The journey from priest to atheist

Eric MacDonald is a former clergyman who became an atheist and he has a blog Choice in Dying which began as a tribute to his wife Elizabeth who chose assisted suicide at the late stages of a serious illness. The original purpose of the blog was to counter the religious objections to assisted suicide but it is now a lot more than that. McDonald is very knowledgeable about theology and is able to counter the arguments of theologians using their own language. His blog is well worth a visit.

He recently posted a thoughtful analysis on the Q&A session of the Haught-Coyne debate. But in the comments, in response to some questions, he describes his own painful transition from priest to atheist and provides insight into how unbelieving priests have to choose their words very carefully to avoid being exposed as apostates. It takes them a long time to explicitly acknowledge even to themselves that they are no longer believers. He suspects that Haught is in the same situation.

While I was a priest, and had to say something to people every week in a homily, I knew within a hair’s breadth what I could say. My wife Elizabeth, who was a nonbeliever, would sometimes correct me, and say: “You can’t say that” or “You can’t say what you want to say in that way.” The point she was making was simply that dispelling the clouds too rapidly would make it impossible for us, the congregation and me, to take the next step, if we were going to take it together. So it was essential to lay down some fog, artificial fog, which would allow me to say what I wanted to say, but at the same time not to let people get too close a grasp on what I was saying, which would lead them to say, “Well, you really don’t believe at all, then, do you?” As I got closer and closer to retirement, a friend (a retired priest) used to say, “You’re going too fast. You’ll have talked yourself out of a job if you keep going at this rate” — because, at the time, I was finding it harder and harder to find anything positive to say about Christian belief.

Now, I suspect — though I may be wrong — that Haught is in this position. He wants to be able to speak about faith in very general terms, but he also wants faith to retain its position as a confidence in doctrines that he has really let go of a long time ago, and he’s developed a very comfortable way of speaking about his loss of faith in terms of what he considers faith, but most believers would not see as faith at all. He can retain all the usual Christian language, but he doesn’t believe any longer in a straightforward way — and this, by the way, is not a fundamentalist, literal style of believing, but believing in the highly intellectualised way in which the Roman Catholic Church defines its doctrines. He simply doesn’t notice that when he talks about Jesus he’s making a claim to divine intervention in the world for which there is not a shred of substantive evidence. If he noticed that, his house of cards would simply fall apart, so he has to keep it general and unfocused. As Kevin says (#7), theologians are in a tough position. If they dispell the fog the all too human levers are visible, but if they don’t dispell the fog, questions will continually arise. In other words, as Haggis says (#5), instinctively it seems that what Haught is saying is rubbish, but it’s not easy to see why, and the reason its hard to see why is that Haught has gone to a great deal of trouble of deceiving himself first.

In a later comment, he adds:

I think I went through the same process that Haught is going through, and it took years. When faith is the ground bass of one’s life, then, even when faith is breaking down, there are often more reasons to keep a hold on it than to let it go, and it is done, not through deliberate dishonesty, but through a veritable maze of self-deceiving rationalisation.

What looks to an outsider like dishonesty and hypocrisy, to an insider is just common sense. A lot of people, like Haught, go to a great deal of trouble to define faith in such a way that practically anything that is done is done on faith, so religious faith seems innocuous. But that’s all part of the smoke-screen. But the fact that he is laying smoke doesn’t even occur to him, and it won’t until he can get outside of the faith box that he’s in. It took a pretty vicious jerk to rattle me out of it, and I daresay it will take as big a bump in life’s road to lead Haught out of the maze.

Looking back I can see how careful I had to be not to work too far out of the box, but at the time what I was doing it, it seemed — nay, was — perfectly sincere and honest. Haught, given his situation, will find it almost impossible to get out of the box. It’s a very comfortable one. He has status. He is respected. He enjoys the theological game. What would lead him to leave? Of course, something might. But I know, from experience, how much a religious leader loses when he has made the decision that he can no longer speak with integrity about faith. One has to step outside a society in which one had honour and respect, and into a world which is — as the world in fact is — very uncertain. sometimes confusing, and never sure.

When you find religious people, clergy or otherwise, uncomfortable with talking about the concrete aspects of their beliefs, such as what god actually does, and shifting the conversation to the social benefits of religion or in vague terms about meaning and morals, it may well be a sign that they are on the road to unbelief or are already unbelievers and are unwilling to explicitly acknowledge it even to themselves.

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