By Linda LaScola
Wow! I must say I never thought this day would come. The Clergy Project, that I helped to found, along with Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker, Carter Warden (formerly known as “Adam Mann”) and “Chris”, now has 1000 participants.
This comes after starting as a private website in 2011 with 52 people, where non-believing clergy could converse with each other. To them, it was a way to share their stories, and to find camaraderie, solace and practical help.
To me, it was a secular miracle; not because I didn’t think that there were 1000 non-believing clergy out there, but because, when my interest in non-believing clergy began, it never occurred to me that they would find each other and then join a group with others like them – and grow 1000 strong!
When planning to research non-believing clergy with Dan Dennett of Tufts University in 2007, we purposely started with a small pilot study. As a professional qualitative researcher, I figured that it would be quite difficult to find such people. Usually, the studies I conducted involved, for instance:
- People between the ages of 21 and 65, various income levels and racial backgrounds who voted in the last presidential election and intended to vote in the next one.
- Or people across the US who donate within a certain dollar range to a particular cause.
- Or people with panic disorder currently receiving treatment.
Now THAT was a hard study to recruit! First of all, finding them, then gaining their trust and then hoping they would show up for the interviews.
But the panic disorder study was a piece of cake compared to the pilot study with non-believing clergy. You can’t exactly call a list of clergy on the phone and ask them if they believe in God. Or contact various religious groups asking for their help in locating ministers, priests and rabbis who don’t believe in God anymore.
It took us eight months to find five people, with the help of Dan Barker of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and Jim Adams, the retired agnostic pastor of an Episcopal church I once attended. (For details, see the pilot study report.)
I was very reluctant to write a report on the pilot study, because it was such a small sample. I could just imagine research colleagues or religious leaders legitimately criticizing us. Instead, people in the research community were fascinated and the religious community essentially legitimized the concept of non-believing clergy by suggesting that this was a known problem.
Writing up the pilot study turned out to be a smart move, because the article got a lot of press attention, thus becoming a major vehicle for finding additional study participants. Before long, we had thirty clergy participants, and could have had more, except that we (like good researchers) were looking for a geographic and denominational spread.
Turns out a lot of clergy who contacted us were fundamentalists from the South. Thus, it came as no surprise to see that there are also a disproportionate number of Clergy Project participants from the South.
For the whole story on how our study and an earlier conversation between Richard Dawkins and Dan Barker eventually got The Clergy Project started in 2011, read here on The Clergy Project public site and here on Wikipedia. The Clergy Project has been a lot of things to a lot of people – a lifesaver, a much needed and appreciated psychological and social outlet, and to me, the best thing I ever unintentionally did.
Here’s how my colleague Dan Dennett responded to TCP president Lon Ostrander, when told of the milestone:
“This is of course very good news—but not unexpected! I’ve been impatiently waiting to hear that the roll call had rolled over a thousand. I’m hoping you are right that this is just the tipping point, and that soon your ranks will swell by an order of magnitude! Congratulations to you all. When I consider all the good, wise, patient, understanding work you all have done to support and advise your fellow participants, I am honored to have had a small part in setting this in motion. Now if we can just get our play (ADAM MANN, NOT HIS REAL NAME) in the public eye, we will provide an early alert to thousands of young idealists around the world who are right now contemplating devoting their life to spreading one gospel or another.
Good luck, and please give my congratulations to all Clergy Project participants. /Daniel C. Dennett
Founder Dan Barker offers his congratulations
Isaiah wasn’t exactly talking about The Clergy Project when he said,
“A little one shall become a thousand” (60:22, KJV)
But he might as well have been. That verse may be the closest thing to an actual fulfilled prophecy in the entire bible. The “little one” that was 52 original members of the Clergy Project in 2011 has grown to four digits in a little over eight years. If not precisely a biblical prediction, it is a significant milestone.Better yet, it is real.
The word “milestone” comes from the Roman idea that a mile (mille = 1,000) was a thousand steps. And each step is a step forward. Each participant in the Clergy Project has made the step away from superstition, away from dogma, faith, orthodoxy and stagnation of thought toward freedom and integrity.
But integrity has its cost. Leaving the ministry is a radical and risky move.
I thought I was all-alone in 1983 when I stopped preaching and scrambled to rebuild my life. I wish there had been a Clergy Project back then. There was no Internet, no easy way to search for fellow apostates who understand the struggle, no obvious way to compare notes or seek resources.
Over the years since then, I did find a few others by happenstance, but before The Clergy Project (even with the Internet) there was no organization dedicated to this very special need.
And now that “little one” is a thousand strong! Thank you, all of you original members, all of you hard-working unpaid volunteers and board members, for your dedication to the cause of freethought and humanism. And thank each of you for your courage in doing exactly what Jesus (if he existed) encouraged when he said,
“Test all things, and hold fast to that which is good.”
I no longer have the gift of prophecy, but I will make a prediction: In the years ahead, more and more believers (including clergy) will be abandoning their faith in the supernatural, and The Clergy Project will keep growing as religion continues to “wither like the grass.” /Dan Barker
“Well, I am an old guy now, 72 years, with the storm and stress far behind me. So the reason I am a member of the Clergy Project mainly is to let younger clergy people know there is light at the end of the tunnel even though it may not feel like it while they are passing through the fiery trial of shedding their religious faith.”
“It wasn’t until July of 2014 that I discovered The Clergy Project, a full two years after leaving the ministry. Even though I had known it couldn’t actually be the case, I had often felt as if I were the only Christian in the world who had lost his faith. And I had never even heard of another pastor doing so. But in The Clergy Project, I found something that I was long in need of, a sense of community and network of support with other religious professionals traveling on journeys similar to my own. And in seeing and hearing their stories, I found a renewed sense of hope for the future. Everything was going to be okay. This newest chapter of my life was only beginning.”
“I know very well the struggle a clergy person faces when he/she does not believe churchteaching anymore, but doesn’t know how to break away or what to do. I’m grateful I was able to come out and experience the joy and freedom of being myself. I hope to be supportive to others as they face the same struggles.”
“Talking to other TCP’ers was a huge next step for me, to know I’m not alone and to get help, ideas, encouragement and peace as we navigate this new path.”
“Very glad to be here. Thankful for this group. Without it, I might still be struggling desperately seeking to be who I really am. Go TCP!”
In the coming days and weeks here on The Rational Doubt Blog , you’ll be hearing from many more Clergy Project participants sharing their experiences with TCP. Next up, are “Adam” and “Chris” – TCPs first moderators on the private site.
To learn all about The Clergy Project, please read the book, written by one of the original TCP participants, Catherine Dunphy.
**9/18/19 9:30 AM Update** See also The Friendly Atheist’s post here on Patheos about The Clergy Project’s 1000 Milestone event.
Bio: Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind(2015) and “Preachers who are not Believers”(2010). They are also co-producers of a play in development, “Adam Mann – Not his Real Name” written by Marin Gazzaniga, that is based on their research. Linda lives and works in Washington, D.C and holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America. She is a co-founder of The Clergy Project and Editor of the Rational Doubt blog.
>>>Photo credits: Wikipedia, Clergy Project page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Clergy_Project ; Front page, Clergy Project public site http://clergyproject.org ; https://www.amazon.com/Apostle-Apostate-Story-Clergy-Project/dp/1634310160