Thursday, April 08, 2010

Atheists within the clergy

When I left the faith, I was extremely lucky. When it came to my social circle, my family and friends took the news mildly. My work didn't suffer, as I was starting a career outside the ministry. The only real struggle, other than my own inner turmoil, concerned my relationship with my wife, Cori, who was my girlfriend at the time, and who is a Christian. But we both managed to make our relationship work.

Other ex-Christians, however, find themselves in tougher circumstances. Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, from Tufts University, recently published a paper on practicing preachers who are also atheists (see here). Five members of the clergy, from various denominations, were confidentially interviewed to explore their reasons for walking away from faith and why they still remain in the ministry.

Although the authors rightly stress that the sample is too small to make reliable generalisations, there were some common issues raised by all (if not most) of the five subjects.

  • As believers, the primary reason why the subjects joined the ministry was to help others.
  • The road to doubt began during their years of study in seminary, when the 'truths' they were taught in Sunday School were suddenly challenged for the first time.
  • All five have kept their unbelief secret from their congregation, friends and even their families, and have struggled with feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • One or two justify remaining in the ministry to encourage their congregation to think about ideals such as democracy and tolerance.
  • The main reason cited for not leaving the ministry, despite their unbelief, is that they feel that they won't be able to start another career to financially support their families.
  • There is a huge gulf between what is taught from the pulpit compared to what the clergy learn in seminary. The authors suggest that the clergy generally don't preach what they have learnt because they fear damaging their parishioners' beliefs.
It is easy to accuse these five, and many others who might be in the same situation, of hypocrisy. But when I remember how difficult my own faith struggle was, and when I consider the fact that I didn't have deal with the possible loss of a job, career, friends, or family, I feel a great deal of compassion for anyone who might be stuck in this position.


smithadri said...

Interesting post,
from the article I gather that all of the interviewees entered theological study without having been at the stage of seriously committing to central Christian beliefs (i.e. being in a place where they believed them), choosing to take a more liberal view whilst entering ministry. Their situation would be different to yours would it not? They entered Christian ministry, not believing and now have a huge problem. Could it be that they were _not_ qualified to be in ministry?

CyberKitten said...

We have lots of them over here - They're collectively called The Church of England [grin].

Killingthe said...

Over at Killing the Buddha, we have a new essay responding to Dennett's report. In it Daniel Silliman argues, "Dennett and LaScola dismiss the nuance in what their subjects say, foisting a severely restrictive framework onto the ministers’ carefully thought-out positions. Even in the title, the study labels them 'not believers,' though that doesn’t really describe them at all."

sattler said...

Kevin, this is such a subtle and interesting post. Over the past couple of years I've posted around related issues (atheism, clericalism, anticlericalism, etc). I can only suggest that anyone who wants to know what it feels like for a Christian insider to struggle with theism/atheism within Christian leadership ought to read my blog under those topics.

As a Christian I wouldn't place the emphasis in quite the same place. I don't believe faith is something to be delivered from or cured of. I heard it described as 'God poisoning' the other day. But I very much empathise with the tensions you identify. I suspect that there are a number of reasons why doubt or unbelief can be a miserable experience for Christian leaders in addition to financial and social dependency:

1) The suppression of a vocabulary of doubt by way of stifling, truimphalist theology.
2) The dominance of clericalism, where individuals are 'ordained' to a separate realm than the 'ordinary' believer. The logic then follows, that the 'cleric' floats ten feet above the mortal realm.
3) The lack of a nuanced understanding of atheism or a critical rationality.

With regard to the latter, I have come to realise that atheism and theism aren't polar opposites, nor is faith and unbelief. There is a (subversive?) tradition within Christianity of what might be called 'spiritual atheism'. To some extent this is simple iconoclasm. It's certainly present in Christian mysticism, i.e. the 'dark night of the soul'. Any applied reading of Christian theology over the past sixty or seventy years - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothee Soelle, Jurgen Moltmann - reveals a profound understanding of the umbilical relationship of theism to atheism.

I personally find it sad that many Christian leaders make the transition from Christian to ex-Christian because, for whatever reason, the Christian faith is not experienced as nurturing of doubt, rationality and exploration.

Paul said...

Thanks for the post, Kevin. I wander over to your pages every now and again and always enjoy what you write and how you think. The reason I'm responding to this post is that I recently posted on the same subject at As a third-year seminary student and ex-scientist, I came down on the atheist pastors a little harder than you. I must say, though, I appreciate your compassion toward them.

Paul Wallace