Why Study Non-Believing Clergy?

Why Study Non-Believing Clergy? July 5, 2014

Editor’s Note: In this post, I explain what instigated the unlikely, oxymoronic study of non-believing clergy that Dan Dennett and I set off on a few years ago.  The post is derived from the “Linda’s Personal Story” section of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind and is the first of an occasional series about our research. 


Unlike the clergy that I studied, who dedicated their lives to religion, it’s only recently that I became interested in the subject.  For most of my life, I had been a “lazy believer” – picking and choosing my beliefs (heaven made the cut; hell did not), and otherwise not paying much attention.  After a very mild Catholic upbringing, I attended Episcopal churches with my openly agnostic husband.  We happily sang in the choir with others who enjoyed church but didn’t talk much about religion.

It wasn’t until after a trip to Italy in 2005, where I saw Christian history unfold in the many brilliant works of Christian art and architecture, that my interest in religion was piqued and my studies began.

I was fascinated.  There was so much more than what I’d learned in church or catechism classes.  The Bible is long on myth and metaphor and short on facts and history.  Organized religion, like any other power structure, is an exclusively human enterprise.  Religious leaders can claim divine inspiration and guidance, but scholars know that no supernatural assistance is needed to compile a book of ancient stories or build a system of belief.

I was angry.  Why hadn’t I figured this out sooner?  The information was at my fingertips: in the public library, at the bookstore, on the Internet.  But I hadn’t bothered to think about it, and in our society faith is the default position.   Also, I suppose I had been ignoring or discounting information that didn’t fit into my inchoate but comfortable belief system. I had continued to accept the miracles and myths I learned about in childhood and never thought or cared about since.

I was confused as well, and it was the desire to sort out my confusion that ultimately led to this study.  One of the fascinating facts I learned during my personal religious research was that seminary students are taught the same religious and biblical history I had learned on my own. My reaction was to wonder how seminary students could continue their studies after learning that what they were expected to preach was different from what they were discovering in school.  I’d had a long career conducting qualitative research, and now I wanted to research this.

My intense curiosity prompted me to contact Dan Dennett, who had recently written a book and an article that questioned religion.  We soon decided to collaborate on exploratory qualitative research to investigate pastors’ “cognitive dissonance”—how they squared what they had learned with what they were preaching.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that it was easy for someone like me—removed from religion and indifferent to it—to respond logically to what I was learning about religion. For clergy, such introspection was much more difficult and complex.  They had the mindset of faith and the expectation of a lifelong vocation, which had a huge effect on how they processed information. I will address this in more detail in future blog posts.  Stay tuned.


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