Editor’s Note: My Patheos Colleague, Catherine Dunphy, celebrates her first face-to-face meeting with her Clergy Project family member, Jerry Dewitt. I knew them before they knew each other, having interviewed them for the Dennett-LaScola study. Catherine contacted me directly after seeing our study and Jerry contacted me after hearing about the study and the newly formed Clergy Project from Dan Barker, former evangelical preacher and author of Godless. Jerry contacted him hoping to find a sympathetic ear for his non-belief – which he did. Both Jerry and Catherine felt alone as their religious beliefs changed and eventually died. They didn’t know there were many others like them.
This situation reminds me of “the problem that has no name” that Betty Friedan wrote about in the 60’s in The Feminine Mystique. It was women’s ineffable sense of being unfulfilled in a modern world in which they supposedly had unprecedented access to “everything” a woman could want, including higher education and a plethora of labor-saving devices meant to simplify their prescribed role of homemaker. Still, women were disturbed, and Betty Friedan was able to recognize and describe the problem — and the world began to change. Now in the early 21st century, many clergy and others are having similar stirrings about religious beliefs that have been accepted and even required for centuries. Though non-belief is nothing new, there are now more ways explore and express it, without fear of being burned at the stake or otherwise ostracized. There are support groups and websites and new humanist communities. People like Jerry and Catherine can know and enjoy each other and celebrate a positive future. They can change the world.
How good it feels to fit somewhere – and to be in such good company. I wish all religious professionals who question their beliefs and ultimately stop believing can someday have this experience.
When I graduated from seminary as a closeted atheist, I knew full well that I was an outsider, a dissident, an anomaly. Still, I couldn’t escape the reality that the more I studied my faith the less I believed.
That all changed when I discovered the Dennett-LaScola study, “Preachers Who are not Believers.” Knowing that there were other atheist clergy and religious leaders shattered my assumption of being “different” and I knew that I found something that I had lost for a long time: peers.
Among those peers, I found friends, empathy and a safe place to talk and listen. Since 2011, when The Clergy Project was founded, I have had the chance to meet several friends from the Project in person. And just this past weekend I was able add one more to the list: Jerry Dewitt, who was staying nearby on business.
Though we come from very different religious backgrounds, Jerry a Pentecostal and I a Roman Catholic, our experience of losing our faith and making a commitment to humanism was very similar. We’ve both been through the same maze on our journeys out of religion. Through this process, we’ve realized that those things that we liked about our former faiths, i.e. the ability to help, the opportunity to share, and the efforts to make the world a better place by doing good in our small corners of it, really do exist outside of the confines of religion and supernatural belief.
Now, nearly four years later, meeting in person for the first time, Jerry and I are like family members who after a long absence are able to reconnect, talk about the past, the present and in our case, our hope for a future with good, not god!
Oh — and we have a lot of laughs, too.
Catherine Dunphy – A humanist, atheist and former Roman Catholic chaplain, Catherine is a member of the Clergy Project, and former Executive Director. Catherine is a humanist celebrant and communications/PR professional, who is currently writing a book about the founding of the Project and her experience of losing her faith as religious leader.