Major Threat to Religion? Clergy People Coming Out as Atheists


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."

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.

But for clergy people, this internal struggle is only the beginning. For clergy people, losing religion doesn't just mean asking questions like, "How do I accept the permanence of death?" and "What is my place in the universe?" It means asking the question, "How am I going to pay the rent?" For most clergy members, coming out as atheist means the automatic loss of their livelihood. But staying closeted about their atheism means living a lie. As MacBain said, "Once I realized my faith was gone, I began looking for a way out. My conscience nagged at me continually but I felt that the needs of my family required that I work my way out slowly. I took a temporary job (causing me to work 80 hour weeks) in order to pay some bills off which would make the transition easier. As the weeks passed, the turmoil increased exponentially."

And clergy members who leave their faith aren't just faced with losing their livelihoods. They're likely to lose the stature and respect that religious leaders are so commonly given. And while anyone coming out as atheist can be targeted with hostility and bigotry, the venom can get dialed up to eleven when it's a member of the clergy. When Teresa MacBain came home from the American Atheists convention, "The church leadership changed the locks of the church and it took me almost two months to collect my belongings. My email server, mail box and voicemails were filled daily with veiled threats, hateful pronouncements of my impending doom and downright nasty messages. One gentleman stated that he couldn't wait till he stood in heaven and looked down at me in hell while the flesh burned off my body!"

This is exactly why the Clergy Project was founded. In this confidential online community, members can freely discuss the challenges they face in leaving ministry and establishing a new life. This involves emotional and psychological support, of course -- help wrestling with ethical and philosophical issues that often come with becoming atheist, advice on coming out as atheist to family and friends, and so on. But it can also involve practical advice and support: members can share ideas on finding a way out of the ministry and looking for new careers, and can share resources that newcomers to atheism may not be aware of.

Right now, the Clergy Project is primarily a peer support group. But the organization is working to expand its scope, to provide more tangible assistance that atheist clergy people so desperately need. They're preparing now to launch a group of resources that includes re-employment preparation -- resume prep, interviewing techniques, recruiting firms that will work with members to provide leads -- as well as secular counseling, working with the Therapist Project to offer services of secular counselors who are donating their time to Clergy Project members. And they're planning -- soon, they hope -- to provide job training, short-term loans, and temporary housing for atheist clergy members who want to leave.

But they may have their work cut out for them. Nobody knows for sure how many clergy members are secretly atheists (or are secretly on the fence, with serious doubts about their religion). But almost everyone I've spoken with in Clergy Project strongly suspects that the numbers are high -- higher than anyone would expect. MacBain says, "It is definitely more common than anyone thinks." DeWitt agrees: "My experience says it's very common. Over 25 years of ministry I witnessed very few examples of anything other than ministers living 'normal' lives regardless of their supernatural claims. They have to see the disconnect." And Dunphy concurs: "Before I discovered the LaScola Study I thought I was some sort of oddity. I mean, who goes into theology and comes out an atheist? It looks like a lot of people."

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.

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