How Can Seminary-Educated Pastors Preach the Bible?

How Can Seminary-Educated Pastors Preach the Bible? September 11, 2014

Editor’s Note: Our Atheist ex-pastor answers a question posed by one of our frequent commenters, Maine Skeptic, about the supposed divine origins of the Bible.

 =========================

questionDear Dave:

I’ve been listening and reading works by Bart Ehrman, who is often criticized by professors and authors at Dallas Theological Seminary. While they paint Ehrman as attacking Christianity, it sounds like all he’s really doing is revealing what is actually taught at mainstream seminaries about the inaccuracies and contradictions in the bible.

I realize that a lot of pastors these days have had very little scholarly training, but it blows my mind that a significant number of conservative seminarians are learning about the Bible contradictions and then returning to churches or Bible schools where they teach that those contradictions don’t exist.

What goes on in the mind of a pastor or professor who has every reason to know the Bible is untrue, but who continues to aggressively defend it as divinely written?

Thanks in advance,

Maine Skeptic

=======================

answer

 

Dear Maine Skeptic,

This is a great question.   During my Theological Studies, I remember hearing about liberal theologians with names such as Rudolph Bultmann and his notion of demythologizing the gospels.  I remember hearing about the Gnostic gospels and the notion that the resurrection of Jesus was not corporeal but spiritual.

Two things were going through my head at the time.  First is that since I had come to know Christ as my savior, I believed He rose from the grave and said and did all the things recorded in the gospels even if the stories varied a bit from one gospel to another.   In other words, I didn’t want to hear anything other than what I believed to be true when I entered College.  I was so anxious to get out into the trenches of pastoral work, that I was content to just “get through” the requisite training, earn my degree and start to minister to people.

The other thing going on my head is related to the first.   There was no way I was going to raise the issues of scholarship I was learning in pastoral ministry.   I assumed that the last thing people wanted to hear from the pulpit is that maybe Jesus didn’t rise from the grave on Easter morning.   Or that the nativity story is plagiarized and written to ensure that Jesus was born in the city of David.   I didn’t want to wreck anyone’s Easter or Christmas.

So to answer your question, I was exposed to the findings of Biblical Criticism in training for ministry but I basically ignored them because they didn’t fit my faith convictions and what I thought would be the expectations of people in the pews.  Having read most of Ehrman’s books now, however, I find his work fair and fascinating.

======================

Editor’s questions to our readers:

If you are current or former clergy, how did you (or do you) handle Bible stories in your sermons?

If you are a current or former person-in-the pews, would you have liked to hear about Biblical scholarship during sermons? What kinds of sermons do you like most?

Do you have a question for the Atheist Ex-Pastor?  If so, please contact him at rationaldoubtblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

 

301Bio:  “Dave” is a syndicated religion columnist, broadcaster and former preacher and author of Christian devotional material.

 

Photo Credit Question marks — Image by © Gregor Schuster/zefa/Corbis

 

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  • MNb

    “I didn’t want to wreck anyone’s Easter or Christmas.”
    That’s fair enough. I happen to visit mosque almost once a year at Id-ul-Fitr and of course I don’t expect the imam to address the problems with the Quran either. Quite often though he talks about how muslims can adopt a constructive attitude towards and in a modern society and I like that.

    • David: Atheist Ex-Pastor

      MNb thanks for your comment. It’s one thing to preach a constructive attitude to society, and quite another thing to address problems with what is considered by the listeners/believers to be a divine word.

      • MNb

        Yes, of course. It’s just that I think the first more important than the second.

  • Seminary educated, still involved in church and I lead classes and preach from time to time. Honestly, I’m not in the job to destroy peoples faith (i.e. “wreck anyone’s Easter or Christmas”), what I would like to do is use the stories in the Bible (true or not) to direct people how to live better in community and in the world. Biblical criticism can go a long way in helping people try to understand the reasons certain texts in the Bible were written beyond the standard Sunday School answers. Now, I have read Bart Ehrman and like much of what he says, however it can be difficult to mention Bart Ehrman (or any other controversial theologian/professor/author) from behind a pulpit. I find it easier to pepper ideas in between what most people would agree with to at least get them thinking. At least presenting all or most of the options keeps me honest and lets others make their own decisions. They can agree or disagree with me, which is totally okay, as long as at the end of the day we can still gather around the table for the common goal of loving God and neighbor.

    • John Lombard

      Gregg — quick question, just out of curiosity. You said, “as long as at the end of the day we can still gather around the table for the common goal of loving God and neighbor.” As an atheist, I have no “love of god”; nor do I hate god; I can neither love nor hate something that I am convinced is non-existent. I might as well hate Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny (although, to be fair, Santa DIDN’T bring me that slingshot I asked for when I was 10!).

      So…what about those of us who love our neighbor, but not god?

      • Thanks for the question John. I was directly referring to the “table” in Christian service (i.e. the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper) because that’s where I serve. A belief in the existence God is generally assumed there so it might be hard/weird for an atheist who does not believe in God or seeking God/the divine to be there. Honestly, I don’t know since I’m not an atheist, have you ever been to a Christian service? I would not see assuming a belief in God as necessarily exclusive or exclusionary just important to what it means to be a part of that table. Much like someone would not sit down at a Poker table and try to play Rummy successfully. We could probably talk about Rummy and the finer points of the game, but the purpose of the table is to play Poker. Now, if we’re just talking about serving the community together and loving neighbors, that should be open to any and all who want to join in that endeavor and sit together at that common table.

        • John Lombard

          Greg…okay, it wasn’t terribly obvious that the “around the table” referred to the sacramental table, and not just gathering together in a neutral context.
          By the way, I am an ex-missionary, evangelist, and evangelical Christian, from a Christian family with a preacher for a father…so yes, I have been to quite a few Christian services! 😉

          • Haha, yeah. I realized that after reading of of your other comments here. You probably have a pretty good idea of what a Christian service looks like.

    • Maine_Skeptic

      “…Honestly, I’m not in the job to destroy peoples faith…”

      But if someone’s faith is built upon the belief that the Bible is historically accurate, and that’s not true, and someone knows it’s not true, maybe it should be destroyed.

      Edited to elaborate:

      I don’t mean we’re responsible to destroy each others faith, but if you’re in a position of trust, what exactly are you protecting if you withhold accurate information that they need to grasp the situation truthfully?

      • I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily withholding anything. And, I might agree with you that not everything in the Bible is historically accurate. It really depends on who I’m talking to and what questions they’re interested in asking. When questions come up, I would be as open and honest with the person as far as I know and am able to communicate. For example, if someone asked me if the story of Jonah and the Whale/Big Fish actually happened, I’d probably tell them most likely no…but that the points of the story do not have to rely on whether the story happened or not. The account might be historically inaccurate, you can still believe in the lessons the story is communicating. Ultimately, it’s up to the person to decide if they choose to believe or not.

        • Maine_Skeptic

          “…It really depends on who I’m talking to and what questions they’re interested in asking…”

          It dawns on me that those are the words of a counselor, not a teacher. A counselor can let a client come to the truth in his or her own time, but a teacher imparts knowledge to a student. You’re approaching the Bible as a source of parables, but evangelicals approach the Bible as THE unquestionable source of knowledge.

          If everyone took the Bible as an imperfect human book in which parables of wisdom are buried, it would not be as much of a problem to let people each have their own understanding of what it says.

          • Thanks, it’s honestly quite a compliment to be called a counselor. The problem with many evangelicals is that because they see the Bible as unquestionable, what is really unquestionable is *their* interpretation of the Bible. I try to be more open to the long and troubled history of Biblical interpretation.

          • Maine_Skeptic

            I’m glad you took it as a compliment, because it certainly wasn’t an insult. Good counselors are people with enough knowledge to realize how much they don’t know, so they approach their “clients” with the listening watchfulness of a shared learning experience. In my experience, that’s a rare thing today.

            In this era of the megachurch, pastors are seldom counselors; they’re preachers, whose word is to be swallowed whole as wisdom. Ironically, preachers always seem to be far less educated and informed than counselors.

            I keep tripping over the difference between counselor and preacher. That difference is why some pastors don’t see it as a big deal to let people continue believing something they know is untrue. For them, the inerrancy of the Bible is secondary to work of taking care of people, mentally, physically, and spiritually. And if everyone saw it the same way, there really wouldn’t be as much of a problem.

            By contrast, the “preachers” treat the Bible as the reality into which all claims must fit before they can be facts. Anything that contradicts their understanding of the Bible is a lie. They use the Bible as a bludgeon with which to beat the sheep into line, and it’s therefore an outrage that so many of them have no excuse: they learned in seminary that what they are teaching is a lie.

        • Without Malice

          Uh huh, maybe the story about the big fish didn’t really happen, maybe the story of the flood isn’t really true, maybe the world wasn’t created in six days, may the story of the tower of Babel isn’t true, and on and on. Well, maybe, just maybe, none of it is true and none of it has any real meaning.

          • Well, that’s quite a jump to move from not true (I assume you mean not historically accurate or even happening at all) to not having any real meaning. This is a big problem I have with “inerrancy” preaching evangelicals and modernism in general. They will say that if something did not happen, then it must not be true and have no meaning. However, art, for example, can be completely false, historically inaccurate and deceptive. Yet, we may still believe it has deep meaning. Many people tell stories too, not so much for the sake of accuracy or “truthiness” but to communicate something meaningful. Just because it did not happen (or happen in the way communicated) does not necessarily mean it also as no meaning.

          • Without Malice

            If you want to assign some meaning to stories that were never intended to convey the meanings you are proposing, be my guest. But after reading the bible from front to back at least a dozen times – except for the begets – and reading the NT through at least a hundred times, I found that the more I read the less meaning it had and finally had to see it for what it was, myths, old folk-tails, bad history, and out and out lies.

          • I am curious how you know what meanings I am imposing on the text (since I have not revealed much in the comments) and what meanings were intended? Are we not both making interpretative choices then? How are we to determine who is right? I’ll accept your conclusions (though respectfully disagree) that the Bible may be myths, old folk tales and bad history (by modern standards), but calling them out and out lies seems again to be a bit of a stretch. It is hard to know the mind of the author since neither of us can interrogate them to determine their motives.

          • Without Malice

            Why don’t you tell me what meaning you get out of the nonsense of the virgin birth and I’ll respond.

  • Mike Bennett

    I grew up as the son of a Methodist minister and was aware that, as a simple fact, not all the dates and things add up and therefore the Bible was never intended to literal in the sense of some kind of crossword puzzle. When I became a Born Again Christian I continued to have no problem with this, and in the holidays would sometimes read my father’s copies of Barclay’s commentaries and other scholarly stuff. We lived in a small mining town in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Africa, and our weekly Bible studies had a few of us reading those kinds of commentaries and taking it as a given that the Bible was not meant to be literal in that sense.
    When I went to England as a student and was asked to pledge that I believe the Bible was literally true I brought this up, thinking it was a simple enough point. I was shocked at the answer – our student “leader” said, “well, the Bible is accurate at least as originally written then” as though it had to be 100% literal the day it was written. A poor workaround. I was a Christian for 20 years and even in the supposedly most literate churches in London I never saw anything that approached the level of Biblical literacy of that little study group in that little African town.
    I could only assume that most Christians don’t read or study the Bible at all. Also I think the habit of having readings of half a chapter at a time mean that no-one ever sees the bigger picture (I recommend reading Acts in one sitting, it’s a great read and extremely telling!)

    • Without Malice

      Yes, Acts is a great read, very exciting, like good fiction should be. Of course its story about the conversion of Paul comes straight from the conversion story of Heliodorus in the book of Maccabees but I guess whoever wrote it couldn’t make everything up out of his head so he had to borrow a little from here and there.

  • Matt G

    All it takes is one contradiction for the Bible to not be “literally true”. Well, one Gospel says there is no cause for divorce, and another says there is no cause for divorce except adultery. Which is it? You can’t have both. And if someone picks one over the other, I would want to know why he or she chose that one (just like I’d want to know why he or she chose one of the Genesis creation stories over the other).

  • John Lombard

    There’s another aspect to this that I think hasn’t been addressed. I went to Bible college to train as a missionary, and soon faced the same problems. Questions about the origins of various scriptures, obvious contradictions, etc. At no time did I seek to ignore them. Quite the opposite, I examined them quite seriously and sincerely.

    However, I did not see this initially as an indication that the scriptures were (or could be) wrong; I saw it rather as an indication of my own lack of knowledge and faith. I was certain that as I increased both in intellectual knowledge, and in spiritual faith, that the Holy Spirit would resolve all those apparent dilemmas.

    Ultimately, of course, that never happened. And that process of looking at those problems was, in the end, the first major step towards ultimately rejecting my faith (although by no means was the only reason).

    But there are many, many others who won’t confront those issues as directly as I did. They won’t deny that there are problems…but rather than ascribing their inability to explain those problems to errors in the Bible, they’ll ascribe it to their own lack of understanding, knowledge, faith, wisdom, or whatever.

    And as is the way of such things, there will OCCASIONALLY be something that at first seemed problematic, but they later actually ARE able to find a solution that makes sense, and resolves that problem…which encourages them that all the OTHER problems likewise have a resolution, even if they can’t see it.

    I suspect that quite a few religious leaders out there have that perspective. They aren’t denying the problem; they just feel that the problem is a result of their own ignorance. So why don’t they bring it up to others? It’s a very rare religious leader indeed who will raise questions that could cause doubt in others, when they are unable to provide the answers themselves.

  • Kent Truesdale

    I think it’s important to be honest and acknowledge the ‘pink elephant’ in the room and say that a MAJOR reason we ministers don’t teach the Bible’s inconsistencies and errors is that it would very likely cost us our jobs.

  • David: Atheist Ex-Pastor

    Good call, Kent. If we didn’t lose our jobs right away, the pews would empty quickly as people left to find a ‘bible believing’ church.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Or the people might just leave church period, wondering — if there are so many problems with biblical and religious history and so many religious scholars have known it for so long — and the pastor does too, why are we taught the “sunday school” version in the first place?

      • ctcss

        Since I come from a rather different church than most (we have no ordained clergy and those who conduct the services are elected from the membership, thus all of the members are basically already on-board with the theological content), this kind of question doesn’t come up as often. But if I were going to comment, I would say that the “Sunday School” version might be considered to be a way of laying out a basic framework of what a member is working within. This might be considered to be somewhat similar to the concepts of marriage, or raising children. As a general concept, people think that marriage and children are good things for society and are widely supported. But the “Sunday School” version of marriage (with all of the steadfast vows and loving glances) often gives way to the real world of marriage where “issues” come up that may not be nice or convenient for the parties involved. The same thing happens with child rearing. Whatever it is that one may have thought was involved in marriage and child rearing is going to have to get used to the fact that it isn’t necessarily easy. And the search for answers to those problems is going to be part of what constitutes marriage and child rearing. Hopefully, people will understand this and try to persist in their efforts.

        Well, if people understand that marriage and child rearing are more complex in practice than the dreams they may have had when considering their futures as spouses and parents, why should it be so hard for them to understand that religious endeavors are also complex and involve searching for answers as well? The main characters in the Bible are all mostly trying to figure things out as they go along. But the idea that there is something worth seeking out (God) also seems to be part of their stories. Thus, anyone who is seeking religious answers should realize that the same kinds of conceptual effort put forth by the characters in those stories may also need to be part of their real-world effort as well.

        If Abraham hadn’t bothered leaving his home and started searching for God, maybe his life would have been simpler. But the likelihood is that we would not have heard about him either. (Stories about people who simply do vanilla things don’t get told or written very often.) And if Jacob had been a bit more circumspect in his younger life, and simply played “nice” with others, we wouldn’t have ever heard about his own travails struggling with his own faults and shortcomings. We also wouldn’t have heard about how he changed from Jacob to Israel. Ditto for the apostles. Who would care about fisherman who did nothing more than fish for a living everyday? But put them on an unfamiliar, but beckoning journey, and then we have the opportunity to see them develop into something more than what they began as.

        What I personally find interesting about the Bible narratives is that the people involved usually didn’t have anywhere near as much to go on as we do. The characters in the OT didn’t have the OT to study. They actually were involved (so to speak) in the forming of the OT. The same for the characters in the NT. What we have in the Bible is the result of people in the past seeking something more than what they had. Ideally, we should be benefitting from their efforts (or the efforts of those who told their stories.) We, like they, should also be forming worthwhile narratives out of our own lives and explorations.

        I have no problems with Bible in whatever form we currently find it in. I simply want to go on the same sort of journey the Bible characters did (as well as previous generations of church members did). Like Abraham, I am interested in looking for a city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.

        Because the journey is what it is all about. And journeys require effort. They also require an expectation of progress, as well as eventually arriving. And of course they involve (and invite) questions, some that may stay outstanding for many years. This should not be a surprise to anyone. And once again, this should not stop someone from desiring to take the journey.

        So I don’t really see a problem for pastors who know about the messiness and complexity of the Bible. The Bible is about people trying to make their way forward. Of course it’s messy and complex! So why shy away from inviting the congregation to begin making their own messy and complex journeys just like the Bible characters did? The only real need is to want to help one another on our respective journeys, as well as encouraging (as well as personally cherishing) the desire to grow. So, conceptually speaking, why should this be a showstopper?

        Just my thoughts.

        • Maine_Skeptic

          “…So I don’t really see a problem for pastors who know about the messiness and complexity of the Bible. The Bible is about people trying to make their way forward…”

          So which character was just trying to move forward when Jehovah ordered murder, rape, genocide and other atrocities?

          I don’t see as much of a problem if the church doesn’t profess to believe the Bible is historically reliable or that it’s a literal expression of the mind of Jehovah. Unfortunately, a lot of these seminary students are at churches that are using the Bible as justification for their own misogyny, homophobia, and bloodlust.

          • ctcss

            So which character was just trying to move forward when Jehovah ordered murder, rape, genocide and other atrocities?

            Any and all that were present, assuming that any at the time were interested in doing so. (Moving forward is, obviously, very much dependent on the individual’s moment-by-moment willingness to grow, rather than just staying where they are. But it can, and does, happen anywhere and anytime.)

            And just to put that in context, what characters were trying to go forward when James and John decided that destroying a village of seemingly inhospitable Samaritans was in harmony with the view of God that Jesus had been trying to teach them about? (And note, they apparently got the idea from the Bible, citing the actions of a highly revered holy person, so it had to have God’s blessing, right?)

            Do you see where I am going here?

            People tend to hear themselves a whole lot more clearly than they hear God clearly. Jesus knew what Bible story that James and John were referring to. Did he think that the action being proposed by them was in keeping with God’s nature? Apparently not.

            (But it was in the Bible! It has to be OK!)

            And David and Bathsheba’s little escapade was also in the Bible. The point being, going forward requires thought and willingness to change on the individual’s part. It really is impossible to go forward without thinking. It cannot be done blindly. And it obviously cannot be done with a bad or indifferent motive.

            So, the question is, should James and John have known better? Considering who they were hanging out with, yes, they should have. Should David have know better? Considering some of the wonderful concepts he wrote about God, as well as the experiences he had where he was guided and protected by God (and thus could be considered to be hanging out with God), yes, he should have.

            Were James and John a little full of themselves, to the point where they might not be hearing God as clearly as they might, because their heads were probably echoing with their own self importance? Well, considering they wanted to be granted the exalted position of sitting at Jesus’ left and right in God’s kingdom, and that they had apparently attracted Jesus’ attention enough by their bellicose natures to be termed by him “The Sons of Thunder”, yes, very likely.

            Was David (although taken from his humble beginning as a shepherd and being the youngest and thus the least important son of his father, but now a king with anything he desired within his reach, and fawned over by his retinue) not likely to have been hearing God as clearly as he might, because his head was probably echoing with his own self importance? Well, considering that he he had lots of time to rethink his lust for Bathsheba (but didn’t), and could have rethought his horrific and escalating betrayal of one of his most loyal servants (but didn’t), and had over a year’s worth of religious services, ceremonies, and holy days reminding him of God’s requirements for integrity in his behavior and the need to repent (and didn’t), hell yes!

            So, were James and John, as well as David (and countless others) trying to go forward? Yes, they were. They made many mistakes (some horrific), but they almost always ended up repenting (which means to rethink, reconsider) when the penny finally dropped (i.e. they were finally willing to hear and obey God’s direction), and decided to change course for the better.

            That’s one of the reasons I personally like the Bible. The characters in it are usually flawed in one way or the other. But whatever flaws they may seem to have are not considered to be the final judgment on their worthiness to have the opportunity to go forward. They screw up. I screw up. But none of us are lost causes.

            And so we move forward, no matter how intermittently or how slowly. Because, eventually (like the prodigal son) we come to ourselves and realize that there has to be a better path than the brick-wall one we seem to currently be on. And God (at least the concept of God I was raised with) is there, patiently and lovingly waiting to guide us, so we can continue our journey in the correct direction.

            Yes, you might say, but what about when God seems to be telling people to do horrible things? How does that fit in with a person moving forward?

            And therein lies the rub, because what a character “seems” to hear from God is very much different than what God might actually be saying. Which is why I was bringing out the question of hearing (understanding) God correctly. And understanding God correctly is rather important to person’s success in moving forward, as you might well expect.

            But if the Bible states something, doesn’t that settle the question? No, not really. That’s why I brought up the James and John incident. They were alluding to a very clearly stated passage in the Bible as justification for their proposed action. Jesus flat out disagreed with their notion of what God would desire to do, specifically questioning their understanding of God’s nature. Which then brings up the question as to whether the action taken by Elijah was actually the correct one for Elijah to have taken. (i.e. did he understand God’s nature as well as he might have, and then act according to it?)

            The Bible tends to state everything in a warts-and-all manner, so mistakes are recorded, right along with correct actions. It’s often left up to the reader to ponder what is going on. Which is, once again, why it’s not a great idea to read the Bible in a woodenly literal way. And it’s also IMO, not a good idea to try to read the Bible without the help of God. Because the whole point of studying the Bible is not so much to focus on and understand the book, it’s to focus on and understand God.

            Quite frankly, there is a lot that can be said about this question. I was even going to ask Linda if I could post a guest Vacation Bible school item that I wrote last year about Jonah that touches on this very question. Sadly, the summer was over before I thought to ask.

            I don’t see as much of a problem if the church doesn’ t profess to believe the Bible is historically reliable or that it’s a literal expression of the mind of Jehovah.

            Mindless literalism isn’t usually a very helpful way to study the Bible. The characters in the stories obviously needed to be thinking in order to change their paths for the better. So why should it be thought unacceptable for us to have to do the same here and now?

            Unfortunately, a lot of these seminary students are at churches that are using the Bible as justification for their own misogyny, homophobia, and bloodlust.

            Which is obviously a reason to choose one’s pathway carefully, as well as the companions one chooses to travel with. And why, if these students are noticing the existence of these less than admirable practices where they are, are they going there in the first place, or staying there once they realize what is going on? If they are doing it to help correct a problem, then that’s wonderful. But if not, then why not choose a better home?

            Sorry for the long response, but very often the simplest questions are actually focusing on rather complex issues.

          • Lennie

            Great answers!

          • Maine_Skeptic

            “…The Bible tends to state everything in a warts-and-all manner, so
            mistakes are recorded, right along with correct actions. It’s often
            left up to the reader to ponder what is going on…”

            Believe me when I tell you that I wish more people held your view of the Bible, even though I disagree with you.

            I actually love the Bible, not because I think it holds any wisdom, but because it’s like reading the diary of a child growing up. And, of course, our culture is infused with stories and turns of phrase that have Biblical origins, which adds to the interest.

            Mindless literalism aside, though, I don’t think we can ignore what the intent of the writers of the Bible seems to have been. They didn’t write it as a nuanced work of literature in which readers could take away different facets of the truth; they wanted it to be treated as a record of history and a reflection of the mind of Jehovah being acted out in reality.

            One moral of many old testament stories seems to be that people who didn’t obey the priests and prophets paid a heavy price. Granted, they called their edicts prophecies or divine commands, but the effect was that they were protecting their own authority. For that reason, any wisdom in those stories is accidental.

        • Kent Truesdale

          They may be “just your thoughts” ctcss, but they are wise and generous indeed!

      • Maine_Skeptic

        Why would that be a bad thing?

        • Linda_LaScola

          leaving church? I don’t think it is a bad thing.

          • David: Atheist Ex-Pastor

            Not from an atheist’s perspective, but when you’re a pastor dependent for many reasons on good ‘numbers’, it’s not good news to see empty pews. You do what you can to keep them.

          • Linda_LaScola

            I have often thought of the counselor vs teacher role of
            clergy, knowing that they are often called to serve in one role or the other, and being very familiar with the counselor role myself.

            When I was a clinical social worker, my role was to use my
            training and experience to help people grow. The tools of the trade were based on empirical knowledge and we, along with other health professionals, were required by law to engage in regular continuing education to learn to about the
            latest techniques and scientific research.

            It seems to me that the counselor role for clergy is more to
            comfort people in times of emotional pain and, regarding to religious teaching, to keep them within the faith.

            Even if parishioners’ concerns are based on imperial knowledge that the pastor is aware of, pastors generally do not facilitate growth that might take people away from the faith.

            Of course, there are exceptions to this behavior, some of
            which I have seen in the participants in the Dennett-LaScola study. They are clergy who focus on social justice
            instead of supernatural beliefs and who are as straightforward about religious teachings as they think they can be without jeopardizing their positions.

          • Kent Truesdale

            Linda, color me one of those social justice pastors who tries to be as ‘subversive’ as he can get away with in the pulpit and still knock out the rent!

          • Maine_Skeptic

            “Even if parishioners’ concerns are based on imperial knowledge that the pastor is aware of, pastors generally do not facilitate growth that might take people away from the faith.”

            Do you have a sense of why that is? And is the motivation the same for the pastors who lean toward the counseling role as it is for evangelical pastors, who seem forced by their own culture to lean heavily to the teaching/ preaching role?

          • Linda_LaScola

            I think Dave said it — the point is to keep people in the church, not encourage people to leave it.

            That’s the easy answer, but I don’t mean to imply that pastors consciously or maliciously impede people’s growth. From what I’ve seen, pastors are good people who want to comfort and help others, in the context of religious faith.

          • Without Malice

            “Without jeopardizing their positions” being the key phrase.

          • Kent Truesdale

            Yes, we pastors need to keep knocking out the rent too! 😉

  • Maine_Skeptic

    “…but I basically ignored them because they didn’t fit my faith
    convictions and what I thought would be the expectations of people in
    the pews…”

    I don’t really know how else you could have answered my question, but I don’t think I’m any closer to grasping the frame of mind required. It’s not that I don’t understand ignoring the unpleasant truth; I myself am quite accomplished in the field of denial. I was an evangelical Christian for ten years and a charismatic for about five. My entire life and identity were framed around Christianity and the Bible, and I do know what it’s like to feel that pressure to put faith above facts. This is one of the reasons I’m sympathetic with pastors who’ve realized their religion’s claims are not factually true.

    When I started studying the gospels next to each other years ago, it was the beginning of the end of my Christianity. I assumed the Bible’s flaws were something the preachers I’d known had just never realized, through a denial that was only possible because the church culture encouraged it.

    Even so, I’ve never understood how anyone who studied the Bible their whole life
    could believe it was inerrant. That was BEFORE I learned that many
    seminaries actually point out the contradictions their students later
    deny existed. It changes something to learn that.

    Am I just in denial about the human capacity for denial? At what point is someone responsible for a lie even though they never let themselves consciously believe it was a lie?

    • David: Atheist Ex-Pastor

      I’m not sure I’m any closer either Maine Skeptic. That’s why your question was so helpful for me to try and get into the head of that young theology student. And there are days, I must admit, when I have a hard time going back into the head of that ardent, evangelistic pastor trying to get everyone to join me in heaven.

      • Maine_Skeptic

        David, I appreciate your answering so candidly. It’s generous of you to take the time; I hope you get some enjoyment from it as well. I’m going to hazard another question (or three), but feel free to tell me the conversation is over when you’re tired of it or need to move on.

        Chris Highland echoed some of your article when he said he viewed theology as a distraction that kept people from “doing the work that needs to be done.” You said that you wanted to “get through the requisites” to get out in the field and start ministering.

        Can you say what you saw yourself doing as a minister when you were still a student? What was it that drew you to that? Why were you so sure it was going to be a good experience for you?

        • David: Atheist Ex-Pastor

          I wanted to preach. I wanted to preside at the Sacraments. I wanted to be present at the rites of passage (i.e. marriage and death). I wanted to help people become disciples and experience a closer walk with God. Just random recollections mind you. I knew it was going to be a good experience because I knew in my gut that this was the vocation to which I had been called and gifted. Thanks for asking . This exercise has taken me back to who I was then compared to who I am now.

  • In the bible battles from seminary onward it was always clear to me that Theology is, as it has always been, the Great Distraction. Distracting people from “doing the work that needs to be done” in the church and outside. We had some good liberal biblical professors and great “liberation theology” profs who left us holding the bible bag with little in it but irrelevance. I think ALL of us–students and profs–knew the liberating compassion-justice message of the “good news” would never preach well in the pew-comfort of most congregations. This is exactly why some of us chose to go out where Theology meant almost nothing. . .the real world. . .to practice ministries among people who were unwelcome in most churches—a bit like us (heretics whose bibles were on dusty shelves).

    • Maine_Skeptic

      “…the “good news” would never preach well in the pew-comfort of most congregations. This is exactly why some of us chose to go out where Theology meant almost nothing…”

      The big problem is that what you see as a distraction is what the dominant voices in Christianity sees as the purpose of Christianity. Also on patheos, Warren Throckmorton has been following the trouble at Mars Hill Church. Defenders of Mark Driscoll’s screwed up behavior keep challenging others to point out where his teaching has been unscriptural. To them, it doesn’t matter what he does, as long as what he teaches can be squared with their understanding of the Bible.

      • Exactly. The great distraction has become the centerpiece. Jesus–the icon (along with his “spokespersons” and reps). All about worshipping one image (screw the commandments I guess?). Here’s the crux: most of the “followers of Jesus” don’t get involved in justice/compassion work. How can that be? Ahhh, they’re distracted by something. . . doing church, believing correctly, studying their bibles and. . .debating theology for fun! Never been a very fun game for me, while people are in need.

        • Without Malice

          Come on Chris, debating theology with Christians is always fun, like shooting fish in a barrel is fun.

    • ctcss

      In the bible battles from seminary onward it was always clear to me that
      Theology is, as it has always been, the Great Distraction.

      It’s interesting how views about such things vary. In my church, theology (i.e. the concepts regarding God we use and rely on) are absolutely vital to what we do. We don’t consider it to be a distraction at all. Are you talking about competing theologies being presented in seminary classes, thus the possibility of arguments over them (i.e. the Great Distraction?)

      • You miss my point here. Theology is wildly loved and debated by countless folk (in seminaries, churches, ad nauseum). Everyone LOVES God-Talk. . .and talk and talk. But “absolutely vital”? Hmm. Your opinions about God drive all you do? If so, why is it people of so many faiths and no faiths end up doing the same things (feeding and housing people, health care, etc)? Maybe it’s about being good and ethical people, NOT opinions about a god. “Concepts” of God accomplish nothing. Choosing to act and get things done that need doing in the community–now there’s something. That’s why I say, Theology (with its endless faith incarnations) remains the greatest distraction and thereby, I would add, is probably the most dangerous “concept” in our world today.

        • ctcss

          We may be having a semantic issue here. I think people and organizations are all capable of doing good for others. It should be obvious that one doesn’t need a theology in order to do humanly good actions. And simply because one has a theology doesn’t mean that one spends all of their time talking about the theology in place of doing actual helpful things.

          That said, theology isn’t meaningless any more than one’s philosophical standpoint is meaningless. One cannot be a vegetarian and still eat meat. The philosophical stance of wanting to be a vegetarian most definitely has an impact on how one conducts one’s life. If that stance is removed, a lot will change. It’s not simply about what cookbook one uses. It’s a whole approach to life.

          Likewise, one’s theological stance also has an impact on one’s life. The concepts relating to wanting to follow the Christ are not simply about being nice in some generically interchangeable way. (Jesus pointed out that even publicans and sinners were nice to one another. He obviously didn’t think they needed a theology (or even to follow him) in order to do that!)

          But Jesus did demand a number of things from his followers and set a bar for them that is not easy to clear. In fact, more than a few people consider Jesus’ demands to be completely impractical, foolish, or dangerous. But Jesus didn’t expect his followers to be able to achieve them without God’s help. That’s why I said the theology is absolutely vital. Relying on God is very much at the center of it. If one throws away the theology, then one throws away God and is left with requirements that are impractical, foolish, or dangerous. Which likely means that one abandons those demands. But it makes little sense to call one’s self a Christian and at the same time not to at least want to try to follow the demands he made.

          So, does that mean I am clearing the bar? Heck, I’m not not sure I even qualify to hand out towels, much less run and jump in that league! But I do want to make sure I am heading in that direction so I can eventually get there if I keep trying. And since I very much want to follow the Christ, and following the Christ means accepting and working with the concepts of God he taught, then the theology is vital.

          If that sounds wacky, so be it. But since the whole God thing sounds wacky to many, this is obviously one of those areas where people need to agree to disagree, and thus remain on friendly terms with one another.

          • Without Malice

            Why do you and those like you keep pretending that Jesus was some great ethical or moral teacher when any reading of the gospels shows that he was not; that many of his teachings are in fact not moral or ethical at all and fall behind the teachings of many pagan philosophers and even of other rabbis of those years. One would do better following the teachings of Marcus Aurelius than the teachings of a man who said you should cut off your hand or pluck out your eye it they caused you to sin, or who cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit, as if the tree did it to spite him.

          • ctcss

            …than the teachings of a man who said you should cut off your hand or pluck out your eye it they caused you to sin…

            Hmmm, let me guess, a former literalist? Look, you may not have enjoyed your stay in Christianity, but that doesn’t mean that others have to have had the same experiences as you, nor to have come to the same conclusion as you.

            To each their own.

          • Without Malice

            So what you’re telling me is that, contrary to Jesus teachings, it is not better to cut off your hand or pluck out your eyes than to enter into hell with a whole body. I think the message is pretty clear, and the message is that Jesus was a fanatic who thought that looking lustfully on a woman was just as bad as committing adultery and that he believed in a vengeful, spiteful God who actually consigned people to hell where they would obviously be tortured brutally or else it would not be better to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye than go into that terrible place that could only have been designed by some sociopathic maniac. The trouble with folks like you, ctcss, is that your ego is so big that you think you have the inside scoop on what the bible means and that it doesn’t really mean what it plainly says. Do you also take the stories of the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection as metaphor (which you should), or are all the things that back up what you believe plainly stated while everything that makes Jesus sound like a nutcase clearly means something else that you have to fill us in on.

          • ctcss

            … I think the message is pretty clear …

            I’m glad you do. I’m also glad you have found a new home away from your former Christian path, and that it makes you happy. But I, too, am happy in my current, very non-mainstream Christian path. Do I think I have all of the answers to life, the universe, and everything? Of course not. But what I do have I am interested in exploring further and, up to this point, I don’t see a reason for leaving it. So unless you’ve got something really earthshaking to tell me (and so far you appear to be just stating things I have seen many times before and do not find compelling), I guess we are done here.

          • Without Malice

            Very non-mainstream? Is that the same as heretical? Just wondering? I’d be interested in knowing just what it is you believe, besides just believing to not take some things in the bible at face value while you do take others at face value.

          • ctcss

            Heretical? Really? That’s the direction you intend to go in? Have we dropped through a temporal wormhole into the middle ages? And since when do non-believers start policing believers’ theological concepts regarding God?

            Christianity covers a whole spectrum of belief. There is no such thing as a binary choice any more, and that’s fine with me since I am not here to judge other people’s beliefs (or non-beliefs) about God. Mine is simply not in the mainstream of that spectrum.

            But if you must know, I am not evangelical, I was never taught to regard Jesus as God, I was never taught to believe in the Trinity, I was never taught to believe in a personal God, I was never taught to believe in original sin, I was never taught to believe in hell or the devil or eternal damnation. I was never baptized (we don’t do that) nor do we do anything with bread and wine. In fact, we really don’t do ritual.

            I do believe in one God, I regard Jesus as the promised messiah, and believe that he was born of a virgin, was crucified, physically resurrected, and ascended. I also regard his healing works as factual.

            So make of that mix what you will. But trying to make me believe that I am wrong in my desire to pursue the path I am on is not likely to buy you anything. I have had decades to think over what I am doing and it is not something I am doing blindly, nor do I take its responsibilities lightly.

          • Without Malice

            Sorry if I hurt your feelings by calling you a heretic, I was just going by 2,000 years of Christian history; but how was I to know you weren’t really a Christian. I mean, you can call yourself a Christian all you want but you admit that you disregard 2,000 years of church teachings and the direct command of Jesus to be baptized and to partake of the sacred meal, as well as disregarding his teachings on hell while retaining the idiotic notion of the virgin birth, which is something he never said a word about, then to most folks your not a real Christian. And you do realize that if Jesus had been born of a virgin and received all his humanity from his mother (maybe that’s another Christian teaching that you disregard), that he would have been a SHE instead of a HE, since no woman carries the Y chromosome needed to produce a male. And, no disrespect meant, but if you’ve taken decades to come to the conclusion that most of Christian history has been a waste of time because the church was doing everything wrong for all those years and that your little congregation now has a lock on the truth, well . . . maybe you should think a little harder.

          • Linda_LaScola

            then to most folks you’re not a real Christian

            Actually, there are lot of disparate views out there about what is needed to be Christian.

          • Without Malice

            Yes there are, Linda, but for the vast majority of Christians belief in baptism and the sacred meal is pretty much essential. Not that it makes any difference to me, I’m an atheist. It’s just rather a pet peeve of mine that when I criticize the bible I invariable get replies from some Christians saying they’re not bible literalist so I don’t really know what I’m talking about. The fact is they’re all bible literalist, as far as I can tell, it’s just that they take different parts more literally than others – thus the 30,000 plus different Christian denominations. ctcss is obviously a literalist when it comes to his particular understanding of scripture and I’m pretty sure nothing I can say will sway him one way or the other on his particular beliefs. But being a literalist is only one of the problems. Catholics are not literalist when it comes to the bible but they are when it comes to the pronouncements of hierarchy regarding teachings. So they’ve just replaced one form of literalism with another, and this holds for every other denomination I know of as well, such as the Mormon who only believe the scriptures as far as they are “interpreted” correctly by the men in charge.

          • ctcss

            ctcss is obviously a literalist when it comes to his particular understanding of scripture

            You don’t seem to understand where I am coming from if you think I am a literalist. I am simply trying to grow in my understanding of God. That means that various Bible passages may have varying meanings for me as I study and try to grow. The point of studying the Bible is far more about trying to understand God than it is about assigning particular meanings to any set of sentences.

            You appear to be sensitive to the label “literalist” and seem to want to not be tarred with it. But when you offer up phrases like “the teachings of a man who said you should cut off your hand or pluck out your eye it they caused you to sin” you don’t seem to even allow for the idea that Jesus might be using hyperbole to get his point across. Instead, you seem to assume he truly wanted people to mutilate themselves. And you might have a point if there were lots of records of Christian followers mutilating themselves in that way. But I am not aware of such practices occurring. Which very likely means that his audience (and the ones who heard this figure of speech from others) understood what he was getting at and didn’t decide to harm themselves in order to avoid going to hell.

            And quite frankly, I don’t know what I will get out of any particular passage in the Bible at any given moment. Sometimes I am very surprised by the things that come to me. And the surprise comes from grasping something deeper about God’s nature that I hadn’t considered before. For instance, I was struggling with an illness at one time and was trying to reach out in prayer (trying to commune with God) when I received the most unexpected Bible verse in response for my desire to be comforted. Was it something from Psalms or Isaiah, or perhaps something comforting from the gospels or the NT letters? Nope. It was “For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God …”.

            What in Sam Hill …?

            But almost immediately I got what it meant regarding my need for comfort. Now, had I read that particular verse before? Of course I had! Anyone who has read the 10 commandments has read it, and the likely response was from whoever read it was probably not a warm fuzzy feeling of comfort and reassurance from God. And that’s my point. I needed something right then and there and God provided that something. And it was amazingly comforting and reassuring to me. So how was that me being a literalist about that passage?

            That’s the point, you see. It’s about gaining inspiration from what is written in the Bible to better grasp what God and God’s kingdom is all about. An inspired thought regarding a Bible verse is far different than simply trying to read the literal meaning of the words in that verse. That’s why I’ve said before that I regard the Bible as pointing me to God, rather than the Bible being God. I worship God. I don’t worship the Bible.

            And in like manner, I never said that my group doesn’t have any thoughts concerning baptism or the Eucharist. What I said was

            I was never baptized (we don’t do that) nor do we do anything with bread and wine. In fact, we really don’t do ritual.

            We regard baptism as a purification from all error. In other words, it’s not a ceremony that we perform, it’s a process that we engage in, putting of the old man, bit by bit, until he is no longer there in our thought. And it takes just as long as it takes. And we regard our Eucharist as spiritual communion with the one God. We don’t “take communion” using bread and wine. We engage in the process of communing with God, seeking God’s Truth, taking up the cross in our daily lives, and seeking the inspiration of Love. Once again, it’s an ongoing process.

            We don’t have clergy or a hierarchy in our church organization dictating things to us. We don’t do ritual. We don’t do ceremonies. We don’t repeat words, expecting the words to do something for us that can only really be accomplished by the ongoing transformation of one’s character.

            Literalism is not what we’re about.

          • Without Malice

            Sorry ctcss, but you are a literalist, and like every other literalist I have ever encountered you pick and choose which bible passages you want to take literally. You take what you like and discard the rest, in other words, you have made God over in your own image and then you fall down and worship him. And really, you try to answer the impossibility of a child being born to a virgin being a man instead of a clone of the mother with the old “anything is possible with God” BS? Come on ctcss, tell me how someone born of a virgin can be anything but a female. If you say that God supplied the missing Y chromosome then it cannot be said that Jesus got all his humanity from his mother. So Christian teachings is either wrong about him being born of a virgin or wrong about him getting all his humanity from his mother. But I really don’t expect you, who has spent decades thinking about these things, to come up with any logical answer, since you’re too busy communing with God to really think.

          • ctcss

            Dang it, Linda, stop being so understanding! How can I despise you in an unthinking manner if you persist in trying to be nice! 😉

          • ctcss

            Sorry if I hurt your feelings by calling you a heretic

            No worries about my being hurt by the remark. I certainly don’t consider myself to be a heretic, nor am I dismayed by the reference. I was just surprised that you chose such an antique, yet sledgehammer term. It isn’t something used or heard very often these days, thus my reference to the middle ages.

            But do you have any idea how weird it is to have someone say “Hi, I used to be a Christian, but I reject all of that now and consider it all to be meaningless and erroneous, but BTW, you’re doing it all wrong?

            If Christianity is meaningless and erroneous, then any way someone is doing it is wrong, correct? I mean, are you really going to tell me how it important it is that I do something erroneous “in the right way”? Does that really make any sense? Also, you seem to be engaging in the logical fallacy of Appeal to Popularity. Since most of Christianity follows it in a particular way, that way must be the correct one, thus me and mine are obviously incorrect. Also, I think you’re engaging in the No True Scotsman fallacy as well. “You can’t be a True Christian because a True Christian would never do X”.

            You might want to visit http://www.religioustolerance.org, a site that tries to describe all religions or belief-related systems (atheism included) in a fair and balanced way. This is what they have to say about Christianity.

            We use the following definition:

            “We accept as Christian any individual or group who devoutly, sincerely, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. That is, they honestly believe that they follow Yeshua of Nazareth’s (a.k.a. Jesus Christ’s) teachings as they interpret them to be.”

            This generates a lot of angry Emails from some visitors to this site who are insistent on excluding the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS or Mormons), and/or some other denominations as sub- Christian, quasi-Christian, non-Christian, or anti-Christian.

            I very much appreciate their refreshing attitude towards minority (as well as majority) views, and you should as well, considering that atheism isn’t exactly the top choice of most people.

            And I never said I regard any other Christians as wasting their time, just as I would never say any Jew, Hindu, Muslim, atheist, etc. is wasting their time. Every one has the right to choose and pursue their own pathway in life. I obviously prefer mine, and I think it is the correct one, but I could also be entirely wrong. However, I’m OK with taking the responsibility for my choice, just as I assume you are OK with taking the responsibility for your current choice of pathway. And since my religious teachings have universal salvation as part of it, no matter who is correct (or even if all are incorrect, including my group), it’s still OK.

            And the bit about Jesus needing to be female, c’mon! Do you seriously think I haven’t considered that? Honestly, if (conceptually speaking) a man whose hereditary blindness can be “corrected” so that he can now see, a man with a withered hand can have it instantly restored to full functionality, and if 5 loaves and a few fishes can feed 5000 people, do you think the need to provide a single Y chromosome is going to be a showstopper?

            Really?

            Look, this discussion doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere, so I am really thinking about bowing out of it. But you might want to consider that, although you’ve abandoned Christianity, you still seem to be clinging to evangelism. Why not just take a “live and let live” approach? Do you really feel the need to fix everyone you meet? (That’s a rhetorical question. You don’t need to answer it.)

            Take care.

      • Without Malice

        Jesus ctcss, you keep say “my church” like it’s this wonderful organization but you won’t tell us the name of that church so we can all go running to it for enlightenment. What gives? Help us lost souls out. Tell us what church you belong to.

    • Without Malice

      The shortest book ever written: Great Discoveries in Theology.

  • I can totally relate to the experiences shared by both Maine Skeptic and Atheist ex-pastor. I was raised an evangelical and taught Christian theology at a US seminary for many years. One of the major factors that helped me recognize my own self-denial was studying cognitive science and the way in which evolved cognitive defaults shape our perceptions, attitudes and thoughts in ways that are hidden to us. Some of the most powerful biases are those that automatically make us tend to agree with the people around us, ignore material that might contradict our beliefs, and send costly signals to those around us that we agree with them (however strange the belief might be). All of this is “natural” in the sense that it is part of our evolutionary heritage. Recognizing and challenging these biases is incredibly difficult, especially if they are constantly being reinforced by those around us, and if our livelihoods depend on them not being challenged!

    • Maine_Skeptic

      Amen– er– Yes, I agree! Your last two sentences essentially describe my view of humanity at this point in history. I started studying skeptical writing after I realized my mistakes were following a pattern. It seemed like there was a destructive “fraternal instinct” that caused people– Christian and otherwise– to value being part of the group more than keeping their facts straight. When I later started reading more about cognitive science, it helped make sense of what otherwise would just be insanity.

      • Yes, I remember in the last few years of teaching at seminary I would begin to say to students: “do you want to believe what is true, or do you want what you believe to be true?” Most, or at least many, would say “definitely the first.” But, when it came down to the details in later discussions, that usually ended up meaning “definitely the first…. as long as it does not challenge my assumption that what I believe is true… so… definitely the second” ! 😀 Cognitive science, along with evolutionary moral psychology, etc., really helped me understand this too, and become more patient – or at least less easily aggravated – over the years.

        • Without Malice

          So true. I don’t know how many Christians have told me that they thought a lot of the stories in the old testament were mainly metaphor (the six day creation, the flood, etc.), but when it came to the new testament then by golly Jesus really was born of a virgin, he really did all those miracles, he really did rise from the dead. It’s hard for people to let go of their treasured beliefs. I know, because it was hard for me, but I’m a lot more at peace now than I ever was as a believer.

    • David: Atheist Ex-Pastor

      Great assessment from cognitive science LeRon. I’ve done some research on the “Believing Brain” (Michael Shermer et al) but your application really helped me understand why i just ‘ignored’ what I was hearing in seminary.

      • Yes, The Believing Brain is a great book – very clear and helpful. I was also helped by research in “ritual studies” that demonstrates how, for example, people’s tendency to believe that there are invisible agents watching them is ratched up when they participate in synchronous movement in rituals, which also activates emotional contagion and anxiety about in-group cohesion, etc., etc. As science gives us more insights on these evolved dynamics, it becomes easier and easier to understand why it is so easy for most people to become (and stay) “religious.”

    • Maine_Skeptic

      Reading through your comment again, I had a question. Are you saying that it was reading about cognitive science that allowed you to face your doubts about Christianity?

      I’ve had a lot of discussions with cynics who tell me with confidence that human nature is never going to change, so the problems we have now with bigotry and tribalism are never going away. I tend to think that if more people fully understood the cognitive blind spots we’ve inherited, we’d subject our own reasoning to more fact-checking and criticism. I think that’s the best hope we have for surviving as a species beyond the next two or three generations. I’m curious about whether your experience is an illustration of that potential.

      • Well, reading cognitive science, and the bio-cultural sciences of religion more broadly, did play an important role in my process but I would not so much say that they “allowed” me to face my doubts as that they helped me understand myself as my doubts came to fruition.

        It is hard to claim that human nature will “never change” after reading all that evolutionary biology! 😉 Actually, neuroscientific and psychological studies suggest that the evolved brain is astonlshingly plastic and able to adapt. We have all sorts of biases shaped by our evolutionary inheritance in small groups, including racism, sexism and classism. But think about how much homophobia, for example, has decreased in the last decades, at least in some places, in part because of education, TV and media discussions about the silliness of the bias against gays and lesbians.

        In my view, once people become aware of their biases it is hard for them to function as well, because they only work when they are hidden. Some biases are harder to contest than others, and the bias toward imagining invisible punitive agents who care about what is happening in one’s in-group is deeply engrained in our phylogenetic inheritance. On the other hand, polls and sociological research consistently show that “non-belief” is growing rapidly in many populations.

        One of my current research projects involves the development of agent-based and systems dynamic models that simulate shifts in cognitive and coalitional evolved defaults in a population; if successful, we could test hypotheses about the conditions under which the sort of change you (and I) hope for is possible.

        • Maine_Skeptic

          “…In my view, once people become aware of their biases it is hard for them to function as well..”

          I haven’t seen that myself, but it seems like people who are aware of these cognitive “blind spots” are able to recognize their own biases more quickly after the fact. At the very least, greater familiarity with what I think of as “cognitive blind spots” could create in people a greater willingness to examine their own motives and assumptions.

          “…One of my current research projects involves the development of
          agent-based and systems dynamic models that simulate shifts in cognitive
          and coalitional evolved defaults in a population…”

          And now I’m turned on. Sorry, man. Can’t help it.

          Is this a recent career switch for you? How long have you been doing research?

  • Kent Truesdale

    Just wanted to say for the record that this has been one of the most helpful and productive thread of comments in the Rational Doubt blog so far! A great mix and model of both principled atheists and working ministers (and others) in dialogue, all showing openness and respect for each others’ views.

    • ctcss

      I have a feeling that this is due to the ministerial spirit being expressed. Unless one is going to be dogmatic and simply take an us-vs-them attitude, the main point of ministering to others is to comfort, reassure, help to answer questions, ease guilt, give perspective, bring healing to troubling situations, etc..

      I don’t think it much matters whether one explicitly believes in God, or has large doubts, or doesn’t believe at all. Whoever is interested in ministering brings whatever tools and compassion they have to try to help others. That’s why this is so neat. It moves the silliness of “belief vs non-belief” to the sidelines (where it belongs) and tries to express loving-kindness and help towards others.

      I wish the dogmatic (of whatever stripe) could realize this and bury their hatchets. Humanity doesn’t need more wars. It needs more healing.

      • Kent Truesdale

        Well said, brother!

      • Linda_LaScola

        ctcss – you had me until “the silliness of belief vs non-belief.” It’s not at all silly to those who have struggled with it.

        • ctcss

          Perhaps I did not say it correctly. By “the silliness of belief vs non-belief” I meant “the petty squabbling characterized by us vs them attitudes and behaviors”. I don’t see how engaging in rancorous diatribes against the other side helps anyone. I was not referring to people who honestly didn’t know which way to turn regarding whether or not to believe in God. To me, those are the people who would very much be helped by a compassionate minister who could either explain things more clearly so they can have an answer of peace, or remove the fear and guilt from them if they honestly feel they need to leave religious faith behind.

          Does that make my point clearer, or am I misunderstanding what you were struggling with and still coming across as uncompassionate?

          • Linda_LaScola

            Thanks, that helps. Less rancor is good — while disagreements will continue – and are natural among people with different perspectives, facts and evidence.

            I personally know of one Christian minister who says he helps “remove the fear and guilt” of people who no longer believe and want to leave church. I suspect it’s a rare phenomenon, it but would like to know more about it!

            I should add that I know of other non-believing clergy — interviewed in the study, who do their part in easing fear and guilt too – making it easier to people to stay within a religious community by assuring them that they don’t need to believe certain things to be good people and valued members of the community.

        • Maine_Skeptic

          Elsewhere in these comments, someone referred to theology as a “distraction” from the work that needs to get done. In a very real sense, the same can be said of belief vs. unbelief. The issue of the existence of gods can be very important if people are basing their decisions on “divine” edicts that are destructive to human cooperation, but most of the time, people are just trying to live their lives in peace.

          The fact is that neither religion nor atheism are going away any time soon. Regardless of whether gods exist, people of most philosophies would agree that human beings are going to have to act to solve the problems facing us as a civilization. Even if divine intervention is possible, it makes little sense to rely on that as a solution for problems like starvation and disease when there are actions we can take to prevent them.

          I wish we as a culture could focus on those solutions as much as we focus on which side is more evil than the other.

  • Martinkauai

    It’s great to hear an insider’s opinion on this phenomenon, and the denialist cognitive dissonance that went with it. Very honest and compelling.

  • Pastor Disaster

    I am currently a full-time pastor. We have several pastors that share teaching duties. So, I don’t have to teach/preach every week.

    Being a skeptic and new agnostic, I am the only pastor here who questions the bible/god etc. To maintain my position I have to be quite stealthy. I behave as missionaries do in Christian-hostile countries.

    When I preach I don’t violate what I hold to be true. Though I do not believe the bible inerrant or any such nonsense I find enough scripture to use to teach inclusivity, anti- dogmatism and the like. I do t feel the need to lie.

  • dermasse

    If the Bible isn’t the infallible Word of God, if He doesn’t exist, etc., what’s the point in ministering? If those things aren’t true, nothing matters.