Imagine being forced to go to work every day and, as part of the job, profess something that you absolutely don’t believe. More than that: at least once a week you have to publicly profess it, and also counsel other people on the explicit premise that you share the beliefs you reject. In other words, you’re forced to live a lie.
Such is the position of clergy who don’t believe in God. Yes, there are some of them, and they’re the subject of a new study by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola from Tufts University, “Preachers who are not believers.” You can find that 28-page study at the Washingon Post‘s “On Faith” section (click the link on that page to download the pdf). I recommend reading it if you have time.
Dennett and LaScola managed to find and interview five Protestant “nonbelievers.” Given the liberality of today’s clergy, and the resistance of many nonbelieving preachers to participate in the study, this may be only the tip of the iceberg. Although some interviewees accept a numinous notion that might be termed “God,” none of them believe in the theistic God limned by the faith they profess. Here’s the testimony of “Jack,” a Southern Baptist preacher:
“OK, this God created me. It’s a perfect God that knows everything; can do anything. And somehow it got messed up, and it’s my fault. So he had to send his son to die for me to fix it. And he does. And now I’m supposed to beat myself to death the rest of my life over it. It makes no sense to me. Don’t you think a God could come up with a better plan than that?”
“What kind of personality; what kind of being is this that had to create these other beings to worship and tell him how wonderful he is? That makes no sense, if this God is all-knowing and all-wise and all-wonderful. I can’t comprehend that that’s what kind of person God is.”
“Every church I’ve been in preached that the Jonah in the Whale story is literally true. And I’ve never believed that. You mean to tell me a human was in the belly of that whale? For three days? And then the whale spit him out on the shoreline? And, of course, their convenient logic is, ‘Well, God can do anything.’”
“Well, I think most Christians have to be in a state of denial to read the Bible and believe it. Because there are so many contradicting stories. You’re encouraged to be violent on one page, and you’re encouraged to give sacrificial love on another page. You’re encouraged to bash a baby’s head on one page, and there’s other pages that say, you know, give your brother your fair share of everything you have if they ask for it.”
“But if God was going to reveal himself to us, don’t you think it would be in a way that we wouldn’t question? …I mean, if I was wanting to have…people teach about the Bible…I would probably make sure they knew I existed. …I mean, I wouldn’t send them mysterious notes, encrypted in a way that it took a linguist to figure out.”
I can’t help but note that “Jack” was influenced by an classic argument for atheism: if God wants us to know his presence, why is He always hidden? Isn’t it more parsimonious to posit the absence of God rather than a God who, for reasons that elude us, is always just around the corner? Theologians, of course, have lots of arguments why the absence of God is precisely the evidence that God exists.
Surprisingly, two of the clergy lost their faith, in part, by reading new atheist books by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Even Bill Maher’s movie, Religulous, influenced one of them. So much for the notion that new atheism makes no converts. “Adam” speaks:
“I tell you, the book that just grabbed my mind and just twisted it around, was Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. It was shocking, some of that stuff – the throws and jabs against faith and stuff. I would think, ‘He’s crazy.’ But then I’d say, ‘No. Step back and read it for what it is.’
The preachers’ testimony makes a sad but enlightening read. The road to eroded faith is tortuous, but often involved exposure to Biblical scholarship at the seminary or graduate school. Faced with the notion that the Bible is a human construct, and not the inerrant word of God, several of these preachers began to question everything.
Why do these preachers stay in the faith and on the job? Three reasons, mostly. One is financial: what else could they do with their training if they left the ministry? Often they have neither equity (living in church-owned houses) nor pensions. Another, and perhaps more important, reason is that an admission of unbelief would shock and disappoint their friends and family. This is a very powerful motive, for facing the truth would rip asunder your network of social and family support. We’ve encountered this before in the admission of Karl Giberson, still a professed believer, head of BioLogos, and someone who may be teetering on the edge of apostasy:
As a purely practical matter, I have compelling reasons to believe in God. My parents are deeply committed Christians and would be devastated, were I to reject my faith. My wife and children believe in God, and we attend church together regularly. Most of my friends are believers. I have a job I love at a Christian college that would be forced to dismiss me if I were to reject the faith that underpins the mission of the college. Abandoning belief in God would be disruptive, sending my life completely off the rails.
Finally, many of these preachers like their work, especially the part of the job that involves helping troubled people. Jack again:
“And that’s what people told me my best skills were – dealing with people. …I can be with somebody and genuinely have empathy with them, and concern and love and help them get through a difficult situation. And every time that I did it, those people thought that I was wonderful. And they would just bend over backwards to tell me ‘Thank you.’ That was one of my strengths. …Being with somebody when their husband died. And just holding their hand, or putting my arm around them. But I never said ‘Now, he’s in heaven. Aren’t you glad for him?’”
There’s absolutely no doubt that faith, and religious institutions, have provided important help for those in need or in trouble. Some religions do this more than others. Sikhs, for example, seem to have a well-developed system of intra-faith welfare. Such help doesn’t, of course, prove the existence of God or support any of the fact claims of faith, nor does it offset all the harms that faith has wrought on humanity. But isn’t it a shame that there aren’t secular communities where those with altruistic instincts can “minister” without hypocrisy or fear?
The On Faith page features commentary on the Dennett and LaScola article by seventeen other people, including ex-Bishop John Shelby Spong, writer Rebecca Goldstein, theologian Martin Marty, and—God help us—Deepak Chopra. I haven’t yet read these. There are also (surprisingly few) comments by readers.