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?
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.”
Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, “Major Threat to Religion? Clergy People Coming Out as Atheists.” To read more about the lives and stories and crises of clergy people who lose their faith — and to find out why the Clergy Project could be a game-changer in how we see religion — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!