Why Study Non-Believing Clergy?

Editor’s Note: In this post, I explain what instigated the unlikely, oxymoronic study of non-believing clergy that Dan Dennett and I set off on a few years ago.  The post is derived from the “Linda’s Personal Story” section of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind and is the first of an occasional series about our research. 


Unlike the clergy that I studied, who dedicated their lives to religion, it’s only recently that I became interested in the subject.  For most of my life, I had been a “lazy believer” – picking and choosing my beliefs (heaven made the cut; hell did not), and otherwise not paying much attention.  After a very mild Catholic upbringing, I attended Episcopal churches with my openly agnostic husband.  We happily sang in the choir with others who enjoyed church but didn’t talk much about religion.

It wasn’t until after a trip to Italy in 2005, where I saw Christian history unfold in the many brilliant works of Christian art and architecture, that my interest in religion was piqued and my studies began.

I was fascinated.  There was so much more than what I’d learned in church or catechism classes.  The Bible is long on myth and metaphor and short on facts and history.  Organized religion, like any other power structure, is an exclusively human enterprise.  Religious leaders can claim divine inspiration and guidance, but scholars know that no supernatural assistance is needed to compile a book of ancient stories or build a system of belief.

I was angry.  Why hadn’t I figured this out sooner?  The information was at my fingertips: in the public library, at the bookstore, on the Internet.  But I hadn’t bothered to think about it, and in our society faith is the default position.   Also, I suppose I had been ignoring or discounting information that didn’t fit into my inchoate but comfortable belief system. I had continued to accept the miracles and myths I learned about in childhood and never thought or cared about since.

I was confused as well, and it was the desire to sort out my confusion that ultimately led to this study.  One of the fascinating facts I learned during my personal religious research was that seminary students are taught the same religious and biblical history I had learned on my own. My reaction was to wonder how seminary students could continue their studies after learning that what they were expected to preach was different from what they were discovering in school.  I’d had a long career conducting qualitative research, and now I wanted to research this.

My intense curiosity prompted me to contact Dan Dennett, who had recently written a book and an article that questioned religion.  We soon decided to collaborate on exploratory qualitative research to investigate pastors’ “cognitive dissonance”—how they squared what they had learned with what they were preaching.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that it was easy for someone like me—removed from religion and indifferent to it—to respond logically to what I was learning about religion. For clergy, such introspection was much more difficult and complex.  They had the mindset of faith and the expectation of a lifelong vocation, which had a huge effect on how they processed information. I will address this in more detail in future blog posts.  Stay tuned.


From Isolation to New Family
Growing Into My Humanism: Shedding Light on the Shadow of Theism
My Weekend at the World Humanist Congress, Oxford, UK
Unbelieving Pastor Justifies Staying in the Pulpit
About Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers” (2010). She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and is a co-founder of the Clergy Project.

  • Maine_Skeptic

    “What I didn’t realize at the time was that it was easy for someone like me—removed from religion and indifferent to it—to respond logically to what I was learning about religion.”

    Without going into the long story, let me say that my family has a colorful history when it comes to religion. It’s a subject that invited arguments, unintended insults, and certain all-or-nothing approaches for most of us. But my sister didn’t realize that the rest of us were serious in saying we believed all of those things; I think she thought of the whole religion as a shared metaphor for the pursuit of better personhood.

    Confronted by our passionate pursuit of Biblical wisdom, she politely responded, “Meh. Thanks, but no.” She was a liberal Christian for a long time, married to and supportive of a music minister, but she was never judgmental or legalistic. When she became agnostic/atheist, she did so without drama. She just followed the facts.

    I call her the “Marilyn Munster” of our family. Where do these people come from who just never seem to hear the call of the herd instinct? People who are comfortable around people without feeling much of a need to conform or rebel?

    THAT is the subject of study that interests me. Where do Linda LaScola’s come from?

    • Linda_LaScola

      Interesting — in my case, I’d say my whole extended Italian-American family was pretty much “culturally Catholic.” It was just a part of who we were, but not a major or intrusive aspect of our lives. As adults, my sister is a fundamentalist and my brother is an apatheist. (That’s my designation -he doesn’t care enough to give himself a label!)

      My hypothesis is that religiosity is to some extent inborn, and will be expressed at some point in a person’s life, despite societal and family pressures to believe a certain way. That’s what I’d like to study.

      I suspect that the main reason so many people have religious beliefs these days is because of childhood indoctrination and societal acceptance/expectations. When that becomes less common, I think there
      will be fewer people with religious beliefs.

      That’s certainly what we see in the Scandinavian countries where most
      adults do not believe in god.

      • Maine_Skeptic

        “My hypothesis is that religiosity is to some extent inborn…”

        I agree, in the sense that some preferences and cognitive skills are inborn, so that together they form a constellation of traits that predisposes some toward emotional reasoning. It goes against stereotypes that it was our female sibling with the strongest tendency toward evidence-based reasoning.

        And it’s the emotional reasoning that I think is the real problem for our culture, not necessarily the religiosity. It bothers me when some atheists act as if the world will automatically be a better place when the religions are no longer in control. I’m confident that human beings can find even more destructive ways of relating to each other than through religion.

    • Andy

      Where do these people come from who just never seem to hear the call of the herd instinct? People who are comfortable around people without feeling much of a need to conform or rebel? (Maine Sceptic)
      I had not considered the possibility of neutrality cutting both ways, largely because in my experience, those of us liberal clergy who choose not to conform, actually do choose to rebel. We tend not to be very neutral or dispassionate, or as LInda LaScola would say, ‘apatheist’. Its hard to refrain from rebellion when those on the religious right use God as a bludgeoning stick to deny rights to women, the poor, and minorities. We prosecute our war against the religious right with extreme prejudice.
      But you’ve given me something to think about. It calls to mind what I remember of Epictetus and his Stoic philosophy. He talked about letting things fall off of us like water, and refusing to be riled by any circumstance.
      Thank you.

      • Maine_Skeptic

        Though I don’t think you’re suggesting this, I’d like to make clear that my sister is anything but apathetic. From childhood, she chose a career that has required hard work and dedication, and I think there are hundreds of people, if not thousands, whose lives are tangibly better as a result.

        It’s just that she’s willing to blend into the background unless there is a principle at stake. She’s not legalistic, but at those times when “the group” is headed in a direction that won’t be productive, or would be self-serving at the cost of someone who can’t speak for themselves, she becomes quietly and politely unmovable. Even though she really doesn’t like being the center of attention, she’s going to stick to her guns.

        It’s amazing to watch. She turns the whole group, and a lot of times no one realizes that she was the one who did it. And then she slips into the background again as if it never happened.

  • http://sonofsamuel.blogspot.ca Dennis A.

    Hi Linda,

    I’m very much interested in getting into researching and writing on faith and cognitive psychology. In particular I really want to understand what faith does to the rational mind and what we can do about it.

    I suppose I’ll need to go back to school. What practical tips can you give a former minister with a Theology degree (which included only a couple credits that would really pass as “psychology” at a secular university) turned computer programmer? What sort of a program should I be looking into? Where should I study?

  • RBH

    Solomon Asch’s pioneering work on conformity, particularly his post-experimental interviews, would be a a place to start. The analyses of his NON-conformers seems particularly relevant.