Non-believing priests and their parishioners

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University in their paper Preachers who are not believers say that one of the biggest problems that non-believing clergy face is what to tell their parishioners. It is not only their disbelief that they have to hide, it is even the stuff they learn in divinity school which is quite different from the simple biblical views that their parishioners believe. The Washington Post has a panel of writers who contribute to their On Faith column and they have all weighed in with different ideas about what they think non-believing clergy should do.

However, the priests interviewed in the study all decided that they needed to conceal their disbelief and doubts but find it burdensome to publicly spout beliefs that they themselves can no longer accept.

Whatever their initial response to these unsettling revelations, the cat was out of the bag and both liberals and literals discerned the need to conceal their knowledge about the history of Christianity from their congregations.

A gulf opened up between what one says from the pulpit and what one has been taught in seminary. This gulf is well-known in religious circles.

What was interesting was that they all seemed to think that many of their fellow priests also believed things that were quite different from their parishioners. They saw themselves as professionals with insider professional knowledge that they could not share with their flock. “I mean, you have a professional class of people, basically, who are working with an organization of non-professionals.”

Still, they all find themselves with a secret: they don’t believe what many of their parishioners think they believe and think they ought to believe.

When asked his opinion of why ministers do not pass on their knowledge of Christian history to parishioners, [one of the disbelieving clergy] said:

“They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to lose donations. They want to keep their jobs. They don’t want to stir up trouble in the congregation. They’ve got enough trouble as it is, keeping things moving along. They don’t want to make people mad at them. They don’t want to lose members.”

They struggle to find ways to deal with the cognitive dissonance between what they believe and what they publicly profess.

Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don’t believe what I’m saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing.”

But they often feel so stifled that they try to find ways to seek out parishioners with whom they can explore their unconventional ideas.

One tactic they have discovered is the book club or study group, where self-selected parishioners get to read one of the controversial books by Bart Ehrman or Bishop Shelby Spong… or even Sam Harris.

Those who participate are alerted to the nature of the materials in advance and are then gently encouraged to discuss the ideas, in an unusually tolerant atmosphere, a sort of holiday from the constraints of dogma. Here the pastors can demonstrate their open-mindedness and willingness to take these shocking ideas seriously, and let the authors be the mouthpieces for what is in their hearts. Again, they need to have plausible deniability: they aren’t preaching these ideas, just acquainting their parishioners—those who are interested—with them.

This was a revelation to me. My own religious upbringing in Sri Lanka was strongly influenced by three very progressive and humane clergymen, people about whom I still have fond memories. They were the two Anglican chaplains at my school (my school in Sri Lanka was established by Anglican missionaries from England and it had a tradition of having English chaplains), and the Methodist minister of my church, also an Englishman. They were people who were very open and accepting and you felt that you could explore any idea with them without them becoming shocked or outraged or condemning you for having heretical thoughts. They were people who were smart, scholarly, and thoughtful. In fact, just the type of deep thinkers who might end up not believing in god.

Looking back I wonder if they were this open-minded because they were also secretly grappling with unbelief and the frank discussions we had were their way of dealing with their own issues, like the priests in the Dennett-LaScola study.

Though I never took the Bible literally, I was a strong believer (though not a fundamentalist) and I don’t recall ever actually questioning the existence of god. But if I did so and told them, I think they would have taken it in stride. But it never crossed my mind until now that they might have been secret non-believers. It never occurred to me to ask them if they actually believed in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection from the dead of Jesus. But looking back, I am beginning to wonder. It might be interesting for those readers of this blog who know clergy well enough to ask them point blank if they actually believe in god and the virgin birth and the resurrection.

It is strange that such questions are never asked. It makes one suspect that such discretion is practiced because people fear that disbelief of basic dogma is far more prevalent among clergy and laity in churches than they are willing to let on. It is a can that many suspect contains worms but no one wants to open to find out.

POST SCRIPT: Talks by Dan Barker in Cleveland

Dan Barker is a former evangelical preacher who became an atheist and left the church and founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

He will be speaking at CWRU tomorrow (Friday, April 23, 2010) in Wickenden 322. The talk is free and open to the public. The title of his talk is “Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists,”

The event is sponsored by the CWRU chapter of the Center for Inquiry. For more details go to the group’s Facebook page or contact president Andrew Schriver at [email protected]

The next day (Saturday, April 24) Barker will talk on “How to be good without God” at Cleveland State University at 6:00 pm in Nance College of Business (1860 Euclid Ave.) room 118. The event is sponsored by the CSU Non-Prophets.

For more details see their April 24 Event page on Facebook or contact Bryan Pesta at [email protected]