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?