Casting Stones or Stepping Stones?

Casting Stones or Stepping Stones? October 10, 2019

Editor’s Note:  Chris is not the only Clergy Project pariticpant to ignore my suggestion to reflect on his beginnings in The Clergy Project and instead focus on its future.  He’s got some good ideas here that could be implemented with enough commitment and effort – qualities often found in abundance in clergy, current and former, and irrespective of beliefs. /Linda LaScola, Editor


By Chris Highland

One thousand people in The Clergy Project! Praise the … Hoard!

I use the word incorrectly, of course.  Yet our horde (barbarians to some) actually is a hoard by the definition:

 “an amassed store of useful information or facts.”

We are a useful camp, and not only to each other and ourselves.  Besides, not all barbarians are bad.

I entered the brightly lit doorway of The Clergy Project way back in 2012.  John Compere interviewed me, and our immediate connection to years of human service and “divine service” was illuminating as well as welcoming. “Community” was still a shadowy dream left over from “church community” that never gave much depth to the word. Finding common space with uncommon people who seemed to understand my experience on some level, who felt what I felt leaving faith, was a relief—a place to tell common stories of past faith and present uncertainties.

I had just started a new chapter of my life and a new book of essays.  A new marriage and new job as a manager of non-profit housing provided the context for a new outlook. Meeting up with The Clergy Project added to the freshness of a forward-looking, freethinking path. Since I married a freethinking clergywoman who is still active in teaching and preaching (love being a much stronger fundamental than beliefs), I was clear that TCP was a support for me and a safe circle where I could tell my own story of liberation toas much as from.

My interfaith background – teaching, writing and marriage partnership – draw me to explore ways of interconnecting with people—faith or no faith—around mutual education, rather than spending valuable time arguing theology and other distractions. Building on my TCP membership, I find fulfillment in teaching classes on Freethought, writing weekly columns for the Religion page of a local newspaper and performing weddings as a humanist celebrant.

It seems to me the choice is ours.  Do we cast stones at our former boxes of belief (lobbing endless arguments at the glass houses of the gods) or make something of them that could benefit everyone with common sense?  Either way, we are the ones “without sin” who can make the rational decision of what to do with the stones that nature hands to us.

As the liberated human being, Frederick Douglass, once said,

“I would unite with anybody to do right.”

The perfect secular challenge.

Just as faith doesn’t answer our questions any longer, neither can our atheism give absolute answers. We have to be freethought explorers, and that is not as easy as it sounds.  If we’re honest, we left the fear but not the trembling.  The shaking is not a falling down at the clay feet of a gilded god but a rising up to stand toe to toe with Truth.  I don’t know about you, but that isn’t exactly comforting or reassuring—only necessary.

Thinking fearlessly, progressively, if we began as a research “project,” what if we choose to project—verb:  “extend outward and beyond; throw or cause to move forward”?  The Clergy Projection?  Here I’ll offer several brief suggestions for projecting ourselves ahead.

  1. Take full advantage of our deep well of expertise, our vast hoard of “useful information and facts.” Many of us are writing books, blogs, articles, essays and syllabi. Our voices are already being heard.  But is it enough?  Could there be more collaboration, more of a unified voice?  What if there was a publishing houseand/or a regular online/paper magazine?  Let’s make it interesting and attractive for atheists, agnostics and even reasonable, questioning believers.  Rather than “Anti-Faith Monthly” maybe something more like “Confluence” (as in rivers of reason flowing together), “Question” or maybe “GodX” to attract millennial nones.

(Something I’ve tried, without much success).  It’s not what every former-believer has an interest in, but one option for those who still desire to use their leadership skills in communities of service.  To be honest (a quality our members exemplify) I continue my search for something I can call “community.”  Online groups aren’t enough.  It’s too easy to think there’s a wireless “We” the People.  I like to look at nature images on the screen but there’s nothing like the scented serenity of a real forest.  How do we gather, collaborate and integrate to do something positive and less polarizing wherever we live and thrive?

  1. Be more creative and constructive with the stones! As I’ve said, rather than throwing rocks, why don’t we find ways to build something with them, whether an inclusive space or open place, using paving stones for the paths ahead.

I’m convinced that secular folks like us are the best hope for presenting a rational, common sense alternative to the religious folks who want to project us into the distant past.  I find many on the religious left are more than welcoming of a balanced secular perspective committed to cooperation across the borders of belief.  Members of TCP include ideal representatives of that perspective.

Think about it:  we who are trained to be articulate leaders represent the best and most effective modes of communication on just about any stage.

If I were joining TCP now, after seven years, I would explore these questions more fully from the very beginning.  Maybe that’s the point here:  “membership has its rewards” and the most valuable reward we have to give each other (and anyone listening) is to clarify and amplify our voices to speak our truth, the Truth, and keep digging around in what that means.

It’s easy to cast stones, especially in cyber-space. It’s more of a hopeful challenge to use stones for construction of new trails, roads and “free ways” for open freethought.

Congratulations to The Clergy Project—to us!  And may this milestone truly be a stepping-stone forward to greater things.


Chris Highland was a minister and chaplain for many years in the SF Bay Area.  Now teaching courses on Freethought in Asheville, North Carolina, he writes a weekly “Highland Views” column for the Citizen-Times. His new book, A Freethinker’s Gospel, is now available from Pisgah Press.  Chris has been a member of The Clergy Project since 2012. To learn more, see

>>>>>Photo Credits:  By The original uploader was Lordkinbote at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain,; By The original uploader was Leonard G. at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by IngerAlHaosului using CommonsHelper., CC SA 1.0,; By Paul VlaarOriginal uploader was Neep at en.wikipedia.Later version (crop) were made and uploaded by Ali’i at en.wikipedia. –, CC BY-SA 3.0, ; By George Kendall Warren – Public Domain,

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  • Jim Jones

    Possibly helpful?


  • ctcss

    Interesting and possibly helpful post. My problem with it is that it still seems to posit that the human approach to religion only comes in one form and flavor, that is, something overly simplistic and dogmatic, bound up in blind faith, and blind-leading-the-blind practice, if practice is encouraged at all. It further seems to posit that secularism is the bright promise and wave of the future. Well, if by secular, the meaning is simply separation of church and state, I am all for that.

    But the concept of people trying to go forward, and to reason and think, to seek understanding, and to aspire to higher ideals and the growing demonstration and practice of them, doesn’t belong exclusively to a non-religious approach to life. It should apply to all areas of life, and that should include those who favor a religious pathway as well as those that adhere to a non-religious one.

    But the idea that religion is a worthless, outmoded, and antiquated endeavor, strikes me as trading one form of dogmatism for another. I do appreciate the ideas put forward in this post that we can all learn to work together for good. But we should all be continually examining our thoughts about others to make sure that we are not being dismissive of those who have chosen a different pathway than ours. The labels we attach to others does not imply full knowledge and understanding of them. Only a patient, kind, and perceptive approach to others will (gradually) help us gain a fuller understanding and appreciation of them and their worth.

    My 2 cents.

  • Thanks for saying “possibly helpful.” As I say, doing something more constructive with the stones. Appreciate your last sentence, incl. two cents (which add up after a while).

  • Let’s hear a bit more, since I don’t automatically follow links.

  • ElizabetB.

    Chris… always the bridge builder.
    Love “the scented serenity” of a forest.
    May The Clergy Projection be for blessing : )

  • Thanks, Elizabeth. As I often say, if more of us (and more of our government and religious “leaders”) spent more time in the natural world, maybe we wouldn’t have so many “supernatural” distractions … just clearer heads!

  • Carter Warden – aka Adam Mann

    Good article Chris! Some stones are found from nature’s own making, but some come from man-made walls being torn down, which requires some demolition, destruction (or deconstruction) and always causes dust and sometimes collateral damage and debris. So from my personal experience, even thoughtful bridge building requires a time of upheaval and messiness that may not be pleasant. We former clergy tend to be the compassionate and caring type, thus the hardest things for me to embrace are the times of confrontation and demolition, knowing full well it is required so that ultimately the stones can be re-purposed and redirected in positive and useful ways.
    My one cent 🙂

  • carolyntclark

    Chris, I admire your connection with nature as basking in the awe comes so easily. I’m of the same mindset and on the path but I need to remember to slow down and absorb more fully the natural world around me. You’re a good reminder. Thank you.

  • Good reminder for all of us, Carolyn, thanks!

  • I’m with you, Carter. I’ve seen and experienced a whole lot of messiness in wall building as well as dismantling. At this stage of life if it’s not about something constructive I don’t have the time or energy. The positive and useful attracts me and gets an Amen.