Are there clergy men who don’t believe in “God”? The answer is Yes! …and they’re the subject of a new study by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola from Tufts University, “Preachers who are not Believers”.
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.
Dennett and LaScola managed to find and interview five Protestant clergy men who “don’t believe” but continue to practice. Given the liberality of today’s clergy, and the resistance of many non-believing preachers to participate in the study, this may be only the tip of the iceberg.
“Wes”, a Methodist preacher had this to say:
I went to college thinking Adam and Eve were real people. And I can remember really wrestling with that when my Old Testament professor was pointing out the obvious myths and how they came to be. And I kind of joked at the time that I prayed my way all the way to atheism. Because in the early days, it was wrestling with God; praying to God.
My first few years of doing this were wracked with, ‘God, should I be doing this? Is this —? Am I being —? Am I posing? Am I being less than authentic; less than honest?’ … And, I really wrestled with it and to some degree still. But not nearly as much.
My colleagues here are very educated, very well read, and do not believe the significance of Christianity lies in whether it’s literally true.”… “They’re very liberal. They’ve been de-mythologized, I’ll say that. They don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead literally. They don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin. They don’t believe all those things that would cause a big stir in their churches. But that’s not uncommon in mainline denominations, or even in the Catholic Church. I mean, you have a professional class of people, basically, who are working with an organization of non-professionals.
Wes has confided his non-belief with one of his church members. He and Wes became close friends while working on various church projects over a period of several years.
Perhaps he was the one that maybe kind of initiated asking questions, trying to figure out what I thought of some things. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but he brought it up: ‘Do you think there is a being out there somewhere?’ And at that point, I knew him well enough, so I said ‘Oh, no.’ He absolutely died laughing! And he said, ‘You know, I’ve really been wrestling with that myself, but I’ve never met anybody who just said, ‘Oh, of course not!’
Wes says he is happy in ministry, knowing that it provides a flexible and comfortable lifestyle and an opportunity to positively influence people’s lives. Although he thinks that religion will be around a long time, he sees that part of his role is to help make his job obsolete.
“Rick”, a United Church of Christ Minister still remembers what his professor taught him in seminary school:
When you get into your own churches, you’ve got to realize that there’s these two things that are important that you’ve got to do: You’ve got to raise money, and you’ve got to recruit members.
When asked about how his classmates reacted to learning the details of Christian history, he said,
Well, they sat through the same Old Testament courses I did, and half of them were fighting against it the whole way. Because they didn’t like the scholarship, they couldn’t — it was a challenge to their faith. Well, I didn’t have to deal with that; because I wanted to know what it was. They felt threatened; they pulled back. …. they would fight the professor about his interpretation about Old Testament passages. They were kind of literalistic about it. And when we’d talk about myth and stories, they’d say, ‘No, it happened!’ So there was kind of a clash. They didn’t like to have their literalistic interpretation of the Bible undermined by an Old Testament scholar. It was quite a thing to see!
When asked his opinion of why ministers do not pass on their knowledge of Christian history to parishioners, he said:
They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to lose donations. They want to keep their jobs…
“Darryl”, a Presbyterian minister has this to say:
I reject the virgin birth. I reject substitutionary atonement. I reject the divinity of Jesus. I reject heaven and hell in the traditional sense, and I am not alone.
If you read the Bible literally, you’re not taking the Bible seriously.
“Adam”, Church of Christ minister says:
If God is God, he’s big enough; he can handle any questions I’ve got. Well, he didn’t. He didn’t measure up! And that sounds, you know, so funny, because if I heard somebody else saying that a year ago, I’d have thought, ‘You are such a sacrilegious person. God’s going to strike you dead by lightning or something!’
“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.’
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.
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. Because I do feel kind of hypocritical…
Here’s the testimony of “Jack,” a Southern Baptist preacher:
The pursuit of Christianity brought me to the point of not believing in God….
I didn’t plan to become an atheist. I didn’t even want to become an atheist. It’s just that I had no choice. If I’m being honest with myself.
I’ve just this autumn, started saying to myself, out loud, ‘I don’t believe in God any more.’ It’s not like, I don’t want to believe in God. I don’t believe in God. And it’s because of all my pursuits of Christianity. I want to understand Christianity, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. And I’ve wanted to be a Christian. I’ve tried to be a Christian, and all the ways they say to do it. It just didn’t add up.
The love stuff is good. And you can still believe in that, and live a life like that. But the whole grand scheme of Christianity, for me, is just a bunch of bunk.
He related numerous examples of biblical thought that did not make sense to him, for example:
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.
[People would say] ‘I had this wonderful experience with God.’ I’d say, ‘I want that. Give it to me.’ Why didn’t God ever give it to me? I think they’re making it up in their mind. I never had one of those.
He is planning to leave the ministry as soon he finds another way to support his family. He would leave sooner, if he had enough money to pay off his debts.
If somebody said, ‘Here’s $200,000,’ I’d be turning my notice in this week, saying, ‘A month from now is my last Sunday.’
Recently, he was very open with his son who asked him about some Bible passages.
We were talking about some scriptures in Revelation and some other things. He said, ‘Dad, do you really believe?’ Before I could think, I said, ‘Son, I don’t believe any of it. No way.’ He just smiled.
So where does this leave us?
Of course, anyone who actually reads the academia behind the scriptures knows that none of it is real. People who profess the Bible as the word of “God” are either delusional or running a scam operation. Your preacher has been taught the truth…why do they not share it with you?
As Wes put it: “. . . there are a lot of clergy out there who — if you were to ask them — if you were to list the five things that you think may be the most central beliefs of Christianity, they would reject every one of them.”
That is one of the most disturbing things about religion, it not only encourages dishonesty; it absolutely relies on massive outright fraud for its continued survival. Mahatma Gandhi [Indian Philosopher, internationally esteemed for his doctrine of nonviolent protest, 1869-1948] said it best: “Hypocrisy and distortion are passing currents under the name of religion”
I highly recommend reading the 28-page study, the preachers’ testimony makes a sad but enlightening read.
Thanks for reading,
Preachers who are not Believers, by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University, March 15, 2010
Tuft University Center for Cognitive Studies
Dutch rethink Christianity for a doubtful world: