Priests who don’t believe

(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.)

Over four years ago, I speculated that the percentage of atheists among clergy and theologians may be much higher than in the general population, that it became even more likely the higher one rose in the hierarchy, and that as a result even the pope could well be an atheist. I gave two reasons for making that case.

The first is that members of the clergy encounter on a daily basis many of the kinds of personal tragedies of sickness, death, and violence than can make lay people question their faith, and hence they are more likely to find it hard to believe in a benevolent god. Since no one wants to believe in an evil god (though that would explain things a lot better), disbelief becomes an increasingly plausible option.

The second reason is that those clergy who belong to religious institutions that require years of study in theological colleges before ordination will quickly learn as part of their curriculum that their religious texts are products of human beings and that they have a dubious history that makes it very unlikely that they were divinely created. All the many contradictions make it hard to believe that the religious books were divinely inspired either, unless you believe in a god who is really sloppy and was too cheap to get himself a good editor. Most lay people have little idea of the origins of their texts and thus can more easily believe that they were divinely inspired or created.

Now even the Vatican’s chief exorcist has conceded that apostasy is more common in the upper ranks of the church than people might think, speaking of “cardinals who do not believe in Jesus.”

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University have recently published a paper titled Preachers who are not believers that seems to provide support for my speculative suggestions. They describe five case studies of Christian priests who are still working but were willing to confide in confidence that they do not believe in the tenets of their faith. Three of the priests were from liberal denominations (whom they called “the liberals”) and two were from conservative denominations (“the literals”).

These priests spoke of how hard it is to live a lie and how they would like to be open and change their lives but they stick with it because they have no other means of making a living.

The loneliness of non-believing pastors is extreme. They have no trusted confidantes to reassure them, to reflect their own musings back to them, to provide reality checks. As their profiles reveal, even their spouses are often unaware of their turmoil. Why don’t they resign their posts and find a new life? They are caught in a trap, cunningly designed to harness both their best intentions and their basest fears to the task of immobilizing them in their predicament. Their salaries are modest and the economic incentive is to stay in place, to hang on by their fingernails and wait for retirement when they get their pension.

Confiding their difficulties to a superior is not an appealing option: although it would be unlikely to lead swiftly and directly to an involuntary unfrocking. No denomination has a surplus of qualified clergy, and the last thing an administrator wants to hear is that one of the front line preachers is teetering on the edge of default. More likely, such an acknowledgment of doubt would put them on the list of problematic clergy and secure for them the not very helpful advice to soldier on and work through their crises of faith. Speaking in confidence with fellow clergy is also a course fraught with danger, in spite of the fact that some of them are firmly convinced that many, and perhaps most, of their fellow clergy share their lack of belief. (my italics)

What gives them this impression that they are far from alone, and how did this strange and sorrowful state of affairs arise? The answer seems to lie in the seminary experience shared by all our pastors, liberals and literals alike. Even some conservative seminaries staff their courses on the Bible with professors who are trained in textual criticism, the historical methods of biblical scholarship, and what is taught in those courses is not what the young seminarians learned in Sunday school, even in the more liberal churches. In seminary they were introduced to many of the details that have been gleaned by centuries of painstaking research about how various ancient texts came to be written, copied, translated, and, after considerable jockeying and logrolling, eventually assembled into the Bible we read today. It is hard if not impossible to square these new facts with the idea that the Bible is in all its particulars a true account of actual events, let alone the inerrant word of God. It is interesting that all our pastors report the same pattern of response among their fellow students: some were fascinated, but others angrily rejected what their professors tried to teach them.

John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal bishop of Newark describes some of the things you learn from biblical scholarship:

Miracles do not enter the Christian story until the 8th decade; the Virgin Birth and understanding the Resurrection as the physical resuscitation of a deceased body enters Christianity in the 9th decade, the story of the Ascension of Jesus is a 10th decade addition.

Should it be surprising that these things can shake the faith of believers, including priests, and are thus kept from the general public?

POST SCRIPT: The War on Easter

Now that atheists have won the war on Christmas, isn’t it time to start wars on all the other holidays of all the religions?

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  1. says

    I completely agree with you on the theme -- Those liars only aim is control, power and manipulation!

    The higher they rank in their criminal association, the better they now -- It is the biggest scam in human history!

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