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Support for atheist clergy
October 25, 2011 6:55 AM   Subscribe

A year and a half ago we discussed Daniel Dennett's study of clergy who had lost their faith. In the meantime, he and Richard Dawkins have teamed up to start "The Clergy Project," an online community for clergy who are considering leaving the ministry because of their loss of faith, and former clergy who have already made the transition out.

Dawkins and Barker believe clergy need help in exiting the ministry, saying it is "near to impossible" to leave.

"If a farmer tires of the outdoor life and wants to become an accountant or a teacher or a shopkeeper, he faces difficulties, to be sure. He must learn new skills, raise money, move to another area perhaps. But he doesn't risk losing all his friends, being cast out by his family, being ostracized by his whole community," Dawkins writes on the website.

"Clergy who lose their faith suffer double jeopardy. It's as though they lose their job and their marriage and their children on the same day."
posted by Pater Aletheias (63 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
Closet atheists need to start an "it gets better" campaign. Eventually, you're parents will stop asking you if you've found a good church near you. Eventually, you stop getting signed up for Moody Bible Institute newsletters and giftboxes. Eventually, your kids can join a nature and reliance group that doesn't require them to say they believe in an invisible sky giant. Eventually, you'll stop waking up in the middle of the night with a mortal fear you are going to hell.
posted by DU at 7:01 AM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


All applicants to The Clergy Project are carefully screened in order to protect the confidentiality of the existing members... No more than two “screeners” (who are current members of the group) know the actual identity and location of each member (held in strict confidence), and each active clergy must use a pseudonym within the group.
The Clergyman Who Was Thursday?
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:05 AM on October 25, 2011 [9 favorites]


These threads sometimes turn bad, so if it does, I want to say, thanks for posting. I hadn't heard of this and it is fascinating.
posted by josher71 at 7:06 AM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


I know quite a few pastors who, honestly, are agnostic at most and suffer greatly for it. I seem to keep running into them, it might be that I'm just able to see it because, if I were pushed in a certain way, I could have become one myself.

I read a paper once, that I can't seem to find at the moment, that demonstrated 'interest in religion' as a heritable and thus at least partially inborn trait. Not religiousness, not strength of faith but interest and I know quite a few out atheists who are very interested in religion in a particular way too. Its funny, when you become attuned to the signals, a great deal of Christian saints were plainly 'in doubt'. Mother Teressa had a quite public struggle with having no perception of God.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:09 AM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Its funny, when you become attuned to the signals, a great deal of Christian saints were plainly 'in doubt'. Mother Teressa had a quite public struggle with having no perception of God.

Although for Mother Teresa it wasn't so much, "I'm doubting whether God really exists" as "I once had an overwhelmingly transcendent experience of God and now my heart is broken because I don't feel that same way, even though by my own beliefs I shouldn't expect to."
posted by straight at 7:15 AM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


It was my impression that Mother Teresa's struggle was entirely private until her death.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:16 AM on October 25, 2011


At the risk of thread-sitting, I'll say the sort of thing I would have said (as MeFi's resident ex-pastor) if someone else had posted this:

The pressures that ministers who are rethinking their faith experience really are significant. Seminary education is 90 hours of expensive private graduate school, which is often supported by denominational scholarships that require the recipient to spend x years in ministry. Leave before then and you're on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars.

Plus, seminary training is very, very specialized. It equips you to do one thing. If you're really lucky, you might slide into academia, but that's rare, and if you are teaching undergrad Bible at a Christian school, you really haven't changed your situation much at all. You are still having to sign statements of faith you don't believe and pray with your students.

Former ministers I knew ten years ago were able to use their connections to get mid-level administrative positions in various businesses based on their years of church admin experience, but those days are over. The recession hit, and who wants to hire an ex-pastor when there are 85 applicants for your job with the right degree and directly relevant experience? Former ministers I know now are trying to go into work for themselves as consultants or motivational speakers and are basically living in poverty. Others are taking on huge debt to go back to school and train for something else, and it's going to ruin them financially if they don't get a decent job at the end of it.

So, you have the economic pressure to just keep preaching, which can be enormous, and then you have the social pressure. All of your friends since high school are Bible professors, fellow pastors, or church members. Everyone for a decade or two has known you as "the preacher." Come out as an atheist and you lose your job in disgrace and every last one of your relationships becomes strained, to various degrees. It could seriously hurt your marriage. And in the back of your mind, you're thinking that if your marriage ends, the custody hearing is going to be sweet, mistreated Christian wife versus hypocritical disgraced pastor making minimum wage at the Kwik-E stop.

I'm one of the lucky ones, all things considered. I did a master's in communication alongside my seminary degree, and after only one year of making $400, then $800 a month as an adjunct, I got a full time position in barren Laredo, Texas, largely because very few people want to live here and my dept chair is a preacher's kid who didn't look askance at my background. We're short on teachers so I get to do overloads, teaching eight classes rather than just five, and by working 160% of a full-time job, I can now make 63% of what my last pastoral salary was. Fortunately, I really love my new work, and I think I'm good at it, and we can just almost pay the bills with it, as long as no one gets sick before my health insurance kicks in and the cars keep running.

Just last week I was called and offered a job at a biggish church in a place I'd rather live, at $20,000 more per year than I am making now. I said no, but I'd be lying if I said I weren't really tempted to suck it up and try to make it work. But those robes don't fit me anymore.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:28 AM on October 25, 2011 [85 favorites]


This is a really fascinating topic. I have a online friend who clearly (to me--but I'm an atheist) belongs in the ministry and/or a ministry-related helping profession. She has a master's in Divinity and was pursuing a second advanced degree in social work which she recently dropped out of to pursue seminary. She left the Roman Catholic church a few years ago after a long struggle that culminated in a decision to join the Episcopalians instead, which I felt like as an outside observer had a lot to do with the Catholic limits on women in ministry. I hadn't really considered the social aspects, other than family, of her struggle, but reading the article made me think about what she'd dealt with in terms of her decision to change church affiliation. Thanks for posting.
posted by immlass at 7:40 AM on October 25, 2011


I swear the more I hear about it, the more I am sure my mother's entire congregation is turning away from a faith in God. She is a member of Los Altos United Methodist church in Long Beach, California and every time the subject comes up she drops another bomb shell. Lately they are moving away from "Faith" and into "Works." How can we be more Christ like? How can we meet the needs of the less fortunate? How can we be less judgmental? Does being Christ-like require a belief in Jesus? This isn't just her talking, it is her pastors and their bible study sessions.

I first started getting an inkling about 5 years ago when she told me that she wasn't sure about Jesus' divinity; that the Nativity was a nice story, but improbable. Next she let on that Heaven is more a concept than an actuality because "nobody knows what happens in the afterlife." Last year she joined a church group that supports LGBT rights. It is interesting to hear about the new ways she is exploring what it means to be a Christian.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:49 AM on October 25, 2011 [11 favorites]


Oh, I should also mention that while I do believe that Dawkins and Dennett probably are motivated in part by a genuine desire to offer a helping forum to people who really need a secure place to talk this out, the propaganda value if this thing takes off isn't lost on me. "Since going public in October 2011, we have x hundred or thousand unbelieving clergy on our site. Christians, there's a good chance that your own pastor is secretly a member of our site!"

Seeing how links to the Clergy Project have been passed around my own network of clergy and seminarians has been interesting. Surprising little "how dare they!" and a lot more "hmm...this is interesting." It's almost like they are trying to spread the word in case it can help out someone they know. But I doubt my network is typical of most pastors.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:59 AM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thank you for the perspective Pater.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:10 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


They knew the job was dangerous when they took it.
posted by Clave at 8:22 AM on October 25, 2011


Seeing how links to the Clergy Project have been passed around my own network of clergy and seminarians has been interesting. Surprising little "how dare they!" and a lot more "hmm...this is interesting." It's almost like they are trying to spread the word in case it can help out someone they know.

I'd think most believing pastors would welcome something designed to help unbelieving pastors transition out of the ministry.
posted by straight at 8:24 AM on October 25, 2011


They knew the job was dangerous when they took it.

I'm not quite sure what this means, but I think you might be surprised how few people enter seminary thinking, "Well, sure for right now I get to devote my life to the sacred scriptures, the God I love and the church I want to serve, but if I ever lose my faith this is really going to suck!" Moving from church leadership to atheism is like the Spanish Inquisition--no one expects it.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:41 AM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Pater Aletheias: Seeing how links to the Clergy Project have been passed around my own network of clergy and seminarians has been interesting. Surprising little "how dare they!" and a lot more "hmm...this is interesting." It's almost like they are trying to spread the word in case it can help out someone they know.

straight: I'd think most believing pastors would welcome something designed to help unbelieving pastors transition out of the ministry.

I think a lot of them may genuinely want to help someone in need, even a non-believer. Some may have their doubts about their faith, and know that other clergy will have even more. Getting non-believers out of the church leadership is probably a big motivator for most.
posted by mechkit at 8:52 AM on October 25, 2011


None of them would ever admit it out loud, but I'm convinced every Jesuit I've known is a stone cold atheist.
posted by whuppy at 8:52 AM on October 25, 2011 [10 favorites]


Related: 'The Rev Klaas Hendrikse can offer his congregation little hope of life after death, and he's not the sort of man to sugar the pill.' 'His book Believing in a Non-Existent God led to calls from more traditionalist Christians for him to be removed. However, a special church meeting decided his views were too widely shared among church thinkers for him to be singled out. A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one-in-six clergy in the PKN and six other smaller denominations was either agnostic or atheist.'

I doubt this sort of thing is an option for the vast majority of ministers in American churches, but I wonder if there are a few where it could be, like Secret Life of Gravy's mom's.
posted by gurple at 9:24 AM on October 25, 2011


All this does it further cement my view that Dawkins is an inflexible pedant who just wants to stir up as much trouble as possible, then point at the mess and say "SEE" in a loud voice.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:27 AM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


Not having read the previously link (and missing DU's first comment), I came in here to admit that even though, given the anti-gay actions of a lot of people of faith, it may be hard for some to admit, I feel that anyone who has spent time in the closet would find it impossible not to empathize with this kind of struggle. Having actually read the articles and the earlier links, I realize that using the 'closet' as metaphor is obvious to everyone involved as well. And so many details -- how its spread by word of mouth, much of the terminology that doesn't directly use the closet metaphor -- still sounds very familiar.

Beyond how it is a personal struggle, once you've stayed in it for so long -- because of societal, family, and even economic pressures like Pater Aletheias details -- you're in too deep. And then if you do decide to 'come out', you're not only rejected by the life you know but also by some of those on the other end who find you selfish for having waited for so long. The parallels between how a wife would feel when her "suddenly" gay husband leaves her and how a congregation would feel toward a "suddenly" unbelieving pastor are probably even more than understand and include the conflict I feel in sympathizing towards the leaver. As somebody with an ounce of humanity, I can't help but feel their pain. But on the other hand, dude/dudette, why'd you have to wait so long? Why'd you have to take that path? But I know that there are answers to those questions and can't really question those who have taken the path that at one time seemed like the easy one, no matter what my outsider 20/20 perspective realizes.

About a decade and change ago, my former partner and I frequented a gay bar that was also frequented by a pathetic (as in "arousing pity", not "miserably inadequate") older man we referred to (only to each other)as 'the Soul Sucker.' This wasn't your far-too-common twenty-something gay men being cruel to their elders or because he was rude to us or the staff, but because there was something about him that sucked the life out the space. It didn't mean the party stopped at all when he was around but it didn't take Counselor Troi-levels of empathic powers to know he was troubled, even before he started his tendency to nod off at the bar. Later on, when we got to know more about him, it shouldn't have been surprising at all to find out he was a Catholic priest who drove into the city from the suburbs. Here was somebody dealing with so much pain from so many different directions. And as he continued down that path, he didn't get any support for either of the conflicts he was dealing with. On the outside, he made lots of bad choices -- lots of them that appeared to those who didn't know him as very selfish because he was, well, very selfish. But at a certain point when nobody gives a damn about you, what can you expect? Not every person dealing with these issues has so many inner demons or reacts in such a downfall. But living even with a tenth of the conflict that this guy did is probably more than most of us could bear.

Even though this is a personal thing that affects those individuals the most, it also just gives out so much bad 'soul sucking' energy into the world and can damage so many things and people, directly or indirectly. I don't know if this group or anything like it will be much help, but anything like it is a step in the right direction, no matter how much you want to question the motives behind it.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:50 AM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


So yesterday I was listening to a series of relatively disturbing recordings published by the Village Voice recently which contain a conversation wherein a high-ranking member of the Church of Scientology advises a non-Scientologist that his entire family (all Scientologists) will have to cut off contact from him completely if he doesn't stop associating with an "enemy" of Scientology. There are legal threats, too; but the crux of it is – if you don't fall in line here, you are to us what a Nazi is to the Jews (yes, he uses that analogy) and nobody in your family will ever speak to you again.

Now, I could use this to say 'well, most churches aren't that bad; so at least we can say that Scientology is worse.' But thinking about it here, and reading Pater Aleitheias's very insightful observations above, I have to wonder if the difference between Scientology's approach and the standard religious approach is simply one of intensity rather than a difference in the type of pressure. That is: as a religious person, I have to admit that this is a strong pressure that really, really comes down on people, particularly people who have chosen a vocation in the church.

Actually, the more disturbing thing in those Scientology tapes I linked is the constant refrain the Scientologist has in rationalizing the threat that the man's family will never talk to him again: he keeps saying over and over again that this is just how religions work, and listing off various religions that would do similar things: Catholicism, etc. There is indeed something particularly invidious about Scientology, and that's tragic to those who have been its victims. But this is something no religion should want to have in common with Scientology. Many churches are very good at welcoming people with open arms; we need to be better about keeping those arms open, and accepting people regardless of their decisions about their personal paths.
posted by koeselitz at 10:17 AM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Seriously, what would happen if someone in a public, visible leadership position in the Freedom from Religion Foundation or The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science came in one morning and announced they had experienced a reason-transcending religious epiphany and now believed in God? Surely they would be welcome to keep their jobs while they sorted things out. No chance they would be ostracized by any of their colleagues or friends in the movement over a... how does Dawkins put it? Over "a mere change of mind".
posted by nanojath at 10:26 AM on October 25, 2011 [10 favorites]


I would be really interested in this if Dawkins wasn't headlining it. I find atheists need to proselytize as unpleasant as any modern Christian missionary.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 10:32 AM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


All this does it further cement my view that Dawkins is an inflexible pedant who just wants to stir up as much trouble as possible

Do you actually disagree specifically with any of the points made by Dawkins/Dennett in actual post? Or is this the usual Dawkins hate for unspecified reasons.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:40 AM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't be surprised if the clergy faces periods of doubt and a waning of faith. Furthermore I understand that the nature of their work makes it hard for them to be entirely transparent about these struggles, but I'm not pleased to see someone actively discourage them from working through the doubts. There are some, no doubt, who should heed the doubt as a sign that they are in the wrong profession but for many they may simply need to work through the experience. In so doing they will be well equipped to assist the laity in their struggles with faith also.
posted by dgran at 10:48 AM on October 25, 2011


dgran:

But until now, there *wasn't* a support group *at all* for those who are in this profession wrongly. Would you suggest they go on aimless and unsupported?
posted by leviathan3k at 10:58 AM on October 25, 2011


...but I'm not pleased to see someone actively discourage them from working through the doubts

Wow, that is one hell of a way to frame it. As though these doubts are just something that should be worked through.
posted by gurple at 11:02 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Would you suggest they go on aimless and unsupported?

No, but I'm not sure that there has been no support whatsoever. Within churches there are support networks to work through the doubts.
posted by dgran at 11:05 AM on October 25, 2011


It may be that I'm reading the wrong people, but there seems to be a bit of "anything but atheist" line that seems to underly a fair bit of liberal religious rhetoric. It's acceptable to doubt, to profess philosophical ideas that are the weakest forms of deism and pantheism, to call it a metaphor, even to say that we might not use the word "god" at all.

But it seems to me that outside of a small minority of congregations, that non-theism is a taboo rather than something to potentially learn from.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:07 AM on October 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


None of them would ever admit it out loud, but I'm convinced every Jesuit I've known is a stone cold atheist.
One of my bosses has been an Atheist since middle school but still received all his education at Jesuit institutions. After he decided he disliked his first job and before he decided on a new profession he toyed with becoming a member of the clergy as a way to help people in his community. He often tells the story how one of the Jesuit priests who he knew from college nearly convinced him being an atheist wouldn't be a barrier to being a good member of the clergy.
posted by midmarch snowman at 11:13 AM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Seriously, what would happen if someone in a public, visible leadership position in the Freedom from Religion Foundation or The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science came in one morning and announced they had experienced a reason-transcending religious epiphany and now believed in God?

If they wanted to, though, they could make excellent money if they were willing to do speeches for church groups about their conversion experience. Not nearly as much demand the other way around.

I wouldn't be surprised if the clergy faces periods of doubt and a waning of faith. Furthermore I understand that the nature of their work makes it hard for them to be entirely transparent about these struggles, but I'm not pleased to see someone actively discourage them from working through the doubts.

I don't think this is so much for clergy who are doubting as for clergy who have moved past doubting into a settled atheism or agnosticism. Doubting clergy usually can find some places for support. Clergy that are quite settled that there is no God or that they don't care if there is one or not haven't had a place to go talk about that. But merely "doubting" clergy aren't likely to send an email to an association of the atheistic but ordained asking to be let in.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:18 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Armies shoot deserters.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:21 AM on October 25, 2011


If it really has gradually occurred to you that your profession is based on spreading belief in the supernatural, just like a tarot card reader or an astrologer, Congratulations. Or maybe you just grew a conscience.

There should be seperate support groups for ex-ministers who were victims of genuine delusions and those who are reformed con-men.
posted by longsleeves at 11:58 AM on October 25, 2011


I've been an atheist since one summer afternoon when I was five. I realized Santa Claus wasn't real and God and Jesus didn't last until dinner. I still had to go to church, though, but midway through the first grade I couldn't take it anymore and threw an absolute fit one Sunday morning which somehow resulted in the entire family no longer going to church. My sister has never forgiven me.

Yet there is a "God-shaped hole" (vacuum, really) in my mind and heart (which I attempt to keep filled mainly with a promiscuously transient devotion to one fantasy and science fiction novel after another).

I would like the community of ordained atheists to devote some of their energies to coming up with a new religion that is true, aspires to the good, and actually works.

I want it to worship nature, women and children, open-minded search for truth, food, ancestors, the body, language, sex, and the arts, in that order.

My partner really likes Barbara Kingsolver. I sometimes tease her a little by asking if we're Kingsolverites yet, but I do think Ms. Kingsolver has made an interesting start.
posted by jamjam at 12:31 PM on October 25, 2011


None of them would ever admit it out loud, but I'm convinced every Jesuit I've known is a stone cold atheist.

*smiles secretly and adds another item to her "List of reasons why the former Jesuit Seminarian I know should join Metafilter" *

*Anticipates the conversations that would ensue if he did, and grins even wider, possibly cackles a bit*
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:40 PM on October 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


Thanks for sharing the personal experiences and interesting conversation.
I studied religious communities in my MA and have a very religious family, some of whom are training in ministry. Of course, being an atheist, that gives me an interesting perspective on these things, and I am sincerely concerned that if my brother were to have a crisis of faith that it could destroy his life.

Fascinating topic. Maybe not Important with a capital I, but important to me, and I appreciate the honest and openness people have shown about it. It's always refreshing to see a conversation about atheism and religion go well.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:44 PM on October 25, 2011





Seriously, what would happen if someone in a public, visible leadership position in the Freedom from Religion Foundation or The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science came in one morning and announced they had experienced a reason-transcending religious epiphany and now believed in God? Surely they would be welcome to keep their jobs while they sorted things out. No chance they would be ostracized by any of their colleagues or friends in the movement over a... how does Dawkins put it? Over "a mere change of mind".
posted by nanojath at 10:26 AM on October 25



Seriously then.

The analogy doesn't really hold one for one, if we're talking America, we're still talking about a country where Christianity is part of the state and culture. Canada and the UK are likewise very Judeo-Christian, although occasionally less ostentatious about it than America can be.

I think it's pretty obvious where such a person could find a support group, with all of the counseling and lobbying power they could ask for. (Spoiler alert: Church!)

There is a very supportive base for such things in America, even if it has eroded somewhat as compared to what it was a hundred years ago. And hopefully they wouldn't lose their job for critically examining anything, but if they did, there are laws against religious discrimination that might help. It's not a ministry job, per se, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I doubt they sign a pledge of non-faith when hired.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:52 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Clergy are surely in a unique situation, but some of these pressures apply to other communities, and not just Christian, and all are in need of some kind of support network. Ordinary people who find themselves in religion-based communities, like, say Hasidic Jews, or Mormons, or Amish or whatever. Many times it's not even a question of losing faith - but not having it in the first place. As a priest/minister/rabbi or other religious official, you at least nominally have chosen your initial career. What of those who through no fault of their own were born into one of those highly us-vs them communities, and now face losing everyone and everything they've ever known should they want to leave or simply be honest about their beliefs - it's either live a lie, or complete uprooting. So much need, so few resources.
posted by VikingSword at 1:09 PM on October 25, 2011


There should be seperate support groups for ex-ministers who were victims of genuine delusions and those who are reformed con-men.

It's a popular atheist trope that there are a lot of religious con-men out there, but I'm telling you, the number is tiny. Vanishingly small. The vast majority of clergy put in years of education to enter what is basically a lower-middle class job with little possibility of advancement. I had an unusually good salary, and I topped out at $84,000 with no benefits. Writing $1050 checks for family health insurance each month dropped that down to $71,400, but didn't include retirement or disability. My employers didn't contribute anything to social security, so take another 15% off. All together I probably made about about the same as someone who had about a $60-65,000 salary at a job with standard company benefits. Don't misunderstand this as complaining. I was plenty comfortable on that salary, and very appreciative of it. And to put things in perspective, I was preaching for a church with almost 500 people in the pews on Sunday morning. The average church size is 75. I was very near the top of the salary scale. Most pastors labor for years to eventually get 50,000 or 60,000 if they are lucky. Many never break out of the high 30's or low 40's. Also remember that I had 120 hours of graduate theological education. Becoming a pastor to bilk the masses is about as smart as getting a doctorate in foreign relations so you can take a permanent position in the Peace Corp.

Yes, there are a few people who build giant churches and get filthy rich based on their charisma and who never went through a denominationally recognized recognized ordination track. Some of those folks may indeed be con artists, but for every one of them that exists, there are thousands upon thousands of low-wage, highly educated pastors who do what they do for sheer love of the work, religious devotion, and a desire to make a difference in the world. I really wish I could kill the idea that there are a lot of con-artist pastors out there, because if you are smart enough to be a good con artist, you are smart enough to know that there are much better and easier ways of making money.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:29 PM on October 25, 2011 [25 favorites]


I really wish I could kill the idea that there are a lot of con-artist pastors out there....

You may not be able to. Some people are just determined to see what they want to see.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:37 PM on October 25, 2011


I really wish I could kill the idea that there are a lot of con-artist pastors out there....

It's an anecdotal evidence problem. The ones that make it big aren't exactly inconspicuous.
posted by gurple at 1:48 PM on October 25, 2011




It's an anecdotal evidence problem. The ones that make it big aren't exactly inconspicuous.
posted by gurple at 1:48 PM on October 25 [+] [!]



Or just plain old observation bias.

Perhaps there's also an observation bias towards that argument being common or representative of atheists.

Either way, I'm all for more communication and understanding, on both sides of the fence.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:55 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


not one of them would ever admit it out loud, but I'm convinced every Jesuit I've known is a stone cold atheist.

Having gone through a Jesuit university, I can tell you that once you get to know them, most of the Jesuits there will admit to being atheists. And if they see in you whatever it is that The Company is looking for, they will make it very clear that being an atheist is no obstacle to joining the order.

I have a great memory of a Jesuit teacher giving an astronomy lecture. We were all clustered around the telescope while he talked about stellar evolution, distant galaxies and nebulae, background radiation and finally what we know about the age and the origin of the universe. At the end of the lecture he notices the shocked faces of the couple of Christians in the class and literally says "And also God. Lets not forget God".

It sucked for the Franciscans who are in charge of the local miraculous statue of the virgin. I knew a couple of them who were mountain climbers. One of them expressed some doubt about the divinity of Jesus during confession. His "penitence" included not using the gym for 6 months and no more hiking and climbing for a year. I wish I had know to tell him to talk to the Jesuits.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 2:16 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


I pressed post instead of preview again. The last sentence should be:

The Jesuits in my city run a top notch climbing club. They have yearly trips to Mount McKinley and a couple of members went on an Everest expedition. No praying required.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 2:18 PM on October 25, 2011




I have a great memory of a Jesuit teacher giving an astronomy lecture. We were all clustered around the telescope while he talked about stellar evolution, distant galaxies and nebulae, background radiation and finally what we know about the age and the origin of the universe. At the end of the lecture he notices the shocked faces of the couple of Christians in the class and literally says "And also God. Lets not forget God".

It sucked for the Franciscans who are in charge of the local miraculous statue of the virgin. I knew a couple of them who were mountain climbers. One of them expressed some doubt about the divinity of Jesus during confession. His "penitence" included not using the gym for 6 months and no more hiking and climbing for a year. I wish I had know to tell him to talk to the Jesuits.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 2:16 PM on October 25 [+] [!]



One of my favorite things about studying the Puritans was the intersection of science and religion. There was convincing evidence that they actually managed to live in the overlap between a spiritual world, populated daily by horrors and wonders, and a world of reason where science could explain everything. I found it utterly fascinating that somebody could explain lightning as an atmospheric event and in the same breath explain it as a miracle, full of divine significance.

It struck a much more complicated causal relationship than allowed by purely mechanical causality or divine will. I'm solidly a secular atheist, but there was a certain beautiful elegance that always impressed me in that particular aspect of their worldview.
posted by Stagger Lee at 3:05 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's a popular atheist trope that there are a lot of religious con-men out there, but I'm telling you, the number is tiny.

The priest who repeatedly molested my father, an altarboy, was a con man. He wasn't just conning people out of money, he was conning them out of their boys. I don't think HE believed in God.
posted by longsleeves at 3:14 PM on October 25, 2011


I wouldn't be surprised if the clergy faces periods of doubt and a waning of faith. Furthermore I understand that the nature of their work makes it hard for them to be entirely transparent about these struggles, but I'm not pleased to see someone actively discourage them from working through the doubts. There are some, no doubt, who should heed the doubt as a sign that they are in the wrong profession but for many they may simply need to work through the experience. In so doing they will be well equipped to assist the laity in their struggles with faith also.

What makes you so sure that "Working through doubts" necessarily leads to a return to faith? I know of several people (including myself) whose faith went away after a careful reading of the Bible, one intended to try and find SOMETHING to keep believing in.

If the mere existence of an organization that helps former clergy is enough to get somebody to loose their faith, they probably didn't have much to begin with.
posted by Gygesringtone at 3:17 PM on October 25, 2011


It may be that I'm reading the wrong people, but there seems to be a bit of "anything but atheist" line that seems to underly a fair bit of liberal religious rhetoric.

Daniel Dennett calls this "Belief in Belief".
posted by Chekhovian at 4:53 PM on October 25, 2011


Here's a better Dennett link on BiB.
posted by Chekhovian at 4:58 PM on October 25, 2011


It may be that I'm reading the wrong people, but there seems to be a bit of "anything but atheist" line that seems to underly a fair bit of liberal religious rhetoric.

There's a lot of that among non-theists, too. Some agnostics and "moderate" atheists seem happy to launch attacks on people for being too strongly atheist (see also: "mean", "loud", "strident", "angry", "certain", etc).
posted by vorfeed at 8:31 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think this is a great idea. Most religions have plenty of support for people who are doubting, but if you decide that your doubts are re-forming into atheism or agnosticism then they're no help. And fair enough, it's not their responsibility to help people who don't belong in the church anymore. But it'd be good for people to have a support network to help them work out where their place in life is now.
posted by harriet vane at 10:23 PM on October 25, 2011


I think this is a great idea, but I think Dennett and Dawkins are the last people I would put in charge of it, in the same way that I think having pro-life groups organising support for women with unexpected pregnancies is inappropriate. They just have too much of an investment in one outcome, an outcome that will definitely be the right choice for some people, but that for some others might not be as good as a different approach, like finding an accommodating UU church or becoming a pagan High Priest or moving into academic theology. There should be an organisation out there that would support doubting clergy in any one of those choices, if it was right for them, and I don't see this group doing that.
posted by Acheman at 3:21 AM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


They just have too much of an investment in one outcome, an outcome that will definitely be the right choice for some people, but that for some others might not be as good as a different approach, like finding an accommodating UU church or becoming a pagan High Priest or moving into academic theology.

It's important to understand that this is not a group for people who are doubting, rethinking things, and considering leaving religion behind. These are people who have already, definitely, abandoned belief in the supernatural but are trying to figure out what to do now that they have a seminary degree and an ordained pastorate but don't believe in God anymore. The Clergy Project isn't trying to talk them into anything, it's just there to support people who have already left the faith in their mind and now are trying to leave their jobs.

Since I posted this yesterday, I had a conversation with one of the screeners for the project about how to join, and it was very, very clear that if you are on the fence or unsure about what you believe, they'll politely say that you aren't a candidate for their group. This is for people who have definitely moved out of a religious worldview and aren't coming back. They aren't pushing a particular outcome, they are just supporting people who have chosen that particular path already.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:54 AM on October 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


Maybe there's a middle ground that The Clergy Project isn't considering (based on its sponsorship). I'm somewhat behind on keeping up with Dawkins' books, but the bits and pieces I've read indicate to me that he's an something of either/or thinker about religion, and tends to make religious belief into an easily knocked down straw man.

It's something akin (from the opposite perspective of Dawkins) to my community college students who (as they tell me in their end-of-course reflection papers) are surprised and shocked at the violence and politics interwoven in the long history of the Christian church. They're hearing about it from me and from the textbook for the first time. And most of them have been churchgoers from the time they were children.
Or (another example) of apparently well-read Lutherans I know who somehow never picked up on the anti-Semitism of Luther's "On the Jews and Their Lies," because until fairly recently, it wasn't an issue in their denominations, and/or, their seminary-educated pastors didn't know about it, or if they did know, didn't think it was 'on message.'

So, yes, I have a bone to pick with all or nothing thinking from any perspective. However, it's worth pointing out that C.S. Lewis (!) wrote (through one of his characters):

“I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair
posted by apartment dweller at 9:02 AM on October 26, 2011


Maybe there's a middle ground that The Clergy Project isn't considering (based on its sponsorship). I'm somewhat behind on keeping up with Dawkins' books, but the bits and pieces I've read indicate to me that he's an something of either/or thinker about religion, and tends to make religious belief into an easily knocked down straw man.

I think this is an either/or question, though: if you do not believe in god(s), you're an atheist. That's all the word means. Now, I agree that there's plenty of middle ground between a specific organized religion and atheism, but that middle ground isn't the Clergy Project's problem -- they are "a confidential online community for active and former clergy who do not hold the supernatural beliefs of their religious traditions", i.e. atheists.

There are many places you can go if you believe in god(s), but not the way Church A wants you to: you can join Church B, you can become an individual spiritualist, you can go join a religious New Age or Pagan or Satanist group, you can become deist or pantheist, etc. I don't see why the Clergy Project necessarily needs to guide people in those directions, especially since the above groups aren't necessarily going to guide people in the direction of atheism. Besides, when someone complains that membership in this group precludes options "like finding an accommodating UU church or becoming a pagan High Priest or moving into academic theology", they're assuming that you can't do those things as an atheist, whereas of course you can. Even the Pagan thing: atheism exists amongst Pagans, and in my experience it's even somewhat common.

I see this all the time -- the idea that atheism requires not just a lack of belief in god(s) and supernatural beings, but a rejection of any and all emotions, thoughts, and actions commonly described as "spiritual" (a.k.a. "the middle ground"). As I said in this thread, I think this happens because we don't have much of a social framework for feelings of wonder, awe, joy, self-actualization, etc which aren't implicitly based on the supernatural. Thus, many of us tend to assume that all these feelings must be based on the supernatural. I don't think atheism necessarily requires or even implies that assumption, though, and I don't think Dawkins thinks so either -- there's a good overview of his thinking on what "makes" one an atheist over at Cambridge, and there's nothing there about abandoning things like myth, metaphor, or personal meaning, or even practices like meditation or ritual.

This is Dawkins:

Interviewer: So which is the God you don't believe in?

Dawkins: I certainly don't believe in a God who answers prayers, forgives sins, listens to misfortunes, cares about your sins, cares about your sex life, makes you survive death, performs miracles - that is most certainly a God I don't believe in. Einstein's God, which simply means the laws of nature which are so deeply mysterious that they inspire a feeling of reverence - I believe in that, but I wouldn't call it God.

Interviewer: What about Buddhism, mysticism, contemplation, meditation?

Dawkins: I know little about Buddhism; meditation as a kind of mental discipline to manipulate your mind in beneficial directions, I could easily imagine. In reciting a mantra in a repetitive way - it's entirely plausible to me that might have some sort of trance-inducing effects which could even be beneficial.

Interviewer: But you don't do it?

Dawkins: I have done it, and it didn't do anything for me, but I gave it a go. But it certainly has nothing whatever to do in my mind with a belief in anything supernatural.

[...]

Interviewer: Nonetheless it is one of the sublimest experiences, the experience of Art, profound Art that moves the human spirit, and again we're talking again, and I'm talking now, to the poet in you. And there is a sense in which people - not you - have suggested that there is a scientific way of looking at the world, which runs parallel to say a religious way of looking at the world, or a poetic way of looking at the world, and in some way they all exist at the same time, but don't interrelate. What do you feel about that?

Dawkins: I don't really see how they could not interrelate. I am very suspicious - we keep coming back to this - of uses of words like 'spirit', which I'm happy to use as long as it doesn't suggest anything supernatural or ghostly. To say that something is explicable in terms of the brain, in terms of interactions between neurons, it really is vitally important to understand that that is not to reduce it. It is actually a far more wonderful explanation than just to say 'Oh it's the human spirit'. And the human spirit explains nothing, you've said precisely nothing when you say it's the human spirit.

Interviewer: So are you saying that we undervalue, we haven't yet begun to celebrate, what goes on in our head?

Dawkins: Exactly. We haven't begun to celebrate what goes on in our heads and what goes on in the world, in the universe. These are so much grander, so much more wildly exciting than whatever you can convey by a really rather trite phrase like 'the human spirit', that I just find there's no comparison.


I don't see how that's "all or nothing"; in fact, Dawkins explicitly rejects the idea "that there is a scientific way of looking at the world, which runs parallel to say a religious way of looking at the world, or a poetic way of looking at the world". There's plenty of variation in terms of thought, practice, and belief available to Dawkins and other atheists, including things we (rather lazily) tend to describe as "religious" or "spiritual". The only thing that's off limits is believing in god(s), or, in Dawkins' words, in the supernatural or ghostly.
posted by vorfeed at 11:36 AM on October 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


vorfeed, understood that you (and Dawkins) aren't discounting "spiritual" or "brain" experiences. But my comment was directed more at Pater Aletheias' comment about his experience upon contacting The Clergy Project: "it was very, very clear that if you are on the fence or unsure about what you believe, they'll politely say that you aren't a candidate for their group."

The Clergy Project seems a little . . . dogmatic, shall we say, if they are consciously restricting their participants as such.

Agreed with you that Dawkins himself is more nuanced about what atheism is, per the following, found from poking around The Clergy Project's website, going to the Links tab, and exploring one of the blogs there, written by agnosticpastor:

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins formulated a 7-point belief scale from 1 (total belief) to 7 (total non-belief).

Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists.
De-facto Theist: I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God and I live my life on the assumption that he is there.
Weak Theist: I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.
Pure Agnostic: God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.
Weak Atheist: I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.
De-facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.
Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.


Maybe The Clergy Project should read Dawkins a little more closely?

Within the context of religious faith and practice (not limited to Christianity, btw), doubt is sort of the historical norm, always present where "faith" (however it is defined) is present. That's why I quoted C.S. Lewis.
posted by apartment dweller at 12:11 PM on October 26, 2011


Do you actually disagree specifically with any of the points made by Dawkins/Dennett in actual post? Or is this the usual Dawkins hate for unspecified reasons.

Yes and yes.

Dawkins is an extremist who lets his almost religious view of scientism cloud his human judgement.

Humans are more than a logic machine placed on top of some glands and millennia of genetic jiggery-pokery. We have evolved incredibly strange and wonderful cultural expressions, which include weird (to your average undergrad) sex, politics and religion.

Pretending like the last one is some blight, and it is your job to REMIND EVERYONE IN A LOUD VOICE HOW AWFUL THE RELIGIONS ARE is annoying at best, and at its worst is used as a wedge issue for people who refuse to take the time to come up with nuanced positions.

Dawkins is a shit scientist who keeps placing the cart before the horse. His earliest works are a bunch of just-so stories held together with chewing gum. Now he's moved into full-time poster boy for some ill-conceived crusade of the put-upon made viable by a generation of lazy thinkers who honed their style by conflating opinion and personal experience with disinterested facts.

Dawkins is doing more harm than good. And I say this as a 100% non-believer.
posted by clvrmnky at 12:12 PM on October 26, 2011


Athiests Don't Have No Songs by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers (SLYT)
posted by apartment dweller at 12:15 PM on October 26, 2011


The Clergy Project seems a little . . . dogmatic, shall we say, if they are consciously restricting their participants as such.

Why is that any more "dogmatic" than "we're a group for searching Christians" or even "we're a group for people who aren't yet sure"? I don't see why any group has to be open to everyone lest they be dogmatic, nor do I see why a group which is explicitly meant for atheists rather than doubting theists is necessarily dogmatic. What exactly is the "dogma" here?
posted by vorfeed at 12:20 PM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, they can structure their group as they see fit, again, per Pater Aletheias' comment. (I think it's their loss if their group specifically excludes people with his perspective, but it is, after all, their group.)

My only point was that Dawkins' own work apparently takes into account a more nuanced perspective re: theism and atheism.
posted by apartment dweller at 12:25 PM on October 26, 2011


Besides, I think it's obvious why they limit membership to those who are already atheists: because if they don't, they open themselves to the kinds of accusations above ("they're only interested in one outcome!" "they're just trying to stir up trouble!" "they're just trying to lead people away from working through their doubts!") Dogmatic if they do and dogmatic if they don't, I guess...
posted by vorfeed at 12:25 PM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


My only point was that Dawkins' own work apparently takes into account a more nuanced perspective re: theism and atheism.

Eh, I don't really think so. Doubting religious people who still aren't ready to abandon belief would seem to be Weak Theists ("I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God") -- they are not atheists by Dawkins' "more nuanced" definition or the Clergy Project's simpler one.
posted by vorfeed at 12:38 PM on October 26, 2011


Humans are more than a logic machine placed on top of some glands and millennia of genetic jiggery-pokery. We have evolved incredibly strange and wonderful cultural expressions, which include weird (to your average undergrad) sex, politics and religion.

Do you ever actually read anything he writes, or listen to anything he says, or even read other comments in the thread? Since you don't seem to have done this, I'm going to copy vorfeed's earlier quote, again, and put it in bold:

Dawkins:
To say that something is explicable in terms of the brain, in terms of interactions between neurons, it really is vitally important to understand that that is not to reduce it. It is actually a far more wonderful explanation than just to say 'Oh it's the human spirit'. And the human spirit explains nothing, you've said precisely nothing when you say it's the human spirit.

We haven't begun to celebrate what goes on in our heads and what goes on in the world, in the universe. These are so much grander, so much more wildly exciting than whatever you can convey by a really rather trite phrase like 'the human spirit', that I just find there's no comparison.

posted by Chekhovian at 4:52 PM on October 26, 2011


The Clergy Project seems a little . . . dogmatic, shall we say, if they are consciously restricting their participants as such.

Well, I'm notoriously bad at reading minds, but based on the conversation I had, I don't think it's dogmatism as much as a very clear focus. The pastors involved in the Clergy Project need a very safe place to discuss their thoughts and options as unbelieving clergy. Start letting mere doubters in and now you are running the risk of having someone enter the discussion, piece together potentially compromising information about atheist pastors, and then decide they are devout believers after all. That could get messy quickly. I think the CP people don't want to be accused of trying to talk anyone into unbelief either. It's not a forum for figuring out what you think; it's a forum for figuring out what to do now that you know what you think. I don't really want to be in the position of defending all the choices they've made, but this seems to me to be a case where such narrow focus is prudent. Try to expand beyond that and you risk seriously compromising your core mission.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:30 PM on October 26, 2011


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