Editor’s Note: The following responses to my “Guilt” questions come from the somewhat unique perspective of a very fundamentalist pastor who switched to being a pastor in one of the most liberal Protestant denominations – the United Church of Christ (UCC), sometimes jokingly referred to as “Unitarians Considering Christ.” He’s happy and fulfilled there and plans to stay until retirement, but the old guilt perseveres.
- What are some of the things you regret, if any, about staying a member of the clergy after you no longer believed?
Life opens to us when we leave God out of the equation. Accordingly, my interest in all things scientific has exploded (particularly biology, geology and paleontology). If I regret anything, it is the lost opportunity to explore other career fields that are now of greater interest to me than religion. Other than that, no regrets.
If I were younger and preparing for a career, I’d leave the church and pursue a discipline more relevant to human life.
- 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?
- If you haven’t left the clergy or don’t intend to, what are some of the things you’ve learned since staying on?
I’ve learned that there are more people than I originally thought who are on the same secular journey. Even in the church, at least in the mainline churches, many people seem to be functional atheists, giving lip service to the theological propositions, but not having what conservatives would call a “personal relationship” with God or Jesus. Their relationship to God seems to be mediated through the institutional functions and functionaries of the church, (e.g., rites like baptism and roles like pastor or priest).
I’m amazed how ‘God’ doesn’t factor into many of the decisions my congregants make daily. Instead, it is reason that seems to prevail. This makes it easier for us, the mainline liberal clergy, to speak from the pulpit, because we can cite professionals in a variety of secular fields to affirm the positions we take. We can then find “proof texts” in the Bible for those needing some kind of scriptural support for what is really just solid, scientific research.
So, for example, I can cite Micah 6:8 in our call for justice (God requires justice), while citing real evidence from psychologists and social workers about the damage done to the mentally ill in the current prison-industrial complex. Accordingly, my church has urged our elected officials to fund the construction and equipping of a mental health crisis care center to divert the mentally ill from prison, where their condition only worsens. It’s a matter of justice. (This is a current example of something that is happening, and it excites me).
The point is that most of my congregation is functionally atheist or agnostic anyway. Metaphysics is just window dressing, and it is something I can tolerate.
- What advantages, to yourself or to society, have you seen in staying in the clergy?
For me, this is the most important question.
Guilt plays a major role in my life as an atheist pastor. But it’s not the kind of guilt an outsider might expect. I have no guilt over my own position, or any perceived deception in which I am engaged. (See question 3, above—I think most of my congregation is functionally atheist anyway, so I’m not deceiving anyone.)
My guilt stems from the years I spent as a believing pastor, and specifically from the damage I have caused to people of prior congregations—all the biblically-based judgment and hatred I spewed, all justified by recourse to a deity by whom I felt authorized to tell other people what to believe and how to live.
I look at it as an equation: I must spend an equal (if not greater) amount of energy correcting some of the flagrant mistakes I made as a youngster in ministry over 30 years ago. That is the advantage of staying in ministry for me. It gives me time to “do penance” (as it were), outspending with good, the evil I have perpetrated on good people.
My current context in ministry is exclusively focused on charity—addressing the concrete needs of our community (food, clothing, etc.), and justice—addressing the underlying, structural causes that make charity necessary in the first place (unjust laws that make and keep people poor and homeless). It’s simple, forthright, and indisputably relevant. I love what I do, and the difference congregations like mine are making for the benefit of our world. I’m still not sure I’ll ever do enough to outweigh the evil I have done in the name of God.
- What was it like the first time you preached a sermon after you’d realized you were no longer a believer?
I honestly have no recollection of this. My transformation was gradual enough that I can’t assign a date, or even a year, to my first sermon as an atheist pastor.
- Were there times while speaking to someone it was hard not to just blurt out what you wanted to say? If so, please describe.
No. I am honest enough to confess that I don’t think belief in God is an essential part of belonging to a religious organization that is actively involved in works of charity and justice.
- Who was the first person you told you no longer believed, if that’s already happened, and how did conversation go?
The only person to whom I have said, “I don’t believe in God anymore,” is my wife, who lovingly accepts my position. She is far more interested in the fact that I love her and treat her with dignity and respect, than that I believe in the supernatural. She is a theist herself, but has what I call occasional “bouts of agnosticism”—which occasions much laughter.
That said, I have certainly intimated it time and again to my congregation and other pastors in my area. I have actively courted atheists in my sermons, and in the articles I write for a religion column in my local newspaper. I have frequently asked some of my ministerial colleagues whether belief in God makes any actual difference in our morality, i.e., in our interaction with other persons and with our planet. Most verbally agree that it doesn’t.
Bio: “Andy”, a former Southern Baptist Minister, is currently a Pastor in the United Church of Christ. He plans to retire in the church, despite his rejection of metaphysical speculation (God, salvation, heaven, etc.). His life has been an evolution from traditional theism, to non-theism (via Tillich and Spong), to agnosticism (via linguistic philosophy), to ‘incipient atheism’ (via secular humanism). He holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from a major American university.
>>>>>>>>>Photo Credits: By Elihu Vedder – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 47.74_SL1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10187693