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!

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://whoreofalltheearth.blogspot.com Leah

    I’m finding that the God I was taught to believe in as a child (I was raised Mormon) is very different from the God that many religious and spiritual people believe in. One of my blog readers, godwillbegod, made an thought-provoking comment recently. In part, “Although I completely understand your approach of wanting to be honest rather than playing the philosophical game, I would cordially disagree with you on the (lack of) merit around the salvage operation. To me, the word ‘God’ is just too powerful of a word to leave solely in the hands of the religious. They are using the word all wrong. Just like how they messed up the word ‘love’, and the word ‘peace’, they can mess up the whole language and cause too much spiritual damage.”

  • Eurekus

    This story breaks my heart. In a way it’s better not to be honest when you become an atheist. Did I say that?- Yes I did. At least not straight away.

    I’ve always been honest with my wife, straight up front, no BS. But with my relatively new found atheism I should have used a strategy. I have friends who think I’m posessed by the devil or something. What the f*** are they on about? Are they serious?

    It’s puzzling that we’re punished by even loved one’s for our rationality.
    It’s funny, when theists realise their position can no longer be defended they just dribble shit and then accuse us of being evil. I don’t blame this clergy for being secretive.

  • anna

    Hey Ebonmuse, are you still writing your own book? You were saying you were writing one, but then you stopped talking about it.

  • XPK

    @Eurekus – My goodness you wrote exactly what my life is like. I also don’t blame anyone for being secretive about being an atheist. The collateral damage of ungodliness can be painful.

  • garry

    One such “halfway house” for these people might be their local Unitarian Universalist congregation. UU is all about people trying to figure out for themselves what they believe in, in a safe and supportive environment.

  • jim coufal

    I write an openly atheist column for my local county weekly newspaper, I move in social groups that are mostly Christian and have no problems but some revealing conversations, fortunately my wife and children are also atheists from following their own paths. However, one side of my family is fairly fundamentalist Christian and distant enough that they don’t know my beliefs and I don’t tell them. If it comes to a logical point, I will gently come out of the closet to them and let the chips fall where they may. At such a point it will be interesting to see their reaction. That point may not be far off, since I am now on their e-mail list for chain letters focused on their beliefs. I do send them on, to a place called “delete.”

  • Tacroy

    My wife was recently re-watching Father Ted, and I really have to wonder how many pastors out there are like Father Dougal.

    Father Dougal: Come on, Ted. Sure it’s no more peculiar than all that stuff we learned in the seminary, you know, Heaven and Hell and everlasting life and all that type of thing. You’re not meant to take it seriously, Ted!

    It took me a while as a child to realize that people actually really truly believed these ridiculous things; I could definitely see someone who is both sufficiently good-natured and thick-headed going through seminary without realizing that people think all those nice metaphors are factually true.

  • cag

    It appears that a number of these nonbelieving clergy still believe what they preach(ed) about atheists. They have in their minds rejected the god lie but still cling to the lies about the godless. Until they change the people they associate with their belief system will suffer from their previous delusions.

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com Jim Speiser

    It could start with someone providing them a website or FB page that guarantees their anonymity….

  • jonathan

    The church I went to as I was realizing that I don’t believe in God, and that I continued to go to before I became more open about being an atheist, had a pastor who I think did not believe in God either. He seemed depressed a lot, aimless, tired of preaching, so the church gave him a year off. He came back recharged, but I still don’t think he believed.

    None of this ever stopped him from being a good pastor. I don’t share his beliefs, but he was good at what he did. He spent weeks discussing the various other names for God and the contexts in which they appear, and how they reflected different aspects of God’s personality. I was already an atheist at the time and knew that these other names may have been other gods from when Judaism was polytheistic, and knew he was engaged in apologetics, but I still found it interesting.

    At the same time, he was a creationist, which I have always found annoying. As a child who genuinely believed, I argued for evolution even at Bible Camp.


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