Summer 2010

Atheists Anonymous

– The Wilson Quarterly

What does it mean to be a nonbelieving pastor?

Generations of questioning churchgoers have struggled to accept the teachings of Christianity, as have, inevitably, some clergy. The stakes are certainly higher for the latter. What does it mean to be a nonbelieving pastor?

Daniel C. Dennett, a philosophy professor at Tufts University, and social worker Linda LaScola discreetly identified and interviewed five “closeted” nonbelieving ministers to better understand this “invisible phenomenon.” The pastors, all Protestant men (Dennett and LaScola couldn’t identify any nonbelieving Catholic or Orthodox priests), expressed skepticism about a host of fundamental Christian teachings, including the virgin birth of Jesus, the existence of heaven and hell, and the status of the Bible as the inerrant word of God. Some admitted that their religious stance might be best described as atheist. “The whole grand scheme of Christianity, for me, is just a bunch of bunk,” said Jack, a Southern Baptist minister of 15 years.

Three of the five pastors felt stuck in a purgatory of sorts: They wanted to leave the church, but felt they lacked options. “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,” said Adam, a Church of Christ minister with a very religious wife and children. He regularly chided himself, “Just stick with what you’re doing; it pays good.... You’re doing good in your community; you’re respected. But it’s just gnawing away inside.”

"You can't go through seminary and come out believing in God!" joked one pastor.

Most of the pastors had no sense of their impending change of heart when they entered religious life. Their first stirrings of doubt occurred when they encountered arguments against the truthfulness of Christianity in seminary. (“You can’t go through seminary and come out believing in God!” joked one pastor.) Some, though, had entertained skepticism from a much earlier point. Rick, a contented minister in the liberal United Church of Christ who attended seminary in part to avoid the Vietnam War–era draft, never had to formally embrace conventional Christian doctrine.

For those tormented by doubt, the meaningfulness of the profession was a solace. “I can be with somebody and genuinely have empathy with them, and concern and love and help them get through a difficult situation,” Jack acknowledged. Wes, a Methodist pastor who felt comfortable continuing to serve his parish even with his doubts, spoke of how much he valued the opportunity to encourage progressive values in the Methodist Church.

The men rarely, if ever, discussed their lack of conviction with others, even though some believed that many fellow ministers experienced similar deficits of faith. “We all find ourselves committed to little white lies,” write Dennett and LaScola. “But these pastors—and who knows how many others—are caught in a larger web of diplomatic, tactical, and, finally, ethical concealment.”

THE SOURCE“Preachers Who Are Not Believers” by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, in Evolutionary Psychology, March 2010.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Jennifer Boyer