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Major Threat to Religion? Clergy People Coming Out as Atheists

A burst of media attention has been focused on atheists of an unexpected stripe -- clergy members. Could non-believing clergy change how we see religion?
 
 
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What happens when a clergy person -- a minister, a priest, a rabbi, an imam -- realizes he doesn't believe in God?

And what happens when he says it out loud? What happens when they find each other; when they support each other in coping with their crises, when they help each other with resources and job counseling and other practical assistance? What happens when they encourage each other to come out?

Could this affect more than just these clergy people and their followers? Could it change how society as a whole thinks and feels about religion?

That's what the Clergy Project is finding out. In recent months and years, atheists have been all over the news. But over the last few weeks, a burst of media attention has been focused on atheists of an unexpected stripe: clergy members. And in particular, attention is going to the Clergy Project, an online meeting place and support group that exists specifically for these unexpected additions to the ranks of the godless.

The project was inspired by the 2010 pilot study by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, "Preachers Who Are Not Believers" (PDF), which exposed and explored the surprisingly common phenomenon of non-believing clergy. The need to give these people support -- and if possible, an exit strategy -- was immediately recognized in the atheist community, and starter funding for the Clergy Project was quickly provided by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Founded in March of 2011 with 52 members, the Clergy Project currently has over 270 members -- and since recent news stories about it began appearing, in outlets from MSNBC to NPR to the Religious News Service to CNN, applications to join have been going up at an even more dramatic rate.

The cascade of news stories began when Methodist minister Teresa MacBain came to the American Atheists convention following last March's Reason Rally -- and made a dramatic unscheduled appearance at the podium, to announce that she was an atheist. "Being in a group of people with whom I could share openly without fear of persecution gave me the courage to come out," she told me. "The opportunity to stand before the crowd, come out as an atheist and share about the Clergy Project was too good to pass up. I was at the end of my rope and I knew it. It was now or never for me. As I walked up on that stage, I felt fear like no other."

MacBain had been questioning her faith since her early teens, when she came across contradictions in the Bible. "I went to my dad for answers," she said. "He simply shared that God's ways are so much higher than our ways that we can not understand everything in the Bible. Our response should be faith, not doubting. He then told me that doubting was a sin. I left that day and suppressed those questions. This practice followed me for decades."

But eventually, the questions became too much. She let go of her Biblical literalism, which at first helped resolve her doubts about Biblical contradictions -- but this soon made room for other questions to press on her. "Things such as theodicy [the problem of suffering and evil], the question of hell, God's omnipotence yet lack of intervention in heinous events, the historicity of Jesus... all these bubbled to the surface and demanded to be answered," she said. "My work to answer these questions began with the thought that as I discovered the truth, it would create a stronger faith and give me comforting answers to those in my church who were dealing with the same issues. Instead, the truth I found led me away from faith."

 
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