Celebrating Independence – Religious Leaders Freed From Belief

Celebrating Independence – Religious Leaders Freed From Belief July 4, 2016

There is more than one kind of Independence.

US flagAs I look back over the last few years, I think of all the clergy I met in the course of the Dennett-LaScola study and through the Clergy Project (TCP) and how so many of them have broken free from their religious constraints since I met them.

I think of “Adam” and “Chris” – clergy co-founders of TCP who eventually left their congregations, first Chris and then Adam, for good jobs outside of ministry. It wasn’t easy getting out, but it was worth it.

I think of Jeff Falick, former conservative rabbi, who recently got a great job as Rabbi of the first Jewish humanistic congregation in the US. There’s also Schlomo Levin, a former Orthodox Rabbi that I met through the blog, who left his congregation to start a business giving bicycle tours. And I can’t help but think of “Sherm” – a current Orthodox Rabbi. While he doesn’t plan to leave the clergy, he is thrilled to be “on the right side of history” as he puts it, by shedding his supernatural beliefs.

Most of the former clergy I’ve come to know, however, are Christian and mainly fundamentalist Christian. Why is that? Why do they turn away from faith more than liberal Christians? Quite simply, it’s because it’s hard to maintain belief in Biblical inerrancy, as fundamentalists are required to do, especially in the modern, information-accessible world we now inhabit.

Their independence is hard-won. They give up not only their livelihoods, but also often their families, who are sure they are headed to hell. I think of “Dave” the Baptist missionary who is trying to be true to himself while holding his marriage together.

Many other former clergy have been “out” for years. There’s the gentle Dave Warnock, former evangelical, who reaches out as a friend to Christian communities but is shunned by members of his own family.   The former missionary, John Lombard, works so diligently at having intelligent, rational and considerate dialogue with believers and non-believers alike. Then there’s poet, playwright and musician, Mason Lane, who creatively, joyously and tirelessly expresses his long-term freedom from fundamentalism. And there are many more.  Too many.

The liberals have it easier. They can even stay in ministry– sometimes acknowledging their non-belief or coming close to it. I think of “Wes” the Methodist minister, Bill the Episcopalian priest and “Andy” the UCC pastor who feel that they do their part to help people shed supernatural beliefs while providing strong, compassionate congregations that do good works for their communities. And the ever-inquisitive Elizabeth, who seems to live comfortably in her place between belief and non-belief, while ministering to the sick and dying.

I think of the former Presbyterian chaplain Chris Highland who is so happy as a naturalist, and current, long-term Presbyterian minister John Shuck, who somehow manages to pastor a church while being an open non-believer. Maybe the fact that his church is in the ultra-liberal Portland, Oregon area has something to do with it. But no, he was also a successful pastor in the middle of the Bible belt in Tennessee. If more liberal pastors could operate like this, they could change the face of religion.

I think of fellow (or rather “sister”) former Catholics, like Mary Johnson, “carolyntclark” and Catherine Dunphy, who unlike me, had to make a big break from restrictive Catholic communities to find their freedom.

Most recently, I think of the young people I just met: TCP members “Elizabeth Spinoza” and “JamesS” and his wife who showed up at my Reason Rally breakfast, feeling excited and liberated and thrilled to interact for the first time in a group of freethinkers. May there be many more like them in the years to come.

Happy Independence Day to all.


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