Editor’s Note: This is a must-read response by the current Clergy Project president, who was once an evangelical pastor. It will be followed by another must-read essay by a pastor who is leading a liberal Christian church. The current essay was originally posted here. The version below has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. /Linda LaScola
By Drew Bekius
As famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins once said of the world’s religious leaders:
“It is hard to think of any other profession which it is so near to impossible to leave.”
These words begin a welcome letter that Dawkins wrote to The Clergy Project’s charter group of fifty-two participants when its private online forum launched in March 2011. * Albert Mohler conservative American theologian and the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, used these same words again to begin a scathing critique just seventeen months later. He wrote:
“The Clergy Project is a parable of our times…a pathetic portrait of the desperation of many atheist and secularist groups.”
I’ve known about Albert Mohler since my days as a student at the Moody Bible Institute in the late 1990s. He would speak occasionally at the college’s annual Bible conference known as Founder’s Week. My classmates viewed Mohler like more of a stale talking head than an engaging thought leader. He didn’t impress me back then—even as a committed and passionate evangelical pastor. He even less impresses me now.
Mohler’s article, Atheists in the Pulpit—the Sad Charade of the Clergy Project, posted August 29, 2012 at AlbertMohler.com, is more of an embittered and emotional knee-jerk response focused on two project participants than a careful and researched critique of the project itself. In his 1300-word outcry, he only makes four actual claims against The Clergy Project (TCP), and his comments play in such shallow depths, it’s difficult to discern what exactly he’s arguing against.
So why bother responding? And why nearly five years later?
Because Mohler’s blog post continues to linger in TCP’s shadow. Since August 2012, his accusations have consistently produced first-page Google Search returns, largely due to Mohler’s popularity in Christianity’s fundamentalist and evangelical circles. This isn’t to suggest that TCP has felt any noticeable impact from his words, but to state that these words have maintained a constant presence in our midst and that that’s reason enough to respond.
I’m a little newer on the TCP scene, having joined in the summer of 2014. TCP became its own volunteer-led 501(c)(3) in early 2015, and since January 2016, I’ve been TCP’s second president.
Recently, someone asked, Why don’t we respond? Not that Mohler’s attacks are credible, but they represent a lengthy series of public misunderstandings that float around the blogosphere. And I suppose that keeping your organization private and anonymous can invite misunderstanding. So why don’t we respond. Maybe try to set the record straight? So here I am, responding, even if it is nearly five years later.
Truth be told, there’s really not that much to address. Mohler says very little. But he says quite forcefully, effectively opening additional doors of critique.
Mohler begins by belittling Dawkins for wasting his time on causes that are personally important to him, for “reducing himself to addressing small gatherings” and a “motley crew of pastors.” This is no way for someone holding “one of the world’s most coveted academic posts” to behave, Mohler says. With the arrogance of snide remarks, Mohler insinuates that an individual’s credibility should be weighed more by lauded seats of honor than by the desire to assist otherwise powerless groups of people. One wonders if such a move by one of Mohler’s devoutly conservative peers would instead be elevated as praiseworthy in its sacrifice.
Rib-cage elbows like these, made both of Dawkins as a TCP co-founder and of other individual project participants, don’t make up Mohler’s actual critique of our organization. It only paints the kind of atmosphere he likes to play within. Mohler makes four critiques. This is my response to them.
- The Clergy Project’s goal isn’t to subvert, embarrass, or weaken anything.
Our goal at TCP is to build up, encourage, and strengthen professional religious leaders around the world who had entered their ministries confident in their supernatural beliefs only to later find themselves unable to continue holding those beliefs. We want to build members up and provide a safe-space for them to reconsider and recreate their lives, surrounded by others who have already been there. As our official mission statement reads:
“The Clergy Project’s mission is to provide support, community, and hope to religious professionals who no longer hold supernatural beliefs.”
Mohler accuses TCP of having much more sinister ambitions, claiming that our goals are to “subvert” the connection between ministry and supernatural belief, “embarrass the church,” and “weaken theism.” Where TCP has created a private online community intended to build up broken sisters and brothers with entirely constructive ambitions, Mohler has distorted these humble strivings with images of cultural upheaval and political warfare. But we are not the cultural warriors. He is. We’re simply trying to care for the wounded along the way.
- The Clergy Project doesn’t use intentionally elusive language to define itself.
The word “god” can mean a lot of different things to different people. And therefore when someone responds affirmatively as to whether or not they believe in “God,” it can be a bit tricky sometimes to know what exactly they’re affirming.
In my personal denials of belief in God, I’ve been heard many different responses, for instance:
“I simply believe that God is Love—are you telling me you don’t believe in love???”
Well, of course I believe in the human emotion described by the word “love.” And if you want to play word-games renaming that emotion “God,” well then I guess I still believe in it.
The word “god” can be used to describe anything from a superhuman member of a divine cluster of cloud-dwelling superheroes, to eternal and all-powerful creator-of-all-things, from an impersonal energy field to the natural universe itself. Or it simply can be the human emotion of love. Of the gazillion different religious traditions and hybrids around the globe and throughout history, there are also a gazillion at-least-slightly-different variations and renditions of “god.” The word is tricky in its flexibility. Without nailing down a definition, it’s hard to say which “god” you do or do not believe in.
Mohler’s second critique seems to center here. At this point in Mohler’s writing, his use of antecedents may be a bit jumbled, but it seems like he’s criticizing TCP for using the term “supernatural beliefs” in defining our community. He appears to think that in defining project participants as “current and former religious professionals who no longer hold supernatural beliefs,” we’re trying to create a space where active ministers are able to keep their pastorates by saying one thing while meaning another.
Is this really lacking clarity? If someone is said to “not hold supernatural beliefs,” is this elusive in its meaning? Maybe it’s a bit wooden, but is it really all that unclear?
So he completely misses the point. Mohler completely misses a lot of points, actually. One is that we’ve tried to be as clear as possible. “Belief in a god, gods, or God” might still be a bit elusive, but isn’t “supernatural beliefs” pretty clear? Maybe you can define “god” or “spiritual” in naturalistic terms and get away with it. But if you maintain beliefs in the existence of supernatural things, then your ideas about God are clearly something bigger than simply redefining it as the human emotion of love or the natural universe.
But in case this isn’t enough, we at TCP have gone to great lengths to specify exactly what we mean by “supernatural beliefs.” On our public website, we explain the qualifications for project participation, explaining it as a rejection of supernaturalism, that is, an embrace of naturalism. We also explain exactly what we mean by naturalism, and what we see to be its further implications. You can access those definitions here.
Again, Mohler’s “article” is more of an emotional overreaction than a carefully researched critique. If it were the latter, he would have taken time to see what we mean by the terminology we’ve selected and to consider why we’ve taken that approach. Mohler would have seen that The Clergy Project is not using intentionally elusive language. In reality, we’ve taken great care to craft the exact opposite.
- The Clergy Project isn’t the “intellectually dishonest” party in this conversation.
Listen. TCP’s goal as an organization is simple, but let’s extend it a little bit to clarify our endgame. TCP provides a community of support and resources to help deconverted religious leaders transition to, whatever those leaders’ next chapter might be. And it’s vital to our mission that we intentionally keep those options open for our participants. People who come to our private online community have often spent their entire lives being instructed as to exactly what they HAVE to think and exactly how they HAVE to spend their lives. The last thing they need is for us to give them a new set of marching orders in how they HAVE to think and HAVE to live.
At The Clergy Project, everyone is fully in charge of how to process and live out the rest of their lives—both those who resign their religious posts immediately and those who decide to push through in closeted disbelief all the way to retirement. They’re in complete control. Our participants have working brains that have already been put to the test. They have beating hearts that clearly know how to put the needs of others before their own, and they have a lifetime of experiences to inform their next steps.We simply provide a community of peers to help empower and encourage people along the way.
This, we believe, is the intellectually honest thing to do. We simply want our members to be empowered and equipped to come to their own conclusions and to live them out effectively and enthusiastically. It would be intellectual dishonest to tell our project participants that we want them to be free while caging them within an alternative set of prepackaged prescriptions.
Yet Mohler charges that we are the “intellectually dishonest” ones.
More specifically, he says,
“Why don’t [post-faith pastors] just resign? Most shockingly, some openly spoke of losing their salaries as the main concern. So much for intellectual honesty.”
Now some may concede that though it may be intellectually honest for TCP to allow its participants to make their own decisions, it nonetheless sounds fishy for religious leaders who no longer believe in the supernatural to continue in a career that pays them to profess it.
So does Mohler have a point? Is it “intellectual dishonesty” for a pastor, imam, rabbi or monk to continue teaching and modeling a belief system that they now reject privately?
This may be the number one criticism received by TCP—from believers and disbelievers alike.
But this is where I’d suggest that while Mohler’s question and accompanying accusation might do a great job rallying crowds of condemnation, he has failed to carefully think through the issues.
As Mohler himself points out in his article, nearly all ministers “struggle” with disbelief, and Mohler has created two different kinds of doubt in order to attempt making sense of this reality. If the Christian minister eventually wrestles his disbelief into submission, then it was a positive kind of doubt—something Mohler calls “faithful doubt”— that makes a religious leader stronger. If however, the minister eventually comes to the conclusion that the disbelief itself was healthy for having shown the subject of his faith to be fiction, then Mohler says, this is the dangerous variety of doubt – something he calls pernicious.
But the point is this: Mohler concedes that it is common, normal, and even healthy for pastors and preachers to have doubts.
Which leads me to wonder how long they are allowed to “struggle” with disbelief before he attacks them with accusations of intellectual dishonesty.
Must I resign after just a few weeks of persistent disbelief? Or may I hold on for six months? Maybe a year? Does it matter if I’m trying really hard to believe even as I know that I don’t? What if the whole reason I stay in ministry is in hope that God will restore the faith that was so long treasured?
But even for those religious leaders who are confident in their disbelief, the issues can be much more complicated.
Whether such religious professionals had previously seen themselves as employed by the likes of Vishnu, Allah, Zeus, Lono, Yahweh, Jesus, or Olorun, once one realizes their god to be fiction, it becomes a very practical life transition. Now if Vishnu or Zeus or Lono were real, there might be a very explicit list of regulations in how such a transition were required to take place. But realizing that these gods are fiction, regulations become obsolete.
Take a god out of one’s vocation and it becomes, well, just another vocation.
Though the transition is filled with all the complexities of life, this particular criticism of Mohler’s centers on the career component. As such, I think that the transition should be handled like any other career transition.
What does a salesperson do after realizing her company requires pushing a product she no longer believes in? What does a project manager at a local charity do once realizing his organization is contributing to a problem rather than alleviating it? How about a communications director who discovers his own convictions shifting from the concept he’s paid to represent?
In each of these scenarios, are people morally obligated to quit the moment a single flash of insight occurs or are should they simply begin the long and arduous task of looking for new employment that more fully represents their current convictions and perspectives? I suspect that every one of us would advise doing the later.
Isn’t this how every other career transition works?
Add to this the fact that many professional religious leaders have children — possibly many children. And would not such religious workers have a strong moral responsibility to make sure their children are provided for prior to quitting their paid vocations?
Though there are certainly exceptions to the rule, the vast majority of pastors, priests, nuns, monks, rabbis, and imams are already firmly established on the lower end of the income scale. Their housing is often provided by their religious organizations. Sometimes, their employers own even necessities like cars. This can make things easier when you’re actively employed, but it also means that you’re less likely to have rainy-day funds set aside and more likely to end up homeless in the event of a sudden loss of employment.
Add to this your family’s need for medical insurance or the desire to keep your kids in the same school district.
Add to this the fact that if you do find yourself suddenly without income, home and car, you’re also likely to find yourself cut off from your entire social network and family. You’re suddenly on your own.
Obviously each situation is different, and not everyone is completely cut off from everyone they’ve ever known. But it does happen. And there are almost always at least a few people you thought would still welcome you who don’t.
I would suggest the deconverted religious worker’s primary obligation—her or his moral responsibility—is first and foremost to assure that their children are well taken care of. Sure, if Zeus were real, priests’ primary concern would be Zeus’s appeasement. But Zeus isn’t real. So now the new first priority is taking care of the kids.
Food. Clothes. Housing. Insurance. A stable environment. A career that properly takes care of them. And if a new career is not readily available, then possibly an investment in education that will create one.
This, in my humble opinion, far outweighs any concerns of telling half-truths or total lies from a pulpit. In my personal situation, I didn’t realize I had become an atheist until I was already out of ministry, but if I was in a situation such as many of my sisters and brothers, I’d willingly tell truckloads of lies if it would protect my children. Zeus be damned.
This is intellectually honest. It’s brutal honesty for an honestly brutal world.
It would be intellectually dishonest, however, to expect people who no longer believe in the power of Mount Olympus to still make decisions that prioritize the glory of Olympus above the welfare of their own families. This is Albert Mohler’s expectation.
I emphasize that The Clergy Project takes no position on how deconverted religious professionals should navigate their life challenges. The organization does not take an official stand advising on this or any other decision. We simply want our people to be surrounded by a community of others who have also plowed through similar terrain, and we want them empowered and encouraged to think it all through for themselves, wherever it takes them.
And I will rise to their defense with every opportunity I have.
- The Clergy Project isn’t the “magnet” Mohler should be concerned about.
Throughout Mohler’s blog post, he gets really hung up on the news stories of two widely known Clergy Project participants who quickly grew as leaders early in the movement. Teresa MacBain served briefly for just a few months as an acting executive director and Jerry DeWitt was briefly an officer-at-large. Mohler spends most of the article throwing every punch he can muster in an epic attempt at character assassination. In reality, the decisions he dissects are largely characterized by the kinds of practical factors detailed above. Life is messy and Mohler loves to pounce on any hint of a mess as he places himself as personal judge and juror in how and when MacBain and DeWitt revealed their public disbelief.
He pulls all of this to the article’s climax, calling The Clergy Project a “magnet for charlatans and cowards”—one that both celebrates and parades “a few trophies of unbelief.”
It’s true that TCP “trophies” have come and gone. And at least one of them has publically returned to self-described belief in the supernatural. But The Clergy Project remains. TCP may not have any big trophies at the moment, but it doesn’t need any. Our first priority at TCP is providing a private online community. And that community remains, quietly closed away from the glaring judgments of those who express misinformed and closed-minded condemnations.
While Mohler calls TCP a “magnet for charlatans and cowards,” some might say hat characterization belongs to religion. If there is a trickster or two hiding someplace in a TCP corner, it’s only because religion had them first. And we don’t discriminate, no matter what reasons people had for entering their religious professions. Whatever their history, we’re here for the post-faith journey. And we’ll discover a better way together.
The Clergy Project: Navigating Reality Together
Mohler might not like that TCP or any of our deconverted religious leaders exist. He might find it frustrating that there are Christian ministers preaching in churches even as they secretly harbor disbelief. He might find the news of such truths embarrassing to his religion.
But the truth is that we’re here whether he likes it or not. Though not all of our project participants come from Christian traditions, most of us do. So the truth is that we once truly believed in his god, and claims of his god’s existence ultimately left us unsatisfied. The truth now is that we’re moving on. Some of us are taking our time, as is our right. And some may continue serving to retirement. This is a matter of choice. And if Mohler’s god is real, then he ought trust his god enough to not get upset about TCP.
Albert Mohler might find our existence embarrassing. But we call it reality. Our eyes have been opened to the evidence, and now we move forward together in the real world. The Clergy Project’s concern is not to take down the church, as Mohler suggests. It’s not to expose anyone’s secrets or make them look pathetic. This happens just fine on its own. Neither does TCP’s concern intersect with Mohler’s opinion, which took five years to respond to. The Clergy Project’s concern is not dictated by the judgments of believers. No — our concern is providing support, community and hope to religious professionals who have come to grips with reality and are moving forward accordingly.
It’s that simple, whether Mohler likes it or not.
* For more information on the rise and development of The Clergy Project, see “The Story of The Clergy Project.”
Drew Bekius is a personal coach and the creator HumanistCoach.com. A former evangelical pastor, he now serves as president of The Clergy Project. The author of Your Next Life Now, Drew’s latest book, The Rise and Fall of Faith: A God-to-Godless Story for Christians and Atheists, uses his personal deconversion story as a means of fostering greater conversation between people of faith and those without. This book was released in July 2017 by Pitchstone Publishing.
>>>>>>Photo Credits: By james.thompson – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16395398 ; By David Shankbone – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11639311