A Former Atheist-in-the-Pulpit Delivers a Sermon

Catherine Dunphy was trained as a Roman Catholic Chaplain before becoming an atheist, and she is now a graduate and board member of The Clergy Project. On May 6th, she delivered the following sermon about her deconversion at West Hill United Church (a relatively Humanistic church) in Toronto, Ontario.

***

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for inviting me to spend this Sunday at West Hill — and for graciously welcoming me. The theme for today’s service is about awakening and new birth, but I am also going to speak about values, as well as a project that is very special to me.

A bit about me — I am a graduate of a Christian seminary and it was during my studies that I began to question my belief in god. It is a bit of a conundrum, that despite the obvious goals of educating religious leaders, most seminaries allow for diversity of theological perspectives; many radically unorthodox.

It should be no surprise then, that by the time I graduated I had let go of god and all the theistic concepts that go along with it. It has only been since about November 2011 that I knew there were other people like me. People who were once ardent believers and now have embraced an atheistic or humanistic worldview. This group that I speak of is called the Clergy Project.

The Clergy Project provides an online safe house for unbelieving religious leaders of every persuasion. Inside the virtual walls of our site we are free to interact, to share our stories, to find community, and to marvel at the charade of traditional religions that have so successfully bullied and dictated the functioning of humanity.

When I first became a member of this community, the most amazing thing was to know that I was not the only one. For many years after completing my degree I felt like I was somehow “defective,” as I had to be the only person who went through seminary and came out an atheist. I now know better.

Knowing that the Clergy Project and its members exist may be unsettling to some believers. We may be seen as leaders who have lost their way, or as trouble makers — whatever the opinion, it was the ability to reason that led each of our members to this community. Now we’re working together to create awareness of our existence, to communicate our values and to support our members who need our help in getting out of active ministry.

When it comes to the Clergy Project, we are witnessing the birth of a new grassroots community, which fits in well with the change in season and the theme of rebirth and awakening.

I am always excited this time of year as I see the world once again in bloom, hear the birds chattering and smell that first spring rain. Everything seems so ripe of possibilities and optimism.

I searched a while for a reading that spoke to this feeling, but that also took into account my position as an atheist. Though I have come to accept that our existence is fortuitous I do believe that we are instrumental in creating well-being for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

The reading that I chose for today by Salman Rushdie, I think speaks well to this dichotomy. Despite, its apparent lack of “warm fuzzies” it does inspire and challenge me. When he asks how do we live? And what is right action, and what is wrong? He masterfully calls us to think for ourselves and embrace the articulation of life in all its diversity and see it as it is: A responsibility.

His words challenge me to marvel in the reality of our existence, to know that nothing is ever easy and that we should cherish our opportunity to cross the stage of life!

Physicist Lawrence Krauss said, “Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements — the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life — weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode.”

Life is not a story of the mundane; it is a radically challenging opportunity for awareness. In this awareness, we learn not only about the nature of our universe and the truly cosmic events that got this billion year old journey on a roll — but also, we learn about ourselves by narrowing our focus to the tangible relationships and life experiences that we each encounter.

… Speaking of which, I want to tell you a little bit more about my friends in the Clergy Project.

The Clergy Project has existed for just over a year and in that short time we have done what has come natural. We have reached out to one another, embracing our diversity and sameness. Because of this support our members who have recently come out have been doing some tremendous things.

My good friend Jerry DeWitt is a former Pentecostal Minister, who not only left the atheist closet, but flung the door wide. Jerry details how his thinking about god changed;

Jerry DeWitt’s 5 Stages (MP3):

  1. God Loves everybody
  2. God Saves everybody
  3. God is in everybody
  4. God is everyone’s internal dialogue
  5. God is a delusion

Now that Jerry is out, he has become one of the most vocal members of the Clergy Project. His gregarious nature and his optimism speak to the potential that non-believing clergy have, as well as the opportunity that this community has for impacting the status quo.

There is also Teresa MacBain, a newly minted former minister, and Clergy Project Executive Director, who is working hard to promote our group and to draw attention to the unique challenges that unbelieving clergy face when they leave active ministry.

We also have our supporters, who have, through their efforts, made the Clergy Project possible. Specifically, Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola, who published the ground breaking Tufts study, “Preachers who are Not Believers” (PDF). As well, we owe a great debt to Richard Dawkins and Dan Barker, who have both championed the Clergy Project.

Given this convergence of people and values, it is not surprising that I keep hearing from the members of the Clergy Project that “the time is ripe” for taking a stand, for building a community! It is hard work to cultivate something new, but when you’re inspired it makes the work invigorating!

During this time of year, when new growth is erupting all around us, I think it is only normal that we feel summoned into action. As the Earth tilts and the northern hemisphere once again emerges from hibernation awakened by the sun, it is time to get our hands dirty! Whatever our passion or motivation, now is the time to cultivate it!

A wise old nun from the 12th century once wrote, “Human beings cannot live without the rest of nature; they must care for all natural things.”

Our species are caretakers. That is how we survived and how we thrive, whether that be as gardeners, parents, students, or former clergy — each of us playing a part in this our human story.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Taxihorn

    Might an atheist at a Christian pulpit describe themselves as a pro-theistic atheist?

    • nojinx

       I would be surprised if so. People don’t generally identify themselves based on their audience.

    • Alex Ford

      It’s no different than a Christian missionary preaching to an atheist at his front door.

  • ctcss

    It strikes me that members of the clergy who have lost faith perhaps are simply people whose theological views simply didn’t hold up to the serious questions they had while looking seriously into the deep questions of existence (who and what God is being one of those very big questions). That could mean (as the Clergy project members seem to think) that God simply doesn’t exist. Or, it could also mean that the theological viewpoint they were entertaining was simply not adequate and their investigation would eventually point out the inadequacy of that particular human view of God. But the inadequacy of any one particular view regarding God (or even many different views regarding God) does not mean that all views regarding God must therefore be false and valueless.

    Being that humans often have an inaccurate, inadequate, incorrect, flawed, mistaken, limited view of many things (and who and what God is certainly one of those things that humanity often ponders), and given the fact that individual humans rarely give various subjects that they encounter the thought and effort that might require in order to gain the needed insight into them, perhaps a great deal more effort is required rather than an a wholesale abandonment of their efforts.

    Catherine Dunphy lost her faith after going through seminary, which IMO is not a very long time to consider that one’s search regarding the subject of God can be concluded. But there are also probably many other members of the Clergy Project who have lost their faith after many years of dedicated service. She and they are all to be thanked for their efforts to serve their religious communities and also for their honesty concerning their current atheistic stance.  But I do not think that their conclusion regarding God (any more than the non-believing community at large’s conclusion regarding God) is the final word on the subject. Many others have found what they consider to be a useful and helpful take on God and have come to an opposite conclusion regarding the subject of God in their ongoing efforts to make their way through life.

    Thus the need for people of all stripes to continue to regard one another’s individual journeys with kindness and forbearance as we each continue our various honest and earnest efforts in whatever direction.

    • Cincinatheist

      It strikes me that members of the clergy who have lost faith perhaps are simply people whose views simply didn’t hold up to the serious questions they had while looking seriously into the deep questions of existence (who and what fairies are being one of those very big questions). That could mean (as the Clergy project members seem to think) that fairies simply doesn’t exist. Or, it could also mean that the viewpoint they were entertaining was simply not adequate and their investigation would eventually point out the inadequacy of that particular human view of fairies. But the inadequacy of any one particular view regarding fairies (or even many different views regarding fairies) does not mean that all views regarding fairies must therefore be false and valueless.
      Being that humans often have an inaccurate, inadequate, incorrect, flawed, mistaken, limited view of many things (and who and what fairies are certainly one of those things that humanity often ponders), and given the fact that individual humans rarely give various subjects that they encounter the thought and effort that might require in order to gain the needed insight into them, perhaps a great deal more effort is required rather than an a wholesale abandonment of their efforts.
      Catherine Dunphy lost her faith after going through seminary, which IMO is not a very long time to consider that one’s search regarding the subject of fairies can be concluded. But there are also probably many other members of the Clergy Project who have lost their faith after many years of dedicated service. She and they are all to be thanked for their efforts to serve their religious communities and also for their honesty concerning their current afairyistic stance.  But I do not think that their conclusion regarding fairies (any more than the non-believing community at large’s conclusion regarding fairies) is the final word on the subject. Many others have found what they consider to be a useful and helpful take on fairies and have come to an opposite conclusion regarding the subject of fairies in their ongoing efforts to make their way through life.
      Thus the need for people of all stripes to continue to regard one another’s individual journeys with kindness and forbearance as we each continue our various honest and earnest efforts in whatever direction.
      **Or….one could decide that after diligently thinking about it and weighing the evidence, and finding nothing but conflicting and outrageous nonsense, that maybe they are wasting their time and energy in the fruitless search for fairies and their life would be better spent on other things. And this is when we bring in Occam’s razor and decide that fairies probably just don’t exist.

    • Drew M.

      “Being that humans often have an inaccurate, inadequate, incorrect,
      flawed, mistaken, limited view of many things (and who and what God is
      certainly one of those things that humanity often ponders), and given
      the fact that individual humans rarely give various subjects that they
      encounter the thought and effort that might require in order to gain the
      needed insight into them, perhaps a great deal more effort is required
      rather than an a wholesale abandonment of their efforts.”

      Now I feel silly for giving up on that perpetual motion machine I started when I was eight.

      • cipher

        HA! Very good!

    • cipher

      What about those who search for decades and come out of it empty-handed? Did they also not give it enough time? Or did they just not happen upon the right person to deliver the right message at the right time?

      Your God isn’t very efficient. If he worked for me, I’d fire him.

  • Per Smith

    I am curious about how the Clergy Project defines “clergy.” Anyone know the answer to that. Is a woman, no matter what her training, ever considered “clergy” in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church? Not that I’m aware of. That doesn’t in any way detract from her experience or from the work done by the Clergy Project, but it does leave me with the above question.

    • Erp

       Not clergy (deacon, priest, bishop) but they can hold the job of chaplain (e.g., hospital, prison, or university) and provide pastoral care (but not the sacraments).  The Catholic church probably would prefer not to have this and they aren’t considered chaplains under canon law but there are too few catholic clergy.

      • http://twitter.com/PerDSmith Per Smith

        That was my understanding as well. Chaplains, under cannon law, are by definition also clergy who are ordained and can administer the sacraments. So that brings me back to the question about definition. Essentially someone in the role described above is a “lay leader” in the Catholic community but not a religious leader in the institutional sense. So who “counts” so to speak in the eyes of the Clergy Project, and what makes them count? It isn’t clear to me since they aren’t following religious definitions of clergy.

        • nojinx

           I think it is any identification as a religious leader allows them to qualify. The organization is going to use the term in an encompassing manner to cover as many as they can help, so they will likely have a very loose use of the term “clergy”. They certainly won’t exclude a shamanic witch-doctor should one request help, for example.

          • http://twitter.com/PerDSmith Per Smith

            Sure, but they most certainly exclude people too. I don’t say that because I think it’s a bad thing, but a necessity. It’s a very confidential environment with a specific objective – to provide support for religious leaders who have become or are becoming atheists. Surely your average parishioner can’t join for instance. So where the line is drawn, is interesting, at least to me. As I said I wouldn’t personally consider her a “religious leader” but a “lay leader” within a religious community – like a Sunday school teacher, church musical director, etc. Those people are also not ordained, but do have roles within the religious community which have religious ends. Granted theological training does, of course push more towards the religious direction. But if you’re the leader of the church choir can you turn to the Clergy Project for support? What if you taught Sunday school for 20 years? I’m honestly just very curious. There is no criticism involved here (of the word choice). Just would like to know because it is not obvious to me.

            • nojinx

              I see now. I wonder too if there is a defined policy of whom they will accept and whom do not qualify. It is likely the case that some laypeople have a harder time breaking free than some clergy. Good thought.

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

      My understanding is that it’s a catchall term to describe anyone who was a religious leader (pastor, reverend, clergy, whatever). Don’t read too much into it :)

      • http://twitter.com/PerDSmith Per Smith

        Thanks Hemant. My job is to read too much into things :-)

  • dlancast

    There is “nothing so blinding as perception of form.” You do know this…you just forgot. Dig deeper - the Truth is within you.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, orphan

    i know people like this. it’s all about community. and there’s nothing wrong with that. there are members of many different communities of faith who don’t believe and are only part of them because they like the people in them. and that’s fine. i suppose it’s a big deal to be out, in the lion’s den, so to speak, but really it’s more common than people think. i wouldn’t do anything like this in a harsh fundamentalist community; people would likely shun and reject anyone who said stuff like this in church. but the more liberal christian communities have a lot of people in them who are barely qualified to be called believers. 

  • cipher

    God Loves everybody
    God Saves everybody
    God is in everybody
    God is everyone’s internal dialogue
    God is a delusion

    Heh! I guessthe fundies are right – universalism is the slippery slope to deconversion.

  • Tom_Nightingale

    God Loves everybody
    God Saves everybody
    God is in everybody
    God is everyone’s internal dialogue
    God is a delusionI can corroborate this.  I watched myself go through this in my deconversion.I really appreciate Ms. Dunphy’s beautiful metaphors, they really do describe people as they are.

  • randall.morrison90

    The thing about many ex preachers is that they are liars.  I.E., they continued to preach when they no longer believed…hence they were lying.

    Barker and Loftus are good examples.

    And we have a guy like that in our area.

    And I am going to make sure the swine is exposed this summer.   Mark my words.

  • markookoo2001

    WOW


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