Deconversion Stories: Stephen Uhl. Catholic priest. Psychologist.

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Stephen Uhl, PhD, adapted this from the first chapter of his book Imagine No Superstition.



Stephen F. Uhl, Ph.D.

The specially chosen one among nine

On a very hot summer night, in the depression year 1930, I was born in the same farmhouse bed as my five oldest siblings. That same bed would also witness the stage entrance of my three youngest brothers. Count ‘em—nine kids! So would you guess this was a Catholic family?

Poor dad, he saw four girls come into his life before he saw a male child who could be designated to take over the farm. Mom pointed me, the second son, toward the altar. So you might say I had a very early vocation to the priesthood; I cannot recall any childhood time when I was not going to be a priest. The large family that mom herself came from had already furnished several priests and monsignors to the church. Mom was anxious to make her own contribution through me.

When I was just a little boy, I was treated especially well. When mom gave me the golden brown crust of a still hot, freshly baked loaf of bread, or if she defended me in an argument with siblings, I savored her approval. It became clear to me later in childhood that I was mom’s favorite. She was a fervent Catholic, and it was I, her child with the supernatural destiny, that was her chosen one.

My mom would have fit in very well with the following four ladies having coffee and boasting of the prowess of their sons. The first Catholic woman tells her friends “My son is a priest. When he walks into a room, everyone calls him ‘Father’.” The second Catholic woman chirps, “My son is a bishop. Whenever he walks into a room, the people call him ‘Your Grace’.” This third Catholic lady says, “My son is a cardinal. Whenever he walks into a room, people say ‘Your Eminence’.” As the fourth Catholic woman silently sips her coffee, the first three women give her this subtle, “Well…?” So she responds, “My son is a gorgeous, 6′ 2″ hard bodied stripper. When he walks into a room, people say, “Oh, my God….”

Mom motivated me to work hard in school, and this paid me very good intellectual dividends. Thanks especially to mom’s efforts, I developed a love for learning that I trust will never die until I do. I did disappoint her, however, when I flunked first grade. My teacher, Aunt Loretta, had told mother it would be better for me to start first grade at six. But mother just knew I could handle it at age five.

She wanted me to move along as quickly as possible academically. Well, Aunt Loretta had her own teacher’s ideas, and she made her point by flunking me so that I repeated first grade at age six.

During grade school, I enjoyed being an altar boy, because I believed that the religious ceremonies brought me to God. At the same time, I enjoyed strutting my liturgical stuff in the sanctuary before my mom and the rest of the parishioners. In my boyhood, we considered the priests to be special and thought they deserved the greatest respect. There was no hint of pedophilia from our priests at Saint Michael’s church.  (Much later I learned of some alcohol abuse and nocturnal extra-celibate activities, but never pedophilia.)

So the priesthood was a very attractive goal for me at the ripe old age of 14 in spite of a couple of puppy-love crushes that did not follow me to the seminary. I really did believe without reservation that I was destined to be of special service to God and his church.


When this young farmer’s son entered the boarding seminary at Saint Meinrad, Indiana, I was impressed to the point of being overwhelmed. The size of the buildings, the numbers of classmates and new friends and the busyness of the schedule added up to a challenging thrill for me. I followed the strict rules, studied and played hard, and enjoyed the exciting growth of it all.

I even enjoyed the institutional cooking that some of the city kids complained about. Being from a large and poor family, I was already accustomed to sharing with others and appreciating the food that was available. I was less accustomed to luxuries than were some of my classmates. Homesickness quickly reduced the number of our freshman classmates. Through the coming six years (minor seminary), the young ladies naturally attracted many others to abandon the long trek to the altar and ordination. I myself fought through and sublimated those natural attractions of adolescence which were then included in “temptations of the flesh.”

I vividly remember the main point of Father Adelbert’s annual June sermon to us as our Spiritual Director: “You can go home for this summer vacation, and you can go out with girls if you want to; that’s O.K. If you really want to go out with girls, go ahead and do so; just don’t come back!” Of course, a lot did not come back. I sublimated those natural drives while wearing out a lot of tennis shoes as a local championship handball player.

After two years of college, we came to what we called “the parting of the ways.” The six-year minor seminary chapter closed as the next chapter of six years of major seminary studies opened. Some of the classmates, most really good friends by this time, continued at the Saint Meinrad major seminary preparing for service either in the parishes or going to the Benedictine monastery at Saint Meinrad. Philosophy and theology became the principal studies during these six years.

Marmion Abbey and Marmion Military Academy

A few of us parted further from our fond Saint Meinrad roots and went into the Benedictine monastery at Aurora, Illinois for our major seminary studies. I chose this option for a couple of specific reasons. The head of this young monastery was Abbot Gerald Benkert, former rector of the minor seminary at Saint Meinrad. I knew and admired him as a very intelligent man; and I knew this new monastery would need manpower to run their high school, Marmion Military Academy. I looked forward to teaching at the Academy.

At Marmion Abbey we lived a full time monastic life without vacations or frequent trips home; we had the monastery as our new and “unworldly” home. We learned to humble ourselves, leave all the world and family, give up property and pleasures, and follow Christ. This harsh lifestyle stressed humility, lowliness, personal unworthiness, and guilt, especially during the first year, the novitiate year.

Our hard-of-hearing and not-too-smart novice master demanded and achieved a lot of subjugation. I can still remember his giving me a penance merely for my insisting that “Why?” was one of the most important questions a human can ask. He probably should have done us both the favor of expelling me then. Besides being a pain in his intellectual backside, I labored without pay (along with the other novices) at mopping the floors, cleaning the toilets and tilling the monastery farm.

This lifestyle demanded a lot of sublimation. I lived it fully with total and undoubting faith and credulity in its merits. At the end of the novice year, I deliberately made the five vows of the Benedictine monastic system: (1) poverty (no personal property); (2) chastity (no sex); (3) obedience (no independent personal authority); (4) conversion of morals (a catch-all); and (5) stability (no roaming off the monastery grounds without permission). And you thought you had it tough? Hey, full and blind faith can be pretty blinding. But it drove me to embrace the system completely.

Having survived the humiliating novitiate year, the remaining five years of my major seminary studies of mostly philosophy and theology went well. I knew how to study, get along, and sublimate passionate temptations, while keeping busy with a lot of formal and informal praying. I must admit, however, that I did a lot of sleeping during the repetitive droning of the many psalms and prayers of Matins. These very long “morning prayers” that we said at night often bored this tired monk into the arms of Morpheus by their deadly daily, weekly, and annual repetitiveness.

All these prayers, studies, and humiliations, eventually led to the altar and ordination to the priesthood in 1956. What a high this produced! I truly believed I could now absolve sinners of guilt that would otherwise damn them, and I believed I had the special power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This was very heady stuff for the true believer, which I was. Of course, mom rode high above cloud nine when I got ordained; she had contributed a son to the service of the Church. And neither she nor anyone else could have foreseen the developments of the next eleven years.

Higher theological studies

After ordination to the priesthood, Abbot Gerald asked if I would like to pursue higher theological studies. He offered to send me to Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he himself had earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy summa cum laude. His offer of such a challenge and honor thrilled me, and I jumped at it.

At Catholic University, I studied and partied with intellectually bright priests and professors from all over the Christian world. We learned more about Christian archeology, Church history, the origins and developments of morals and dogmas of the Christian Church than we would ever need to know in real life. However, I did not consider it useless at the time. I even went along with the general attitude prevailing at the university which held that working clergy in pastorates were “really quite innocent of theology.” (This still appears to be mostly true.)

In spite of seeing the historical, political, and natural developmental warts of the Church, I still believed in the supernatural, the divine character and foundation of that dogmatic organization. I returned to Marmion Abbey with the S.T.L. (Sacrae Theologiae Licentia), the license to teach theology in pontifical universities.

Abbot Gerald was pleased. I am confident that if I had played my cards as expected I would have been his nominee to become his successor. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Abbot’s throne.

The road to agnosticism

I enjoyed most of the next ten years teaching religion, mathematics, and counseling at Marmion Military Academy. During the week, I worked with the high school youngsters. On weekends I engaged in pastoral work in a variety of northern Illinois parishes. I believed that I was doing the will of God and that helping others do the same would eventually win heaven for me as well as for those I thought I was helping. I gave no reason to anyone to doubt the sincerity of my faith. But the outcome of this varied decade of learning and growth surprised me and disappointed many friends and family who had more conventional expectations of me.

At about 34 years of age, a snag developed. One morning during private meditation in the abbey chapel, I chose to analyze the intellectual proofs of God’s existence. I had done this at various times before without meaningful incident. On this fateful morning in 1964, I had an insight that struck me perhaps as forcefully as the reported “lightning bolt” that struck Paul of Tarsus from his high horse. It wasn’t really that exaggerated, of course, but it was a deeper insight into this matter than I had ever admitted before.

I saw clearly how Saint Thomas’ strongest “proof” fell short of proving God’s existence; it was based on an unwarranted assumption. Note that the Catholic Church taught dogmatically that pure reason, clear thinking, unaided by faith, could logically prove God’s existence. That fateful insight into Saint Thomas’ unwarranted assumption laid the foundation for personal upheaval while loosening the underpinnings of my faith in the Church and in the very existence of God.

Over the next two years, I would gradually develop from a strong believer who performed in a manner consistent with my beliefs into an agnostic who was no longer sure of the faith system I had learned so early and so thoroughly. Those two years included consultations with a wide variety of reputedly wise persons as well as tumultuous private meditations and internal arguments. These discussions and arguments convinced me that I no longer believed as a credulous child.

Outside of matters of faith, I had always taken pride in being logically and intellectually directed rather than emotionally driven. I had drunk my faith with my mother’s milk. Now I faced a challenge I had never envisioned: how could I be true to my intellectual self while doubting mother’s faith and the Church I was so marked to serve? I continued to preach purely moral sermons. It was still comfortable for me to teach how to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I simply avoided sermons on dogmatic matters of faith.

But horrible hypocrisy besieged me when I acted as though I believed what I said at mass as I pronounced those formerly awesome words of consecration: “This is my body…; this is my blood…” Though the long hypnotic spell of faith had been broken for me, I still needed to play the hypocrite for several months in early 1967, so I could end the academic year’s duties responsibly and without public scandal. Once I had admitted to becoming a sincere agnostic, I had to divorce myself from the monastery, a wealth of good friends, the Church, religion, superstition. This divorce process, like most divorces, was not as simple and painless as it might have been.

Final divorce from Marmion and the Church

In June 1967, I left my monastic family and friends at Marmion. Many of the friends are still unforgettable. After all, I had lived closely with most of this group of men for 17 years. The attitude of Abbot Gerald, an intelligent gentleman to the end, was rather touching. Shortly after I had signed his proffered form promising “not to sue” for whatever cause, he surprised me. Without any hint or suggestion from me, he opened his office safe and handed me an impressive amount of cash to help me get started in the real world. Frankly, I have always felt that this bright Ph.D. Summa cum laude would have jumped at the chance to follow me to independence and freedom if he had been 10 years younger and if he had not enjoyed so much organizational power and comfort.  (I think the same is true of many Catholic bishops in powerful and cushy positions.)

Thanks to helpful friends, I really was not nearly as needy as Abbot Gerald had feared. Besides, as an experienced teacher with more than a master’s degree, I had already signed an attractive contract with an outstanding suburban school district. I never went hungry.

I did have some lonely times. In fact, I visited Marmion to see old friends a couple of times. However, I sensed an underlying discomfort in some of the monks and clear disapproval in others, so I soon stopped those trips from Des Plaines to Aurora, Illinois. Besides, my work and increasing social interests gradually filled my life; this made the final steps of my divorce from Marmion less painful than the initial ones.


On the Winter Solstice of 1968, I married another master’s level teacher in our Illinois Public High School District 214. We shared deep interests in helping youngsters get the best possible start in life. As mature adults, we both enjoyed the fruits of our middle class backgrounds. And we were both agnostic regarding supernatural matters.

Now that I had married a working woman, I could afford to get the doctorate and become the psychologist I had long wanted to become. On the way to the Ph.D. at Loyola University of Chicago, I became a Certified School Psychologist. My doctoral dissertation examined how aspects of parents’ communication skills influenced their fifth-graders’ self-esteem and achievement levels. In addition, I became certified as an Illinois Public School Administrator (K-12), though I had no plans to ever become a school principal or superintendent.  (Does it appear I may have studied too much?)

Perhaps I subconsciously feared that I would later fail in the private practice of psychology. In any event, after receiving the doctorate in 1975, I continued to work as a school psychologist for a year while beginning my private psychological practice.

Private practice of psychology

As I began building my clientele in 1976, I was a confirmed agnostic in a very Christian suburban area. It was truly amazing how often my clients had problems of conflict between their faith and their reasonable common sense. The guilt that resulted was sometimes crushing for the conscientious. Though at times stressful for me, I relished the work with a wide variety of private clients. I oriented my therapy to helping clients become self-responsible in dealing with perceived problems and pleasures. I often used hypnosis, which is concentrated attention accompanied by deep relaxation, to speed this growth process along. I thrilled to see clients crippled by guilt get up and walk tall, now joyfully guilt-free and self-responsible after shucking off old fears and superstitions.

For instance, one conscientious young mother of three, already feeling overwhelmed by maternal demands, definitely did not want more children. As a Catholic forbidden to use birth control, how could she meet her husband’s needs and diminish his anger and frustration? Most Catholics now find the reasonable answer and simply ignore the pope and his prohibition of responsible birth control.

That answer comes easily for the objective thinker, but to the Catholic believer back then there seemed to be no very satisfactory or guilt-free answer. I did not generally share my clerical background with my clients, but in such instances as this I did. And it was often amazing to see such clients relax, let go of their guilt-inducing conflicts and enjoy taking fully adult personal responsibility for their life.

The joy that resulted from helping these conflicted spirits blossom into free, self-responsible adults far exceeded any joy that had resulted from telling a confessing sinner “I absolve you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” In the Catholic confessional booth, I realized, the superstitious sinner would likely return next week, next month or next year with about the same list of sins.

For me this personal journey was both short and long: pragmatically short in that I hardly changed my pursuit of the Golden Rule for myself and others, psychologically long in traveling from the ingrained prejudices and superstitions of the dark ages learned at mom’s knee to the sunrise of adult freedom. But what a wonderfully freeing journey, each step of which got easier and easier as my humanistic skepticism about past mysteries allowed me to imagine no superstition.

(Adapted from Chapter One of Imagine No Superstition: The Power To Enjoy Life With No Guilt, No Shame, No Blame, Second Printing, 2007 —


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