so many notes in the Bible, that some pages became unreadable. For about ten years during this time, I got up one hour earlier every morning to study the Bible, pray and worked through dozens of Biblekor courses. I became an elder and was chosen head elder of Edleen congregation when I was 33 years old. I would say that this started the 2 nd highlight of my “faith career”.
I was actively involved in the structures of the congregation. For 5/6 years I “taught” final year Sunday School students (catechism) before they would qualify to become full members of the church congregation during a very officious ceremony better known for the fancy new suits and dresses worn by the youngsters and parents alike. The three essential Confessions of Faith of the Dutch Reformed Church were the handbooks used. These were The Belgic Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism and The Canons of Dordt. Reflecting, I can remember that there always was at least one pupil in every final-year class who would ask the difficult-to-explain questions and probably seldom got satisfying answers. One question that came up without exception every year dealt with the doctrine of predestination. I studied The Canons
of Dordt in detail and read widely about Calvin and his teachings on this theme and at the time thought I could explain the doctrine well, but always had the feeling that one or two pupils never bought it. I was also actively involved and mostly leading 3 to 4 different Bible study groups at any given point in time during the 25 years of my involvement in Edleen congregation. One weekly early morning group I was privy to join, consisted of the pastor himself (my next-door neighbour) and two other senior elders. A small group of “senior” churchmen which I thought would help me to the next level in my quest for spiritual maturity.
I did a course which was established by and under the auspices of The Centre for Continued Theological Education, Faculty of Theology, the University of Pretoria. At this faculty, Dutch Reformed Pastors studied for seven years before they were allowed to enter the ministry and pastor a “flock of Christ’s sheep” in a congregation. It was a 2-year course covering the structure, content and message of every one of the 66 books (and combinations of books) in the Bible. I was totally absorbed in this course, and in a sense, it represented the highlight of my search for Jesus and my desire to follow in his footsteps. I took the Bible even more seriously, studied it even more intensely and wanted to make sense of the unique message of the Bible and its meaning in my life and my understanding of my part in the greater scheme of things.
In 1989 I was invited to a Gideons International meeting in Kempton Park and afterwards joined the Kempton Park Camp of the Gideons International. I was elected President of the Camp and held the position for the maximum period of 3 consecutive years. I was a highly motivated, committed and enthusiastic Gideon for 15 years and would describe the first 10-12 years of my Gideon life as the 3 rd highlight of my “faith career”. I participated in the funding and distribution of hundreds of thousands of Bibles to schools, hospitals and hotels in our region. These were turbulent times in the townships around Johannesburg and visiting the schools sometimes required police or army escorts. But, we were doing the work of the Lord and a quick prayer session before we enter the townships made everyone feel a little safer. I was regularly invited to the monthly dinner meetings of other Gideon Camps to deliver a message and witness during a strictly 20-minute time slot. Gideons International was/is a very disciplined organisation. We regularly visited all Protestant Evangelical churches in our area to give the congregations feedback on our activities in the community and receive a donation. During some visits to some of the smaller evangelical groups, we were even allowed/asked to, by the local pastor to deliver the Sunday morning sermon. I had this honour more than once.
There was no specific event or exact moment that triggered the doubt in my mind about my faith. It appeared unconsciously but grew gradually and steadily over a
very long time.
I walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem and visited all the holy sites of Christianity in Israel during a tour of “the holy land” in 1999. The trip was organised and lead by a pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church and had all the promises of a never-to-be-missed religious experience. Not for me ….. I came back with a feeling of disappointment. I did not experience the sacredness, holiness, elation and worship, which most of the others experienced. Our local Israeli tour guide was a retired teacher, obviously a Jew, but secular and with an in-depth knowledge of the history of Jerusalem and all three monotheistic religions. He answered all our questions factually and so much so that our tour leader at some stage took him aside and reminded him that he is guiding a Christian group and that his answers should reflect Biblical convictions and not his own. Incidentally, from him, I heard, for the first time, that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem but almost certainly in Nazareth. At this time, I had not yet read scripture outside of the Bible. However, it did not surprise me because, at this point, I had already started developing doubts about many of the “facts” and “eternal truths” in the Bible. The inconsistencies of Jesus’s teachings, the myriad of factual contradictions in scripture, the scientific errors and some of the myths/stories which just seemed too far-fetched and naïve for modern intelligent people to take seriously. The latter, I later-on discovered, mostly originated from
other and much older pagan religious myths and which never had the intention of being viewed as factual, but as metaphors.
From the pulpit, I heard Sunday after Sunday and confirmed by the three Confessions of Faith that the Bible is the unerring, truthful and everlasting Word of God, given to us by God and proved to be from God. And that the Bible contains the will of God comprehensively. That the Bible is perfect and complete in all respects and nothing should be added to it or taken from it. However, the deeper I delved into, and the more knowledge I gained about the Bible, the more confused and uncomfortable I became with this rational view of the Bible. I am an engineer by profession, and because mysticism is largely lost on me, it never occurred to me to maybe consider some passages in the Bible as metaphors and try to imagine my way around some unrealistic issues. However, mysticism was never part of the Protestant Reformed view, so I grew up with this rational view of the Bible and a very personal God, and I took the Bible and therefore all of the myriad promises in the Bible very seriously (as with tithing).
The Bible is full of God-given promises, and the vast majority of these promises relate to the lives of real people living here and now on earth. The few promises relating to the afterlife are vague and confusing to get your head around. Besides, most of the promises are of a physical, practical, if not a worldly nature, e.g. ….. do this, and you and your progeny will live a life of abundance (harvests will overflow, land/children/sheep/cattle/goats will multiply greatly, ….. do that, and you will live a joyful life and inherit the earth, ….. do this and that, and you and your progeny will be blessed, will be called sons of God, will see God and will receive the reign of God on earth. If you have faith, you could achieve anything in the name of God, move mountains, walk on water, heal sick people, etc. I looked at all these promises and considered them in terms of the central and unique message of the Bible and came to the logical conclusion: If I accept and confess Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour, give my life over to his Biblical guidance and try my very best to follow in his footsteps, serve him, honour him, pray to and worship him, I will become a better/happier person, and if I can convince others in my sphere of influence to do the same then my family will become a better/happier family, my community will become a better/happier community, my nation will become a better/happier nation and our whole western civilisation will become a better/happier civilisation and a shining example to the unbelieving and unhappy rest of the world who do not share our experience of exquisite joy, wellbeing, compassion, inner peace and lives overflowing with happiness. I believed this for a long time, tried to convince others of this and doing my bit to contribute to achieving this outcome.
My disillusionment was profound ……. IT DID NOT WORK!
It did not make me a better/happier person, nor my family, nor my community, nor my country, nor the western world, which built its civilisation on Christian values. Here’s the thing though: it worked for me ….. it always worked for me ….. but it did not work for many other much-better-people-than-I. During my 25 years in Edleen church congregation, I was intimately involved with the lives and the ups and downs of many congregation members as well as some Gideon brothers who ran into serious problems, e.g. financial, health, mental, trauma, etc. I prayed with many of these people, seriously seeking the face of God in the matters that weighed them and their families down (reminding God of his promises, as He challenges us to do in his Word). It was the experience I had with two such family cases in Edleen which shook the foundations of my trust in God to the core. I would say that these experiences led to the first major turning point in my “faith career”. These families were, in my opinion, what the Bible calls “salt of the earth
people”…… humble, meek and mild, compassionate, tolerant, hard-working for the church and the benefit of other congregation members, always available to do the less exciting, most cumbersome, less rewarding, behind-the-scenes-work and always available when old, sick or needy people needed help. From the outside, these people were as obedient as people could be, childishly trusting and faithful followers of the doctrines of the church and on the face of it, utterly dependant on God and his goodwill, love, care and stewardship of them ……. yet, their lives and family lives disastrously fell apart! Not because of anything they did, but with hindsight, because of being unable to cope with the unfortunate and harsh realities life threw at them.
In one case, the man, in middle age, couldn’t cope with the pressures of his new promotion, eventually lost his job, couldn’t deal with the resultant social trauma and financial stress and ended up in a mental hospital. He was later transferred to an old age nursing home, much too early in his life, and where he will most probably see out the rest of his days in desolation as his marriage also broke up. In the second case the one child came out as being lesbian, and after severe stress at home and in the community she and her partner committed suicide. The family disintegrated, and the mother eventually hanged herself. Not even mentioning the effects on the rest of the family members, in both cases. None of the multitudes of prayers or physical and mental support from myself and other congregation members seemed to have made any difference to the outcome in the lives of these families. I looked at them and thought to myself: where is the loving and caring God that they served for so long and with so much conviction and so desperately depended upon? How come that He reneged on his promises to simple people who could not take care of themselves but put all their trust in Him? It eventually came to me that these people trusted God with their lives, but lacked worldly common sense and application in conducting their lives to ensure survival. Like so many others, they did not possess the skills and the wherewithal to overcome the “unfair” challenges life presents. It became clear to me that in real life, God only helps those that help themselves. This brings me back to the “pact” I made with God in the army in 1970, and I want to relate it to the general issue of the answering of prayers. I came to realise that I had all the skills and determination to get my Parabat wings, and God had no role in it. In the 25 years that I have devoted my life to Christ and have indulged in countless prayers for myself and others, I have generally experienced the outcome of prayers to be around 50/50. The 50% positive outcomes were all in favour of those people with positive life surviving skills, and the 50% negative outcomes were in favour of the people without those skills. I had to conclude: don’t waste your time and energy on prayers, as it brings a false sense of security. The outcome (your fate if you want) is in your own hands ….. deal with the issues that confront you in a practical, rational and worldly manner!
The second major turning point in my “faith career” had to do with content in the Bible. I did a Bybelkor course on Philippians and learned that the main message of Philippians 2 (an epistle of St Paul, the founder of Christianity) describes the “unbelievable” love God has for us, the crown of his creation. The father (God) sends his son (also God) to empty himself of his godly nature to become a servant (a mere mortal) and further humiliating himself to die as a mortal, on a cross like a common criminal …. all because of his indescribable love for us. Add to this ….. God does not only love (his creation), but ….. GOD IS LOVE. You then compare this with the aggressive behaviour of Jesus (John 2:15) when he, whip in hand, confronting the merchants, chasing their animals-for-sale out of the temple and turning over their tables scattering their money in all directions. Hardly an act of indescribable love and tolerance! For me, this is the worst incompatibility in the Bible. But there are others:
Jesus will return to earth if and when all have heard of him. Really? The most probable time would have been just after Roman Caesar Constantin declared Christianity the state religion in the 4th century. The percentage of Christians to the world population was then certainly the highest of all time. The advent of Islam in the 7th century changed that metric forever, and the percentage is shrinking ever since. Jesus will return to earth as he departed ….. on the clouds, and every eye will observe him. Hard to swallow for my engineering brain. Having learned and understood the unique message of the Bible, I could not help but
ask: Could this omnipotent, omniscient and ALL-loving God not have made a better plan? A more straightforward, more elegant method of reconciling the crown of his creation with himself that could be understood and accepted by all? Instead of confusing everybody, causing friction within families, creating divisions between groups, communities, nations and civilisations, which led to unprecedented persecution, genocide, slaughter and murder of millions of people over millennia.
Not to mention the reason why the Trinity God felt it necessary to reconcile his creation with himself, i.e. ORIGINAL SIN. How can a modern, intelligent and rational person get his head around this doctrine? When I started reading other religious literature, e.g. Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, Greek, etc., I realised how many other serious gods exist that are worth worshipping, and all of them has its followers. If I was born in Saudi Arabia, the chances are 99% that I would have been a Sunny Muslim, in Iran, a Shi’ite Muslim, in India, a Hindu or Muslim, in China a Buddhist or Taoist, etc. The Trinity God must love certain parts of the world more than others. He probably doesn’t like central and northern Europe any longer because they walked away from him more than a century ago. And this is not even mentioning the flat earth, movement of celestial bodies and creation “truths” in the Bible.
It was in 2005 as I was driving past the Hartebeespoort Dam on my way to visit my widow mother in Golden Harvest Retirement Village near Magaliesburg when the thought first crossed my mind. Could it be that Jesus is not the son of God? I was shocked momentarily and forced my thoughts in a different direction. But only for a short time. The more I considered the possibility, the more comfortable I felt with it
and could eventually say it out loud. I then realised what an incredibly powerful force indoctrination is to control minds and therefore, people.
Around 2003/2004, there was an explosion of hitherto unheard-of opinions and discussions in Afrikaans newspapers on “the existence of God”. A growing number of people including pastors of the 3 Afrikaans Reformed Churches, the so-called “Drie Afrikaanse Gereformeerde Suster Kerke”, was debating the existence of God ….. in the open! An unthinkable development for members of the Afrikaans church establishment. At the time I was unaware that these discussions were, in parallel, also very prominently taking place in the new internet milieu in the Afrikaans portal LitNet. I soon took notice of a book with the arduous title “Die Omstrede God”, which was a summarised bundle of most of the discussions that took place on LitNet, put together by Etienne van Heerden. I felt drawn to these discussions because it reflected my doubts about the “truths” in the Bible. I bought this book and couldn’t put it down and read parts of it 2/3 times. Some of the contributors to these discussions subsequently broke ranks with the traditional Afrikaans Church establishment and grounded an alternative movement called “Die Nuwe Hervorming Netwerk” (N-H-N) in 2005. Many of the founding members were pastors of the Afrikaans Reformed Churches
under the leadership of Professor Izak Spannenberg, himself an ordained pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church. At this point, I had stopped going to church and had effectively broken off my relationship with Edleen congregation. I had also officially left the Gideons International. I attended a few of the first meetings of the N-H-N before the international company I worked for at the time, offered me an ex-pat work
assignment in Europe, and I relocated to Germany in January 2006. At these N-H-N meetings, I was pleasantly surprised to meet well-read, intelligent, courteous and feet-on-the-ground Afrikaners, most of whom shared my exact religious experience. And as far as I could observe, none of them had horns, a tail or trident. Although not actively involved, I followed them on their website and made a monthly donation to
their cause for the past 15 years.
I then discovered evolution. I read widely about it and from more than one scientific perspective, i.e. biology, chemistry, physics, geology, etc. My conviction that the rational and personal God of the Bible does not exist was confirmed. I not only felt relieved and vindicated but empowered, and started feeling comfortable with my developing atheist views. I came to marvel at the wonder of the cosmos and life itself. I learned about the incredible beauty and mechanism of natural selection over unfathomable time scales and about evolving life and consciousness and how everything in a factually realistic but changing universe is scientifically inter-connected.
I started reading scholarly books on religious history and came to realise and understand why and how inevitable it was that man had created God in his image and not the other way round. I have come to think of myself as a free-thinking individual, not bound by superstition or indoctrination.
It took a while, but today I am proud to call myself an atheist.