Voices of unbelievers, in pulpits

On Sunday mornings, you will find him leading hymns in one of the independent Church of Christ congregations somewhere in South Carolina.

Call him “Adam.” He is a church administrator, a “worship minister” and a self-proclaimed “atheist agnostic.” That last detail is a secret. After all, his wife and teen-aged children are devout believers and he needs to stay employed.

“Here’s how I’m handling my job. … I see it as playacting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing,” he said, during an interview for the “Preachers who are not Believers (.pdf)” report from the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

“I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don’t believe what I’m saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that’s what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that’s what I’m doing.”

The researchers behind this report do not claim they can document whether this phenomenon is rare or common. What they have right now is anecdotal material drawn from confidential interviews with five male Protestant ministers — three in liberal denominations and two from flocks that, as a rule, are conservative. An ordained Episcopal Church woman was interviewed, but withdrew just before publication.

The authors of the report are philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, an outspoken leader in the movement many call the “New Atheism,” and Linda LaScola, a clinical social worker with years of qualitative research experience. She is also an atheist, but, until recently, was a regular churchgoer.

“We started with a pilot study because this is very new ground,” said LaScola, who conducted the interviews. “We are planning to do a larger study in the future.”

The key is circulating this early material and then finding more ministers who are willing to be interviewed. The initial participants were found through contacts with the Center For Progressive Christianity and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. As this report candidly states: “Our sample is small and self-selected, and it is not surprising that all of our pastors think that they are the tip of an iceberg, but they are also utterly unable to confirm this belief.”

What unites these ministers is their isolation from the believers in their pews, their awareness that they cannot honestly discuss their doubts and evolving beliefs. They also struggle with labels such as “atheist” or “agnostic,” often insisting that they remain believers of some kind — although they reject Christian doctrines or even theism.

This tension, the authors stressed, is “no accident” in these postmodern times.

“The ambiguity about who is a believer and who a nonbeliever follows inexorably from the pluralism that has been assiduously fostered by many religious leaders for a century and more: God is many different things to different people, and since we can’t know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all,” noted Dennett and LaScola. “This counsel of tolerance creates a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God in so much indeterminacy that if asked whether they believed in God, many people could sincerely say that they don’t know what they are being asked.”

More than anything else, the report offers a striking mix of voices and motives.

“Darryl” the Presbyterian still calls himself a “Jesus Follower,” but adds: “I reject the virgin birth. I reject substitutionary atonement. I reject the divinity of Jesus. I reject heaven and hell in the traditional sense, and I am not alone.”

There’s “Wes” the United Methodist: “I think the word God can be used very expressively in some of my more meditative modes. I’ve thought of God as a kind of poetry that’s written by human beings.”

A retired United Church of Christ pastor, “Rick,” has learned to add this subtle disclaimer when reciting creeds: “Let us remember our forefathers and mothers in the faith who said, ‘dot, dot, dot, dot’.”

“Jack” the Southern Baptist has concluded that the “grand scheme of Christianity, for me, is a bunch of bunk.” Thus, he is quietly planning a new career.

“If somebody said, ‘Here’s $200,000,’ I’d be turning my notice in this week, saying, ‘A month from now is my last Sunday.’ Because then I can pay off everything.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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