Daniel Dennett’s Strange Idea – and a More Radical One

Daniel Dennett - philosopher and atheist “horseman” – has been deeply involved with the Clergy Project, an effort to provide religious professionals who are experiencing doubts about their faith a safe space to discuss their changing views and a way to transition away from religious life. It’s a great project: for many it is an extraordinary psychological strain to lead a congregation and promote a religion when you no longer believe in the tenets of that religion, and the costs of being honest about your changing beliefs can be exceedingly grave. Some Clergy Project members have lost family and friends when they have finally been open about their beliefs, and most can expect to lose their job.

With this in mind, Dennett recently aired some ideas (later picked up at Patheos) as to what might be done to provide all those current and former clergy who are transitioning out of faith via the Project “a gentle path out of this institutionalized hypocrisy”, and a stable career which makes use of their special talents. He notes that there are many clergy who have particular skills which, when they become nonbelievers, often go to waste, and points out that “there seems to be a continuing and sincere yearning for community, and for moral teamwork, among people who are not now committed to any church”. So, he suggests, why not have ex-clergy present the religious ceremonies of their former tradition as theatre?

Dennett suggests that religious spaces could hold performances, which the public are encouraged to attend, in which now-nonbelieving clergy perform the rites and rituals of their former faith, with the understanding that it is all make-believe. He imagines such spaces performing “carefully researched, respectfully mounted replicas of Latin masses, Quaker meetings, Congregational Easter Sundays, Southern Baptist baptisms, Oxford College evensongs, revivalist prayer meetings, and any and all variations and combinations of these”, all “without the slightest pretense that the celebrants were anything other than professional actors.” on top of that, he suggests, we would “add a program of good works, community service, outreach, and a collection plate, and you’d have gatherings that were all but indistinguishable from “real” church services.”

This idea is, to put it mildly, strange. Indeed, it strikes me as precisely the inverse of what would be a genuinely valuable and sensitive response to the increasing number of clergy transitioning out of faith. While some clergy, and some members of congregations, would doubtless get some joy from being able to perform and attend religious services without the presumption of religious belief, most nonbelievers I encounter while traveling the country talking about Humanism precisely do not want to spend time enacting rituals which, for them, symbolize a way of viewing the world they have left behind. I can only imagine this sense of wanting to move on would be stronger in former clergy, who may be horrified by the idea of, after coming to terms with their non-belief, being offered the “opportunity” to continue to perform empty services for people who do not believe.

So in place of Dennett’s strange idea I offer a more radical one: why not use the collected talent and skills of the former clergy in the Clergy Project to develop new forms of non-religious community which genuinely express their evolving view of the world? Why not harness the years of congregational experience the Clergy Project members represent to create communities for freethinkers which present to the world, in ways just as beautiful and compelling as any religious tradition, nonreligious human values? My experience leads me to believe that what people who “miss” religion really want is not the external form of their former faith (the rites, roles, rituals etc.), but the sense of moral purpose, connectedness, and existential wonder it provided. All these will be absent in the “Church as Theatre” model, but could definitely be present in true Humanist communities.

The path I outline is a much more challenging one: the creativity required to create a new congregational movement is much greater than simply recreating old religious norms. But if we were to take this road, these former clergy could both use their abilities as community leaders and pursue their new-found ethical and existential commitments. That strikes me as a much more exciting option for former clergy than wearing the robes of their former religion, performing empty rituals for money.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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