Daniel Dennett’s Latest Book Chronicles Pastors Who Are Secretly Atheists

It was three and a half years ago when philosopher Daniel Dennett and researcher Linda LaScola released a groundbreaking study of pastors who no longer believed in God yet were still in the pulpit.

The point wasn’t that religion was wrong, but that there were pastors who didn’t believe in what they were preaching and felt stuck in their roles. They needed a way out.

A year later, that study led to the formation of The Clergy Project, a private discussion forum for closeted atheist pastors.

Now, Dennett and LaScola have released a book (with a foreword written by Richard Dawkins) that details what they discovered and learned from their study. It’s called Caught in The Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind:

Imagine what a momentous step it is to volunteer for these interviews. You have been conditioned not to unburden your soul, not to indulge in avowals with your parishioners or anyone else, and you have become adept at deflecting even your own attention from topics you know you can’t handle. To let down your defenses and explain the inexplicable, admit the inadmissible, and acknowledge your own complicity takes courage. Their belief that by doing so, they would be helping others deal with their own entanglements with faith is a belief we intend to honor by helping some of them tell their stories, without distortion, without special pleading.

Caught in The Pulpit is available for Kindle now and will be released in paperback in a couple of weeks.

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.

  • http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com/ Q. Quine

    I am very interested in reading this because I have spent quite a bit of time in the last six or so years trying to understand what are the kinds of things that cause people to think their way out of religious faith. Those who have been clergy present a case study that is special, though not exactly extensible to most people, and beyond (mostly) the usual “no true Scotsman” attack. Unfortunately, most people don’t have a high level of education into the formal scholarship of religious history and texts. Clergy do, and have to actively rationalize the stories they tell the congregation because those clergy know where the contradictions are hidden away.

    Of course, the other value of the Clergy Project is that it exposes to the public the hidden fact that some percentage of their priests and pastors are living lies. Sometimes I ask my religious friends if they have ever asked their clergy if said clergy actually believe the things preached? I have yet to find anyone who has asked. What we have found out from the Clergy Project is that some number of clergy are only able to keep their jobs because no one does ask that question. That is because some feel that while they are doing the job, meeting the job requirements, as long as no one asks, they can keep doing the job, and don’t have to “tell.”

    Any member of the clergy who gets up to debate a non-believer is going to get asked the question, and that is one of the not so obvious benefits of non-believers getting up there and asking. We all know that you are not likely to get you opponent to admit a failure of faith right in front of the audience, but armed with the knowledge of what does fuel the internal conflicts faced by actual clergy, you hold the maximum leverage. Hopefully, that will have some benefit, later, if not sooner.

    • http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com/ Q. Quine

      I am reading it, now, on Kindle. It is as interesting as I had hoped. One thing that comes through is that, for some, doubts swept under the rug during seminary training, tended to resurface when having to answer parishioner’s questions coming from reading authors such as Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens. One former priest admitted the same happening from watching the Catholic Church getting a roasting on South Park. Wow, I bet the Pope was not ready for that.

      • Pofarmer

        I have got to watch some of those South Park episodes.

        • Peggy Clancy

          The book references the episode with a hyperlink right to it. This is the first time I ever did that reading a book! Yay, ebooks!

    • Tiny Tim

      Hey, hold on…you are telling us that a fair percentage of these pastors do not actually believe what they are preaching?

      That means they are lying to their congregations…in ways that hurt people.

      Which makes them the worst kind of liars.

      But we are supposed to believe their stories about doubt, etc. and all the other stuff?

      This is nonsense, and a book devoted to liars telling more lies is worthess.

      Look at Theresa McBain…she lied to her congregation…finally came out with it…and got a job with the atheists, while atheists who had been in the movement for years never got any kind of job.

      But, being the liar she was…she also lied to the atheists about her qualificatons! Bahahahahahaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!

      We don’t need these liars in leadership roles.

      • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

        It is unclear to me how an atheist pastor hurts anybody. As a pastor, they are likely to be more effective, given the likelihood they will adopt a more humanistic approach to dealing with people.

        What they believe matters not. How they act does.

  • Castilliano

    What would be really awesome is if some of the more liberal churches could turn into Sunday Assemblies or community centers.
    Churches form an important community infrastructure (for better or worse). How much better it could be if we could remove all the superstition and keep the “better” portions.
    One can dream…

    • Pofarmer

      Some of the progressive Christians are really, really close. Marcus Borg is closer than he would like to admit.

      • Neko

        Borg doesn’t seem to think so!

        • Pofarmer

          Oh, I agree with that, but most of Borg’s positions are a lot closer to Secular Humanism than any Fundamentalist Christian or Catholic positions.

          • Brad

            I think it would be fairer to call Borg a Religious Humanist who claims to follow Jesus. Secular Humanist implies atheism. And Borg is not an atheist.

            • Pofarmer

              That’s probably true. But, IMHO, throwing the religious tag on, weakens his position, not strengthens it. The Atheists don’t want to listen to him, the fundies don’t want to listen to him, so he just isolated himself. He’s much closer to an Atheist/secular humanist position, than to a general Christian position. I suppose some just can’t let go of the mythicism.

        • Peggy Clancy

          That’s it. I’m familiar with a very “progressive” mainline denomination church that has pretty much abolished heaven and hell, and talks about deep metaphors all the time–but they wouldn’t for a moment admit how far they’ve come.

        • Kenneth Polit

          Resistance is futile.

          • Tiny Tim

            So, give up, atheists!

    • Adam

      One of the major issues churches have is the issue of pride – thinking too highly of themselves and looking down on others. Sadly, most groups have the same problems, which shows that the problem lies with people, not the reasons why they meet together.

  • Anna

    Sounds fascinating. I’d love to read it, but unfortunately I can’t seem to find the actual book version listed anywhere at all. Who is publishing the paperback edition?

    • Peggy Clancy

      So far, it’s just a Kindle book, I think. If you are an Amazon prime member you can borrow it for free. Otherwise, it costs about $10 and you have to download a (free) Kindle app to your computer to read it.

      • Anna

        That’s what it seems like. A thorough Google search doesn’t reveal anything else. Maybe there will be a print version later, but it’s a shame there isn’t one now. I have zero desire to read a book on my computer.

        • Peggy Clancy

          I used to feel that way, too. But then I realized how much stuff I was missing waiting for dead tree editions of everything. There is something satisfying, though, about a book made of paper that you can touch…

          • Anna

            Well, I don’t have any kind of mobile device, so I would find it quite uncomfortable to read an entire book sitting at my PC. Plus, I get all my books for free from the public library, so if I were to download a Kindle app, I’d obviously have to pay for the book itself, as well as suffer the annoyance of reading it on a screen. I’ll stick with real books. I’m lucky that my library is well-funded and has pretty much everything I want to read.

            • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

              Unless your local library is still in the Middle Ages, it probably has many ebooks available for loan, and will either order one for you, or secure an interlibrary transfer. If you don’t want to read books on a reader, fine, but don’t assume that you’ll need to buy the books you want.

              Most major libraries are working towards phasing out paper books from their collections. They’re too expensive, and a growing number of readers prefer ebooks.

              • Peggy Clancy

                Yes, I borrow ebooks from my local public library and read them on my little (not fancy) Kindle that has the case with a reading light. I’ve learned to curl up in bed with that in the same way I can get comfy with dead tree books. I like it now, but it did take some getting used to. I can also read books on my smart phone and lap top.

              • Anna

                Phasing out paper books? Not in San Francisco, thank goodness. I do keep up with library news quite regularly, and I would be interested to know the cities where this is happening.

                I think it would be an extremely unfortunate development, since libraries are supposed to be a social equalizer. Many people with limited economic resources don’t even have personal computers at home. They certainly can’t afford to buy a Kindle, a smartphone, or a laptop.

                In any case, my library does have ebooks, but they encompass only a small portion of the books on my reading list, and I would still be unable to read them comfortably unless I bought some sort of mobile device. So I’ll stay with paper books for the foreseeable future.

                • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

                  Actually, I think you’ll find that San Francisco is one system that is looking to move away from printed books. One thing driving it is the trend for books not even to be available in print. Another is the very high cost of books to libraries. I’ve read that the average book is only checked out four times before it’s retired, often due to damage.

                  It’s a gradual transition, but I’d be surprised if in ten years any major library system has more new material in print than they do in digital form.

                  Good ebook readers are only a few tens of dollars, and that’s just going to get cheaper. I don’t think economics is going to be an issue. If it is, libraries will simply loan out the readers, as well. Some already do.

                • Anna

                  I keep up with news from the ALA, so I’m curious where your information is coming from. I could not find any articles saying that libraries would like to begin phasing out paper books in San Francisco, for example.

                  On the contrary, here’s one that says the library plans for print versions and digital versions to co-exist, while also mentioning some problems it has getting digital books:


                  “We’re spending about 20 percent of our collections budget on all kinds of e-resources,” Lent said. “I think both e-books and print are going to coexist for as far into the future as we can imagine.”

                  Also, books with library bindings can last for decades. Cheap paperbacks don’t fare well, but hardcovers certainly do. Some of the older libraries near me still have copies of books from the 1940s on their shelves. In fact, I checked out a novel from 1957 earlier this year! The date the library acquired the book was written on the inside cover.

  • Shazam

    How do you Get a believer to become a non believer?: Simple get them to fully read the bible and then ask them IF they actually honestly believe it lol….Now anyone worth their intellectual grain of salt will tell you one and only one answer: NO!

  • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    Interesting stuff. I’ve felt for some time now (without a lot of objective evidence, of course) that the incidence of atheism is likely to be higher among pastors than the population in general. Not fundie pastors, probably, since they don’t usually have a good education, but among mainstream pastors who actually spent years in school studying religion. The more you know about Christianity, the harder it’s going to be to accept.

    • Pofarmer

      So, how do Catholic Priests do it? Don’t most, if not all, priests have the equivalent of a Dr. of Theology? I dunno, I’ve heard it said that Catholic Priests aren’t particularly well educated on the Bible, more on the Catechism and Catholic Doctrine.

      • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

        I suspect that the incidence of atheism is quite high among Catholic priests, as well. And I’ll bet that the higher you get in the Church, the more likely you are to be atheist. I wouldn’t be surprised if more than half the popes and cardinals in the last century or two have been atheists.

        • Pofarmer

          If John Paul the whatever was an Atheist, and came up with the his whole Doctrine of the Body speil, then he is really a damnable human being.

          • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

            I don’t know of any pope that I wouldn’t consider a damnable human being. They live in wealth and prey on the poor and ignorant.

        • Emmet

          You suspect this, you’ve felt that, Pofarmer has heard the other… uh huh.

          Not a whole lot of actual evidence, have we, lads?

          • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

            I said in my very first comment that I lacked much in the way of objective evidence. That said, many pastors are intelligent and educated, and intelligence and education are both associated with atheism and low religiosity. Barring mental illness, it’s nearly impossible to actually understand Christian mythology and remain a Christian. My suspicions are not unreasonable, nor are they absent some basis.

            • Emmet

              “Barring mental illness, it’s nearly impossible to actually understand Christian mythology and remain a Christian.”

              What’s your evidence for that?

              • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

                Common sense. Much of Christian dogma is based on things that are absolutely false (most of explanations of nature), very poorly supported historically (the existence of Jesus, much of the conflicting historicity of the NT), or fundamentally unethical (original sin, hell, redemption for sin). The entire edifice of Christianity doesn’t hold up to examination. A Christian can only remain so by avoiding close examination of their beliefs, unless their brains are broken in some way.

                • Emmet

                  I remain a Christian, I have closely examined my beliefs over the years and continue to do so, and my brain is not broken – so that demolishes your argument, doesn’t it?

                  Of course, there are people who don’t examine their beliefs closely, and would leave their religion if they did. However, what seems like “close examination” is often not, but is instead “close reading of wrong or ignorant expositions of their religion” – in this day and age, blogs like this one.

                • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

                  I believe that your brain is, in fact, broken. No reflective person can be a Christian, any more than they can believe in unicorns or leprechauns. You have a delusion disorder.

                • Emmet

                  Thank you, doctor.

                  It’s entirely irrational to diagnose a medical disorder over the internet. Entirely. That you believe this about me doesn’t make it true. Believe all you like, the evidence says otherwise. As a good atheist you should follow the evidence, not your feelings.

                  You should be embarrassed about your thought processes here.

                  And… screenshot for the “stupid shit atheists say” file.

                • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

                  Sorry, but if you say (on the Internet) that aliens are probing you at night, then I’m going to be pretty comfortable saying (on the Internet) that you’re paranoid. Likewise, if you admit to being a deliberate Christian (one that chooses that belief upon reflection), I’m going to be pretty comfortable identifying you as delusional. That’s actually a fact, not an opinion. The matter of opinion only enters with respect to whether that delusion can be considered normal, or if it’s a pathology.

                • Emmet

                  How can delusion be considered normal? And isn’t a “broken brain” a pathology?

                  What’s your definition of “delusional”?

          • blue_hubbard

            Evidence is for suckers (so is writing a well researched book with testimony, ya know, actual work), spouting crowd-pleasing opinions is cost free.

  • Paul Zimmerle

    Ech – a Foreward by Richard Dawkins?
    He doesn’t see a penny of this, right? I wouldn’t want to support him.

    • David_Evans

      If you are a US taxpayer your money has gone to support torture and the killing of civilians. But Dawkins is somehow worse?

      • Paul Zimmerle

        Nice to see someone who can’t grasp basic law any better than ethical behavior.

        As a US citizen, I am obliged by law to give a portion of my income to the Federal government. I have no choice but to give them my money unless I wish to face jail time for deliberately failing in my obligations as a citizen. I have no objections to the existence of taxes, as I view them as necessary to the functioning of government, which I view to be a necessary institution. The only acceptable method to escape paying taxes to the United States would be to leave the United States. The process of moving to a new country represents a significant onus which I should only undertake if I believe that I have absolutely no alternative – which I do not, as I vote, advocate, and agitate for better laws. It’s a part of how government works. I’d also need to find a country I could support and that would take me and that offer a reasonable standard of living, which I’m sure I could do, but let’s be frank – most Western Democracies engage in some form of bad behavior on some level. What, do you want me to join some sort of anarcho-liberal commune floating out at sea? Get real.
        This is a standard part of how one operates as part of the body politic. Maybe you should study up a bit on political theory before you open your mouth, because it’s clear you haven’t the foggiest idea of what the difference is.

        Dawkins, however, is a private individual who puts out material that I can boycott as I choose to show my distaste for his recent slew of awful statements towards women and pedophilia.

        • 3lemenope

          Would it be fair to say that the citizenry of a state that has democratic apparatus and functioning civil society bears more responsibility for the actions of the state of which they are citizens than, say, the citizens of a despotic regime? If not, why not?

        • baal

          “Maybe you should study up a bit on political theory before you open your mouth”
          I hate “shut up that’s why” as an argument.

          You’re certainly free to hate on Dawkins as much as you like but I dare say that he’s substantially better than most and not a good poster boy (or even a moderatly good one) for the causes you’re espousing. Spend less time where ever you are and more time exposing your self to a boarder range of folks and you might reconsider who is the devil and who is just a general but mostly decent person (and why that should matter to you).

          • Paul Zimmerle

            We should be forced to choose between two devils. Toss ‘em both.

      • blue_hubbard

        I suggest David buys a copy of the book, rips out the Foreword and mails the abridged copy to Paul. David then takes the ripped pages, lights them afire and tosses them over the fence of the White House in protest of the torture and killing of civilians.

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

    believers with a solid education in their religion come up with lots of ways to intellectually justify their belief. primary among them is the one that goes: there are two ways of understanding my religion. one for the little people to whom i will minister, and a second, better way that only the religiously educated have. there are dozens of famous religious scholars across history who have written about this.

    the “better” version usually includes a heavy emphasis on metaphor, when it comes to the texts. again, the thinking goes: the little people need their myths and stories. but the religious leadership understands some set of ‘deeper truths’ that the texts are really imparting.

    • Peggy Clancy

      Yes, that’s it. There’s a great smugness that goes with the professional “liberal” view that it’s all metaphor and really DEEP–and it is not ok to try to think it through. Just enjoy the awe and wonder, pitying the poor fools who want to use their minds to understand. Seriously.

  • Thom

    Can’t wait to read it. As a former catholic priest who was and is an atheist this will be fascinating.