On Non-Believing Clergy

Daniel Dennett recently published a fascinating study on nonbelieving clergy: pastors and ministers from various denominations, both liberal and conservative, who’ve either lost their faith or hold beliefs that they know their superiors would condemn as highly unorthodox. Naturally, these people remain in the closet, often getting up before their congregations every week to preach beliefs that they no longer hold to themselves.

It’s easy to condemn this as hypocritical – and indeed, one of the ministers freely applies that word to himself – but I also feel sympathy for these people. Imagine how wrenching their dilemma is: in most cases, they went into the ministry with the best of intentions, starting out sincerely believing the things they preached. But over time, and usually very much against their will, their beliefs changed. Now what can they do? Admitting their doubts and resigning would mean losing not only their current job, but giving up the prospect of every job for which they’re qualified. Ministers who live in a parsonage would lose not only their job, but their home. Even more, a pastor’s entire social circle tends to be within their church, so admitting how they feel could mean losing all their friends and their community. In some cases, even their wives and families aren’t aware of their changed views.

What I found most interesting about the study was its glimpse into the psychological defense mechanisms used by pastors in this position. Often, they make a conscious effort to avoid spreading their doubts to others:

And I said, ‘One of the fears is that I’m going to sway you, and you’re going to lose your faith. If I see that happening, I’ll back off.’” [p.15]

“Well, I’m not going to go on a campaign to try to convince people to become an atheist. It’s my journey…. Everybody has their own journey; and this is my journey.” [p.20]

Another is that most don’t openly apply the word “atheist” to themselves, even when it’s clear that that’s what they are. Or they still prefer to use the word “God” in some manner, often just as a poetic metaphor (even while they know that their congregation will interpret it very differently).

“I think my way of being a Christian has many things in common with atheists as [Sam] Harris sees them. I am not willing to abandon the symbol ‘God’ in my understanding of the human and the universe. But my definition of God is very different from mainline Christian traditions yet it is within them. Just at the far left end of the bell shaped curve.” [p.3]

“The difference between me and an atheist is basically this: It’s not about the existence of God. It’s: do we believe that there is room for the use of the word ‘God’ in some context? And a thoroughly consistent atheist would say, ‘No. We just need to get over that word just like we need to get over concepts of race. We quit using that word, we’d be better off.’ Whereas I would say I agree with that in a great many cases, but I still think the word has some value in some contexts.” [p.5]

As Dennett and his coauthor, Linda LaScola, observe:

The ambiguity about who is a believer and who a nonbeliever follows inexorably from the pluralism that has been assiduously fostered by many religious leaders for a century and more: God is many different things to different people, and since we can’t know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all. This counsel of tolerance creates a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God in so much indeterminacy that if asked whether they believed in God, many people could sincerely say that they don’t know what they are being asked. [p.2]

I think all these traits – the reluctance to persuade others, the desire to keep using the word “God” symbolically – are an artifact of a time before the atheist movement. Many of these pastors, even though they’re nonbelievers, seem to still believe at some level that atheism is a bad or blameworthy position, which is why they try so hard to avoid spreading their doubts to other people they know. And without a philosophical and social framework to claim as their own, they express themselves by using the language they’ve always been taught, since that’s what makes them most comfortable.

As part of expanding the secular community, I think we in the atheist movement should offer a safe harbor for these people. If we can provide a more fitting social and philosophical context for them to define themselves in terms of, they’ll be more comfortable calling themselves what they are and not clinging to empty god-talk. And if we can make it financially possible for them to walk away from religion, they’ll have more incentive to be honest with themselves and their congregations. There are already niches like this – running a secular community center, working for an atheist-themed charity, writing books that defend freethought views, or lobbying on behalf of secular groups – and as the atheist movement expands, there will be more. In many cases, these former pastors will have organizational and rhetorical skills that we need, so this will be a win-win deal. Just look at how much good it’s done us to have people like Dan Barker!

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.