Clergy Doubt #5: Left Convent Life First, Then Religion

Clergy Doubt #5: Left Convent Life First, Then Religion February 16, 2015

2/18/15 12:45 est Update:  The Friendly Atheist now has a post about Mary Johnson’s discussion in the comments section here with Thomas J. McDonald about transgendered people.

Editor’s Note: The second Catholic in our series on Clergy Doubt that leads to disbelief  was a nun with Mother Teresa’s order for 20 years. When responding to my request to address questions about how her religious doubts grew into disbelief, she told me that she didn’t really start doubting her faith until after she left religious life. Other issues contributed to her leaving the convent, as she explained on her website: “As I yearned for personal intimacy, intellectual freedom, and the opportunity to make a creative contribution, my community demanded self-denial and unquestioning obedience.” Here she explains how she reconsidered the actual beliefs of Roman Catholicism once she was out of the convent.


DoubtBy Mary Johnson

1. What caused you to start seriously doubting your faith?

After I left religious life, I began to see how much my beliefs had been shaped by others telling me what I was supposed to think. I began to see through the holes in religious authority first, especially as I saw so many ways in which religious authorities abused their power. I began to realize how dangerous it was when some people tell others what they should think.

2. How did you initially react to the doubts?  (e.g., discuss them with others, keep them to yourself, do religious or secular reading, something else?)

I thought about it a lot, and just felt so happy to let it all go. I did some reading that helped, especially Sam Harris’ The End of Faith.

3.  What caused the doubts to start becoming stronger than your beliefs?

I had a friend who was transgendered. When the Church came out with a document saying that transgendered people are actually just sort of making the whole thing up, I realized how often the Church claimed to know reality, but that they often didn’t know what they were talking about at all. It became so clear that they were trying to fit reality into their system of beliefs, instead of adjusting their beliefs to the reality of the world.

4. How did the doubts affect your preaching/teaching/other responsibilities? Your interactions with your congregation and your family?

I was already out of religious life by then. My family has taken my loss of religious faith fairly well, but I lost some friends who said that being around me was dangerous to their faith and that they needed to cut ties with me. This was very painful, especially since I never made any attempt to convert them to my point of view.

5. How did you come to the realization that your doubts were overcoming your beliefs; that you were no longer a believer?

I deliberately let religious faith go. I just said, “I’m not doing this any more.” That felt so good.

6. How did you think of yourself at that time (e.g., agnostic, atheist, spiritual-but not-religious, non-believer, different-believer, something else?

I don’t like labels. I just realized that I was finally letting myself think my own thoughts, and that felt so good.


DSC_0347Bio: Mary Johnson worked for twenty years as a nun in the Missionaries of Charity where she became a trusted assistant to Mother Teresa. Since leaving the convent, Mary has married and written a well-received memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst, which received the 2014 New Hampshire Literary Award as the Outstanding Book of Nonfiction.   She left the Catholic Church and has become a humanist celebrant, speaker and teacher. She serves on the Board of A Room of Her Own Foundation, an organization that empowers women writers. Her work has appeared in O, the Oprah Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous other publications. She has appeared on The Rosie Show, Hardball with Chris Matthews, NPR and the BBC.

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