Major Threat to Religion? Clergy People Coming Out as Atheists
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The surge of interest in the Clergy Project would seem to bear this out. Since Teresa MacBain outed herself at the American Atheists convention in March, 77 new members have joined the project -- and as of this writing, there are 86 more applicants awaiting interviews. As MacBain says, "This seems to indicate that there are hundreds, if not thousands, who are trapped in the pulpit."
So what does this all mean? Why does this matter, not just to the atheist clergy themselves, but to anyone who cares about religion?
It matters because, if clergy members start publicly abandoning religion, the whole house of cards could collapse.
For most believers, religion isn't something they think about very carefully. Most believers stay with whatever religion they were brought up with as children. Most believers are just trying to get on with their day-to-day lives, and if difficult or complicated questions about their faith occur to them, they often assume that their religious leaders know the answers... the way we assume that pilots know how to keep airplanes in the sky. As Lawrence Hunter said, many believers "are simply unable or unwilling to do the work to read and research their beliefs and other aspects of their lives. It's easier to be told who to believe, vote for and buy from, etc. Religion is the balm that soothes difficult questions."
But if religious authorities start acknowledging that they don't know, either? If religious authorities start acknowledging that they have the exact same questions, and haven't found any good answers? If religious authorities start acknowledging that they've just been making it up as they go along? If religious authorities begin to abandon the tacit agreement among themselves that these questions and doubts should be kept among themselves, and should not be shared with their followers? If religious authorities start saying, out loud, that the best answer they've found to these questions is, "God doesn't exist"? If religious authorities start publicly abandoning their religion? And if they start doing this in significant numbers?
It's going to be much, much harder for ordinary believers to hang on to their beliefs.
I was in the audience at the American Atheists convention when Teresa MacBain came out. It was one of the most dramatic, most powerful moments I've experienced. There aren't that many people in the world who have that much courage, that much integrity, that much fierce passion for the truth. There aren't that many people in the world who are willing to risk losing their families, their communities, their stature, the emotional and philosophical foundation of their lives, even their very livelihood... because they prioritize the truth over their personal well-being.
These people are an inspiration. Regardless of what you think of religion or atheism, they are an inspiration. And there is clearly a place in our society for them. Listen to Lawrence Hunter: "If I were a pastor, who had complete control over my church, I would take the title of 'church' [and change it] to 'community center.' I wouldn't preach from the bible, I would quote from numerous sources of literature and wisdom. As an African American I would focus on neighborhood issues, such as poverty, lack of education and a host of other ills. Gone would be silly rituals of baptism and communion. There's so much that churches can and should do to help their communities, but choose to ignore them."
There is clearly a place in our society for these people. And the Clergy Project is trying to create it.