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

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


  1. says

    The series on non-believing parishioners has been very interesting to me. I have mentioned in previous comments that I was raised Mormon, which is a religion where congregation leaders (called bishops for us -- priests are something else) are appointed from the laity every few years. Actually, while the structure is nearly (or perhaps equally) as hierarchical as catholicism, most of the church leaders are from the laity and only the most senior positions are full-time and paid.

    Moreover, all of the sunday school teachers are directly selected from the congregations. It is rare for any sunday school teachers to have any real theological schooling. The main headquarters puts out teaching handbooks from which the lessons are supposed to be drawn but you actually see a good deal of variation based on personal versions of doctrine.

    The reason I’m bringing this up is because one think that I like to wodner about are which religious practices are the most successful at surviving. I think that the mormons have hit on a particularly effective version. Very few of the religious teaching is done by anyone with even close to the amount of knowledge and background that is typical of a someone who went to seminary. This means few have any problem with teaching the “bible class” version of history, thus avoiding the non-believing parishioner issue that (I think) leads to the more intellectual flock members learning to doubt from their leaders. It also means that on the ground floor there is a good deal of variation in belief, whilst the full-time general authorities (cardinals, essentially) have a vice like grip over the official doctrine. They can lean on the bishops as needed if beliefs deviate too much but it is rarely necessary. They really have immense power.

    The only real exposure you get to the more traditional seminary educated teacher is when you are in high school you are supposed to attend daily “seminary” classes that are taught by a member of the community who actually has theological training. I was mostly finished with religion by this point in my life so I only attended this for 1 year. Based on the (frequently heated) discussion I had in that time I conclude that non-believers amongst seminary teachers is rare.

  2. says

    Jared A,

    That is very interesting. I wonder how long the Mormons can maintain this kind of dual structure. It seems to be growing in numbers and globally and there must come a time when the divergences in beliefs may get too great.

  3. Heidi Nemeth says

    My mother is an ordained minister, ordained in 1967 in the Congregational/United Church of Christ denomination. She would have liked to have been ordained as a Methodist, but the Methodists were not ordaining women at the time.

    Mom went to seminary at Oberlin. Our dinner-table discussions then, while I was in 5th through 7th grade, included what she was learning in her biblical history classes. Mom is quite a linguist, so it was very easy for her to accept that “virgin” was a mistranslation for “young woman”. She pointed out to us that Jesus’s lineage was traced through Joseph, not Mary or God. So much for the virgin birth!
    While Mom was still in school, and we were still young, our everyday conversation eventually dispelled most of the religious myths.

    Such forthright conversations have not happened since she got out of divinity school. I have never heard her preach on the “controversial” parts of biblical history she learned in seminary.

    I remember being an atheist in 6th grade. I was to be confirmed in the Methodist church. A stellar (religious) student, I shocked my confirmation teacher when I told her I was an atheist and didn’t want to be confirmed. But I was confirmed, anyway, to avoid embarrassing anyone -- myself, my mother, my family, and my teacher.

    This year, more than forty years later, I asked my mother, the now-retired minister, if she believes in God. She was adamant, and seemingly sincere, in her affirmation. And she is sorry I don’t believe in God.

    My 6 siblings include my oldest sibling who is a fundamentalist, 2 atheists, and 3 who go to church (rarely) but don’t express their beliefs or doubts.

  4. says


    Your mother probably was sincere in her assertions of belief in god. The question is what exactly she believes and how much it differs from what she used to preach.

    It is interesting that the open conversations with her family ended when she began to practice her profession. Maybe it was because trying to have two levels of conversations was too stressful for her and it is always easier to stick with orthodoxy than possible heresy!

  5. dave says


    I was raised in a Independent Baptist Church and had the same experience.

    The ‘preacher’ was trained by a preacher in another church. Sunday school teachers were parents from the congregation who used a published book of lessons. Deacons (leaders) were elderly white men who would lead discussion in the church.

    It was basically a self-contained unit. Children would get ‘saved’ and that would be the next generation. Sometimes they would go off to bible college but other times they would be trained within the church. First leading devotionals, then teaching Sunday school, then youth pastor, etc.

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