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Austin Cline

Atheist Preachers

By August 23, 2010

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Although it might sound bizarre, there are Protestant pastors out there who aren't quite the believers that their congregations assume them to be. Some "merely" doubt most of the standard dogmas of Christianity; others don't believe any of it and are effectively atheists. Just how many pastors out there are secretly atheists, or at least strongly agnostic doubters? No one knows and it's unlikely that there will ever be a full accounting of them.

Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola interviewee five atheist pastors and wrote about them in "Preachers Who Are Not Believers" in Evolutionary Psychology, March 2010 (via Wilson Quarterly):

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.

Funny how so-called "new" atheists will be blasted as "intolerant" for rejecting Christianity as "bunk," but here's a Southern Baptist minister doing exactly that. At least atheists like me can be honest about what we think, but atheist pastors basically have to lie -- to their friends, to their family, and basically to everyone else they ever meet.

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."

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."

Looked at from a broader perspective, this phenomenon isn't all that unusual and isn't unique to priests or pastors. People in other professions have certainly "lost faith" in what they were doing and wished they could get out, but didn't know how -- whether because they had invested too much in it so far, still saw themselves as doing some good, or both. Still, there seems something unusually problematic about this happening with pastors than with it happening to someone who works in the energy industry or a health insurance corporation.

If you work for a health insurance corporation that you believe is doing more harm than good, you may still feel that you can mitigate that harm from the inside and be honest with your friends and family with the problems you see in your employer. A pastor doesn't even have that much -- there is no one they can share their real feelings with except in unusual circumstances like the above interviews.

In effect, this means that they are living a lie, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Since they are not just in a career but a "calling," it is arguable that their entire life and identity is constructed around a lie -- much more so than a mere employee at a large corporation. Their job is to help people live better within an ideology that they no longer accept and really should be arguing against, not fostering. So how do they manage to live with themselves?

August 23, 2010 at 2:52 pm
(1) Troy says:

Most of my friends belong to a non-denominational local church but the majority of them are protestant. I am socially involved with them but do not attend church services. However, I do participate in some functions ( e.g.,golf tournaments). I have come to the conclusion after nearly 20 years that most of these people look upon this church as a social club. Of course, they go through the motions of prayer, sunday school, choir and sermons, etc., but there is not the fervor in their actions that I saw during my youth. Their parties and other activities of a strictly social nature seem to energize them more than a call to save souls. These are all good people who, I believe, fear ostracism from their fellows. Perhaps this phenomenon explains the dilemma faced by preachers who have lost their faith. Acceptance by the group is a powerful force. I have been able to maintain relationships by respecting their beliefs and making no effort to cause them to doubt. I think most of them simply do not want to talk about it.

August 24, 2010 at 11:16 am
(2) tracieh says:

>Three of the five pastors felt stuck in a purgatory of sorts: They wanted to leave the church, but felt they lacked options.

We have a protestan preacher who writes to us semi-regularly, who is an atheist. We did a program on atheist pastors, and he contacted the show.

He expressed this exact concern. Preaching was his “calling” from the time he was young. It was all he’d ever done. When he wrote to us he felt like he was living a lie, but had a family and a congregation to answer to, and it was literally his sole source of earning a living.

Fortunately for him, his wife was open enough to talk with him, and ultimately she agreed with his conclusion that their religion was not representing reality.

He had begun preaching skeptical sermons. I warned him about the danger of that, as a family member of mine lost his job while he was still a theist, for simply preaching questions of the doctrine at the Church of Christ.

He explained he had seen these sorts of “falls from grace” as well, and understood he was skating on thin ice. I suggested that rather than risk his income, it might be best to start up a Humanist or UU congregation in his area and simply swap over to a different sort of “preaching.”

The last time he wrote, he had contacted a Humanist asociation and was working on getting that moving.

I’m very fortunate that for me realizing I was an atheist really did not have a lot of real-world backlash with family and job. I’ve always lived in cities that had a lot of diversity and where “atheist” wasn’t too shocking.

But for many people a lot rides on their faith. I’d love it if every atheist could come out and be open about it. But it’s not always as easy for everyone as it was for me. Still, it must be very hard to feel pressured to live a lie. Hiding it isn’t exactly a picnic.

August 25, 2010 at 8:27 am
(3) P Smith says:

From the item:

‘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.”

That’s one of the worst things about going into the religious industry, the skills don’t transfer. I doubt someone with a religious degree (I wouldn’t call it a religious “education”) could even get a job as a social worker, which would be a far more honourable profession.

Here’s a thought about the item…I wonder how many of the “closeted” atheist-ministers have unethical behaviour in their backgrounds. Odds are, none of them. It’s always the fervently religious who rationalize their behaviour.


August 27, 2010 at 4:11 pm
(4) Jane says:

I am an atheist preacher (I call myself a spiritual atheist) and my congregation knows and welcomes my thoughts.
I had to transfer from United Methodism to Unitarian Universalism, but now I can speak with integrity!

August 28, 2010 at 1:32 am
(5) Richard says:

I can’t imagine that the goofy priest that Bill Maher talks to outside the Vatican in Religulous believes all of the stuff that Catholics are supposed to believe.

August 29, 2010 at 11:07 am
(6) Zack says:

I always wonder how much a preacher buys into his or her own flim flam.

Based on my own direct observations, I think that for some of them — maybe for many of them — preaching is just a form of grifting, and that they themselves may even view it more or less that way.

They can be surprisingly candid about this in private conversation, especially if you have known them for awhile, and especially if you take them to lunch, which they are almost always happy to let you do.

February 15, 2011 at 7:53 pm
(7) roger says:

I used to own a Bed and Breakfast in the Hudson Valley north of New york City. One weekend we had a guest who was a professor at Yeshiva University in NYC. While sitting on the porch and talking about nothing specific, I just happened to mention to him that I was an atheist. Surprisingly he acknowledged that he was an atheist also, and virtually all of his friends and associates were atheists as well.

When pressed as to why he went through the motions of a practicing Jew, he pointed out that his historical and cultural attachment to Judiasm was unshakable and that the rituals of Judiasm were what binds Jews together. Initially, I was taken aback, but in thinking it through, I realized that essentially it is the rituals of Christianity that bind most of my Christian friends together and give them a sense of security in belonging.

June 8, 2011 at 1:26 pm
(8) Volizden says:

@ Roger – That is a VERY good point and a solid reason for why religion STILL persists to this day. As a Cultural Anthropologist I see things like this often, People who don’t believe the dogma or belief system they are part of but remain for two reasons:

1. Not sure of what life there is outside of the community they are currently part of with long standing roots in it. Because they know that the Fear (see point 2.) is real.

2. The Fear – that they will be ostracized from the community they have been part of for years with many friends. Which is a VERY real and reasonable fear because they know NOTHING else.

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