Atheists in the Pulpit: Clergy Who Are Non-Believers
Most likely there have always been atheists in the clergy, but only recently do we have people talking about it.
What Is "The Clergy Project?"
The previously well-kept secret was brought into the open by Daniel C. Dennett in his book with associate Linda La Scola. They published a report, “Preachers Who Are Not Believers,” in 2010. The result of their research and profiles of atheist clergy members are now published in their book "" Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind.
In 2011, The Clergy Project was formed. It is an online community. They currently have 750 members, all current or former clergy members, from many countries around the world. This community provides support and help to members as they deal with the issues related to their loss of belief in the tenets of their faith.
The Clergy Project is primarily a peer support group, although the organization has steadily expanded their scope--they now provide more tangible assistance that includes re-employment preparation and secular counseling. The group also hopes to be able to provide job training, short-term loans, and temporary housing for atheist clergy members who want to leave.
How Many Atheist Clergy Are There?
Nobody knows for sure how many atheist clergy members there are, but the answer is probably a lot more than you think. (Note: I use the term "atheist clergy" for convenience--some may feel that they are agnostics or just “having doubts.”)
A survey conducted by the Free University of Amsterdam in 2006 found that one in six (17%) Protestant priests in Holland were either atheist or agnostic. Another survey found that as many as 16 percent of the Church of England’s licensed ministers have doubts about God.
Membership in The Clergy Project has increased ten-fold in just a few years. This indicates that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of atheist clergy.
Why Do Atheist Clergy Stay in the Church?
Anyone who loses belief in their religion most likely faces a wrenching process. Their world view is shaken, they face being alienated from their family (including spouse and children), and often are ostracized by their community. Membership in a church is often so intertwined with every aspect of their life that leaving their faith may feel like being set adrift in the middle of an ocean.
When you are a member of the clergy--priest, minister, rabbi, imam—your loss of faith has a major psychological impact. Our profession is often very important to our sense of self, our identity, our perception of who we are, and this is especially true if we are a member of the clergy. Clergy members who leave will lose not only their livelihood, but also their sense of purpose.
Many people join the clergy not only for a love of God, but for a love of humanity. They want to help people. They want to be a leader. Joining the clergy may have been their lifelong desire going back to a very young age. They love the people in their congregations.
Clergy members who come out as atheists have a special “cross to bear.” They are often vilified and ostracized by their former congregants. They will get hate mail and threats against their life. It is traumatic.
It is easy to disparage the people who stay in the pulpit even when they no longer believe as cowards and liars, but this shows an utter lack of compassion and understanding. Walking away is extremely hard to do.
I recommend a book by Dan Barker, a former minister, This book gave me an understanding of how difficult it is for a minister to separate himself from his church. He eventually found a new career--he is Co-President of the Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist. Freedom From Religion Foundation and a popular folksinger who sings songs with an atheistic bent.
Does Atheism Among the Clergy Begin in the Seminary?
Many young people enter the seminary ardent believers and emerge as atheists.
When a young person goes to seminary, he begins to look at his religion in a whole new way. It is most likely the first time he is learning the history of religion and the first time he is looking at religion as a scholar. This intellectual rather than emotional approach to religion often causes young seminarians to lose faith.
This education causes some to give up their desire to enter the clergy, and they leave the seminary. Others cannot give up their lifelong dream. In some cases, they may not want to disappoint family and community who are proud of them for entering the clergy.
They may push their doubts aside or believe that they can overcome them. They see others with the same doubts continuing on the path to the pulpit, and thus they come to believe that they can do so also.
My friend Paul was one of these people. His professors knew of his doubts, but encouraged him to continue. When it came time to be ordained, they asked him if he believed. He said he did not. They said “Are you going to say that from the pulpit?” He said “No”. They said, “Congratulations, you are now an ordained minister."
He was a minister for five years, but he found "living a lie" too much to deal with. He left the ministry and became a journalist. For most of his career, he was an editor of a respected magazine.
He told me, “I was lucky that I had another skill--writing—that I could use to support myself. Some of my friends from seminary did not have another marketable skill. They coped by focusing on good works instead of creed.”
Another way of coping is by playing semantic games. An atheistic minister might say “The Bible says …” In this way, he could tell himself he was only repeating what the Bible said, not saying it himself.
Paul told me that a friend of his who was a minister told him,“There is this little old lady in the front pew. How could I tell her that everything she has believed for her whole life was a lie?”
After Paul retired from the magazine, he eventually got to enjoy speaking from the pulpit again. He spoke at Unitarian Universalist churches. (Many Unitarian Universalist congregations focus on moral values and very little on God.) Paul gave secular sermons. His seminary studies stood him in good stead. He gave marvelous sermons.
My friend Mike grew up as a Mormon. After he served his two-year term as a missionary in Montana and Wyoming ---all Mormons are required to serve as missionaries when they turn 18-- he entered Brigham Young University and took some religion classes. That was the beginning of his journey to atheism.
I once asked him, "After you became an atheist, did you ever go back to the people you converted and tell them you were wrong?" He said that he had never been successful in converting anyone. However, when he talked to his father about the change in his views about religion, he did eventually convert his father to atheism. A few years later, he converted his mother. At last, he was a successful missionary.
How Do Some Atheist Clergy Redefine Christianity?
Some members of the Christian clergy deal with their cognitive dissonance by trying to redefine what it means to be Christian.
One example is “Christian Non-Realism” which states that God is only a symbol or metaphor. In 2007, Dutch priest Reverend Klaas Hendrikse published his book Believing In A Non-Existent God. (This book is not available in English.) In 2011, Canon Brian Mountford of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, England, published Christian Atheist: Belonging Without Believing They both found support for their beliefs. .
John Shelby “Jack” Spong was an American bishop of the Episcopal Church. In 1999, he published Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile. He argued that the literal interpretation of the Bible is both false and outmoded. He does not believe in the virgin-birth, the resurrection, and just about all of the other church doctrines. He wants the church to evolve by joining a “dialogue between yesterday’s words and today’s knowledge.”
Essentially, Spong continues to call himself a Christian because he believes in Christ’s message of love and compassion. (The rest he calls mythology and nonsense.) After the publication of his book, many Christians said that if Spong was right about Christianity, it was already dead.
Actually, Thomas Jefferson, second president of the United States, anticipated Bishop Spong by several centuries. In the early 1800’s, Jefferson created the Jefferson Bible, by taking a razor to the book. He excised all mentions of the supernatural and miracles, and kept only the moral teachings of Jesus.
By these definitions, many atheists could call themselves Christians.
What Are Secular Churches?
Another alternative for people who enjoy being ministers, but who have lost faith in faith, is to form a secular church. It turns out that many people are looking for groups of this kind. They want the community that people find in church, but they do not feel comfortable worshiping a deity. In a secular church, they can gather together as a community, support each other, and do charitable work together in their community.
The London-based group, Sunday Assembly, is one such group. (It now has branches all over the world including many in the United States.) Another such group is Ethical Humanism (also know as Ethical Culture.)
Some ex-ministers form a new “church.” Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal minister, formed Community Mission Project in Louisiana. Mike Aus, a former Lutheran pastor, formed Houston Oasis. There is also The Texas Church of Freethought.
There are quite a few non-theist Jewish congregations led by rabbis. Judaism has always been both a culture and a religion; so some Jews practice what they call Humanistic Judaism. They celebrate the culture while ditching the supernatural.
The difficulty with some secularists is that they find anything resembling “church” anathema. To me, this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Just get past the traditional definition of church as a place of worship and redefine it as a place of community, and enjoy all the benefits of church without having to accept supernatural beliefs. I believe joing a secular church is especially important if you have children. Children learn moral values and they get to see that their family is not the only secular family.
Perhaps secular churches are the future of religion.
What Impact Are They Likely to Have on Religion?
Many people don’t give religion a lot of thought. They believe in whatever religion they were taught as children. Often believers are too busy with their everyday lives to think about their faith too deeply. Delving into their faith—reading and studying—is just too much work. Their religious leaders—the clergy—can do that for them. If they have questions, their religious leaders must know the answers.
What happens if religious leaders start admitting that they don’t have the answers either? Worse yet, what happens if religious leaders start saying they don’t believe a word of it. It’s all metaphor.
What happens if religious leaders abandon their tacit agreement that any questions and doubts they have will be kept among themselves? What happens if religious leaders start saying, "God doesn't exist" out loud? And what happens if they start doing this in significant numbers?
Linda La Scola Discusses Her Findings from the Clergy Study
Do you think that there are "secret atheists" among the clergy of mainstream religions?
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Catherine Giordano