Dennett’s Dangerous Idea: Church as Theatre

Editor’s noteDaniel C. Dennett is an esteemed professorauthor and a co–founder of the Clergy Project.  Here he shares his innovative idea of how churches could embrace non-believing clergy, increase attendance and fatten the coffers.

By Daniel C. Dennett

In a recent OnFaith essay, “Pastors Who Don’t Believe:  Can Churches Support Them?”

I discussed the issue of non-believing clergy:

If you’ve ever been lured by your own basic goodness into a situation where you . . . must suffer unjustly, think how your predicament pales next to that of the preachers Linda LaScola and I describe in our 2010 pilot study of five Protestant pastors, “Preachers Who are Not Believers,” and our 2013 book, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, which reports on 35 participants from diverse religious backgrounds.

How many little white lies, how many whoppers, how much dissembling, how much systemic hypocrisy have they accumulated in their quest to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?

I pointed out that we have no way of estimating whether, say, “only” 10% of clergy are caught in this trap, or whether the majority are.

Maybe there is a gentle path out of this institutionalized hypocrisy. We might well hope so, for there is no telling how many clergy are in this predicament today. Many we interviewed believe they are the tip of a gigantic iceberg of secret disbelievers. They have no safe way of checking their hunch. Not a few clergy have confided their secret to a close friend or colleague only to be exposed as frauds and drummed out of their positions.

We can get at least a lower-bound estimate of their numbers by noting that The Clergy Project, a confidential, mutual-help website for current and former non-believing clergy, started just three years ago and now has nearly 600 members — about a quarter of them still retaining their pulpit and clerical garb.

The solution I proposed was to build upon the concept of church as theatre:

We wonder if the time has come to start a public movement of support for revisionary — or we might say, visionary — churches that gently but firmly remove the presumptions that now trap some of their best leaders in lives of deceit.

Why might this be a welcome development? With falling membership rolls and rising costs, churches need effective leadership more than ever, but the attractions of the clerical life are not compelling these days. Churches in many denominations — and not just in mainstream liberal Protestantism — face not just declining populations of congregants but plummeting populations of able candidates for ordainment.

How might the transition to a more honest kind of church be propelled?

There seems to be a continuing and sincere yearning for community, and for moral teamwork, among people who are not now committed to any church. Many of these people miss the traditional ceremonies — the art and music, the processions and rituals — and the sheer opportunity for moments of solemnity in their hectic lives. Well, we already have a well-established set of traditions, needing no introduction, no training or reminders, that could serve here: the traditions of the theater.

Religious institutions already contain many elements of theatre – think of the re-enactment of the last supper and the presentation of the Torah.  Think of the beautiful and complex requiem masses and Bible-based oratorios.  Then imagine a theater that presents replicas of these ceremonies, complete with participation by the “congregation” (and passing the collection plate, and enlisting members in good works projects). This week it’s a Latin mass, and next week a Pentecostal prayer meeting complete with glossolalia and fiery preaching, and so forth.

Would you go to such a production on a Sunday morning, for spiritual refreshment minus the creed?


Daniel C. Dennett is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He is the author of several books, including “Caught in the Pulpit” (co-authored by Linda LaScola), “Breaking the Spell,” “Freedom Evolves” and “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.”

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About Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers” (2010). She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and is a co-founder of the Clergy Project.