Every Friday, many Muslims around the world will attend their mosques. The next day, Jews will follow suit into synagogues, and on Sunday many Christians will attend church. We know that some of the people in these houses of worship will be those trying to hold on to their belief in a god despite their increasing doubts. Some of them will be people who are fighting to prevent the voices of doubt entering their minds while for others that battle has already been lost and now the only thing that keeps them returning is because they do not know how to make a clean break without alienating their family and friends and perhaps the only real sense of community that they have known. But even they may not suspect that leader of the congregation is also one of them, a doubter or even an outright nonbeliever.
In an earlier post, I described former clergyman Eric MacDonald’s experience on what is was like to be in that position. In his show Up With Chris Hayes, the host spoke to a Lutheran pastor Mike Aus who ‘came out’ as a non-believer at last weekend’s Reason Rally. There are currently about 185 clergy who have joined the Clergy Project that allows them to secretly share their unbelief with each other and find ways to wean themselves out of a job that they no longer want to hold. Aus decided to publicly admit it. The stories of such people are always fascinating. His journey to atheism is similar to mine, a gradual dawning that what we had long believed did not make any sense. It is not clear what will happen to Aus when he returns to his congregation.
In an even earlier post in 2006 titled Is the Pope an Atheist? I explained why I suspected that sophisticated religious leaders were even more likely to be secret atheists than the rank and file clergy and ordinary believers. But the pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury or prominent Jewish rabbis or Muslim imams or any of the big mucky-mucks of any religion are unlikely to come out of the closet, although I am willing to bet that they too do not believe a fraction of the things that they tell their followers to believe. The Dalai Lama is my bet for the one who is most likely to be an atheist because he seems like the most thoughtful of the major religious leaders. But he won’t come out of the closet either.
Why would they? It would be a bad business decision. They have quite a nice setup. We have to remember that religions are a big business, just like GE or GM, and the heads are like CEOs. People give their organizations vast sums of money that enable them to live well. People defer to them as somehow elevated beings, pay attention to what they say, even bow down to them. All that is expected of them is that they offer pious banalities from time to time. Religion is of great benefit to the interests of the people whose livelihood depends upon it.
Many years ago in Sri Lanka I remember attending a conference in which a professor of Buddhist philosophy railed at the monks for perverting Buddhism by layering on all manner of theistic superstitions onto its basic nontheistic philosophy, despite the fact that Sri Lanka prides itself on being the home of the most pristine form of that religion. Buddhist monks are supposed to give up all material possessions as part of the process of ridding themselves of attachments to worldly things and exist purely on the charity of others. They are called to live an ascetic life. But in Sri Lanka, the head monks in Buddhist organizations tend to live in luxury and get chauffeured around in expensive cars, and have politicians pandering to their whims. Their level of luxury may not reach the absolute levels of the Catholic Church and the Vatican but relative to the standard of living in Sri Lanka, they live a highly pampered life. They have the smug, indolent, and complacent look of people who think they are on to a good thing.
I have a lot of sympathy for ordinary religious people. I know many of them and they are often good people trying to live good lives. I think they would still be good people even without the crutch of their faith. But I have no sympathy for the leaders of religious institutions who I think are corrupt and parasitic, preying on these well-meaning but gullible people to support them in grand style. In that, they are not unlike the heads of the major banks and other financial institutions that have been the recent targets of vilification. Such people are unlikely to undercut their own livelihood.
The undermining of religion has to come from outside, from nonbelievers and even from believers on whom the truth dawns that they are being taken for suckers into supporting people who very likely do not believe the things they tell others to believe.