Preachers Who Are Not Believers

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 philosophy
classes and all that. And I had to have one year of Hebrew, two years of Greek.”
During 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:
“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.”

“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.”
But now, well into ministry, Adam considers himself an "atheistic agnostic." So how does he do his job?
“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 these
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.”
Why 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:
“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.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

10 thoughts on “Preachers Who Are Not Believers”

  1. One must have one's naive faith thoroughly tested. Faith is not a matter of believing in going to hell and linear time. I am just working through the Song of Songs. In Song 7:2, the thighs of the beloved are described as the work of an artist. The 'artist' is אָמָּן Amen, the same root as faithful. Adam needs to be better at projection.

  2. Dang. This is heavy for so many reasons.

    There was a season in my ministry when I had to preach sermons while not being sure I believed in God. I was able to navigate through my doubts for the most part, but it was a lonely journey. Who does a preacher tell when his faith is waning?

    This reminds me of the premise of one of Pete Rollins' books, "The Fidelity of Betrayal." What if in order to be faithful to the Christian tradition we have to first betray it. Good book, but not an easy read.

  3. "brave individuals" is not a term i would use for paid clergy who no longer believe but stay in their job for financial security

    a brave individual is one who lives what they believe, even when that means losing a secure income and lifestyle

    a brave individual is one who dares to be authentic

    not one who role plays and pretends to believe or be something they are not

    no wonder people are leaving organised religion in droves - they are not idiots - they can sniff hypocrisy a mile off

    "seeking an alternative comfortable job" - the search will be long, and in my experience it ain't out there, but sacrifice is sometimes required to live your own truth

    and how sad if family is only staying together because someone is living a lie

    what will a person give in exchange for their soul?

  4. richard

    I especially thought this line (by wes) was interesting:

    “The difference between me and an atheist is basically this: It’s not about the existence of God. It’s: do we believe that there is room for the use of the word ‘God’ in some context? And a thoroughly consistent atheist would say, ‘No. We just need to get over that word just like we need to get over concepts of race. We quit using that word, we’d be better off.’ Whereas I would say I agree with that in a great many cases, but I still think the word has some value in some contexts. So I think the word God can be used very expressively in some of my more meditative modes. I’ve thought of God as a kind of poetry that’s written by human beings. As a way of dealing with the fact that we’re finite; we’re vulnerable.”

    In conversations with theists and atheists (and many inbetween), it seems that belief hinges so much on language... we hedge on words that make us cringe because of their associations. i think this is the case with atheists when they might not like 'god' but could mroe easily speak of 'moments of transcendence' ... what is the difference? clearly the language and its connotations/ dinnotations are different...but what else.

    i am not trying to say everyone believes the same thing, but that language can sometimes become a crutch to make us feel better with what we do or do not believe.

  5. My first reaction is very similar to Kei's.

    Taking another specific twist to this, I have a feeling there might be a handful (maybe more) who make a living as a bible teacher / pastor,
    but have become aware of the possibility of
    Universal Reconciliation. However, they
    continue to play along with the eternal torture in hell paradigm for fear (I believe) mostly
    of destroying their public reputation as well as losing their job.

    From the system I came from, several pastors
    of larger churches make 6 figures/year while
    having their studies broadcast over the air (as well as recorded). For them to walk away from
    that (forfeiting their popularity, reputation,
    best seats in the market place, etc)
    to declare UR would be tougher than ...
    a camel walking through the eye of a needle.

    It's going to be interesting: James 3:1
    Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

    I admit to having a lack of sympathy for today's prosperous bible teachers.
    Again, this is a little off track from
    this blog which is about a pastor/teacher
    who've "lost their faith" along the way but still go through the motions. If for no other
    reason, as Kei ended with, take a stand simply
    for the santity of soul.

    Gary Y.

  6. Sort of like an American president who's not sure he really likes the Founders' ideals and documents after all. Funny correlation! qb

  7. I wonder if the clergy undergoing these experiences are influenced by the liberal nature of graduate education. I'm an undergrad, but I took at class with a really liberal bent at my college's Divinity school. I had to do a good amount of outside research in order to start rebuilding my faith (of less than six months at the time). The problem was that my liberal professor taught that his perspective was the only right one and didn't feature any dissenting opinions. I wouldn't be surprised if preachers are facing these problems with doubt because the graduate schools are excluding more conservative theological defenses from their curriculum...

  8. Absolute certainty on either side - belief or unbelief - seems a stagnant, growthless place, as Chesterton points out that an interesting person who is absolutely certain he is a chicken is in fact insane (Orthodoxy, The Maniac). The conservative denomination I grew up in viewed doubt like a traitorous sin, that "true faith" is held unwaveringly, and sheds all doubt per James 1:6-8. There was no recognizing of doubt as a necessary part of life's and faith's fire-tested journey. I guess this pastor is at the opposite extreme, now propagating organizationally what he believes is a lie, and living a lie in the process. Is he doubting his beliefs, or is he now certain that unbelief is unmitigated fact? No matter where he stands now theologically, time and life events may shake or modify his current perspective. George MacDonald wrote that "that which of declension would indicate a devil may of progress indicate a saint." It sort of begs the question, whether his Christian friends, if they knew, would continue to walk beside him as Christian friends, or simply walk away from him for not echoing their own points of view.

Leave a Reply