Rev. Frederick Schmidt Has No Idea Why Clergy Members Leave the Faith… but He’s Going to Write An Article About It, Anyway

Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. cannot believe there’s so much press about the Clergy Project.

First, he blows off the numbers like they’re no big deal:

… “The Clergy Project,” an organization formed to assist those who are confronting a crisis of faith, reports that it has all of 240 members. That’s hardly a tsunami and it’s hardly anything new.

… but he’s going to write a whole article about it, anyway.

That’s not the point, though. Schmidt thinks he knows why so many religious leaders lose their faith. And he thinks the Christian church can do something about it.

He’s wrong on both counts.

Check out his grossly misguided reasons for why clergy members leave the faith:

Some clergy who stop believing never did believe.

Some fail to believe at all or struggle to continue believing thanks to churches themselves.

Some struggle with immature and simplistic assumptions about God, providence, and suffering that persist long after they have pursued a formal education.

Some struggle to integrate what they have learned in seminary.

… There is a difference between studying God and experiencing God.

… Some clergy cease to believe because life in the church is hard.

Others fail to reckon with the fact that questions of meaning, morality, and value are not just a religious problem. They are part and parcel of the human experience.

Schmidt is so far off the mark that it’s, frankly, insulting.

People have different reasons for leaving the faith. But the common thread I hear from them — since, you know, I actually talk to them — is that they finally realized that the Christian story they had been told ever since they were children was just not true.

They didn’t know it until they finally confronted the stories directly (in seminary school) or began teaching it to their congregations. Their options were to preach things (like the existence of Heaven) that they knew weren’t real — or leave the pulpit altogether. Many brave people have done the latter. Many more people haven’t been able to bring themselves to do that yet. Hopefully, they will soon.

But to suggest most of them left the church because they were bad seminary students, or because they were never really True ChristiansTM in the first place, or because their churches somehow failed them, or because they never really understood the nature of god, or because they never truly experienced god, or — what the fuck — because church is “hard,” totally ignores the elephant in the room.

They left because they discovered that the Bible is a work of fiction.

They were as Christian as you could get — they had their Born-Again moments, they sincerely prayed, they believed god guided them through life, they asked god for wisdom before making all crucial decisions, they “felt the spirit”… hell, some of them even spoke in tongues (and can still do so today if they feel like it). They were real, honest, genuine Christians, no doubt about it.

You want proof? The Clergy Project website shares their stories! I know this because I did what Schmidt was too lazy to do — I went to the freaking website and read their testimonials directly. I didn’t skip a single one.

Here’s what the former pastors said regarding why they left the faith. See if you can find the trend:

In 2006, I approached a senior pastor and friend and told him I was struggling with my faith. He suggested I talk to our Bishop. The Bishop was concerned enough for me that he thought I should take a break from ministry. During the break I had plenty of time to think. I explored philosophy, science, epistemology and finally, I read a book called The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. I will never forget how it awakened my mind and how it stirred a deep curiosity within me. I desperately needed to know more about who I am, where I really came from, and how it is that, as humans, we have evolved to be the way we are. I started to see that my model of the world was not working.

As a child, embracing the truth as presented to me by parents, pastors and Sunday school teachers seemed reasonable. But ultimately, a healthy hunger for truth combined with a fundamentalist background drove me to try to make logical sense of the bible. Early on I could see that the infallible word of god had many faults. It was the process of bible study over the decades that slowly but surely delivered me to final state of unbelief…

I was a fifth-generation Baptist minister, ordained at age 18, while in college. I served until age 32 when I left the ministry and the church to get a PhD in Clinical Psychology. I had already completed a three-year seminary degree following college, which only increased my doubts about the authenticity of the theology I had learned from childhood. Leaving the ministry was not an easy decision to make since all my friends and family were in the church. But it was a decision I ultimately HAD to make if I didn’t want to risk being publicly phony and privately cynical. I became an agnostic, then an atheist, NOT because I hadn’t read the Bible, but because I had! An atheist, by the way, is simply someone who does not believe in a supernatural being. I am convinced that the evidence supports that view. All religion suffers from being bound by unchanging myth.

over time I began to realize that the ‘truth’ I was preaching wasn’t so true. I resisted my doubts at first, but the nagging in my brain wouldn’t stop. So I embarked on a journey of researching and discovering that what I had believed for so long wasn’t true.

The Clergy Forum offers an opportunity to find acceptance and understanding within an online community of people who are or have been in the same seemingly impossible situation of propagating a faith in which they no longer believe. Unlike within one’s religious community, one can express one’s deepest convictions without fear of judgment.

You would think a “Director of Spiritual Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University” would know how to do research that basic…

Schmidt acknowledges — briefly, at the end — that some people may have left the faith because they no longer believed the Bible was true, but it’s obvious he considers that reason a footnote, not the main culprit. He believes a good church can somehow alleviate these clergy members’ issues and cause them to want to stay in the pulpit. Of course that’s not true. The church can’t magically make the Bible tell the truth any more than a god can answer your prayers.

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.

  • jdm8

    A lot of those are just strawmen that don’t hold up with a simple question.

    “Some clergy who stop believing never did believe. ”

    No True Scotsman much?

    Why would a non-believer go through years of seminary to preach something they don’t believe in?

    How can they never have believed if you acknowledged that they stopped believing?

    “Some struggle with immature and simplistic assumptions about God, providence, and suffering that persist long after they have pursued a formal education.”

    Yes, the immature assumptions will survive seminary.

    • Glasofruix

       ”Some struggle to integrate what they have learned in seminary.

      … There is a difference between studying God and experiencing God.”

      Ummmmmmmmmmmm, that’s kind of contradicting, isn’t it?

      • Coyotenose

        We’re not really looking for consistency from a trained clergyman. “Say whatever you think wins right this second” is kind of built in to their founding document.

      • Onamission5

        I can translate!

        There’s a difference between fancy book learning, and feeling that something is true in your heart without actually thinking about it.

        He may as well have said that they went to seminary without any pre-established, rock hard shell of confirmation bias. Like that’s a bad thing.

    • Coyotenose

       The “immature assumptions” part is a Courtier’s Reply, if I’m not mistaken.

      He will of course be sharing his Sophisticated Theology with the class any moment now.

  • http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-los-angeles/hugh-kramer Hugh Kramer

    Please tell me that you emailed a copy of the column to the Reverend Schmidt. I would so love to hear his reaction.

    • Annie

      Yes!  That would be a good idea.  And please include your WP article about the internet… maybe it will help him next time he needs to do some research.

  • AshtaraSilunar

    Any idea how many clergy there are in the US total?  That was my first question on reading his line about there being only 240 members, and googling doesn’t reveal much.

  • Trevbritt

    The idea that there is only 240, and that is not impressive, is silly. I am sure it does trouble him. If 240 are willing to admit it, even in private, how many more are keeping it in like the other 240 did?

  • http://twitter.com/butterflyfish_ Heidi McClure

    I can see why he thinks that way. It’s for the same reason he’s still a believer. It makes him feel better to think that he (or his god) is in control, and can do something about things.

  • http://twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

    I think he is confusing why clergy leave the CHURCH versus why clergy leave the FAITH.  The latter being simple…. they do not believe in a god.   Leaving the church could be all sorts of things, many are the topics he entertained.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    You were perhaps expecting him to be able to handle the truth?

  • george.w

    The Hartford Institute for Religion Research puts it at about 600,000 men and women in the US but says “there’s no way to know for certain”. 

    I was a clergyman briefly after college, and left the profession long before I left the faith. The reasons Schmidt gives ARE insulting. They suggest I am too stupid to really understand Christianity, or lack the character to stay with a difficult profession.

    In an online debate with a Christian minister (and college friend) a couple years ago I got some of the same guff; my understanding of Christianity is simplistic, immature.  Because, you know, after investing my college education and personal identity in it, I didn’t really think about it much before walking away.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Obviously you were asking the wrong question: 
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lD1yv4J6ohE

      • Coyotenose

         Guh. I managed to make it to 2:50, because the guy is kind of funny. But his point and his philosophy are toxic and evil. The humor was just to draw people in and get them agreeing with him. Nasty dishonest cretin.

        • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

          I commented to pretend applying that to my relationship with my son.  I was accused of twisting the pastor’s words.

          • Coyotenose

             But as if by magic, their “real” theology couldn’t actually be explained?

          • Itarion

            Of course you were. You have use what they believe. A direct quote from the Bible – Gawd’s Word – that contradicts his statements, preferably statements quoted directly. Think they way that they do to supply a response.

    • Miss_Beara

      “In an online debate with a Christian minister (and college friend) a couple years ago I got some of the same guff; my understanding of Christianity is simplistic, immature.”

      I had a similar experience with a former friend. She said I had a simplistic view of Christianity, was never a “Real Christian” to begin with since I went to Catholic schools for 12 years and that I should rely on god because we are all weak and helpless. I never had a personal identity to it but it was not like I never thought about the possibility of there being a god. It’s just that it never made any sense to me and disturbed by a lot of it.

    • TiltedHorizon

       Considering one has to be a historian, a literary scholar, and a theologian just to understand the “plain and simple truth” of the bible. Its seems only a few a ‘smart’ enough to know god. The onus is on god for this one, he should not have have outsourced the bible to the lowest bidder. If only the bible was simple, like rocket science, then I’d stand a better chance.

    • george.w

      @TiltedHorizon – yep, that’s exactly the feeling I got. He has a master’s seminary degree and has spent a lifetime studying angels and pinheads, so with my mere undergraduate degree in bible I couldn’t possibly understand. Apparently I am also deficient in history and science.

      @Miss_Beara – that’s such a frustrating experience! How do you counter someone who claims to know what you are thinking and feeling?

      @Rich Wilson – ugh – I couldn’t get through the whole video but what an evil, twisted manipulator. Yet no doubt he is very popular; the room was packed.

  • Coyotenose

    I had to respond on his page:

    ———–
    It’s
    very sad that you, the author, have to commit numerous logical
    fallacies to make your case. One of the least of these is arguing from
    your willful ignorance of what the actual members of the Clergy Project
    have said about themselves, even though they wrote it out on the website
    you talk about.

    Given that fact, you’re essentially committing libel by imagining
    unsupported motives and ascribing them to others*. I suppose you never
    found enough Humanism to help you avoid bearing false witness.

    *something conspiracy theorists do, by the way.———–
     

  • Patterrssonn

    Is he implying that clergy who don’t leave the church are perfectly fine with “immature and simplistic assumptions about God”?

    • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

      The belief in God requires immature and simplistic assumptions. There’s really no other way it can be. I think the implication isn’t that the remaining clergy are fine with this, but that they haven’t yet recognized it.

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      No, I’m pretty sure he’s saying that only clergy who leave have immature and simplistic assumptions. The clergy who stay are, in his view, grounded in mature and sophisticated ideas of God.

      It’s the same way that some mainline, moderate Protestants (and aspiring evangelicals) look down on fundamentalists, believing that of course their faith is mature and logical and rational and sophisticated, unlike that of the benighted masses.

      • JoeBuddha

        At last, they are “grounded in mature and sophisticated ideas of God” until they join the Clergy Project. After which, of course, their ideas magically become simplistic assumptions.

  • Dave Muscato

    First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.

    • amycas

       Sometimes. Other times you’re just wrong :-)

      p.s. I am an atheist, in case you don’t recognize my screen name on here. This is just my standard response anytime somebody posts that quote anywhere.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        Yes- I’ve seen that same ‘argument’ applied to ID.  ”We must be right because nobody will publish our papers”.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    I hate the expression “losing your faith”. It turns what is a positive event into something that sounds negative. I don’t tell my students that they’re “losing their ignorance”, I tell them that they’re “gaining knowledge”.

    We should all do the same for people who transition from religion to atheism. They aren’t “losing their faith”, but “gaining their rationality”.

    • Annie

      Good point… and it doesn’t sound incredibly silly.  I tried it out, “So, when did you gain reason?”  Works for me.

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Thomas Lawson

    Left a little gem of my own in his comments.

  • Keulan

    I left a comment on Schmidt’s article there as well. I basically said that these clergy most likely left their religion because they realized it isn’t true.

  • Sindigo

    As so many secular organisations get criticised for it I feel it’s only fair to say that banner is a nice piece of design.

  • Gus Snarp

    This is so typical. The only thing vaguely interesting is that a pastor feels the need to publish the same obvious, tired, and clearly inadequate arguments that popped up repeatedly from Christians in the comment threads on the NPR stories about the Clergy Project and that pop up anytime an atheist mentions having once been a Christian.

    On the other hand, the truth is that some atheists do this when former “atheists” turn Christian. I think that we’re more likely to be right about it, but I think we should probably avoid it. The difference, ultimately, is that we don’t think that whether people turn from one viewpoint to the other, either way, ultimately has anything to do with the truth of the viewpoint, while some Christians, like this pastor, seem to think that if you turn away from Christianity you must never have been truly Christian because God’s divine truth would always live in your heart. Therefore someone turning away from Christianity actually becomes a point of evidence against Christianity. Atheism never promises magical defense against every being swayed to a wrong opinion. Skepticism offers a tool set to prevent it, but it’s not magical and it’s not foolproof and no one claims it is.

  • Gus Snarp

    I agree with Daniel Dennett from the earlier video. I think the Pope is an atheist.

  • Ken

    OK, let’s try this approach:
    God is omnipotent and all knowing.
    All things work to God’s purpose.
    Ergo: God did not want these priests to continue representing him.
    The priests are doing God’s will.

    After all, Judas and Pharoah were essential to God’s wondrous loving plans, so they must have their own mansions in Heaven, right next to Pilate and Adam and Eve.  Where would we all be without all their contributions to our glorious belief systems that have murdered so many in the name of peace?  And we have it in scripture that God and Satan hang out together, plotting new tortures for us, even  though God already knows the outcome — kinda like burning ants with a magnifying glass and the sun.

    Why would anyone want to stop believing in such a caring, uplifting God like that?


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