The Clergy Project: A Sanctuary for Religious Refugees

This is a guest post by Catherine D. She is a former liberal Catholic theologian with a masters degree from a well respected school of theology It was during her studies that Catherine had the epiphany that she was not a believer.

The last place you might think to find an atheist or agnostic would be in the pulpit leading a congregation, but you’d be wrong.

Unbelieving clergy exist. In fact, we are even organized.

Through the efforts of Dan Barker, Linda LaScola, Dan Dennett and The Richard Dawkins Foundation, The Clergy Project was launched with the goal of supporting clergy as they transition from a life dominated by religion to one that is wholly secular.

The Clergy Project is made up of alumni and active members who no longer hold the supernatural beliefs of their religious traditions and choose instead to identify as agnostic, Secular Humanist, freethinker, atheist, or some other kind of non-theist.

We are a confidential online community with 94 members (and growing), who use the forum to network and discuss issues regarding what it is like to be an unbelieving leader in a religious community.

As you might expect, privacy is a crucial component of membership, so we do not disclose the location or names of our members.

You might be asking yourself: given our privacy concerns why we are “coming out”? We suspect that there are other current and former pastors, priests, monks, nuns, rabbis, imams and theologians who are closeted non-believers and we want them to know that they are not alone.

As an alum member of The Clergy Project, I am also a graduate of a master’s program in theology. I now identify as an atheist. My education played a pivotal part in my abandonment of religion.

It took a number of years, but I can delineate three major transitions that transformed me from religious to atheist.

First, my study of liberation theology and philosophy informed my concept of god to include feminist, pluralistic and humanist perspectives of religion.

Second, Biblical Scholarship and the cumulating knowledge of the origins of the Torah and the Christian Bible made it impossible to conclude that religious texts are more than human works of fiction.

Third, the most challenging aspect of this process was letting go of my “history” with god.

Despite the vast amount of information available, the chasm that still had to be crossed was one of pride. Not only had I devoted years of university education to studying theology, but on a personal level, I had come to think that I was important to “god” and this feeling of belonging gave my life purpose and meaning.

When I first accepted that I was an atheist I was shaken by the realization that I had been deceived by theism. Over time, however, I had to accept that I was a willing accomplice in my own deception.

Having the opportunity to speak with other people who know what it is like to go through the process from believing clergy to unbeliever, I can say that I have found not only a community of like-minded people, but also a fraternity of friends who epitomize these words of Robert Green Ingersoll, “Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.”

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Anonymous

    I certainly support the goal of giving support networks to people who are closeted and need help. Having said that I hope that such a network:

    A- Places an emphasis on trying to get people out of the closet (and in this case out of the clergy), not simply making a somewhat comfier closet.
    B- In cases where coming out is simply impossible or requires an unacceptable sacrifice, places a strong emphasis on people to sanitize their sermons of the nastier aspect (i.e Hell, submission of women, homophobia etc.) and whenever possible move to as liberal a church home as possible/practical.

    I get that telling people to get the hell out of that job (and stop knowingly lying to your flock about the truth of their religion) is much easier said than done. Especially if you’re a married pastor with a spouse and children, coming out can mean losing not just your job but your family too. However as people with influence over others (who consider you some sort of conduit for God’s superior wisdom) you do not have the right to preserve your secret at any cost. The psyche of a terrified, depressed gay teen is not an acceptable sacrifice, for instance.

    I wish this group all the luck in the world. Fewer pastors hopefully means fewer flocks. Can you imagine the effect of going to church only to hear your pastor quietly explain why they are quiting the church, because they’re knowledge of religion makes it impossible for them to believe any of it is true? Those would be some massive seeds of doubt planted…

  • Annie

    How does one continue to preach when you no longer believe?  I imagine leaving religion for clergy is far more complicated than it is for a church member, as you also must give up your career, years of education dedicated to that career, sometimes your home (if provided by your church), etc.  That being said, I can’t imagine getting up in front of many people and professing something you no longer believe to be true.  I wonder once clergy join the project, how long until they leave the pulpit? 

    • Anonymous

      There are many different kinds of sermons. I just watched one by a local United Methodist minister on TV. He used some verses from Jeremiah as a launching point, told a bunch of anecdotes, quoted from various secular and theological sources, and never really made a point. One portion of the sermon was about Steven Pinker’s new book, which he liked.

      He may very well believe the doctrines of his denomination, but I would imagine there are pastors of his type who view the sermon as a lecture more than anything else.

      • randall.morrison90

        Yeah, its being called a lying deceiving hypocrite.

        The Scriptures call them “wolves in sheeps clothing”.

        They have always been in the church, fucking babies, stealing from the church, cheating on their wives, you name it.

        I have helped OUT THEM.  I got one in Kansas City no less.

        And we are going to OUT OTHERS.

        • Anonymous

          I don’t think a lack of belief is a precursor for the kinds of hypocrisies you’re talking about. I’d be interested in what the individual you “outed” was guilty of doing.

          Anyway, there is not a clear line between belief and unbelief. If a minister finds herself or himself in that murky area between conviction and doubt, what are they supposed to do? Do you expect them to automatically step down and lose their family’s income? It’s complicated by the fact that they would surely want to believe, it’s not like they’re overjoyed by the loss of what previously defined them.

          Another complicated issue is the way churches identify potential spiritual leaders. The most inquisitive and curious young people in churches are often told they have “a gift” or something like that, and are strongly encouraged to lead prayers, give scripture readings, and participate in drama or worship. They are often convinced that it is their duty to lead, and that their quest for knowledge should be directed towards learning more about scripture, towards becoming involved in the ministry themselves. 

          I went through all of this, and even after I acknowledged my disbelief at age 15, after two years of doubting, I had a youth pastor who tried very hard to get me to be a leader in the youth group at my family’s church.  He told me that God had given me a big brain, and that I should put it to good use. 

          If things had gone a little differently, I could see myself suppressing those doubts and putting energy into learning more about scripture and theology, and going on to seminary, and getting out about now, at the age of 24. This should be a scary thought for Christians, because I am a convinced atheist. But different choices made by me and my parents between the ages of 13-15 could have put my on the path towards ministry. I had to actively resist the path even after admitting to my closest friends that I was no longer a Christian.

          I say all this to give you some perspective on the kinds of people Hemant is writing about, and the fact that churches have some responsibility for them. I think that marital infidelity, embezzlement, and whatever falls under “you name it” are different issues than what’s being discussed here. If a person’s actions are contrary to what is expected of them as a spiritual leader, by all means give the job to someone else. But as for those entertaining private doubts they are unable to communicate to their congregation, please don’t think of them as enemies.

  • Mike

    Join the Church of England. Belief in God no longer seems to be a prerequisite.

    • 06jwhite

      I don’t understand this comment. Church of England ministers have less pay than most members of the teaching profession, have a lower stipend than any minister in the Roman Catholic church and usually have more work since there is not usually a parish administrator. Why on earth, if you did not feel a religious calling to that profession, would you want to go and join it? 

  • Ronlawhouston

    “When I first accepted that I was an atheist I was shaken by the
    realization that I had been deceived by theism. Over time, however, I
    had to accept that I was a willing accomplice in my own deception.”

    Loved that comment.  There are loads of reasons that we believe what we believe, but ultimately we made the choice to believe.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

      I was going to flag that comment too. This is exactly how I felt, but I couldn’t put it into words.

  • Anonymous

    At Texas Freethought a “graduate” was introduced.  They mentioned that about 100 clergy members are involved.

  • http://sparrowsandsandcastles.wordpress.com/ HongJie

    Dear Catherine,

    I am from Singapore and I have a very similar journey, albeit from a lay evangelical perspective. I was an evangelical-fundamentalist in the charismatic tradition when I was a teenager and in my late teens thought that I had a “calling from God” for full-time ministry. It was this desire to be a preacher, ironically, which led me to a personal pilgrimage of study into the bible, church history, theology, philosophy, etc that eventually led me from charismatism to calvinist fundamentalism to moderate evangelicalism to theological liberalism and then to atheism.

    It was during my liberal period which I embarked on my BD degree in the UK, and from which led me to full blown atheism, the reasons similar to yours in terms of biblical criticism, historical-historical research, archaeology, etc.

    But my problem is that I still vacillate between liberalism and atheism from time to time – and I realise it was due to some existential vestige for absolute certainty from my childhood indoctrination. The anti intellectual certainty of religious fundamentalism still appeal to me at some existential level – it can be difficult for me to live in a world void of some god-like certitude for meaning and significance.

    There were times I had contemplated suicide, but as a father of three young children I knew I couldn’t. I am still trying to cope with my “godless” life now, and thus sometimes I would revert to liberal theology as a psychological crutch. Then again, theological liberalism can never be as “satisfying” as fundamentalism – there is no theological certainty, no philosophical absolutes, no inerrant bible.

    But if I am intellectually honest with myself, I can never go back to fundamentalism, with its irrational and very unscientific stance of the world.

    Sigh.

    regards
    Benjamin

    • Anonymous

      That’s quite a journey you’ve been through. My congratulations of pulling yourself out of such a deep well of irrationality. Some relapses are totally understandable, and it’s a very good sign that you recognize them for what they are; coping mechanisms. It makes it less likely that you’ll be able to fool yourself again. I don’t know where you currently reside, but if you’re back in Singapore there are apparently some atheists you can connect with:

      http://www.sea-atheists.org/singapore/

      If you’re in the UK there are a large number of atheist and humanist groups to choose from. It can help to have people like you to talk to. Most will probably not have a story as extreme as yours, but there are a fair number of people who left even fundamentalism for atheism. Of course the Clergy Project ( http://www.clergyproject.org/ ) probably will have people whose story matches yours much more closely, even if most of them will be too far to meet in person. Cheers!

      • http://sparrowsandsandcastles.wordpress.com/ Benjamin

        Thanks for your reply. Yes, I am back in Singapore and I am aware of the Humanist Society here in Singapore.

        Apart from a lack of substantial free time away from my kids, I am married to a staunch theist! This makes it a tad difficult for me to connect with fellow freethinkers and atheists in person. But my wife knows that I am a woolly liberal who takes potshots at god every now and then and mocks the silly shenagigans of evangelical christians.

        Although the “support” group I have now is unabashedly christian (all of my life I had been living in the evangelical subculture) – they are at least tolerable of my many criticisms and arguments over the years. Sheesh.    

        I suppose an alternative would be to cultivate “online” relationships with freethinkers.

        regards
        Ben 

    • Steven Mading

      I’m confused by this phrase in your post:

      But my problem is that I still vacillate between liberalism and atheism from time to time

      This seems to imply the two are mutually exclusive choices.  They are not.  Now, if you had said “theological liberalism” like you did elsewhere, then it would make more sense, but by just saying “liberalism” without the “theological” part it seems to be saying that being an atheist implies being conservative.

      Thanks for sharing your story, by the way.

  • Anonymous

    this made me laugh out loud. i remember going thru this, and how divinity school educated me right the hell out of any sort of belief whatsoever. i love mythology, always will. but yeah, critical analysis of the evidence is pretty, um, damning. 

    but once you go thru that door, you never look back. that’s the good part. mummery has no influence in my life, at all. and it’s totally possible to shepherd a flock without belief. do good, that’s the only point in a job like that. be out or not, as your flock requires. but guide them, as best you can. all the non-existent gods would approve. 

  • Anonymous

    a well respected school of theology

    Oxymoron alarms going off all over the place.

    • Steven Mading

      Technically the phrase “a well respected school of theology” merely means the school of theology has lots of people in the population who respect it.  “Respected” is not a synonym for “respectable”.  “Respected” merely means there exist people who respect it, and says nothing about whether or not their respect is earned.

    • Harry

      Witty comment alert. 

      Oops, false alarm. I thought I saw one coming but I was disappointed. 

      Next! 

  • http://www.gratefultobeofthisworld.blogspot.com/ Dea

    @ I_Claudia – a leader leaving a church does not usually have the opportunity to explain why he is leaving his flock. Usually they are just left to assume they have fallen into a horrible sinful life. Relgious beliefs run deep and even if the flock were to hear of the pastor’s reasons, a lot of time, rather than deal is the enormously  uncomfortable amount of cognitive dissonance, they will resolve it by saying something along the lines of “gee, I better be careful, if Satan can get to someone as strong as Pastor Apostate, then imagine how easy it would be for me fall.”

    I think this is a great outreach program!

  • randall.morrison90

    If someone no longer believes, but pretends to continue pretending to so they can keep their job, that makes them a liar.

    O.K.

    And what else are they lying about?

    Actually, I am all for outing these people…I know they have always been in the church and it is a miracle that the church has surived them; it is one reason why the church has always had problems.

    Phoney baby fucking priest, phony evangelists, and other lying bastards who don’t believe at all.

    Out them!

    I am proud to say thay I have helped out one in Kansas City, and our group is soon going to be outing another.

    Guys like Barker and Loftus are examples of these kind, who continued to preach after they no longer believed.

    We can be thankful they left the church…can you imagine the damage they could have done from within?

    OUT THEM ALL NOW!

    I am going to, you can bet your asses on that.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

    “…a well-respected school of theology.”

    (respected by whom?)

  • Lynn

    I’m a fellow clergy project member, but unlike Catherine,  I’m still active.  Thank you to all of you who offered human kindness and compassion for the place that we exist.. for the moment.  I can speak for myself and several of my fellow clergy project members,  we are ALL working on an ‘exit strategy’.  None of us desire to remain in the pulpit any longer than necessary.  Every week I receive reports for active clergy that they’ve secured new employment and are able to leave the ministry.
    For those of you who responded ‘less than compassionate’,  I feel for you.  Every one of us struggles with things in our lives.  We all have things that need to be kept private until they can be worked out.  You’re not immune and I certainly believe that you wouldn’t want someone launch a witch hunt to OUT you.  Allow us to work out the transition that we so desperately want.  Trust me,  I feel the guilt of preaching something I don’t believe every week.  I will be out of the pulpit as soon as possible.  Until then,  try offering a little encouragement instead of judgement.
    Thanks Catherine for sharing!  I never tire of your story.  If you want to find out what it’s like to live this double life,  check out http://www.agnosticpastor.wordpress.com

    “Lynn”  Active Clergy/Atheist– Clergy Project Member

  • n8p3

    Hemant (or anyone else for that matter),

    I too was willingly duped by Christian theology and the mystique of advanced education in theological studies.  I have forked over thousands and thousands of dollars to two top universities in order to get my bachelors and masters in this field, only to discover (while writing my masters thesis) that I don’t believe, and that the field itself is empty and vacuous.

    So my question is…what should I do with my education?  I’m currently selling furniture for a living, and it’s driving me insane.  Is teaching something like high school social studies the best I can really hope for?  I don’t mean to knock high school teaching whatsoever, it’s just a stretch of a transfer from social science fields within academia, as I’m sure you know.  Any advice on how to somehow use my education and still be somewhat fulfilled in a career?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      It’s a problem a lot of ex-pastors are having… going into counseling is one option. Teaching is worthwhile, too, because you’ll be able to make a real impact. Non-profit work may also be an option. But it’s something that’ll take time to develop because the skills are not directly pertinent. It’s tough but it’s something we need to develop to help people transition out of the priesthood and we haven’t don’t that yet.


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