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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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This experience is common among members of the Clergy Project. Clergy people, almost by definition, are people who take their faith seriously. They tend to think about religion carefully. They often (although not always) study their religion carefully. Unlike many believers, they actually read the Bible, or Torah, or Koran, or whatever the sacred text of their religion is. They think hard about questions that more casual believers are willing to let slide. After all -- that's their job.

But as many atheists will tell you, thinking carefully about religion is exactly what led them to abandon it. When you ask atheists, "What made you become an atheist?" reading the Bible is one of the highest items on the list. And when I asked Jerry DeWitt -- Recovering From Religion executive director, Clergy Project graduate and new-member screener for CP -- what kinds of ideas and experiences most commonly lead clergy members to question and eventually leave their faith, he answered simply, "Religion's inability to answer for or relieve human suffering."

Lawrence Hunter shares this experience. A former associate minister in the Black Pentecostal denomination Church of God in Christ, he says that a bad marriage "allowed me to see how life really was instead of the fairy tale versions that are espoused every Sunday... questions about good and evil, the Bible, marriage, suffering, tithes, church corruption and hell filled my mind. I realized that I needed to expand my understanding."

He adds that the failures of religion to meet basic human needs -- and the failures of church leaders to live up to the moral standards they demanded of their flock -- contributed to his questioning. "As a preacher," he says, "I could see that prayers weren't healing people, despite preaching on wealth the only people getting rich were the pastor. I could see that many, many people were mentally disturbed and a host of problems. Not to mention the scandals and adultery. This caused me to look deeper and really find out the true essence of my faith and why the holy spirit wasn't active like it supposedly was back in the Bible days. The rest is history."

And Catherine Dunphy, one of the original 52 members of the Clergy Project, agrees. "I was always curious about the Bible," she told me, "and read it, despite the fact that the church and its priests say, 'Don't bother.' In it I found ridiculous stories that only furthered my confusion." Dunphy, a former Catholic, also had her faith shaken by the widespread child rape scandals in the Catholic Church -- and by the Church's inexplicable response to them. "The bishop of my diocese, an asshole named Colin Campbell, issued a statement saying that the victims were responsible since they kept going back to the predatory priests!"

But for Dunphy, the final nail in the coffin of her faith was realizing that highly trained religious authorities didn't have any better reasons for their beliefs than anyone else. "I remember how frustrated I would become in class," she said, "given that it didn't appear to me that my profs had any more authority than I did!... I came to realize that we were all complicit in making this stuff up as we go."

For many people, questioning and eventually abandoning religion can involve deep emotional and psychological struggles. Atheists commonly say that they do feel relief, even liberation, when they finally relinquish the cognitive dissonance that religion requires, but the process is often difficult. This is often even more pronounced in clergy people... who, again, tend to take religion more seriously than the average believer-in-the-street.

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