How I Got Mixed up in This Atheist Clergy Business

How I Got Mixed up in This Atheist Clergy Business February 20, 2017

Editor’ Note: This is an excerpt from a recent interview that Scott Jacobsen of Conatus News did with me. He has generously offered to conduct interviews with Clergy project members for the Rational Doubt blog, so I offer this excerpt as an example of his work. Please note that I have kept the original Canadian spelling.


Scott JacobsenBy Scott Douglas Jacobsen, Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing

In brief, what is your familial background and personal story?

I think of my own story as being very boring, compared to the stories of the people I interviewed in the non-believing study I conducted with Dan Dennett.  I was raised, the youngest of three children, as Roman Catholic in an Italian-American family in a small town in Western Pennsylvania.

First Holy Communion

(That’s me, in the second row, 6th in from the left)

I had a happy and very stable childhood. Although we went to church every Sunday, we weren’t very religious.  My mother refused to send us to Catholic schools. She didn’t go to church much herself, claiming “claustrophobia,” and my father guiltlessly skipped holy days.

I attended church less in college and just stopped going as an adult.  Though I still believed in God, there was too much silliness in Catholicism for me to take the religion seriously.  After about 20 years of marriage and without children, my husband, an agnostic, and I started attending an Episcopal Church, to fill his need for community.

We both enjoyed it – especially singing in the choir.  There was no pressure to believe anything – the pastor himself was openly agnostic – and the music was beautiful. About ten years ago, I realised I didn’t know much about religion from an academic point of view, so I decided to fill that gap.

After about a year of reading and taking adult education classes at church, I realised there was nothing to believe and we left.  My husband, who, like me, now identifies as an atheist, has since joined an Ethical Society and a Unitarian Church. I stay home and read the paper.

What was the original interest in clinical social work and psychotherapy for you?

I once had a job as an American Red Cross caseworker that I really liked, so when I was thinking about graduate school, I decided on Social Work.  Also, I had taken what was meant to be a short-term job as a tour guide at the US Capitol.

After two years, the repetition started driving me crazy.  In my boredom, I couldn’t help but notice how people reacted in groups and I wanted to understand more about that. …

Most of my work as a social worker was in alcoholism counseling, which involved a lot of group work, and employee assistance programs – workplace counseling and referral….

What about in qualitative research and analysis for you?

Qualitative research, which is conducted in the form of focus groups and in-depth individual interviews, seemed like a natural outgrowth of my work as a group and individual psychotherapist.  It offered more variety, flexibility, and higher pay.  What’s not to like?

Would you consider yourself socially progressive? If so, why? If not, why not?

Yes – it’s just something that I eventually realised about myself as an adult.  My family of origin did not guide me in any particular direction.  I found myself supporting liberal rather than conservative causes. Of course, this would apply to most people who choose to go into social work.  We think of ourselves as being empathic and interested in improving society for people less fortunate than ourselves.

Social progressivism tends to involve women’s rights and secularism. If advancement of women’s rights and secularism seem like the right values and movements to you, what is their importance in the early 21st century in America to you?  

I’ve seen huge advances in women’s rights in my lifetime and know that many more are needed, e.g., equal pay for equal work, protecting abortion rights, and continuing the fight for LGBTQ rights. As for secularism, of course, I support that as well, and also see it as something that is happening on its own. People are naturally leaving religion, in many cases thanks to the free-flow of information and emotional support they can receive anonymously on the Internet.

Secularism “happened” in Europe and is happening here in the US, albeit more slowly and with resistance from the strong Christian Evangelical movement.  The clergy I interviewed are examples of people who left religion even though the initial decision had a negative impact on their careers and relationships.

What was the original research question and methodology conducted by Professor Dennett and yourself?

Excerpted from the proposal for our original research: “It’s understandable that atheist clergy would exist, considering that academically-trained clergy routinely learn about the mythical foundation of the Bible as part of their seminary education.  

What would allow clergy to present these myths as truth to their congregations and what causes some of them to reject this position?  What other factors are involved when clergy “lose their faith?”

What price do they pay for this change of heart and what price does society pay? The effects of the cognitive dissonance needed to preach faith in concepts that clergy themselves no longer accept is unknown and requires study.

What was the conclusion of the original research?

There was no formal conclusion because it was a pilot study to gauge the difficulty in finding non-believing clergy to interview and to try to figure out how best to engage them in conversation about their experiences as their beliefs changed. The larger study, chronicled in Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, also does not have a conclusion, but rather describes the experiences of non-believing clergy.

In Preachers who are not believers (2010) published in Evolutionary Psychology, you describe the spectrum of God’s definition, as follows:

frank anthropomorphism at one extreme – a God existing in time and space with eyes and hands and love and anger – through deism, a somehow still personal God who cares but is nevertheless outside time and space and does not intervene, and the still more abstract Ground of all Being, from which (almost?) all anthropomorphic features have been removed, all the way to frank atheism…

Actually, Dan Dennett wrote that part! But I agree with it. This is his formulation of the various ways all kinds of people define God.  It’s not a specific finding of our research with clergy.

Does the elasticity of the definition of God support the unanimity and cohesion amongst the preachers and the congregation in church life? That is, everyone believes everyone else believes the same thing without believing the same thing.

I won’t opine on what people (members of religious congregations) I’ve never talked to in depth are thinking about but not saying. I can guess that among religious fundamentalists there is an assumption that clergy and congregants hold the same beliefs – the ones written as the inerrant word of God in their Holy Book.

More progressive congregations focus more on community and in acting in ways that reflect the goodness of their religion. Speaking from my personal experiences in two progressive Episcopal churches, exactly what people believe is not so important.

Can the research findings expand to local temples, mosques, synagogues, and cathedrals as well?

Again, I can’t say. In our larger study of 35, we did interview two rabbis, but we could not find any imams to participate. Anecdotally, in conversation with Jewish lay people, they don’t seem to think believing in “God” is important to being an observant Jew and were not surprised or concerned to learn that some Rabbis do not believe. Christians, in contrast, were often shocked and disturbed by the very concept of a preacher who did not believe.

The Clergy Project is intended to “provide support, community, and hope to current and former religious professionals who no longer hold supernatural beliefs.” What have been the notable impacts of The Clergy Project?

…  I have heard from members that the forum discussions often involve members who left the clergy years ago who are now helping new people navigate their feelings, their relationships, and their plans for the future.

Another popular feature of TCP is the outplacement program, provided by RiseSmart, which helps clergy write resumes and find secular jobs.  Carter Warden, a founder, was the first member to use the service, which helped him find a good administrative position in a state university near his home.

You edit the blog called Rational Doubt. It is a place where the “public and non-believing and doubting clergy can interact.”  What are some emotionally touching aspects common to many of the stories from those told in either Rational Doubt or The Clergy Project or via your clergy research?

People go into the clergy to “do good”, but because of their changing beliefs, they feel they have to leave a profession which they otherwise enjoy and are good at.  They may love the music, the counseling, doing “good works” in the community, and comforting the ill or the grieving.  These are activities that don’t require belief in a deity, but that belief is expected of clergy. They are so sad to have to leave the good parts of the job behind, that many try to believe, or to act as if they believe.

Many suffer greatly in the process of realising they don’t believe. Many try mightily to hold on to their beliefs, going through periods of doubt that don’t return to belief (as is supposed to happen). They may consult many people or books in the process. Changing from belief to non-belief is not something that they ever imagined and when it starts to happen, it’s not something they actively want.…

On the positive side, when I asked research participants what they felt they had gained and lost as a result of their beliefs changing, they all felt they had gained much more than they lost, often citing being at peace with themselves and seeing and appreciating the world as it really is. I remember seeing their faces light up when they told me what they had gained, despite losses they experienced in relationships and income. It was very gratifying to know that they felt they had come to the right conclusion and that their struggles ultimately had great value.

Any recommended thinkers or authors on the subject of non-believing clergy other than Professor Dennett and yourself?

Many members of The Clergy Project have written their own books – Jerry DeWitt, David Madison, Fernando Alcantar, Drew Bekius (coming in 2017), Dan Barker, Bart Ehrman, etc. Also, Catherine Dunphy wrote a book in 2015 about The Clergy Project, called From Apostle to Apostate.


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