I am a great admirer of the eloquent yet simple advice you give on Friendly Atheist. I have been “out” as an atheist for about one year now. I work in a Divinity Faculty, where I am surrounded by liberal, thoughtful, sophisticated religious believers, and recently I have been having thoughts about becoming an ordained minister in the Anglican Church. I feel that this job would give me personal fulfillment and allow me to do what I really want to do in my life, which is to, well, ‘minister’ to people’s needs, to be there for them in the hard times and help them celebrate the good times. I believe that religion does not have to be about beliefs, but actions, that it can be a force for good rather than hatred, and that “God” can be useful as a symbol which can provide many different meanings and frameworks for different people. I also believe that I would perhaps be more use to the furthering of reason and tolerance if I were within ‘the system’, promoting religious moderation than simply being an outsider.
My question is: should I pursue this career path, whilst remaining an atheist (or a ‘theological non-realist’ to give it a ‘theologically acceptable’ term)?
I would greatly appreciate your advice on this issue, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.
You’ve expressed two goals that you would like to accomplish in your life. One is to “attend to the wants and needs of others, to give aid or service,” which is one of the definitions of the verb “to minister.” Most people would agree that that is a very noble and admirable desire.
Your other goal is to bring about positive change in the church, making it more responsive to a wider range of people’s needs, and to improve its influence on society; to in a way, humanize it. Many people would approve of that as well.
However, your proposed method poses some ethical and pragmatic difficulties.
It isn’t clear from your letter, but I’m going to assume that if you were to apply to the ministry, you would do so openly as an atheist, just as you are now at your workplace. I’m assuming this because I think you know you wouldn’t be able to cover up your lack of belief for very long.
There are clerics who become free of their faith while they are ministering to their flocks. Many leave the clergy, some famously, because they cannot abide the conflict of promoting and reassuring beliefs in others that they no longer hold for themselves. They see it as hypocrisy, and it is too painful for them. An unknown number of these people continue on in their ministry as secret apostates, keeping up a deception for either selfish or noble reasons. Perhaps they just want to keep their jobs, or perhaps they want to keep on helping others somehow, “ministering” in that decent and generous meaning of the verb to which you aspire.
Being secretive about your atheism would pose ethical problems, and being open about your atheism would pose pragmatic problems.
Concealing it would require lying. That by itself is an ethical breach that should not be acceptable to a person who wants to be a professional helper in any capacity. Hiding it would most likely also cause injury to others. Since people look to their ministers for ethical guidance and moral modeling as well as spiritual solace, a closet atheist minister would be running a serious risk of implanting terrible cynicism, bitterness and deep hurt in those who trust in him, once the truth eventually comes out.
Because eventually, it always does.
Being open about your atheism might stop you right at the front door of the Anglican seminary or divinity school. From what I can find in a quick online search, the initial process of “discernment” involves intense and intimate examinations by your own personal priest, a discernment committee, a commission on ministry, a Bishop, and perhaps even a mental health professional. These people will assess the suitability of your intentions, personal history, values, attitudes, ideas, goals,
and your beliefs.
If you don’t believe in their god, they may see you as missing an essential prerequisite. Your openhearted desire to help others and your open-minded desire to bring more breadth, reason and tolerance to the church from the inside may not be enough for them to trust you with either their doctrine or their flock.
Even if you somehow get past all those barriers and become a minister, the hardest questions will come from the people whom you are trying to help. They will look you in the eyes and say, “My little girl died today. Please tell me that she’s going to heaven.” Will you respond with reason, or with the comforting myth they so desperately want to hear you confirm?
Conflicted, I don’t want to extinguish your wonderful longing to be of service to others, to “be there for them in the hard times and help them celebrate the good times” as you so movingly put it, by only listing reasons why your idea may not work.
Perhaps your experience in the divinity faculty and your knowledge of the Anglican Church is extensive, and you know how you could overcome those pragmatic hurdles. I’m certainly no expert on that.
Perhaps you can find ways to reconcile a person’s desire for a reassuring bedtime story with your rational mind’s demands to tell them the truth as you see it. I don’t pretend to be that wise, but I don’t assume that no one else is.
Perhaps also, your broad vision of God and religion, and how you could influence the church from the inside toward embracing more reason, tolerance and moderation is somehow attainable. When people propose lofty aspirations, I never use the word “impossible” because thousands of people have personally amazed me.
However, I can point out that you have other options, other venues for helping people on a personal level. For instance, you sound like you’d make an excellent counselor. That is a broad and varied field, and you don’t necessarily have to specialize too narrowly into one kind of need to fulfill. It has a challenging and interesting process to qualify, just as would the ministry. My years as a counselor were immensely fulfilling. I made a positive difference, and I even saved a few lives. I still get great pleasure from the little bit of service I can offer with this column.
But if the path of the psy does not appeal to you, there are many other ways that you could find satisfaction as well as sustenance by making the world around you a little better than it was before. That is the whole point of life for people like you and me; that we somehow, even in small ways, make a positive difference in others’ lives.
Use your imagination. Your generous spirit can be of great value in so many unexpected ways. Find them all!