Categorically Shedding Decades of Clergy Guilt

Editor’s Note: I first met this poster as “Adam Mann” in 2009 when I interviewed him for the Dennett-LaScola Study pilot study of non-believing clergy. He was closeted then and so fearful of being exposed that we met in a town 30 miles from his home. To say he’s changed is an understatement, as you will see by the self-awareness and confidence he demonstrates in these responses to my “guilt” questions.

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By Carter Warden

  1. What are some of the things you regret, if any, about staying a member of the clergy after you no longer believed?

I regret it took so long to find a way out. I do not regret hiding my changed beliefs from so many for so long because it is simply what I had to do so as not to jeopardize my family’s well being financially, socially and emotionally.

  1. What are some of the things you learned about yourself, your family, your congregation (or religious community) or society from your new perspective as a non-believing clergy?

I have learned that I can keep a secret and that I can cope with enormous amounts of stress internally and not let it show on the outside.

I have learned that most people (family and friends) can agree to disagree on important matters and still learn to continue on a positive relationship.

  1. What are some of the things you learned once you left the clergy?

I learned that religious/spiritual teaching is a very powerful means of biased indoctrination that uses guilt and fear to squelch freedom of thought and open honest inquiry.

  1. What advantages, to yourself or to society, have you seen in getting out of the clergy.

Being out of the clergy has given me a long awaited authenticity and freedom of expression.

  1. What was it like the first time you preached a sermon after you’d realized you were no longer a believer?

In my case, it was not during a sermon but leading worship (songs, prayers, scripture readings). I felt like an actor on stage portraying a role radically different from my own being and personality. I felt inauthentic but surprisingly satisfyingly recalcitrant, enlightened and liberated.

  1. Were there times while speaking to someone that it was hard not to just blurt out what you wanted to say?

Definitely. I remember sitting in many church staff meetings where an in-depth discussion on a silly scriptural or spiritual dilemma was taking place, longing to tell everyone how mistaken they were regarding reality and their worldview.

  1. Who was the first person you told you no longer believed and how did conversation go?

Dan_Barker copy

I think the first person I spoke those actual words to was Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF). The conversation was wonderful because I found someone who knew exactly what I was experiencing. And of course that one call was the beginning of a great liberating journey for me!

  1. Now that you’re “out”, how have you been treated by people in your former congregation or community?

Most people have not communicated with me directly. I have met to share a meal with two former colleagues in ministry and each occasion was pleasant. One parishioner I came into contact with tried to persuade me with the fear of hell by giving me a book to read. A couple of other former parishioners have written long heartfelt letters expressing their prayers for me to return to God. Another told me I was free to believe what I wanted as long as I did not try to convert others to my position.

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Carter head onlyBio: Carter Warden is a former conservative pastor of 25 years, now openly atheist. Using the pseudonym “Adam Mann”, he was a founder of The Clergy Project, its first member and one of its first forum moderators. “Adam” was one of the original five interviewees in the 2010 Dennett-LaScola article, “Preachers who are not Believers.” While still in ministry, he was interviewed undercover by ABC World News Tonight and the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Carter made his change of beliefs public at the Freedom From Religion Foundation National Convention on October 7, 2016. He hopes that his story will bring encouragement to clergy trapped because of changing beliefs as well as all people who fear openly identifying themselves as non-religious.

>>>>Photo Credits: Carter Warden, by Andrew seidel FFRF 10-16 ;  Dan Barker, By Brent Nicastro – http://www.ffrf.org/uploads/images/Barker_Nakoma_cropped.jpg, CC BY 1.0, $3

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  • mason

    Carter, What succinct truthful responses. Very potent. This piece would make an excellent atheist “tract.” :)

    This was my favorite; 3. What are some of the things you learned once you left the clergy?
    I learned that religious/spiritual teaching is a very powerful means of biased indoctrination that uses guilt and fear to squelch freedom of thought and open honest inquiry.

    It’s amazing what a change in perspective can do for us.

    This from the former parishioner gave me a laugh; “Another told me I was free to believe what I wanted as long as I did not try to convert others to my position.” . Oh, the arrogance of the humble pious believer. :) Have you gotten a permission slip yet to “try” ?

    It must have certainly shook up your congregation, especially after 25 years as a shepherd. Have you heard from anyone who is now questioning their God delusion, since you became apostate?

    • Adam Mann

      Mason yes it was very shocking to say the least for friends and families that I had grown so close to over the years. I have received emails from a few people who were marginal attenders at church who expressed their appreciation for my honesty, and I have received congratulatory emails from a few folks in neighboring congregations that have also retired from their days of faith over the years. At least one person in each of these categories told me they are secretively a non-believer and have not told anyone for fear of the fall-out. No one has contacted me who is in the process of questioning.

      • Linda_LaScola

        Any sense of what YOU would have done if you heard about pastor in your area coming out while you were questioning or after you changed your beliefs??

        • Maine_Skeptic

          Do you know what you would have thought as a believer if you’d heard one of your own former pastors had come out as an atheist?

          • Adam Mann

            Maine Skeptic that’s a very good question. From my current perspective I would hope that I would have been somewhat open minded and compassionate, but practically speaking I’m sure I would have been somewhat judgemental and felt very betrayed. It is hard to live and think outside the box of orthodoxy and tradition when it is all you have ever known.

        • Adam Mann

          I would have very cautiously tried to communicate with the pastor but probably only after I had arrived personally at my conclusions. The extreme caution would have been necessary so as not to blow my own cover as a non-believing clergy while in ministry.

  • Maine_Skeptic

    Were you taught in seminary about the contradictions and inaccuracies in the Bible? I was very surprised a couple of years ago when I discovered what is actually taught at mainstream seminaries along the lines.

    • Adam Mann

      Without going into great detail, I do not recall spending much time or thought on contradictions and inaccuracies. But even if noticing them one can easily theologize ones way around difficult passages. My main goal in seminary was to learn practical skills to be a better minister. I believed then that I did not have to understand everything since Gods ways were so much higher and mysterious. I was simply to trust God. Walk by faith and not by sight.

      Religions wild card is the catch 22 of playing blind faith over reason every time. If you can understand it with reason it’s not faith and not of God.

      It’s too bad I did not think more seriously about the inconsistencies, contradictions and question why faith should trump reason. At least I finally figured it out!

      • Maine_Skeptic

        “…It’s too bad I did not think more seriously about the inconsistencies, contradictions and question why faith should trump reason…”

        Do you think being raised in a Bible-believing church actually made you less interested in the Bible’s accuracy? I find that it’s easier for me to ignore marks on the wall in my house that have “always been there.”

        I tried to accept the inerrancy of the Bible when I converted to Christianity, and I became good at explaining away “seeming” contradictions in meaning and dogma from one verse to another. Then one day, I saw the book “A Harmony of the Gospels” on my pastor’s desk. From a shepherd’s perspective, letting me see that was a big mistake. It was written to quell the doubts of believers, but instead, it gave me the idea of making parallel comparisons between different accounts of the same Bible story.

        That was the crack in the wall I couldn’t ignore any longer. When I doubted myself in the months and years that followed, those self-contradictions were a reminder that I wasn’t “in rebellion” or “deceived by sin.” I wanted the truth. Any god worth having would want me to want the truth.

        Given the importance of the Bible contradictions to my own escape, it made me angry to realize some of my pastors had actually been taught about these problems when they first started out. “How could they tell me my doubts were because of sin, when I was asking about tangible questions they knew were subjects of ongoing theological discussion?”

        Now I think I know how they’d answer. “I didn’t want it to be a stumbling block for your faith.” Faith healers get away with their fraud by appealing to this same warped approach to reality. At every “healing” service, there are people who are told they’re healed, but they know that their symptoms are unchanged. Why don’t they say anything? They’re convinced it’s their own weak faith that kept them from being healed, and they don’t want to get in the way of someone else’s faith. That may explain why some pastors keep their doubts to themselves, or just dismiss their own doubts as unimportant.

        Any anger I still feel toward my pastors is akin to the anger I have with myself for my own mistakes. It’s not that I want revenge, because they and I were parts of a sick group dynamic. I contributed to that dynamic, too. I just wish they’d stop making the same mistakes, because it’s like watching reruns of myself screwing up.

        Ex-pastor “mason” said something relevant to another ex-pastor in comments on a recent article. “You were just the messenger.” I think it was true in that instance, because the pastor in question didn’t manufacture the dogma he’d taught, and at one time, he believed it. For what it’s worth, I think that applies to you, too.

        Maybe more ex-Christians and ex-cult members need to start speaking up about our roles in that sick, group dynamic. (Yours was just a church, but mine was a cult.) There’s a balance each of us (leader or follower) needs to have, between acknowledging our own wounds and accepting responsibility for our own roles. The problem is that ex-pastors can sound self-serving if they’re the ones to point that out.

        Best wishes to you, Adam.

        • Linda_LaScola

          Thanks for this Maine Skeptic. I think you’re on to something about why clergy don’t share their academic religious knowledge with lay people. Liberal clergy often think of it differently, but handle it pretty much the same way. Some of them try to impart knowledge, but are told by their colleagues that people don’t come to church to learn about religion, but for comfort and guidance.

          When I was learning about how clergy handled questions from lay people, I marveled at the difference between how I had learned to help people as a social worker.. Social workers help people grow. Clergy help keep people where they are.

          • Maine_Skeptic

            “Social workers help people grow. Clergy help keep people where they are.”

            And yet, most clergy would say they hope to help people “grow in their faith.” I’d be curious to know what others think that means to a minister or pastor. I *think* they means that once faith is established, then a person can start to mature as a person by accepting the teachings of the religion. Absent the unquestioning acceptance that comes with faith, the religious model says people can never receive wisdom.

            With social work and cognitive science, my understanding is that the goal is helping people understand reality as it is, accepting what can’t be changed, but changing what can be made better. Wisdom then comes with letting go of what “should” be, and accepting what actually is. Is that accurate, or am I off base?

          • Linda_LaScola

            I think you’ve identified another issue to put before members of The Clergy Project, that is, the meaning of “help” and “growth” in a faith context.

            As to your second paragraph, re social work and cognitive science, I definitely think you’re on to something, but I’d clarify it, separating out helping professions – like social work and clinical psychology — from academic studies, like cognitive science and other psychological research.

            People in the first group are therapists who work directly with people with the goal, as you say, of “…helping people understand reality as it is, accepting what can’t be changed, but changing what can be made better.” People in the second group are conducting research and writing articles in scientific journals, to advance knowledge which can then be used to understand and help people.

          • ElizabetB.

            It’s interesting to realize that “grow in faith” has always been an idea I’ve been wary of, during and after the ordination process…. I think probably just for the reason that it seems to imply shutting off questioning. Come to think of it, in my list from Galations (to Linda) I deliberately left out “faithfulness” : )

            The general idea of ‘no wisdom without religion’ is a big debate in my denomination now, though I think it’s being decided by the departure of those who say ‘no salvation outside our beliefs,’ leaving those of us who think wisdom springs up in every culture (tho also in every culture humans don’t always follow it!). The departures generally hold to inerrancy, too. That relatively late idea has been one of the greatest disasters of christianity, I think. I’m sorry you’ve had to wrestle it though too!!

            So far I like what I know about process theology, which seems to work from trying to “understand reality as it is.” Actually it seems so much that way that when Homebrewed Christianity just called for questions I sent:

            “Why do process theologians use the word ‘god’? Keller talks about our relation to everything — why call that ‘God’? Is it just to stay in the tradition of people who have used that language in the past? Why not be just a straight-up non-theist or atheist?”

            Would be fun if they address that! Thanks for all the thought-provoking questions

          • ElizabetB.

            Thanks very much for further insights, Maine Skeptic

          • ElizabetB.

            After agreeing via Like that I don’t encourage growth away from theism, I realized that even in nursing home and hospice I do encourage some growth — in “love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control,” in leaving behind punitive concepts of god — and in the bible’s nonviolence and justice themes of Dr. King and now in the Moral Monday Movement, Dr. Barber…. But it’s surely true for me, I don’t urge people away from theism if it seems a comfort. That’s an interesting observation!

          • Linda_LaScola

            Your approach seems like a wise and soothing one for people who are about to die.
            Have you ever encountered someone who was seriously questioning his/her faith and looking to you for answers? If so, how do you think you’d approach such a person? Actually, that’s a question I’d have for all hospice chaplains.

          • ElizabetB.

            Whew. More good questions. Clinical Pastoral Education tries to help students work with the outlook of the person you’re visiting. In the case of chaplains, we can’t pretend to be a tradition we’re not, but we can try to empathize and to connect someone who wants, to people who do share their faith, whether it’s Buddhist or Jehovah’s Witness (I’d have to know the Witness, etc, is a sensitive one). We’re taught to refer to a credentialed counselor when needed — we’re not that!

            So far, people I’ve visited seem to have worked through their which-religious-tradition questions — probably a function of their usually being older, and my having moved now back to the bible belt.

            To talk with someone questioning their faith, so many variables — like, what kind of faith are they coming from? I’d try to learn what they really mean and then try to find, and help them find, resources

            Within the Christian tradition, in services I authenticate questioning, stressing how even Jesus cried My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And Job questions for 40 chapters and at the end god tells his pious friends that Job spoke correctly & tells Job to pray for THEM. (I can’t say much for the frame of the story. yuk) I say we can say anything to god, say just how we feel, and — here I do get into the speculative realm — god will help us with those feelings. I do think, if someone believes in god, somehow permission to ventilate helps. Again, we’re always attuned to whether a bona fide counselor is needed.

            Bottom line, it’s sort of a creative process I guess… Thanks so much for the chance to reflect… Very interested to hear what other hospice folks say!!

          • Maine_Skeptic

            “To talk with someone questioning their faith, so many variables — like, what kind of faith are they coming from? I’d try to learn what they really mean and then try to find, and help them find, resources.”

            Were you ever in an authoritarian religion, Elizabeth? If not, you may not realize the dilemmas it creates for the doubting believer, especially in the Bible belt. (I’m in New England now, but my history and family are in the South and Southwest.) Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christianity, for instance, lay minefields in the path of doubting believers, by implying that any examination of extra-Biblical evidence is flirting with evil.

            To make matters worse, they’re not going to be practiced at explaining what they’re uncomfortable with in their faith. Social pressures discourage even admitting to themselves that they are doubting.

            I’ve given a lot of thought to how someone might have responded well to me when I was beginning to see that I’d been wrong about faith. Given the high-pressure environment I lived in, what I most needed was to know that my doubts were not a sign of weakness on my part. No one outside my own head could have persuaded me that I wasn’t crazy for doubting, so I would have needed a skilled listener more than anything else. Offering me resources would only have shut me down.

            If you’re working in hospice, you probably already have good listening skills, but without understanding the minefield that believers have to navigate, you are still at a serious disadvantage. A social worker expert like Linda LaScola could probably offer you a framework for helping doubters explore their own thoughts in a non-threatening way. IMO, that’s what they need, more than anything else: some help safely thinking through their own questions. If they’re fortunate, they’ll realize as I did that their doubts are healthy. Only they can open that door, though.

        • Machintelligence

          Now I think I know how they’d answer. “I didn’t want it to be a stumbling block for your faith.”
          The problem is that they perceive faith to be a virtue, rather than a character flaw. This is the underlying big lie of religion. Faith is just gullibility, all dressed up in its Sunday best.

          • Linda_LaScola

            Faith is also their livelihood.

    • Linda_LaScola

      My reaction was similar to yours, Maine Skeptic, and I asked that question to every person in the clergy study — with a similar response — they managed to rationalize it.

      I think the important difference in response is that unlike seminary students who have decided to dedicate their lives to religion, people like us were skeptical of religion before we started learning about it.

      • Maine_Skeptic

        “…unlike seminary students who have decided to dedicate their lives to religion, people like us were skeptical of religion before we started learning about it…”

        If you want to hide something effectively, hide it in plain sight, right? There’s an office principle that any large box that sits in the middle of the floor for more than a week becomes invisible.

      • Maura Hart

        being capable of deductive reasoning, critical thinking and asking questions helps a lot. you can really sense the bs

        • Linda_LaScola

          Seminary students, like others engaged in higher education, are quite capable of “deductive reasoning, critical thinking and asking questions.” I think, based on the interviews that I conducted, that something else is going on.

          Seminary students may not be looking at the information skeptically, but rather as material they need to learn to attain their career goal. They may be blocking information that they find troubling, or re-interpreting it to suit their needs.

  • Maura Hart

    “inerrancy”? “contradictions?” even the 4 gospels don;t agree on a nativity story. genesis has 2 distinct ly different stories. nobody remarked on that? zombie jeebus says love one another and don;t judge, and christians stand on their rooftops and judge women and gays and any other religion. and so many many christian sects, each one believing they are the one true way. ridiculous. how can you not laugh at your pompous selves i do not know