Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University have just released a study entitled Preachers Who Are Not Believers (PDF) (h/t Peter B).
In the study, Dennett and LaSchola, both atheists, interviewed five preachers who no longer believe in God or whose beliefs regarding the nature of God were extremely different from the beliefs of their parishioners.
Although the details regarding the identity of the preachers were changed for the purposes of anonymity one of them, "Adam," appears to be a Church of Christ minister, my own religious tradition. Adam talks about a "hunger for learning" that led him into graduate school to prepare for life as a preacher and minister:
“I hungered to continue learning; I felt like it was very applicable; I felt like it would prepare me more to minister. And I was very focused on the practical ministry side. I wasn’t so much into deep theology or --- world missions, or ---- philosophy of religion. …I mean, there were theology classes and philosophyDuring Adam's time at school he was aware of some of the issues academic training was raising about faith but he was too busy thinking about the practical aspects of his life in ministry:
classes and all that. And I had to have one year of Hebrew, two years of Greek.”
“OK, here’s what Biblical scholars are saying, and there’s some questions over here, but I just trust God, and know he’s guiding me, and I’m learning this so I can be a minister and help people. When I was working with people, it was a lot more practically focused on, ‘OK, here’s what the Bible says, how do we live it out? How do we encourage other people? What’s the whole evangelistic side of Christianity? How can we win more people into Christ.’ I mean you’re sincere; that’s what your goal is. You don’t want anybody to miss out and to go to hell.”But now, well into ministry, Adam considers himself an "atheistic agnostic." So how does he do his job?
“I don’t remember stressing a lot over doubts that were raised by the study, undergraduate or graduate. At the graduate level, I was challenged a little bit more by the theology and the philosophy - like suffering in the world. Which in the last year was probably one of my major wake-up calls. Like, how can there be a living God with the world in the shape that it’s in? But looking back at it, I learned what I learned to get through so I could focus on things. My intentions were the greatest and the purest.”
“During the time when I was introduced --- even in undergraduate to textual criticism --- looking at how we got the scriptures that we have, and the textual variances. I just kind of learned what I needed to learn to pass the test, and didn’t really --- I mean, I thought, ‘Well, how do we know what was the right variant that was chosen that we now have as the scripture? But I really didn’t --- I had way too much going: I was too busy working full-time and going to school, and a family, and small children.”
“Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don’t believe what I’m saying anymore in some of theseWhy doesn't Adam leave the church? Two reasons. First, his wife and teenage children are very religious and Adam's departure from the faith might hurt them. The second reason is economic:
songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that’s what it
takes for me to get myself through this, but that’s what I’m doing.”
“I’m where I am because I need the job still. If I had an alternative, a comfortable paying job, something I was interested in doing, and a move that wouldn’t destroy my family, that’s where I’d go."Dennett and LaSchola end the essay about these five preachers this way:
These are brave individuals who are still trying to figure out how to live with the decisions they made many years ago, when they decided, full of devotion and hope, to give their lives to a God they no longer find by their sides. We hope that by telling their stories we will help them and others find more wholehearted ways of doing the good they set out to do. Perhaps the best thing their congregations can do to help them is to respect their unspoken vows of secrecy, and allow them to carry on unchallenged; or perhaps this is a short-sighted response, ultimately just perpetuating the tightly interlocking system that maintains the gulf of systematic hypocrisy between clergy and laity.
I think many of you would also enjoy Matt's comments about all this over at Theoprudence.