Dennett and LaScola have published a paper dealing with “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” (Evolutionary Psychology 2010. 8(1):122-150) which was originally posted on the Newsweek/Washington Post Website. These authors interviewed 5 pastors, 3 of which were liberal and 2 who were conservative. Obviously the sample size is too small to make any far reaching conclusions.  The authors did mention the  difficulty in recruiting participants which may indicate that either the problem is relatively small or, as the authors and I suspect, the problem is large but the consequences of revealing unbelief, especially in conservative circles, could be life altering.

In general the liberal pastors seem to be coping better but only, I suspect, through a “slight of hand” in that they have changed their definition of god and Christian. For instance:

The ambiguity about who is a believer and who a nonbeliever follows inexorable from the pluralism that has been assiduously fostered by many religious leaders for a century or more: God is many different things to different people and since we can’t know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all” (pg 124).

One participant said: “I think my way of being a Christian has many things in common with atheists as Harris sees them.  I am not willing to abandon the symbol ‘God’ in my understanding…” (pg 124)

Another said: “The difference between me and an atheist is basically this: it’s not about the existence of God. It’s: do we believe that there is room for the use of the word ‘god’ in some context.”  So the only difference he sees between himself and an atheist is that he still wants to use the “god” word, even when all meaning is removed from it.

One liberal minister said “If not believing in a supernatural, theistic god is what distinguishes an atheist, then I am one too.. I don’t consider myself an atheist.. I am not willing to abandon the symbol ‘God’ in my understanding of the human and the universe.” (pg 131)

There appears to be a strong reluctance to get rid of the “god” word even when that word no longer has meaning.  Dennett and LaScola put it this way: “The fact that they see it in such morally laden terms shows how powerfully the phenomenon of belief in belief figures in our lives.  Most people believe in belief in God…” (pg 125)

While the liberal ministers seemed to play games with words and meanings, the 2 conservative ministers seemed more conflicted.  At lot of this may have to do with the fact that most of their congregations probably have very definite specific views of god.  Word games won’t work to sooth ones conscience.

One minister struggles with the community that his religion provides. “He also fears for the effect leaving could have on his family, because his wife and teenage children are very religious” (pg 136).  He struggles with telling his congregation the truth: “Even if Christianity isn’t true, is it best to leave the people alone in their ignorance?… they’re happy, and they have hope in a life to come, and so it helps them through their suffering…” (pg 137) He sees preaching as “play acting!" Wonderful! I have to ask whether these people are as happy as they seem. If truth be told, many fundamental Christians feel immense pressure to play the “happy in the Lord” game. (This would make an interesting study.)

The other conservative minister became an atheist by pursuing Christianity and being honest to the evidence that presented itself. “Well, I think most Christians have to be in a state of denial to read the Bible and believe it.” He wants out but stays because he needs to provide for his family and he doesn’t know what else he can do.

Dennett and LaScola state: “The loneliness of non-believing pastors is extreme. They have no trusted confidantes to reassure them, to reflect their own musing back to them, to provide reality checks… Why don’t they resign their posts and find a new life?  They are caught in a trap, cunningly designed to harness both their best intentions and their basest fears to the tasks of immobilizing them in their predicament” (pg 143).

“In fact, there is a sort of Hippocratic Oath that all five seem to follow: In the first place, do no damage to any parishioner’s beliefs.” (pg 148).

Richard Dawkins commented on this state of affairs: “The singular predicament of these men (and women) opens yet another window on the uniquely ridiculous nature of religious belief. What other career, apart from that of clergyman, can be so catastrophically ruined by a change of opinion, brought about by reading, say, or conversation?" (Newsweek/Washington Post)

Part of me wants to be sensitive to the plight of these pastors, but the other part wants to scream – “Let’s have a little honesty here!” These pastors are being paid by their congregations to preach something they no longer believe. The congregations have a right to know as upsetting as that might be.  If they chose to keep the pastor, that’s their decision but then the question must be asked as to why they are “playing church”.

There are (were?) people in these churches, particularly conservative fundamental churches, that suffer greatly when it becomes known that they are no longer believers.  Some have lost friends, family and even spouses. They have lost their community and a huge part of their life. Yet, they had the “guts’” to make a stand. Sometimes what you believe and hold to be true costs.

The leaders interviewed here should take their responsibilities seriously. Stop playing word games. Stop lying to their congregations. Stop play acting.  Is it too much to plead for a little honesty?

I try not to blog about politics, but the whole ordeal of passing Health Care Reform (HCR) in the U.S. stunned me.  I can understand political fights and in-fighting.  I can understand passionate debate over issues. I can even understand deep personal convictions even if I don’t agree with them. However, I was shocked by the hate, rhetoric and downright nastiness expressed by those who didn’t get their way. I don’t think there is much doubt that the Republican Party has been held hostage (willing or not is another question) by a strong, conservative religious constituent. I also think it is pretty obvious that the insurance companies brought this upon themselves. Greed trumps compassion for many of these companies.  They aren’t in the business to help people but to make money at the expense of sick people. They didn’t even have the sense enough to stop throwing people out of their insurance programs, thus giving even more ammunition to the opposition, during the HCR debates.  The fact is, we needed reform.  However, I don’t want to focus on the issue of HCR but rather the hatred by many in the religious right in response to HCR. (e.g.  More Christian Conservatives Against Healthcare Reform, Opposition to Health-Care Reform Revives Christian Right, Religious right watch: Health care reform is against God’s design)

When did the religious conservatives lose their compassion for the poor, sick and downtrodden? Those with pre-existing medical conditions, through no fault of their own, that can’t get insurance?  Where is the compassion? Where is mercy?  Where is love? When did the religious righteous get taken up by capitalism, money, wealth, greed and a distain for those less fortunate than them. Doesn’t their own Bible condemn them?

"Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." Matthew 9:13

”The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.”  Prov 29:7

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” Cor 1:3-4

”Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”  Col 3:12

"Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” Matt 25:37-40

I ask again, where is this compassion among the Conservative religious opposing HCR?  Maybe it’s because they see it as an individual duty not something that government should setup. After all it is a capitalistic society and we should let the markets rule, right? Again, if anything, their own scriptures cry out for socialism, not capitalism!  

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." Mark 10:21

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Luke 12:32-34

”All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had… There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” Acts 4:32-35

In a telling passage in James, those who were favoring the rich over the poor were roundly condemned:

“Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?” James 2:5-7

Where is the compassion?  To be fair, there were Christian groups fighting for HCR. (e.g. A Christian Perspective On Health Care Reform, Health Care Reform – Christian Reformed Church, Dan Nejfelt: Christians Weigh In On Health Care Reform) At least some were committed to showing compassion and mercy. However, this raises some interesting questions regarding the clarity or perspicuity of the Bible. Same Bible, but vastly different interpretations. As I’ve said before, the Bible is about as clear as mud.  You can find whatever you want in it – from angry denunciations of those in need to showing mercy and compassion.  You would think a supposedly “god-breathed” book would be a lot clearer. It takes religious justification to turn simple human emotions such as compassion and mercy for those less fortunate into anger and hate.