Atheist clergy

I have speculated before that a lot of clergy may be closet atheists and that over time more and more will emerge. This article says that, “A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one-in-six clergy in the PKN and six other smaller denominations was either agnostic or atheist.”

The pastor of a mainstream Protestant church in the Netherlands is one such clergyman. (See the interesting short interview with him in the link. The BBC interviewer sounds incredulous at what he is hearing.) The Rev. Klaas Hendrikse’s view on life after death is, “Make the most of life on earth, because it will probably be the only one you get”.

He does not view god exists as a supernatural being: “God is not a being at all… it’s a word for experience, or human experience.”

As for the life of Jesus, he thinks that it is “a mythological story about a man who may never have existed, even if it is a valuable source of wisdom about how to lead a good life” and “You don’t have to believe that Jesus was physically resurrected”.

It seems that some churches are beginning to recognize that many of their clergy simply don’t believe. Although Hendrikse has written a book Believing in a Non-Existent God that led traditionalist Christians to call for him to be removed from the church, “a special church meeting decided his views were too widely shared among church thinkers for him to be singled out.” (My italics)

The times they are a changing, alright.


  1. peter says

    Now that sounds like a completely sensible guy. You want to call God human experience? I’m fine with that. No problem at all.

    I especially like that he encourages people to make the most of this life here. And that you don’t have to believe in a jewish zombie in order to be a good person.

    There was a memorable (for me, at least) scene in Religulous where Maher was interviewing a jolly bald functionary of the Roman Catholic church while touring the Vatican City. This guy was a riot. He didn’t believe most of the doctrine, and laughed while saying ‘People will believe the craziest things’.

    I hope I’m remembering that properly and not mangling it.

  2. peter says

    Yeah, I mangled it.

    “you just have to live and die with your stupid ideas”

    Clip is easily youtube-able: search for religulous vatican priest

  3. Mano says


    I remember that priest too and wondered if he got a telling off from his superiors for going public with what I am sure they all feel.

  4. says

    The priest from Maher’s film was Reginald Foster, “the Pope’s Latinist”. He seems to be quite a guy and passionate about Latin. He gives free Latin lessons to students that are interested in the language. There’s a link to a news story that was done on him in my name.

    There does seem to be a certain amount of leeway in some of the more mainstream churches for a bit of dissent and I suspect that the Dutch pastor follows in the old “Death of God” theology that was espoused by theologians like Thomas Altizer. I mean you’ve got people like the liberal Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong (now retired) who barely seems to believe in the traditional god of Christian theology and Paul Tillich (an influence on Spong) who espoused a kind of existential theology.

  5. Manik says

    I can relate to “closet” clergy. They have too much invested, to break away. After all, this is their livelihood as well. But why do these guys call themselves “Pastors”, “Ministers” etc.They obviously have their own reasons. Do they Conduct Services, Carry Out Baptisms, Pray Etc? I wonder if someone could enlighten me.

  6. says


    According to the article, Hendrikse pretty much does the usual things a pastor does in church. He just thinks all those things means something quite different from what most religious people think they mean.

    According to another study of non-believing priests that I read, most of them adopt this strategy of having private meanings in order to justify to themselves what they do. Hendrikse is unusual in that he is speaking about his private meanings publicly.

  7. Tim says

    Very interesting to watch the reaction of the interviewer. He seemed quite disturbed by what he was hearing.

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