The fog of belief

(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 report in their paper titled Preachers who are not believers that as a result of their scholarly education, the priests they interviewed and many of their fellow priests just cannot take the tenets of their faith seriously anymore. As one said of his peers: “They’re very liberal. They’ve been de-mythologized, I’ll say that. They don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead literally. They don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin. They don’t believe all those things that would cause a big stir in their churches. But that’s not uncommon in mainline denominations, or even in the Catholic Church.” Another said, in an undoubted overstatement, “Oh, you can’t go through seminary and come out believing in God!”

The churches probably suspect that there is a considerable amount of apostasy among their clergy because it rarely asks prospective clergy to affirm their beliefs. Part of this is because the churches themselves no longer seem certain about what doctrines people should believe. Over time, as scientific knowledge has advanced and made traditional beliefs untenable for any thinking person, the churches have retained their creeds which lay down very specific statements of beliefs that one must in theory hold, while in practice adopting a policy of ‘anything goes’ (well, almost) that gives people a lot of wiggle room as to what they can actually believe in. As Dennett and LaScola write:

The ambiguity about who is a believer and who is an unbeliever follows inexorably from the pluralism that has been assiduously fostered by many religious leaders for a century and more: God is many different things to different people, and since we can’t know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all. This counsel of tolerance creates a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God in so much indeterminacy that if asked whether they believed in God, many people could sincerely say that they don’t know what they are being asked.

The five clergy were never asked point blank at their ordination if they believed in god or the virgin birth. If the subject is broached in some way, they adopt the strategy of talking about the concept of god instead of god itself, and this rhetorical ploy is accepted as a way of avoiding direct statements of belief or unbelief.

R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary says that this is a disturbing trend: “In other words, some theologians and denominations have embraced a theology so fluid and indeterminate that even an atheist cannot tell the believers and unbelievers apart.”

The disbelieving clergy find themselves in a very tough situation that is almost unparalleled. I cannot think of any other profession where what one believes is tied so integrally to the work one does and where one is routinely required to profess statements of belief. You can see how it can wear you down if you do not believe the things you have to keep saying. As Dennett and LaScola say:

We all find ourselves committed to little white lies, half-truths and convenient forgettings, knowing tacitly which topics not to raise with which of our loved ones and friends. But these pastors—and who knows how many others—are caught in a larger web of diplomatic, tactical, and, finally, ethical concealment. In no other profession, surely, is one so isolated from one’s fellow human beings, so cut off from the fresh air of candor, never knowing the relief of getting things off one’s chest. (my italics)

These are brave individuals who are still trying to figure out how to live with the decisions they made many years ago, when they decided, full of devotion and hope, to give their lives to a God they no longer find by their sides.

But not everyone sees these clergy as brave people struggling with their personal demons of doubt and disbelief. Some view them as hypocrites who have no place in the church. Mohler thinks that unbelieving priests “are a curse upon the church” and that “If they will not remove themselves from the ministry, they must be removed. If they lack the integrity to resign their pulpits, the churches must muster the integrity to eject them. If they will not “out” themselves, it is the duty of faithful Christians to “out” them.”

I think the priests are well aware that this may be the reaction from many of the people around them if they are honest. And so they keep quiet.

Next: The loneliness of the unbelieving priest.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the Catholic Church atrocities

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